Mark Nau couldn't believe that I hadn't played X-Com. He started wandering around the office asking people, "Can you believe Jamie hasn't played X-Com?" They couldn't.
I remember giving it a try when it first came out; it did seem like the sort of thing I would like. I don't remember why I gave it up so quickly. I do remember other people in the office - these were my days at MindCraft - totally absorbed in it. Why didn't it get its hooks into me back then? I have some theories:
* I wasn't interested in the resource management half of the game.
* It was too hard: most of your squad tends to get wiped out quickly in the early missions when you don't know what you're doing, even on the beginner levels.
* I didn't bother reading the manual: my philosophy usually is that if you have to read the manual the game is flawed. And the X-Com manual has a tutorial that's fairly necessary to get up and running.
* Bad luck? Maybe I got randomly screwed by the early random missions.
Well, whatever the reason, I've been hearing enough about X-Com (the whole Mark Nau thing, the comment in my blog a couple weeks ago, Tom Henderson reminiscing about the wonderful balance between the macro game and the micro) that I finally took the effort to figure out how to make it work on a modern machine. I'd tried before and failed. Googling X-Com finally led me to the information I needed to make it happen: http://www.xcomufo.com/
Well, it has probably been some of the best gaming pleasure I've had all year. And I mean 2004. That's right, the best game for me in 2004 was originally published in 1993. The curmudgeons are right, games aren't actually getting any better.
One of the things that interests me the most about is the random content. Since I just finished a game that had a lot of semi-random content, it's interesting to me to consider why the random content worked for X-Com but didn't work for Spider-Man 2. There are a couple factors, I think:
* The macro game carries the micro game. Rumor (http://www.gamerankings.com/itemrankings/launchreview.asp?reviewid=155318) is that Julian Gollup is really only into the tactical portion of X-Com, that the macro game was MicroProse's intervention, and that explains why Laser Squad Alpha is just the tactical game. But it seems like Julian Gollup might be missing the boat here: without the resource management portion, where you're building your bases and squads and moving down the tech tree, the micro game would become boring sooner. Despite the fact that resource management doesn't sound fun, it is fun. It gets to the point where missions are a distraction taking you away from building up your dream team.
* Intermittent schedule of reinforcement. The reinforcing stimuli, in this case, is a new mission. It doesn't take much for a mission to feel 'new' : some terrain you haven't seen before, an opponent you haven't seen before. I played probably around a hundred missions before I won. Most of them felt like repeats. But I kept going because every now and then there was a mission that was entirely new: my base being invaded, for example.
* Light at the end of the tunnel. After a point, I would have stopped playing except I knew that there was going to be one final mission to win the game.
I scanned through GameRankings looking for games with random content in the top two hundred. They're incredibly rare. In fact, I'm not sure there are any. The Diablos aren't in the top. There's an immediate problem with random content: some of your players are going to get randomly screwed - a mediocre experience will be randomly generated for them. If a reviewer is one of those players it'll pull down your rating. The main advantage of random content is you can create a longer game with a smaller team. If you're making a game that isn't meant to be disposable -- play for ten-twenty hours and put away -- it's a very tempting option. X-Com might have been more lucrative if it was sold on a subscription model. There are some hardcore fans who might have kept it alive to this day.