Let’s get this out of the way – XCOM2 – a turn based tactical combat / strategy game – is an extraordinarily well crafted game, and is right now the top rated current PC game on Metacritic. Part of the appeal of the franchise is the difficulty of the game – in the tradition of “hard” games like Dark Souls, where players derive satisfaction from slowly mastering the challenges presented to them. But perhaps the developers have gone too far this time – various reviewers have been saying the game as shipped was too hard.
Even the lead designer, Jake Solomon, is on the record as saying perhaps they went a bit overboard in bumping up the difficulty.
To sum up his thoughts – and to add some of my own – the team designed all these interesting game mechanics that should engage the player and create a compelling game experience. For example, some missions have time limits, to simulate the fact that you’re a guerrilla force making a quick strike on a priority target, forcing players to find a balance between speed and safety. There’s an immediate evacuation mechanic, allowing players to extract wounded soldiers or even their entire squad if the mission turns out to be too difficult. They expanded the number and type of base facilities, so players could make meaningful choices about what facilities to build and in what order.
The benchmark the team used in balancing the game was to see if players were interacting with the mechanics – and if they weren’t, they would bump up the difficulty until they did.
As a trivial example, say there is a cover system where you can put your soldiers in cover to protect them from enemy attacks. If enemy damage was tuned too low, you would see players just ignoring cover, choosing to walk in a straight line towards the enemy to attack them. In order to create player engagement, you would increase enemy damage, forcing players to make a choice between advancing faster towards the enemy across open ground or making a slower advance utilizing cover for protection. When you see players start utilizing the mechanic you created, you know you’ve reached a good spot in terms of balance.
Armed with that logic, they dramatically increased the difficulty in XCOM2 so that players had to interact with all these new mechanics they designed.
The problem with this is that players saw the use of these mechanics as a sign of their failure, and frankly, failing sucks.
Failing feels bad. Sad music plays, your squad looks dejected, and losing a soldier you’ve come to know over weeks of play can be devastating.
Failure as a game mechanic
A slight digression – early games like the original XCOM: Ufo Defense (1994) were really difficult. The original makes the current XCOM2 (2016) look like a cakewalk.
As games have become more mainstream over the past two or three decades, there’s been a greater and greater aversion to incorporating failure as a core game mechanic. Since failure elicits negative emotion in the player, developers want to avoid it as much as possible, and instead target producing a movie-like fun experience.
However, there has been a resurgence in “hard” games which incorporate failure as a key game mechanic. Most notable is the Souls franchise (Demon Souls and Dark Souls) – it’s an action RPG where when you died, you lost your progress (to a point) – and players were expected to die repeatedly. There was no saving or loading to fix your mistakes. It gave the game a strong sense of coherency and narrative that was part of what made it such a cult favourite, and remains till today one of the best examples of building failure as a mechanic into the core gameplay. You were expected to fail: die, over and over, painfully learning and mastering the levels and enemies within. Your character didn’t necessarily become much stronger over time, but YOU got a lot smarter and skilled, and that was very satisfying for players. The mantra they used was that failure is the best teacher.
XCOM2 would fall into that category of game – sort of – or so the developers thought. They would throw a variety of challenges and sometimes just pure bad luck at the player, ensuring that some missions ended in failure. Instead of creating mechanics designed to prevent failure, they would build in mechanics to help players cope with failure and recover.
XCOM2 gameplay featuring a gorgeously rendered suburban cul de sac.
Mismatch in expectations
In retrospect, bumping up the difficulty to force players to use these mechanics didn’t quite work in XCOM2.
For example, the immediate evacuation option – players saw the use of evacuation as admitting defeat. Hence, they would rather fight until the last man standing and not only lose the mission, but lose all their soldiers, crippling their entire campaign.
In the same vein, players seemed overwhelmed by the sheer number of options presented to them when upgrading their base. The game is supposed to present you with several options, and you’re supposed to pick a few and run with them – but again, players felt like the inability to build ALL the options at once felt like failure. Same for the mission timer – if the mission timer was overly generous, with no possibility of running out of time, then it’s meaningless – there’s no point in even having a timer. So there’s going to be some missions where you will run out of time no matter what, and when it inevitably happens, players chalk it up to the game being too hard.
All this stems from a mismatch between player expectation and developer intention. If a player expects that they can complete every mission successfully and go on to complete the game without losing a soldier – that’s clearly the wrong expectation. Otherwise the developers would never have put in all these mechanics – evacuation to abort the mission, recruit new soldiers to replace dead ones, resistance cells being wiped out after failing a mission.
On the other hand, the developers should have clearly made these intentions known up front and created a possibly lower difficulty level to cater for players who want the ideal experience, and label it as such. They could say that on hard difficulty, you WILL fail some missions and lose some soldiers, but with strategic play you can still succeed in the broader campaign. And then say on easy difficulty, with disciplined play you will be able to bring everyone home safely at the end of the game.
While being a turn based game, the developers have managed to make it look and feel very dynamic and action packed: it feels like you spend your turns setting up ambushes and firefights that play out in exciting cut-scenes like this one.
Ironman and the mechanics of failure
I’d like to speak here as well about the concept of the Ironman game mode and how it ties in with the mechanics of failure. This mode disables the save and reload mechanic in the game – meaning that all deaths and missteps are permanent. There are no do-overs, you don’t get to go back and correct a mistake. It is particularly cruel in game with a large component of randomness, and it can feel downright unfair for the enemy to land a critical hit on a soldier in cover and kill him, when he “should” have been safe. It is devastating when a moment of carelessness can lead to a squad wipe which cripples your entire campaign and erases 20 hours of progress.
Ironman mode works in the spirit of Hardcore mode in Diablo, where character death is permanent.
Many purists (me included) play on this mode, and it isn’t because we’re masochists. Yes, the game is a LOT harder like this. However there is an argument that the game is meant to be played this way:
1) Many players feel like they must “do their best” at the game or they’re not satisfied with their performance. In non Ironman mode, by definition “doing your best” would mean reloading each mission dozens of times until they can get through it without taking a single injury. In Ironman made, it feels strangely liberating knowing you’ve already done your best even if the outcome was subpar: you can only move on to the next mission and resolve to do better.
2) It allows players to fully engage with the full breadth of mechanics within the game. For example, in non-Ironman mode, players would never use the evacuation mechanic to fail the mission but preserve the lives of their troops – their first option would simply be to reload the game from an earlier point to make sure they succeeded the mission instead.
3) Only when your characters have the possibility of dying can they truly feel alive, and it gives your campaign a sense of continuity and narrative that can otherwise be disjointed by the ability to skip backwards and forwards in time. Success is sweeter when you know how close you were from failure. Bad luck and circumstance can create a compelling and amusing narrative of its own, but I suspect it takes a certain level of sociopathy to be entertained by the death of your soldiers…
The game looks completely different and just as pretty at night
Personally, I’ve really enjoyed XCOM2. Yes, they bumped up the difficulty, but in return they gave players a whole host of tools and interesting mechanics to utilize, like concealment and evacuation, which to me makes it easier than the prior editions. I’ve completed a Commander Ironman run and Exquisite Timing run – the latter being the most challenging achievement in the game (only 0.3% of players so far have mastered it).
Exquisite Timing is the hardest and most interesting game variation – and to me is THE definitive version of XCOM2. It’s an extremely short game where you have to complete the game in hard mode in about half the time it typically takes the average player. It’s a mad scramble for time; you will be fighting the most difficult missions in the game with an inexperienced force using inferior weapons. It feels just like how I would imagine the survivors of the alien invasion would feel – faced with overwhelming odds, outgunned and out of time. You can probably advance your tech level to either plasma weapons, power armor or psionics, but not more than one of those (and in my first playthrough I got none of the three) – while in a regular, unrestricted playthrough, most players will obtain all of them.
But isn’t that great, having to make a meaningful choice about what options best fit your play style and strategy rather than getting everything? You feel like a real project manager or CEO, plotting out potential timelines and making sure your project dependencies line up, making sure you have enough slack in the system to account for contingencies and the inevitable failure or two, making sacrifices where necessary to achieve your final goal. The best games evoke a compelling fantasy or role play for the player, and XCOM2 does this very, very well.