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Why XCOM Didn't Work For Me: Simulation vs. Strategy
by Eric Schwarz on 11/16/12 05:25:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I admit, I was a bit late to the X-COM party.  The original game was released back in 1994, and at the time I was a child still enthralled by Doom.  It wasn't until over a decade later that I would encounter X-COM as I began to explore tactics and strategy games more thoroughly; nevertheless, it left an impression on me that no other game since has been able to replicate.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Firaxis' take on the franchise, was released recently.  I spent some time with the game (about 25 hours), and was impressed with the polish and effectiveness of its execution.  However, despite its graphical and interface enhancements, it was unable to hook me in the same way that the original X-COM did.  After some thought, I've concluded this isn't because it's an inferior game, that I'm nostalgic, or any other nitpicky reason.  Rather, I think it comes down to the division between simulation and strategy and the different approach Firaxis brought to the game.


I am a very firm believer in videogame rulesets which apply in a universal fashion.  My favorite games are RPGs, and generally speaking those games tend to revolve around rulesets which are explicitly statistical and defined clearly for the player as well as the non-player characters, environments and challenges on display.  These sorts of rulesets are the real source of fun RPG gameplay in my opinion, because they are able to facilitate emergent play in a way that more fixed, non-universal systems can never emulate.

It doesn't really matter what kind of game you're talking about, either.  Deus Ex remains possibly my favorite game of all time for its near-perfect blend of RPG mechanics and a global ruleset which governs the game world.  Where most shooters rely on pre-scripted sequences and triggers to make the magic happen, the fun of a game like Deus Ex comes from interacting with systems of mechanics.  It doesn't really matter what kind of genre a game is, though - the most fun for me have always been those which offer a set of open-ended rules for me to negotiate and play with.

Both of the X-COM games I've mentioned revolve around rulesets which, for the most part, equally apply between the player and the non-player aliens (at least, when in combat).  They aren't RPGs as described above, but they both take from the same source - the idea that fun is the result of playing, not watching or "experiencing".  Both games have consistent hit points, damage numbers, rules governing hit chances, a degree of simulated physics which informs how the environment can be navigated and interacted with, and so on.  On the surface, they are very, very similar.


So why are these games so different?  I don't think it comes down to the new XCOM being a simpler game, although in some respects it is.  Rather, I think it boils down to the fact that Firaxis are not really interested in creating simulation-oriented systems, but game-oriented ones.  That is, whereas the original X-COM had its tactical combat founded upon a set of in-depth interactions between the intrinsic properties of players, aliens and the game environment, the new XCOM treats the environment and the characters in it as pure gameplay objects designed with very specific functions in mind.

This is a bit of a difficult distinction to make, admittedly, but I think it is important to do so.  In a game of chess, to continue the analogy, all pieces on the board have clearly defined functions and limited sets of abilities and interactions.  In such a game, the difference between a pawn and a bishop is how much and in what direction those two pieces can move.  Both have the same goal - capture all the other player's pieces - and the way they go about it is effectively identical.  The strategy of the game is the result of most effectively employing the particularities of each type of piece, in such a way that accounts for and exploits the other player's pieces and moves.

The new XCOM plays much like a game of chess.  There is a field with pre-defined points of cover for soldiers to hide behind, soldiers all have a set of abilities pre-determined by class, movement is limited to two moves and one attack per turn, and so on.  Because of the way that these classes are defined, there are very clearly determined "right" and "wrong" ways to play them.  The limited capabilities of each only accentuate this - a sniper is always a sniper, a support is always a support, and so on.  Each is specifically designed to be use for a specific purpose.

The same generally occurs in the campaign on a wide strategic level.  There are many specific methods to ideally game the research and base building elements.  For example, panic rating is generally very easy to manage, especially if you hold off on deploying satellites to countries until the last minute.  Upgrades are almost completely linear until the end-game - laser weapons are better than standard ones, which are both beaten out by plasma weapons.  The way the story impresses upon the development of the campaign also means there are very clear objectives to accomplish at all times, and completing them in set order and by certain times is necessary not because of the evolving needs of the campaign determined by rules of cause and effect, but because the balance of the numbers is rigged to require you to play a certain way.


The original X-COM, by contrast, did not really play like a game of chess, or other traditional games with set scenarios and challenges to overcome in specific fashions.  Rather, it featured a much more simulation-oriented ruleset.  This was exemplified by the number of small details which the new game completely lacks.  The original game allowed you to take advantage of these properties in creative and interesting ways; these weren't clearly defined in any play manual, but rather simply came about from how you engaged with the systems, and would often open up new possibilities at unexpected times.

For example, terrain destruction is still very much present in the new XCOM; however, now the feature has been solely relegated to certain weapon types, and only explosives are allowed to be precisely aimed.  This reduces the number of options available and more clearly creates a role for explosive items that others simply cannot fill.

Similarly, the time unit system in the original game allowed for multiple types of attacks which "realistically" offered different upsides and downsides, as well as the ability to move, shoot or perform other actions in any order.  The new game's two moves, one attack setup reduces options in combat and forces you to commit to decisions even if it does not really make sense why you can't fire and then move afterwards.  The distinction between the original game's different shot types, with their upsides and downsides, and the new game's cooldown-centric design which clearly denotes that some abilities are simply more powerful than others and should almost always be used when available, is also obvious.  In fact, many skills "unlocked" by leveling up soldiers actually simply fill gaps in your core set of options, which reinforce the feeling that they are being artificially denied.

The cover system is another thing that comes across as artificial.  By clearly defining cover points, levels almost play themselves because the options available are made far more obvious to the point where creative thinking is no longer needed.    Flanking, line of sight, etc. occur less as a result of your precision, timing and coordination and more as a result of you following predefined routes and highly engineered unit placement patterns.  The entire combat system is basically designed around the use of cover, which only accentuates that feeling of a lack of options outside of the ones the designers specifically deemed acceptable in advance. 

Closing Thoughts

All this is not to say that the new XCOM is a bad game by any stretch.  On the contrary, I had quite a bit of fun with it.  However, it is obvious that Firaxis approached the game with a very different mindset - that of designers engineering a game in a classic sense, instead of an interactive toolbox that allows for a multitude of non-predetermined interactions.  Considering their background with the Civilization series and the direction it has been headed, this is not surprising in retrospect - Civilization V also marked a clear step towards this "gamification" of the series with its greater focus on combat and downplaying of economics and diplomatic options.

X-COM was entertaining for me because it was unpredictable and exciting.  Every mission played differently because the simulation-style rules allowed for so many interesting things to happen.  Complex chains of cause and effect formed which hinged on every single small action.  That sense that the game I am playing has already been predetermined, and that I am just picking a set of more or less binary outcomes from a very limited selection, robs the game of much of the depth and replayability the original is known for.

So while the original game is still going strong among many players even nearly 20 years after it was released, I simply cannot see the new XCOM attracting the same long-term attention.  I don't even know if I'll be playing it a week from now.

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Simon Ludgate
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I'm surprised you didn't catch on to the fact that the Aliens play by entirely different rules than the players: they get a "free turn" when you first see or "aggro" them to move into cover. They also don't engage players or make tactical movements until "aggroed". Because they don't engage until you find them, the gamist strategy involves moving troops at an excruciatingly slow pace, only exposing new territory within your first unit's first movement, lest you aggro monsters you can't attack.

I think that pacing issue, far more than the class or specialization issue you described, hurt the game the most for me.

Eric Schwarz
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Oh no, I noticed that the rules for the aliens were a bit different - that's why I said "for the most part." I really did not like the fact that the patrols, the spawns, etc. were a crutch for what is ultimately kind of dodgy AI. It comes across as "fake difficulty" even though of course such a thing doesn't truly exist.

Bart Stewart
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I wish this essay would get more visibility, because it's more -- and more important -- than just a critique of the new take on X-COM.

As I read it, it's another all-too-good example of modern developers being terrified of "surprise" in gameplay. As I wrote last year (
nse_of_Surprising_Gameplay.php), developers increasingly seem to be determined to tightly constrain the numbers and interactions of verbs so that nothing unexpected can possibly happen.

I can think of several perfectly reasonable explanations for this: lots of gamers want to win, not to be surprised; emergent behaviors make it harder to tell a highly developer-defined story; emergent behaviors are too easily classified as "bugs"; smaller budgets require a strictly limited verb count. All those may be valid for a particular game.

But they shouldn't mean that *all* games need to be locked down so tightly. And I'd think that was particularly true for a game whose inspiration was fun in part because of the unexpected effects of relatively deep interactions among multiple systems.

I hadn't bought XCOM: EU yet. Thank you, Eric, for validating that purchasing choice. :) It doesn't sound like a bad game; it just doesn't appear to scratch that itch for systemically surprising games that some of us have.

E Whiting
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I agree. Even though I enjoyed the new X-COM as a game, I don't see it having the lasting appeal of the original X-COM. This essay provides a great articulation of why the design choices of the current game do not necessarily appeal to the original audience, even if the new game is in some ways the better of the two.

Harold Myles
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"All this is not to say that the new XCOM is a bad game by any stretch"

I think it is smart to not try to judge these games.

I had come to the same conclusion on the primary differences between XCOM and X-COM, and it is about simulation. And the difference is so much so, that I don't think it is fair to judge the two against each other. Compare, yes. Judge, No.

But honestly the primary system responsible for all that emergent gameplay in the first
game was simulating the bullet trajectory.

The new XCOM could remain exactly the same, no free aim and all, and immediately regain most of the chaos in the first game by simulating the bullet trajectory. When a guy fires it is not just a hit or miss, that bullet is going to hit something somewhere.

However, I think that would not just add some of that randomness back in but completely change the game. Potentially so much that everything else would have to be changed to remain 'balanced.'


"As I read it, it's another all-too-good example of modern developers being terrified of "surprise" in gameplay"

I completely disagree. While I agree many modern developers for AAA games are afraid to challenge their players, I do no think this is an example of such. Just because Faraxis decided to go with a much more 'board-game' like design doesn't mean they are afraid of challenging players and shouldn't be discouraged.

While we all like emergent game play or simulation based game play I don't think we should start looking down on straight solid design. Chess is still a good game. And will remain so no matter how many systemic, emergent, simulation based computer games get made.

For the most part I think we still see more solid design going on with board games, design that does not get to lean on the computation heavy systems computer games get propped up on.

Don't get me wrong, I love video games. I'm just saying not to discredit Faraxis for their design choices, just because they weren't completely drenched in computation heavy simulations and system based emergent game play.

Fabio Daniel Ribeiro
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" Just because Faraxis decided to go with a much more 'board-game' like design doesn't mean they are afraid of challenging players and shouldn't be discouraged"

Much more board-game like design? It's exactly the opposite! The original X-COM is a board-game, not this new one! Just to show my point, I ask you to search for a board game called "Legions of Steel", which is essencially a board-game version of X-COM: most of the rules are there, with just some simplifications to make the ame a bit faster (4 instead of 8 angles, ofr example).

The proble with this new game is that they went serious on simplification, killing many of the good aspects that made the original one so special. What it seems, to me, is that developers nowadays are affraid to offer complex/brainy games, because "people will not like it". Meanwhile, we X-COM lovers are still waiting for a true iteration of the game.

Harold Myles
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I have never played 'Legions of Steel' but I am willing to bet that it removed one of the same key system that XCOM removed that made X-COM what it is: full bullet trajectory simulation.

If so then I am not sure what your point would be other than if you want to make a board game of X-COM you need to simplify it. Which is what XCOM did and alot of the reason I say it is very board game like.

There is probably a reason why 'Legions of Steel' stands at rank #2500 on board game geeks while other combat and strategy war games can live in the top 100. And its not all due to Legions of Steel's horrible box art.

My point with your example is just because it is a board game doesn't mean it is a good one. And i would propose that XCOM would make a better board game than Legions of Steel.

Simplification is not always bad. And complexity is generally negative unless it adds alot of depth. Especially for board games. If your game ends up having lots of number crunching, accounting, and rules checking it is probably better suited for a computer game rather than a board game. That is the strength of the computer game and a weakness in a board game; number crunching, accounting, complex rules enforcement.

But just because your game is on a computer doesn't mean you have to make things complex. And it surely doesn't require you not to present clear simple information to your players.

If a simple system can retain alot of depth that is good thing. If you add complexity to the systems then how much depth should that complexity gain in order to pay for it self?

The reason X-COM is good is because its complexity paid for itself. But XCOM, in the same way, retained enough depth that its simplification was a justified. Could they make it even simpler without losing too much depth? Or even better, could they make it simpler and lose no depth? Could they add a little more complexity and gain alot of depth? If they could then I want to see that game because that would be good design.

You say we X-COM lovers are waiting around for the complex/brainy sequel? I'm not. X-COM is one of my favorite games, but not because its brainy. In fact it is a very unbalanced game, with a clear dominating strategy. X-COM stopped being a strategy game for me a long long time ago. For me, it is a simulator for catastrophic tactical missions.

To restate my main point. Just because you want a complex simulation game doesn't mean that the games that are not that are somehow bad. XCOM is not a faithful reproduction of the original and it was not intended to be.

It is fair for you to say XCOM is not the game you were looking for. But to judge it bad or inferior on that basis isn't fair in my mind. Judge a game for what it is, not what you want it to be.

Eric's article is a good example. It is a comparison with a critical eye, but not a judgement of quality.

Onat Oke
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Times are changing and hardcore strategy games are dying (or so the game companies think). I also had quite fun while playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, I even think it's the best XCOM game after the first one but as you said, it lacks quite a few qualities of the original.

1. UFO: Enemy Unknown was creepy. The atmoshpere, use of daylight/night time and creepy sound effects made you really live the horror. I still get cramps when i see the new chryssalids but I think they are the only thing that's actually terrifying in the game.

2. Line of sight. It's really annoying to know the enemy sees you if you see them or vice versa. It takes away a huge portion of the surprise factor and makes night missions dull. I remember delaying my skyranger's lift off until sunrise just to give my soldiers a little more advantage on the battlefield back in the day.

3. Introduction of soldier classes is a nice touch, but it really limits how you can use them. As told many times by many people, soldiers have lower number of stats now and this also hurts diversity.

4. Resource management. This is a strategy game but you cannot do anything if an abduction occurs on the last few days of a month. You are lucky if you have enough satellite uplink and a few satellites lying around waiting to be launched. Otherwise, bye bye nigeria and australia, bye bye two continent bonuses.

5. Chaos on the battlefield. Why the hell can I not aim at the door/window/wall with my heavy plasma and open some hole for my sniper to gib the muton taking cover inside the building? Why does my attacks miss and hit the UFO power source causing an explosion but never hit another soldier in the way or another unfortunate E.T.? Why do they always come in groups of 2 or 3? Why can I not shoot first, run and take cover later? (without any class skills) Unpredictability was another good quality of the original game.

6. Lack of AI. Things only get tougher on harder difficulty settings because every alien becomes a sniper or a suicide bomber. They dive in blindly just to throw that grenade and make you suffer before they get shred to pieces.

Those are the downsides I feel that's hurting the game design the most. I also feel it brought many nice features such as tipping the whereabouts of the aliens, remembering every soldiers' gear, the layout bonuses of the facilities etc. What I see is a game more like farmville than UFO: Enemy Unknown in terms of strategy, that's all.

Harold Myles
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I think #1, #5 on your list are what really made the original spectacular.

#6 is a failing in the first game as well. In fact the AI was pretty stupid in the original, just the overall difficulty made it so that it didn't really matter. Things were going to go poor for you no matter how stupid they were. For lack of scaling per difficulty settings, well that was a serious bug in the original as well.

#2 Is just the nature of the new game and I wouldn't necessarily discount the new game for this choice. By its nature as a strategy/tactics game (less a simulation) it presents very clear states and information to the player in order to make clear tactical decisions. It is not a simulation like the first.

#4 I agree is a big failing in XCOM. It is so close to being a superb strategy game but alot of the resource management either fails to allow the player to manage the outcome or the management is actually trivial.

#5 again I think highlights Eric's point. The two games are very different. In my mind the lack of bullet simulation is the key difference in the two games, especially on the tactics layer. But I don't judge XCOM poorly because the design choice is for a reason.

In the original, scorched earth tactics are the prevailing strategy. So much so that the original game is trivialized to a large degree. This was allowed primarily by that single system of free aim. In the new XCOM the tactics layer is actually much more thoughtful.

Likewise, on the strategy layer the original game was trivialized by the ability to create a self sustaining economy. The new game eliminates that as well.

The interesting thing is despite the original allowing for such a trivial solution it was immensely fun. So it comes down to how you want to judge the game.

Is the original bad because it had such on unbalanced design? Or is the original good because it was fun to destroy everything and have unexpected results?

Is the new XCOM good because the tactics layer is more balanced? Or is it bad because it failed to achieve the same level of chaotic fun and destruction?

Again they are very different games. Kind of unfair to judge the two against each other when their design, and what kind of game they are trying to be, is so different.

Michael Joseph
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Thanks for a very helpful article Eric. Better than merely intuit a sense for a fundamental difference you've articulated it very well.

Luciano Lombardi
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Interesting read, good analysis!

Roger Tober
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Good points. Some people argue that chess is the ultimate game because it's pure strategy, but I disagree. They designed a football the way they did because it would give an unexpected bounce and therefore makes the game more interesting. It's a brainy game as far as sports go, but without that, it wouldn't be as popular as it is.