Interview: We chat with Goldhawk Interactive about Xenonauts

The X-Com series of games developed by the now defunct Mythos Games and published by Microprose were some of the most acclaimed games of the 1990s. The series is now owned by Take Two Interactive, who plan to release XCOM: Enemy Unknown later this year and an XCOM first person shooter in 2013. However, many fans of the original have been looking for a game that has that classic turn-based strategy game as humans fight off an alien invasion.

The indie game studios Goldhawk Interactive has been working for some time on their own X-Com inspired game, Xenonauts. Earlier this year, the team took to Kickstarter to raise some money to help finish Xenonauts. They had a goal of $50,000 but ended up raising over three times that amount.

In this interview, conducted before the Kickstarter campaign ended, Chris England of Goldhawk Interactive talks more about Xenonauts, how they feel about XCOM: Enemy Unknown and more.

First, Xenonauts is obviously inspired greatly by the original X-Com games. What is it about this type of gameplay that interests you and the team?

The X-Com games (or certainly the first two) are pretty unique in the history of gaming because of their scope, and the sheer level of detail with which the strategic and tactical parts of the game tie together. I guess the closest modern equivalent is the Total War games, but even they don't have the RPG-elements for the soldiers. Having each of your soldiers as a named character who can improve their stats is one of the core parts of the game - what would otherwise be expendable troops (you can always buy new ones) suddenly become an enormously valuable resource! It makes the battles really intense. One false step and the soldier you've sent on dozens of missions is just a smouldering pile of ash.

I've not found any other game where I care about what happens the characters quite as much as I do with my soldiers in X-Com, which is ironic given how easy it is to get them killed. Perhaps that's why it happens - you get so attached to them because you know they could be taken away from you at any moment? Modern games are rarely so brutal that you could lose half your team just walking off the ramp of the dropship. There's also a wonderful feeling of exploration with the game - unlocking new research, discovering (and killing) new alien types, seeing new UFOs for the first time. I've always loved my strategy games, and X-Com was a great example of a grand strategy game done properly.

The game has already generated a pretty large fan following. Do you think that proves that turn-based strategy games have a loyal audience?

Yes, I think that's true. I don't think turn-based games will ever have the same popularity as RTS games do now, but I think they've been unfairly ignored over the past decade or so by large publishers (i.e. they were basically allowed to go extinct). The rise of indie studios is starting to solve that problem - lower development costs and novel methods of funding mean we can cater to niches that bigger studios aren't interested in. Over the past year or so our pre-order revenue has allowed us to tweak our goals a little; our updated designs (particularly the new UI we're working on) is designed to make the game more visually appealing and accessible.

The logic is that if we can make a polished and nice-looking game that is easy to get into, we can draw gamers in to try something that they wouldn't usually try. I think at the moment turn-based strategy games are usually associated with more hardcore wargame simulations and are considered to be quite niche, but I think fundamentally that's because a lot of gamers over the past ten years just haven't had much chance to play accessible turn-based strategy games rather than any inherent weakness with the genre. I'm hoping that in the future indie developers will prove that there is enough of a market that the big studios won't automatically dismiss the idea of making a turn-based strategy because "it won't sell".

You launched the Kickstarter campaign and it quickly exceeded its goal. Why do you think that happened as opposed to your previous pre-order campaign?

Our previous pre-order campaign has been a steady (and growing) source of income for the past 18 months. It has raised a substantial sum of money over that time and it is what has made the Kickstarter possible - we wouldn't have been able to put together a playable demo or show off such a complete game in the Kickstarter video without the pre-order revenue that had come before! That said, the Kickstarter has been a huge success. We've got two weeks left and we've already raised about 80% of the total pre-order revenue we've recieved so far. There's a variety of reasons for this, but the two biggest ones is that Kickstarter has allowed us an opportunity to raise more money off our devoted fans. I talked above about the loyal fans, and there's a lot of X-Com fanatics out there. Previously the best they could do was order the $30 version instead of the $20 version, but Kickstarter allows they to give more than that.

One of our most popular reward tiers was at $200, where you can have yourself in the game as a soldier, with a portrait done by our character artist. Lots of X-Com fans really loved that idea, and we sold out of all 50 in just over two days! The second benefit is just the "Kickstarter effect". Simply being on Kickstarter exposes you to a larger audience than would otherwise see the game, so brings in more sales. About 1/3 of the people pledging money were people who just found our project by browsing Kickstarter, and you can add to that the traffic drawn in by the press coverage of the Kickstarter too. To an extent, I think this effect is fading a little. People are still backing projects, but not quite as enthusiastically as a couple of months ago, and the big news sites don't seem very interested in covering Kickstarters any more either. Fatigue is setting in. But that simply means that it's not as easy to raise the big sums ($300,000+) as it was, I'd still heartily recommend other indie teams try their luck! Overall, I think we probably arrived about a month too late to the party, but it took us about a month to get around Kickstarter's US-only requirements. C'est la vie.

Now that you have exceeded your goal, what do you plan to do to add content to Xenonauts?

Kickstarter has raised a lot of money and has also given us a chance to interact with a wider audience that we usually would. That has already had some unexpected effects - we're decided to put female soldiers in the game and port the game to Mac / Linux, neither of which were things we were trying to raise money for! In terms of the things we're sure we'll be adding: we will be putting in the new UI mentioned above, adding at least a couple of new mechanics like battlefield suppression and soldier combat medals, hiring a full-time level designer and it seems likely we'll be adding a new "indoor" (set in a large underground bunker / research facility) mission type to the game. If we have a strong last week we'll also be adding one or two new tilesets to the game thanks to our stretch goals, too.

It's also given us the money to start looking at setting up a physical studio, by which I mean getting two or three of the key team together in a small room somewhere. This should make communication amongst the team easier and speed up development considerably. People are more willing to leave their day job to go full-time on the project now, as they know if we have a bad month of pre-order revenue then we can fall back on our reserves. Previously, we'd all have been eating our shoes, so you can understand their reluctance.

In terms of the game itself, how do you plan to make Xenonauts stand on its own, rather than just be a homage to the first X-Com?

The easiest way to answer this is to download and play the demo! Our philosophy is that the original X-Com mechanics were fantastic and have stood the test of time; you can still boot up X-Com today and really enjoy playing it! The problem is that they are wrapped in an archaic UI and the game suffers from some fairly serious balance and AI issues too. But fundamentally we see our work as polishing up what was laid out in 1994 and updating it for the modern age, rather than trying to change the key mechanics to make the combat real-time etc. Our approach has been simple; we've gone over every single one of the X-Com mechanics with a fine-toothed comb and tried to figure out a way we can make them more intuitive, more realistic, or more fun.

There have been literally hundreds of changes from X-Com, but most are "invisible" ones that you probably won't notice. Our user interface still needs one more major revision before it is finished, but it is already a lot more usable and accessible than the one in X-Com. The most obvious fixes are to major issues, like the way research wasn't shared between bases or the way that soldiers didn't remember their loadout from mission to mission so you had to manually arm them before each one, but we've looked at the game much more closely than that and we're not being slavish. For instance, we're now looking at what happens when your dropship is shot down mid-air by alien UFOs (the strategic AI will try and do that to you).

In X-Com, if the drophship is shot down, everybody dies. In Xenonauts, that sort of thing happens more frequently and so we're now changing the design so if a dropship is shot down, there are likely to be a fair few (wounded) survivors from the crash. We've also added an entirely new air combat system, which is a lot more involved than the really basic air combat you got in X-Com. On the battlefield we've formalised the cover system, and redone the shooting system so we now have the Jagged Alliance 2 system of aiming that gives you finer control over your shooting. When we put suppression in, we expect there to be further changes to the way the battles work as it means we can much better differentiate between burst fire and aimed shooting. Essentially, Xenonauts should be very similar to X-Com, but both deeper and more intuitive. If we can pull it off, there will be a lot of happy people!

How do you feel about Firaxis's plans for XCOM: Enemy Unknown? Do you think they could also make a game worthy of the original X-Com?

I'm looking forward to it! Remember, I won't be able to play Xenonauts when it comes out, so it'll be nice for me to have something in that ilk to enjoy! My stock answer to this question is that they're making a more progressive remake of the game than we are, while we're making a more faithful remake. We're not changing the fundamentals, rather we're polishing them and updating them for the modern age. They're changing the core mechanics to attempt to have a slicker and more cinematic battles that retain the same feel as X-Com. Which is the best model? I don't know. The good thing is you'll be able to play both and see for yourself. Though they have a common root, I think the two games are going to play very differently. That's good for us simply because we don't have the financial firepower that Firaxis do. As is, in some ways it's actually been beneficial for us. It's certainly attracted more attention to the genre and the day that they announced their game was one of the best we've ever had in terms of pre-order revenue.

Has there been any third party publisher interest in Xenonauts since the successful Kickstarter campaign?

Not really - I think there was one, but I'm not that interested. I think we're close enough to release now that there's not much a publisher could do for us. They could give us some more money, but the Kickstarter has already given us a load of that so we don't really need them - and we'd have to give up a lot of the potential revenue in exchange so I don't find the idea particularly appealing. Some people have enquired about distributing boxed copies abroad too, but that's about it.

Finally, is there anything else you wish to say about Xenonauts?

I'd really recommend downloading the demo and giving it a spin. It's only an alpha and has a few issues because it isn't complete yet, but it still gives you a pretty good idea of what the final game will be like. The reason we put it up on Kickstarter is that we want to be open about the type of game we're making - not everyone will like it, but those that do tend to REALLY like it. Have a look, see if it's for you!

Images via Goldhawk Interactive

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