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How Firaxis balances  XCOM 's grit with the studio's cheerful legacy

How Firaxis balances XCOM's grit with the studio's cheerful legacy Exclusive

June 5, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

June 5, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Art, Audio, Design, Exclusive, E3

Firaxis' upcoming strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown marks a very major shift for the Civilization studio. It's the first game from the developer to not bear Sid Meier's name, and with that comes a very distinct change in content and tone.

In an attempt to carry over the terrorizing themes from the 1994 original, this new XCOM title portrays a dark and horrifying world, where graphic alien transformations show soldiers bursting from the inside out -- it's quite a departure from the colorful and peaceful aesthetic of Firaxis games like Civilization or Pirates!.

At E3 2012, lead designer Jake Solomon told us this dark shift has been a breath of fresh air for the team, as it gives them a chance to try their hand at creating a mood that lies outside of Firaxis' realm of expertise.

"Sid's games are very bright and more cheerful, and this is a very big shift in tone for the team. But we're all big fans of the big core games out there, and I think it's been exciting for a lot of people to work on something that's... not gratuitous, but still very M-rated," he said.

While Sid Meier isn't playing a direct role in the game's development, Solomon said that the renowned developer has offered some essential insight to define -- and in some ways rein in -- the game's more violent tone.

"I've talked to Sid [Meier] throughout development on stuff and his natural state is a much happier place than mine... but he has this rule, and I agree with him on this, and it's that you should never make your player do anything that makes them uncomfortable," Solomon said.

As an example, he pointed to one of the game's creatures: the Sectoid. As Solomon tells it, the small, feral creature used to stand upright, and sounded an awful lot like a human being.

"Sid, the first time he played the game, he was really bothered by it, and he said, 'You have got to change this. It looks like you're shooting a child!' And I was like, 'Oh my god. Yeah, that is kind of weird!'"

Thus, Firaxis altered the creature's model to make it stand on its hands and knees, with a voice that sounded much more like a blend between a bird and a monkey. It helped lessen the disturbing imagery, and made the game fit in better with the established Firaxis style.

Solomon added that no matter what Sid Meier is up to at the studio, his voice and influence still play a major role in nearly every title it puts out.

"I respect [Sid] so much that I would never want to put something in front of him that I knew he wouldn't like. He has a major influence not only on my design, but the company's," Solomon said.

Keep an eye out for more from our E3 interview with Jake Solomon in the weeks to come. For the rest of our latest E3 content, be sure to follow Gamasutra's live coverage.

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