Q & A With Xenonauts’ Chris England

Q & A With Xenonauts’ Chris England

Before the recent explosion in turn-based strategies, people would have laughed at the idea of releasing a game in which people take turns at moving.  Asynchronous movement was a dated idea, back from when computers couldn’t cope with large scale AI calculations, having no place in modern gaming.

However, long before Firaxis announced their revival of the XCOM name, a small team at Goldhawk Interactive decided that it was time for the turn-based strategy genre to win its initiative roll and once more take its turn on the centre stage. They revealed Xenonauts, an alien-battling simulation inspired by XCOM, but taking advantage of modern technologies to bring it into the 21st century.

We’ve been following the development of Xenonauts here at the Reticule with interest for quite some time, with Lewis Foster already having taken an in depth look at the game here. Last week I had the chance to exchange a few questions with Chris England, head of the Xenonauts project.

What drove you to start work on Xenonauts?
I guess I just didn’t like my previous job that much (financial consulting), and had always wanted to get into game development! I had been a huge fan of X-Com when growing up and it amazed me that nobody had made a good remake of such an excellent game…so I hired a programmer and some artists and got to work on development. Naturally it wasn’t anywhere near as easy as I had expected, but things seem to be coming along nicely these days!

How does Xenonauts differ to the original X-Com?
Xenonauts is a pretty faithful remake of the original game, but there are a lot of changes. Far too many to list, in fact, but the broad areas of improvement are:

  • The UI, which is far more accessible and intuitive than the original game.
  • The graphics, which aren’t exactly AAA quality but are hand-painted 2D and (in my opinion at least) give the game the retro feel we want while still looking nice and sharp, as you’d expect from a modern game.
  • Gameplay balance, which wasn’t great in the original game. We’ve tried to add a bit more structure and progression to everything without taking away the open-ended freedom of the original game. The tech tree is a bit more extensive too.
  • Tactical options. In the original game, the Heavy Plasma was clearly the best gun, so you gave it to everyone. In Xenonauts, however, different weapons (like shotguns and sniper rifles) are better in different situations, although plasma weapons are better than laser weapons etc. We also have a more formalised cover system and so on.

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What do you think about the explosion in turn-based gaming recently, why do you think it’s becoming popular again?
Partially because of the Firaxis XCOM, I think. That demonstrated that the genre can look cinematic and slick, which must have turned a few heads at big studios. But also the growth of indie games in general will naturally produce more games in every genre, and turn-based games have been under-served in recent times despite being relatively easy to design and conceptualise relative to RTS games (in many ways they are the perfect indie games). Plus, fundamentally, turn-based games are awesome as they give you much more chance to think about your move instead of relying on twitch skills or micromanagement.

Do you think Xenonauts still has a place alongside Firaxis’ reboot of the XCOM franchise?
Yeah, definitely. The Firaxis XCOM was quite an innovative and progressive take on the X-Com franchise, while ours is a much more faithful remake. It’s not really for me to say which is better, but people can choose which they’d prefer or just buy both. They’ll be two quite separate games, and hopefully ours will be just as enjoyable as theirs.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far during development?
We started the project with quite cheap coders, which was a necessary evil as we didn’t have much money, but we’re reaping what we’ve sown nowadays. We’ve got a properly horrible third-party engine we’re stuck with and our codebase is a bit of a mess because we didn’t do enough design work at the start. It accounts for a lot of the slow progress we’re making, but then we wouldn’t be where we are now had we not done things the way we did back then…so it’s a bit chicken-and-egg. But next time around we’ll have much better planning of the code, I can assure you (for the sake of my sanity if nothing else)!

Xenonauts has been in production since 2011, do you have an expected finish date in mind?
Some time this year, one would hope. We’re working on the beta now.

Any plans for a Steam release via Greenlight or otherwise?
Yeah, hopefully we’ll be on Early Access in the next six weeks with a proper early beta build and a new demo for people to try!

For further information, you can keep an eye on the progression of the game over at the Xenonauts website.

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