The XCOM series reboot started with XCOM: Enemy Unknown released in 2012. The game had a tightly designed combat system that had major problems. All of the incentives designed have led players to play as conservatively as possible. Instead of getting deeply involved in the combat system, players have found it more prudent to progress through the missions slowly and systematically so that they are exposed to as little risk as possible. Playing this way is far less exciting than what the system can support. Conservative play rarely creates dangerous and complex situations. Conservative play avoids the most exciting situations the game has to offer!
Developers are aware of this issue and have tried two different approaches to address the issue in subsequent releases.
My first try was XCOM 2012, an extension of Enemy WIthin. Enemy Inside added “Mixed Vessel” to maps that expire after a certain turn. This design places time-limited rewards in a terrifying unknown world, encouraging players to move more aggressively and plunge into more dangerous and exciting combat encounters. Once the player collects a few canisters, they can use that combination to purchase powerful reinforcements for their soldiers.
In XCOM2, the developers abandoned meld and instead added a failure timer to most mission types. After the timer expires, the player will receive a heavy penalty. Normally, any soldiers remaining on the map when the timer expires are immediately captured or killed by the enemy. By imposing a heavy penalty on the timer, this design forces the player to move at uncomfortably high speeds and take risks to avoid major penalties.
lack of carrots
On the surface, Enemy Within’s mixed courage should encourage players to engage more deeply in combat. A reward for playing faster and more aggressively. This is the first incentive developers have added to their designs. It seems good to add these rewards separately, but the results of this design intervention were mixed with XCOM’s character progression system and the relative amount of rewards and punishments.
Losing a powerful character is a terrible blow to the player. Making the character progressively more powerful is a gain, but on a relatively much smaller scale. Players will see many characters achieve 20x or more progress during the campaign. In addition to promoting characters and unlocking new skills, players progress through a skill tree full of useful items that can be equipped to characters to make them more effective in battle. Meld Canisters do not represent such increments, they merely represent an abstract progression towards the improvement of one character. Players may suffer injury or death of soldiers due to over-expansion when trying to reach the mixing vessel, but the quality of the rewards for success is often negligible or non-existent. Compensation is not proportional to potential cost.
Rewards also fit uncomfortably to the progress of the campaign. Experienced players will reach the mixing vessel more often, improving their character faster, making it easier to reach the mixing vessel in future missions. This positive feedback loop further destabilizes the difficulty curve of a game that already suffers from disappointing negative snowball effects and boring positive snowball effects. If the designers change the game’s difficulty curve to suit the player who can get most of the mixing vessel, less-skilled players will lack power and become frustrated with the challenge the deeper they go into the game. If the designer leaves the difficulty curve unchanged, stably fused players will stumble most of the game with Power Meld purchases. Perhaps a dynamic difficulty curve can solve this problem, but the scope of this design change is likely to exceed the money and time constraints of the development team, except that it is complex and difficult to design well under ideal conditions.
The positive incentive to take risks in battle doesn’t work well with the rest of the XCOM series’ design fixtures. The game punishes bad play that inflicts sharp and large losses on the effectiveness of the player. Incremental rewards cannot balance such potential penalties. While those rewards add more stress to the already unstable campaign difficulty design, they don’t really do much to prevent players from playing in a boring but safe way.
As players improve their skills, they gain more confidence in their ability to handle difficult encounters, allowing them to move around the map faster. The game intimidates low-skilled players for over-expanding their squad, and over-expansion is easy to make mistakes for low-skilled players due to their lack of ability to handle complex combat encounters and limit risks while under fire. . Better players can play faster because they can better cope with the consequences of playing faster. Worst players play faster and lose a lot. For a positive incentive to draw players out of extremely conservative play, rewards should be at least proportional to the penalty for failure due to the risk of reward pursuits. In XCOM, the penalty for less skilled players is steeper, but the blended rewards are the same as for experienced players. Mixing with incentives away from extremely conservative play doesn’t work.
XCOM 2 intends to modify the crawl-forward incentive structure through two additional mechanisms.
- Enemies don’t see farther than the player character before they can spot the player’s squad. In the game, this special condition is called “cloaking”.
- Most of the missions are on timers with harsh penalties for exceeding the timer.
Under the cloaking rules, players can ambush for free at the start of their first combat encounter in each mission. Because the player can see the enemy while the pod is inactive, she can activate the pod when it’s best for her and maneuver her units into a good position to fight. This initial advantage makes the first combat encounter easier and makes it easier to survive (or pass through unscathed) if additional pods are activated during the first combat encounter.
The player can gain a lot of useful information by taking advantage of the fact that her character can see much further than the enemy while cloaking. This information allows the player to plan in some detail the shootout that will begin, as well as determine the configuration and possible locations of other pods in relation to the mission objectives. She knows a lot more about the possible course of an XCOM2 mission because of this extra information than she can get from the XCOM2012 mission. This gives players significant agency in the way they pursue mission objectives and face combat challenges. In XCOM 2012, such choices are very scarce.
To balance this benefit, the designers added timers to most mission types. This timer alone is enough to get the player off the defensive approach for some of the missions. If the mission is not completed before the timer expires, the player will lose a character who has not reached the extraction area (usually a small area on the map opposite the starting point). This punishment is on a similar scale to how the game punishes players for endangering their squad. Players are pushed to a halfway point not only because they are too passive, but also face the loss of their character if they are too aggressive. You take enough risks to complete the mission within the time limit, but not enough risks to suffer avoidable losses. while that push.
Players can start from stealth and see the pod before activating it, so slowly crawling forward is less appealing. Stealth allows players to scout enemy locations with little risk when the mission is most threatening. Motivation to see enemies in XCOM2012 no longer applies. After the player completes the initial ambush, she is in a similar situation as in XCOM2012, but can only move forward for a few turns. Otherwise, you risk losing your character due to timer expiration. In XCOM2012, players may use the information they gather during cover-up about the possible location and configuration of enemy pods to perform unreasonably risky offensive moves.
The timer is complemented by mission objective design. In most XCOM2 missions, the final mission goal is for the player to move his squad to a specific small area on the map. Players do not have to kill all enemies on the map. Enemies can act aggressively to prevent the player from reaching their target point, and players can engage or bypass any resistance in their way. This dynamic is much more complex than the typical systematic hunting and minimal risk dynamics of XCOM2012 missions.
XCOM2’s timer solves the gradual problem by removing incentives for games to play much more conservatively than they do by removing incentives for over-expanding. The designers also added a cloaking feature, as the timer is too harsh and random punishment if added without further modification to XCOM2012’s formula. Stealth allows for a temporarily safer environment where players can gain reconnaissance and advantage in the first combat encounter of a mission. Players with more information at their disposal can plan to counter the potentially sharp penalties that timers could impose in the not-too-distant future.
XCOM2 is far more effective at putting players into tough but survivable combat situations. I see it as a design success and improvement over XCOM2012, as this is the heart of tactical combat.