Why X@COM?

by Kyzrati on 20141106 , under

Time for another obligatory "It's not dead, really!" post ;)

Not that you'd think it's dead, because if you follow my work you'll know that even now I'm still enhancing the engine as part of ongoing work for the development of Cogmind. (When I introduce all these new features to X@COM it's going to blow you away.)

Anyway, I've been asked before by those outside the roguelike community about why one would bother creating an "ASCII X-COM" when we already have so many graphical options. Surely you could just write an ASCII renderer for OpenXCom and get the same result!?

May as well take this opportunity to address that question while the project waits on the sidelines for its day in the sun.

What XCOMRL is Not

First of all, X@COM is not at all a "demake."

ASCII tends to appear "simpler" to the untrained eye, but looks are deceiving--while ASCII is certainly a more abstract representation of the environment, the higher visual density makes it possible to tightly pack a much greater amount of information into a given viewing area, as well as more clearly present that information (a classic "ASCII vs. pixel art" argument). The abstract representation is intentional, and comes with numerous benefits which we'll get to later. Moreover, as you're starting to see with the Cogmind interface style and content (and even art!), ASCII does not have to be "simple."

Nor is X@COM a clone.

Sure you should be able to mod it to recreate a mostly vanilla experience based on UFO Defense content. And it would be great--the original mechanics have proven throughout the years that they are simply a lot of fun. So X@COM takes that as a base and expands on it significantly, because there's still so much that can be done to make the game even more fun. Already the demo battlescape scenarios released over the initial 2011-2013 prototyping phase feature plenty of new mechanics and additional content. (Note: Much of it exists to test new features, not as a sample of specific things to come.) There's really nothing out there like X@COM, which promises to be a very deep squad-based tactical roguelike

The ASCII Aesthetic

Obviously the use of ASCII is a conscious choice here, but why take a deep game and bury it behind a screen of symbols?

Two metrics by which we can measure games are their 1) visual entertainment value and 2) mental stimulation level. These are not mutually exclusive, and while many games might fall somewhere in the middle for both, when either component is taken to an extreme it may limit the degree to which we can apply the other. X@COM strongly emphasizes the latter, games that present the player with lots of information (not necessarily synonymous with "deep," but true in this case) should ideally display it in a form that's easy to parse in order to facilitate decision making. (In many ways the ASCII style can be handled in visually pleasing ways, but that is always secondary to clarity/readability.)

One example is reflected in the map size. ASCII can effectively condense an entire "large" (60x60) map's worth of information on the screen alongside the full HUD/UI. This is a great boon for any tactical strategy game. Sure, most such games provide some form of mini-map or zoom out feature, but X@COM is designed to be played at its native zoomed-out distance--no multiple unique zoom levels in which each object appears differently at each level, no need for disorienting rotation (the world is 3D, but the presentation is overhead 2D)... Moreover, the same large map is entirely visible at even the smallest resolution (800x600), with each individual element just as discernible.

ASCII isn't just convenient, its abstract appearance is also capable of being more meaningful to the active player, in the same way that reading a book is more engaging than watching a movie. At a game mechanics level a given object/symbol represents whatever the developer says it is. An in-game description, or even just a name, provides all you need to know, while details beyond that are open to interpretation.

The style is not for everyone, but there are still plenty of people out there who enjoy exercising their imaginations while playing games (hopefully this will still be a thing in another generation or two).

This leads us to another great strength of X@COM: The modding potential.

Epic Modding!

In the world of amateur gamedevs (or avid players--sometimes the line is a bit blurry), it's well known that there are countless ideas floating around, only a minuscule portion of which are ever born and reach a playable state. Some were never meant to be, but others fail for lack of technical ability or the potentially large amount of time or money required (these two being essentially the same thing). After all, it's far too easy for ideas to quickly outpace the rate at which a game can be developed.

We can even see normal asset requirements as roadblocks to both the creative designer and player. Thus another cool thing about ASCII is it enables us to circumvent these requirements and lift limits on content creation. New content is composed of numbers and text, not pixels, textures, frames, meshes and all that crazy time-consuming stuff.

Games like X-COM are especially fun to mod due to the familiarity of the modern Earth setting. Of course even the setting can be changed to build a whole world from scratch. Several mods have already done just that, creating total conversions to fantasy worlds, or futuristic sci-fi.

OpenXCom is a wonderful remake and open source to boot, giving it plenty of modding potential, but it still has a couple drawbacks: 1) It's tied to cumbersome unique file formats created two decades ago, and more importantly 2) Modding in extra content still requires providing additional assets for that content. If you have programming/art skills and want that kind of visual representation it's a great choice.

The aim with X@COM is to ensure that modding is even more accessible. I envision eventually having a community of modders making scenarios or even their own strategy games, which doesn't seem too far-fetched given that the early prototype stage already resulted in half a dozen mods by individuals other than myself. And that's with map editing based on text files--not the best way to design a 3D world! In the future we'll have a dedicated map editor.

It's an appealing proposition to be able to create a complete and detailed interactive world with no prior experience.

The Importance of Sound

Few ASCII roguelikes explore the usefulness of sound effects, which to me are an incredibly powerful way to augment the experience, stimulating the imagination without completely hijacking it like visuals do. Of course sound effects also have the same benefits they do in non-ASCII games, e.g. providing audio feedback from the environment while also setting the tone and atmosphere.

My focus on sound should be apparent in the prototype, which already includes far more audio detail than you'll find in UFO Defense. Over a thousand recorded sound effects in all... hear the breeze rustling leaves on a nearby tree, boots crunching over glass from a smashed window, material-based impacts and destruction, bullet ricochets, spent shells rattling across different surfaces, alien machinery... everything can be heard.

I must stop here, because it's making me want to start working on this again immediately :)
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