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'XCOM 2' Creative Director Wants to See Players Go from Mods to Jobs

Modding is the easiest way to impress a game developer, and Jake Solomon wants to make it easy.

by Leif Johnson
Apr 9 2016, 2:00pm

Image: JonTerp, Lysarra.

Firaxis' recent tactical army-fights-aliens game XCOM 2 is fun and all, but its creative director Jake Solomon is particularly interested in seeing how much more fun players can make it with their own modifications. Beyond that, he's hoping the creators of these mods will have an easy road into the gaming industry if they seek it out.

"Unquestionably, the way to get a foothold in the industry and to prove to studios or just to other gamers that you have what it takes to be a developer, is to mod," he says, "and you basically get this huge leg up if you're able to mod a game or concept that's already there."

Thing is, most games aren't very friendly to mods. They keep their assets under digital lock and key, and it's thus difficult to see what might have been in different hands. To that end, Solomon and his team abandoned the modification-phobic design of 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown and overhauled it to its very roots for XCOM 2, giving players to virtually every line of code script and every graphical asset so they may bend them to their will using the editor Firaxis uses itself. And what was the first fruit of this high-minded, optimistic project? A mod that replaced the rifles carried by soldiers with adorable corgis.

Jack Solomon. Image: Firaxis

"I wasn't quite sure what to think when I saw it," Solomon said. "I thought it was awesome in a very hilarious way, but I had no idea if that portended the future."

The future, as it turns out, has been a lot more complex. In the two months since the ACORG-47 mod trotted onto the Steam Workshop, over 1,100 other mods have followed in its footsteps. It's still a little early to see the complete conversions Solomon wants to see—mods that transform the game into, say, a "western XCOM" or a "space XCOM"—but he's excited by the current offerings. Some follow the lighthearted lead of ACORG-47, such as one that replaces voice files with the soothing intonations of the late painter Bob Ross. Some add a degree of challenge by disabling saves during missions. Others have reached such a peak of popularity that it seems evident that Firaxis should have thought to include them in the base game, such as the Evac All mod that automatically sets all soldiers in an evac zones to evacuate without the tedium of clicking on them individually.

"I think that mod is a clear sign of something that improves the game," Solomon says," and I'm the kind of guy who's never going to sit here and say we've made all the right decisions."

Mods have thus established themselves as an easy way of finding people who can make those decisions. A large number of the people filling the desks in gaming studios today got in partly by demonstrating their prowess through a mod, he notes, and in special cases that can propel a particular modder all the way to professional stardom. Jon Shafer, he points out, originally started out as a popular modder for Sid Meier's Civilization III while still in high school, and that legacy helped boost him to the role of lead designer for Civilization V itself. (Shafer was also fiercely critical of his own decisions while lead designer, which he hopes to remedy to a followup Kickstarter-funded project.)

"That's about the best-case scenario," he says, "You make mods for a game and then you become the lead designer on the franchise."

Considering Solomon's infectious enthusiasm for modding, I was more than a little disappointed to learn that he didn't get into gaming on the strength of his own mods. He'd played the original XCOM in the mid '90s to the point that it dissuaded him from following his parents' footsteps to medical school, and he got accepted to Firaxis (the only studio he ever applied to) on the strength of a graphical demo. His main experiences with mods revolved around designing maps for '90s shooters like Duke Nukem, Doom, and Quake.

"I was kind of terrible at it," he said.

ASatiricalDalek's YouTube introduction to creating XCOM 2 mods.

But the gaming world was obviously different back then. Modding itself was a bit of an "overwhelming" challenge even for Solomon when he was a budding programmer, and then game development "didn't really seem like that real of a career." Attitudes toward gaming assets were also different, even just a few years ago when Solomon and his team were making XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Back then, he said, Firaxis was "afraid" of letting unleashing its content, models, animations, and source code for use by the wider public.

Attitudes have changed, however, and Solomon himself changed his stance partly on seeing the strength of the acclaimed "Long War" mod for Enemy Unknown, which managed to achieve greatness even while working within the severe limitations Firaxis placed on that game's modding capabilities. Over 500,000 people have downloaded it since its creation in 2013, proving that the developer's vision of a game doesn't have to be its end.

The simple but useful "Evac All" mode in action. Image: Tracktwo

"The benefit [of open assets for mods] is that players engage with the game longer because there's always new stuff coming out," Solomon says, "and it keeps the game scene very vibrant in a way that we just couldn't do as a single studio."

And even though modding has traditionally been the realm of PC games, Solomon isn't averse to trying to bring the XCOM 2 modding experience to the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 if he ever decides to make a version of the game for the systems.

"I think it's just not the XCOM 2 experience without the mods," he said, adding that he doesn't "know anything, really, about the challenges of modding on the consoles."

He is, however, "really, really excited as a player" after learning how Bethesda Softworks has vowed to bring mods to the console versions of its Fallout 4.

"I'm hopeful that, when you have a heavyweight like Bethesda going in, it opens the doors for other studios to do it, too," he says.

And if one of these mods produces the next Jake Solomon or Jon Shafer? All the better.

Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Jake Solomon as the director of XCOM 2; in fact, he is the creative director.