Jake Solomon, lead designer of Firaxis’ nearly released alien invasion strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, discusses the game’s difficulty modes, robot tanks, and why losing is fun.

When you’re done here, why not check out the full review of the game or watch Reiner and I mock Jason’s tactics in our XCOM Test Chamber episode?

XCOM is definitely a game that’s at its best when you’re back is against the wall and you’re really challenged.

Absolutely, even if you just play Ironman or if you go in thinking I’m not going to reload or something like that definitely adds quite a bit to it.

What role were SHIVs [Super Heavy Infantry Vehicles; the robotic tanks available later in the game] designed to play?

You have to want to build SHIVs. Most of my play-throughs I’d say that I don’t play with SHIVs. The times that I do I love using them, but it’s funny because SHIVs are something that you have to actually commit to.

I wanted normal to be a game where people didn’t have to worry about the strategy layer. I felt like if you wanted to mess around there, the strategy area was like a fun area but you got a lot of things for free, like the Officer Training School was already built and you get way more scientists and engineers. In normal just by building satellites you’ll get all the scientists and engineers you’ll ever want, then on Classic that’s cut, basically, more than in half. 

On Classic to be successful you have to worry about the strategy layer. It’s much harder if you’re playing Ironman, or especially Classic Ironman, then your SHIVs become almost essential.... When you’re playing on a harder difficulty level losing somebody who is an experienced soldier is actually – the blow is that you’re going to have to move forward with rookies. SHIVs actually protect you; they can slot in when you lose somebody valuable and you can be like, “Alright we’ve got two SHIVs that we can put in their place and build the rookies up and protect the other troops.” When I play Classic Ironman I generally try to force myself to build a couple SHIVs. 

I can’t play normal, I have to play Classic. It’s just more fun to get back from combat and have all these new worries, like if I don’t get an Officer Training School built soon but at the same time if I don’t build a lab I’m not going to have any lasers. We always talk about the turning point being in June, when Mutons appear and you’re just on that tech bubble of having enough lasers and Carapace Armor for everybody but you probably don’t have it yet, and everybody is really unhappy and you don’t have enough satellites. That’s always the point where I can tell, am I going to win this game or am I going to lose this game? 

Do you see a fair amount of losses on Classic in your internal playthroughs?

Yeah, Casey our lead programmer just lost on Classic. If I’m playing Classic Iron Man I definitely lose easily as much as I win just because if I’m not paying attention and I lose a good soldier or two early then I know I’m going to have a really hard time. Obviously that makes us happy making sure people can lose on Classic. It’s interesting, Ironman kind of bridges the gap because Impossible is truly impossible, it’s like a roguelike where you’re going to die and lose on Impossible. Ironman is sort of like once I’ve played Classic enough and I can generally win on Classic, then Ironman kind of bridges the gap where it’s back to being incredibly intense, mistakes really count.

What was the idea with Impossible? Is it just to give that sort of, “Well, if you really want to,” or what was the design goal of it?

It was the sort of thing where Classic was meant to be a very challenging game, and when I said we really need to have an Ironman mode, I never really put it together. I always viewed that as separate from difficulty but it didn’t actually work out that way. 

Ironman ended up being the bridge between the difficulty levels, so normal is easy for a strategy guy; pretty straightforward once you learn the mechanics. Classic is challenging even if you know how to play, but normal Ironman is in between those two and I didn’t expect that. Impossible came out of this idea of, “Well I really like roguelikes, I wonder if I could make a difficulty mode where you’re just constantly just inches away from losing.” 

If I’m being entirely honest, Impossible was probably the one design thing I did where I feel like it didn’t work out exactly the way I expected it to. There are times where on Impossible it almost feels like a slog, at some point if you make it too difficult it just becomes this [chore]. The things you’re talking about work really well on Classic where it’s like, “Oh I don’t feel like I got screwed by the random numbers,” but on Impossible things are so hard that it starts to become almost frustrating. You kind of have to play Impossible with the mindset of, “Well I’m going to lose let’s just see how bad it’s going to be.” It kind of came out of a place of difficulty levels are so hard with strategy games just because by the time the game comes together you spend all your time balancing. 

First on normal, and then you balance [Classic mode] and then the Impossible one -- it’s really hard in the last couple months that I have the game in my hands for me to take a week out of my time and say, “I’m going to play Impossible mode now,” and so I played Impossible pretty late and was like, “Oh boy, this is really hard.” It was hard to know how far back to bring it. Impossible was a really interesting design experience because what I wanted was something that felt like a roguelike but it’s just kind of a beast because Iron Man fills that role, and so Classic Ironman is what I consider to be the best form of the game. Impossible has become this sort of, I don’t know. It’s optional. It’s like those marathons in Gran Turismo or something. It’s almost like an endurance run.

Read on for more about XCOM's difficulty.