It's natural to think that franchises are borne out of the pursuit of profit, isn't it? That someone in a suit sits in a boardroom, glances over a "units shipped" column, and abruptly demands a series when a new IP hits a prerequisite sales target.
But when it came to XCOM – the 2012 reimagining of the early 1990s sci-fi strategy game that built a passionate fanbase – its sequel didn't come about because of the success of the original game. As creative director Jake Solomon tells Nintendo Life, that's simply not a solid enough premise on which to craft an enduring franchise.
Sequels can’t be made just because the previous game was successful. They have to earn their right to exist with compelling new features, new stories, new experiences
"Sequels can’t be made just because the previous game was successful," Solomon says as the studio prepares for the release of XCOM 2 Collection on Nintendo Switch. "They have to earn their right to exist with compelling new features, new stories, new experiences."
Bundling XCOM 2, four DLC packs – Resistance Warrior Pack, Anarchy’s Children, Alien Hunters, Shen’s Last Gift – and the War of the Chosen expansion, 2K hopes that the fan-favourite strategy game will appeal not only to those who've been ardent admirers of the series thus far – fans that have, up until now, chiefly experienced the game on PC and console – but also entice new players into the fold, too.
"It’s a very tricky thing," Solomon admits when we ask how the team manages to satisfy both new and existing supporters – especially when an existing franchise is ported to new platforms. "All you can do is play the game you’re making as much as you can and put yourself in the shoes of your potential players. Is this different enough? Have we lost anything from our previous game? Is this still going to be welcoming to new players?
"Invariably, your initial ideas are wrong," he adds. "So you just have to keep working at it, iterating on the core concepts until you’ve found something special."
Whilst ostensibly a team-tactics, turn-based strategy game, XCOM is so much more than that, too, inviting its players to tell their own stories. In fact, this mantra was very much at the front of the developers' minds when the studio sat down to work on a sequel – "our goal was to make something bigger, deeper, and better at letting players tell their own stories of triumph, and sometimes heartbreak, in the world of XCOM", Solomon insists – but it's the franchise's own "positive community" that was "really important to [the team] at Firaxis". Solomon freely acknowledges that XCOM 2 and War of the Chosen were crafted "with community feedback in mind".
"One of the lessons I learned from the original XCOM was the power of players telling their own stories," he explains. "It can be as simple as creating or customising a soldier who ends up saving the world or ends up a casualty in a hard-fought mission. That story is yours, there is no other story quite like it, and being able to participate in those stories and experience them as a player is one of the most powerful things that games can do for us."
You’re shut away with this game for years, you form your own opinions about it, but the minute you release it to the world, there are millions of opinions about every last feature
Moving from XCOM to XCOM 2 must've been difficult, though. How on earth do developers steel themselves for the criticism and overwhelming weight of expectations from fans, especially for a sequel?
"That’s the nature of the job," he says. "If we’re going to ask people to spend their hard-earned money on our games, we should welcome those expectations, and we should exceed them. It’s only fair that we invite expectation from our community. That simply means that people are invested in what we’re doing.
"You’re shut away with this game for years, you form your own opinions about it, but the minute you release it to the world, there are millions of opinions about every last feature," he continues. "It’s very gratifying to see how people interpret the game, even if they don’t like some features, or they love some feature I didn’t think was all that great. Once they own the game, I consider their opinions as valid as mine."
As for what Solomon would change now, if he could go back and tweak XCOM 2 again? "I’m never satisfied with a game, I never believe it’s finished, and I could probably change a million things if I had unlimited time. But to be honest, it ended up in a pretty great place. It’s a game the community loves, and it’s so big that I’m not sure we could add anything else that would improve the experience and not just weigh it down.
"Every game I design tends to change pretty drastically over the course of development," he continues. "At one point you could actually pilot your giant flying helicarrier in real-time to avoid patrolling enemy aircraft. But like many ideas, that was cut as we focused on what was really working, and what was really true to the experience we were trying to create."
But while he won't be led on how a studio manages the demand of ports against the lure of platform-exclusivity – "when it comes to deciding on platforms, we try and do what is best for the game" – Solomon wants existing fans to know that the Switch version is still "the XCOM you know and love".
"[It] provides players just a huge amount of flexibility that they’ve never had for XCOM. You won’t have to worry about finishing a battle before giving up the TV. This series has been a labour of love for hundreds of people. Behind the scenes, we’ve spent countless hours, arguments, laughter, and work, work, work to make XCOM, and, of course, it’s a privilege to do so and finally bring it to one of my personal favourite platforms, Nintendo Switch."
XCOM 2 Collection is out on Nintendo Switch on May 29th, 2020.