The prospect of the celebrated XCOM team, Firaxis, making a Marvel-themed superhero strategy game is mouthwatering. Pairing a team of that talent with a licence of that appeal is inspired. All you have to do is substitute in superheroes, don't you?
But what if it's not so simple working with Marvel? That is a world-conquering entertainment brand that would have every right to be precious about its heroes and intellectual property. And what if the XCOM formula didn't actually work very well with superheroes? Which self-respecting superhero would take cover in a battle, after all?
These are some of the many things Firaxis creative director Jake Solomon talks to Ian Higton about, as he details, openly and generously, the process of making Marvel's Midnight Suns. The game will be released 7th October on PlayStation and Xbox consoles, and PC. A Nintendo Switch version will be available at an unspecified later date.
Eurogamer: Okay, Jake, every Marvel superhero has their own origin story. Can you tell us the origin story of Marvel's Midnight Suns?
Jake Solomon: So we had just wrapped up - well, actually, we hadn't wrapped up, we were about to finish work on XCOM 2: War of the Chosen - and then our publisher, 2K, reached out and said that Marvel had contacted them and specifically wanted to know if our team wanted to make a game in the Marvel Universe. And I am a very hardcore Marvel Comics guy so my initial reaction was an immediate yes.
And then I was like, well, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, because I've never worked with IP before and you hear stories... We've just always worked with our own IP here. So there was that trepidation of, well, what does that mean? But then the idea gets in your head ... and 48 hours [later] I was like, if we don't do this, I am walking into the ocean - you know, you just get something in your head. I was like, this must happen now. So yeah, we immediately decided to do it.
"There are ways to make something the right way in the Marvel Universe"
And the first conversations with Marvel, which probably I was the most nervous about, they immediately put me at ease, because they clearly understood XCOM. The process was awesome in the sense that they weren't like "you should use these heroes". They didn't even say any suggestions about story, heroes, type of game, nothing. They were like, "What do you want to do?" And I was like, I don't know, I have so many stories I'd want to tell and so many heroes I'd want to include, so it was really more of a thing where we came up with what we wanted to do.
And then we came back to them and we're like, "Okay, this is a story we want to tell and these are the heroes we want to include, and this is what the game is gonna be like." And that even included, "Hey, by the way, we want to give the player an avatar - we want to create a new hero in the Marvel Universe." And some of that was almost like playing chicken, to be like where's the line with Marvel?
And, again, they're very enthusiastic people. They were just like - which is strange for how powerful they are as an IP - "Okay, we love it. We love it. We've never made a customisable hero but okay, let's talk about what it means to be [a hero in] the Marvel universe," and it just went from there. They were like, "Tell us the game you want to make, tell us the story you want to tell, and we're gonna help you do it as best we can."
From this side, it sounds like Marvel was pretty open to most of your ideas. Did you battle creatively about anything?
Jake Solomon: Oh, honestly, no.
I battled creatively with my own sanity, in the sense that I had an initial roster of 25 heroes. I wasn't even thinking about what the gameplay would be. I was like, well, we'll just have all these heroes. And then everybody, the team, was like, "That's insane." And I was like, "Okay, that's fine."
But no, the roster we have has always been the roster. We didn't have to make any switches, even the roster we presented to them. They were like, "Okay, great. Yeah, this makes sense. This makes sense."
They really get involved, especially when it comes to the Hunter. The question was, 'How does a character, a brand new character, stand alongside heroes that have decades of stories and people who care passionately about [them]? How do we stand somebody next to them and have them be as interesting?' And it helps that it's the player-character, you know - yours immediately has a special place in your heart, right? But we had to work on the backstory of the character, even what their base costume looks like. There are ways to make something the right way in the Marvel Universe.
There's quite a few customisation options available to the player. How much of an approval process for the Hunter's character creation did you have to go through with Marvel, you know, considering you're relying on user-generated content here? Because mine looks a little bit silly and it almost felt like I was being a bit naughty bringing that into the Marvel Universe. Were they happy to let people like me run amok in their universe?
Jake Solomon: They were, they were! And much more they said, "Well look, user-generated content is user-generated content, and we are not going to restrict that." And even the photo mode, the photo booth we have - have you seen the [customisable] comic book cover?
Jake Solomon: So again they were like, "We recognise this is user-generated content," but they were very clear about, well, we went back and forth a lot over who we thought would be the best representation of the Hunter on the box ... [but] once we were all in line with who on-the-box Hunter was going to be, they were like, "Well, user generated content is what it is." They never stepped in and were never like, "Oh, you can't have that prop. You can't do that." They were remarkably great when it comes to things like that.
I did have a lot of fun messing around with the comic book editor in particular, to be fair.
Jake Solomon: Chris Bratt used to love that poster generator in [XCOM] War of the Chosen - I remember that too. But yeah, it's fun and I can't wait to see what people do.
Yeah, it helps add your own personality to the game massively because I was decorating The Abbey with my comics and-
Jake Solomon: Oh, you're already doing that! It's one of my favourite features. I mean, you can even go into a hero's room and they have frames in there, and you can be like, on the bedside table next to Wolverine's bed I'll put a picture of me giving a big thumbs up!
In terms of the character design, and especially that of the established characters, I got the impression all their character and costume designs were done in house. I presume you had to go through an approval process with Marvel for those at least.Jake Solomon: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. That's maybe the lengthiest approval process, and it just depends on the character, because it's always a question of, okay, what is the idea behind this look?
We said, with Iron Man, the storyline our game is based on is rooted in the '90s. So we were like, well, let's look at Iron Man's costumes from the '90s. There's a whole story he was on called Crash and Burn, which I really loved, so we pulled that costume up. Then we said, well Iron Man, his armour is kind of like a sports car, so we pulled up the early '90s sports cars - and we even go with that to Marvel. We're like, "Okay so here's our first crack at this character and here's our inspiration for these things." And that helps because they go, "Okay, great."
But yes, they are geniuses, they have worked on so many costumes. With Iron Man, it's the challenge of well there's a lot of Iron Man's so what is special about your Iron Man? How does it tie to the story you're trying to tell? And how does yours look different than other games out there?
Then there's characters like Nico Minoru, and she doesn't have a lot of representation in media, [and there are] far less versions of Nico out there. And even the comic versions of Nico, they're all over the place because that's kind of her style, so that we can have a lot more fun with. We have a couple of versions here and we talked through those with Marvel. So yeah, the look of the heroes - because that really conveys so much - that's definitely a big back and forth with them.
Yeah, I guess the same question again but for the script writing, because the dialogue in the game definitely has that old Marvel comic book feel to it. There's seriousness, there's silliness, there's bickering between the heroes. It's also a pretty similar tone to what you'd expect to see from a modern Marvel movie. So was it all written in house or did you bring in established Marvel writers to help?
Jake Solomon: Well, our cinematics were written by this amazing writer named Margaret Stohl, who does write comics actually, but a lot of the writing for that stuff is done in house. The narrative director and I start from the very beginning [with] this is a story we want to tell, now these are the beats we want to tell. But at every process we go to Marvel, and they're like, "Oh, cool, that's great. By the way, if you're gonna be over in that part of the world, have you thought about this character?" We're like, oh, yeah, that makes sense to add them in. And so again, they're always very additive, they're not restrictive.
And then tone was a big thing for us too, because even different Marvel games have different tones, and our tone was always going to be, the way that my narrative director and I talked about it, we said "Saturday morning cartoon". I love the old X-Men cartoon, right, and the cool thing about that is that the character was very earnest, they took it seriously, but it wasn't serious. And so we have this dark storyline but the darker a storyline gets, the funnier you've got to get in the minute - the minute beats. So we're always like, it's going to be light hearted, we're going to take completely different takes on, let's say, our Doctor Strange, who we have a little more fussy. So yeah, we have different takes, somewhat, on the characters - we have this sort of tone we always wanted to go for. And again, it was just finding that middle ground and then you get down to the actual scripts themselves.
"The minute you pull out one - let alone two or three core elements to what makes XCOM XCOM - you're like, oh I guess we're just making a new game now"
Now, you said this is your first time working with an IP that's not your own? How hard was it to stay true to Firaxis' style when working on a new IP?
Jake Solomon: I mean, it was interesting because we are so gameplay focused, that's where everything starts with us, and obviously I say that as a designer but it is where everything starts, so that part, we probably have by far the most freedom with Marvel. They just play the game avidly and give us feedback, but they're never prescriptive with gameplay stuff.
So in that case, we are victims of whatever success Fiaxis has had. You're just really wanting to make sure you're making something worthy of that, that legacy when you make something new. So you're up at night worrying about 'how good is this game?'
Personally I would sell my soul for a great game. Like, if I can just guarantee the game plays well... I'll do anything for that, and I think a lot of our team feels that way. So we worry about that first.
In that sense, the IP wasn't a restriction at all but in some ways, it drove everything because [of] the theme of the game. At the very beginning, I thought okay, well, we've made XCOM now we'll put some superheroes in there. And within two weeks, we were like, well, that's not gonna work for like a billion reasons: no superhero is gonna take cover and no superhero is gonna miss an ability. Thematically, none of this fits with what we've done before. So, we were like, oh I guess we're gonna build all-new systems from the ground up. So the theme drove us into this place where we were like, okay, we're gonna have to invent all new mechanics to fulfil this fantasy of you becoming a super-powered being, and that's how we ended up with the mechanics we did.
It sounds like you had to go right back to the basics when designing this game, then - no leaning on previously established XCOM gameplay.
Jake Solomon: Yeah. I mean, it was really interesting. We actually started with a paper prototype, and we just had these - I don't know if you remember Heroclix, these little plastic Marvel collectible figures? We had a box full of these things and we laid them out on a paper map, and then we just started prototyping tactical games. And we started very XCOM-like and that didn't work very well.
But from the very beginning, what we had was using the environment and leaping off of stuff, so that stuck from maybe the first two weeks we started working on this. But there were so many things that if you replace core systems of a game, let's say like XCOM, you think, well, no, they can't die, and well, nope, they're not going to take cover and nope, you can't have abilities fail in any way. It's like none of this works. The minute you pull out one - let alone two or three core elements to what makes XCOM XCOM - you're like, oh I guess we're just making a new game now.
That was a terrifying moment. I mean, it really makes me sound as stupid as I actually am - me going of course we want to make a Marvel game. "Okay, we'll do an XCOM and then we'll do it with the superheroes." And then, two weeks later, I was like, that's not gonna work at all! I guess we're just gonna make a brand new game here. So that was a little bit terrifying. I'm so happy with where we ended up. But yeah, it was a journey. It was a journey for sure.
Because the Marvel IP is so big, I expect that Midnight Suns is going to bring in a whole new audience to strategy games. People who've previously never touched that genre before would probably be overwhelmed by something like XCOM, but this seems much more accessible. Was it a challenge to find a balance that would please hardcore fans of the XCOM series, whilst also opening the door for the new players who are only going to be familiar with the Marvel franchise and not strategy gaming?Jake Solomon: Especially in tactics games, strategy games, you're gonna throw the word "accessibility" around too much. I definitely do in pitch meetings: "accessible, accessible, this one's gonna be accessible". But you can't start there. I think the things that keep us up at night, definitely the things that keep me up at night, is how good is this game? Like, really: how good is this game? I almost don't care about anything else until I'm like, "Oh, good, this is gonna be fun for people to play for hours." And you have to get that down first.
I believe there have to be complex systems that can't be mastered, so that means you really have to worry about systems that are interesting and have enough complexity to where you can support tons of heroes and hundreds of abilities, and players can play this for hundreds of hours and say, "Oh, I haven't mastered this yet." So you're worried about that first.
Then you go, "Okay, how do we make this as accessible as it can be?" But you don't start from "well let's not do that because we're worried it's not accessible enough": that's a dangerous road to go down. We always start with let's make the best tactics game that we can, and then let's assume that we can find a way to make it more accessible. I just believe you have to start there; you can't start from the other direction.
But I think that's the great thing that happens when we represent abilities as cards. We get all of this complexity people don't even recognise - unless you break down the design of cards, you don't recognise all the complexity that comes along with it. People are already like, "Yeah, I understand how card games work." If I said, "Okay, you have abilities and every turn, I'm just gonna jumble up your abilities and give you five of them." If it weren't cards, you'd be like, "What the fuck are you talking about?"
But instead, we're like: it's cards. And people go, "Yeah, I get that, I know how card games work." So we've packed in all these complex mechanics that are very accessible to people because they're like, "Yeah, I get what a random hand of abilities is now and I get that this card says 'draw three more abilities'. I get that." But if it wasn't cards, people would be like, "This doesn't make any sense."
Yeah. And of course because they're cards, you have the illustrations on there that make it much more visually striking and engaging for newer players compared to say a list of text or a bunch of menus.Jake Solomon: Yeah, and we can be explicit - we can say explicitly, this is what will happen when you play this card. One of the things that falls out of that is this idea that in Midnight Suns, because of the system design, you really can't play the game wrong, which isn't true for let's say something like XCOM. You can't play Midnight Suns wrong in the sense of an attack card does exactly what it says. You attack that person, you're gonna deal the damage on that card, right? It's not wrong.
Now is there a better option? Sure. Maybe you should have attacked that person there, or you should have done this before you used that ability. But there are other games where it's like, well, you actually did something and you got nothing out of it, and that's very bad, and you're gonna have to learn some more systems to learn what to do. And so I think that's also another element of accessibility. That wasn't planned but it kind of comes out of the cards.
Okay, can I ask one more quickly? Would you like to see the Hunter pop up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Jake Solomon: I'd love it man! For me, since I'm such a nerd, I would like it more if they popped up in the comics somehow - that would be so cool to be in the comics because I've been reading them for so long. They have such a long legacy that if I could in any way contribute to the comics, the Hunter that we've made, if that could somehow make it into the comics, I'd be like, well, they'll be there forever. That to me would be the coolest thing.
Thank you so much.