X-Com-ification: The Rise of a New Genre?

The upcoming John Wick Hex demonstrates just how big the "X-Com Style" has become. Let's talk about why.

X-Com-ification: The Rise of a New Genre?

The upcoming John Wick Hex demonstrates just how big the "X-Com Style" has become. Let's talk about why.

The original X-COM: UFO Defense (also known as UFO: Enemy Unknown), was originally released all the way back in 1994. A classic of its era, the strategic turn-based battle against an alien invasion spawned multiple offshoots and sequels over the next seven years, before disappearing from the scene for more than a decade. During this time, console gaming was the dominant force in the industry, and these nuanced games all but required a keyboard and mouse, given the sophistication of gamepads at the time.

But, contrary to the predictions of many in the space, PC gaming didn’t die. With the rise of Steam and the ubiquity of streaming, players and developers alike reinvigorated the platform, while at the same time console controllers have grown more flexible with more broad utility. These things combined made for an incredible opportunity for X-Com’s return, and 2012’s X-Com: Enemy Unknown was released to wide critical and commercial success, since spawning an expansion, a spin-off, and a sequel with an expansion of its own.

This, however, is just the beginning of X-Com’s success. The more recent titles have done a great deal to modernize the game, but, its core gameplay loop remains essentially the same as the original a quarter century ago. Now, though, the series isn’t just spawning sequels; it might have created an entire genre.

You'd be forgiven for thinking this is a shot from X-Com, but it's actually Biomutant Year Zero, one of the many games influenced by the former.

That core of the X-Com series, the structure of planning for and then attempting to execute turn-based combat missions or instances with a squad of unique characters who can be permanently killed, has proven so popular that other developers have used it as inspiration for new stories of their own. Invisible Inc., which used the game style to tell a story about spies and Mission-Impossible style infiltration, was first released into early access in 2014, only a few months after X-Com Enemy Unknown’s release. Hard West took the mechanics into the world of ‘Weird Western’ in 2015, removing the randomness of X-Com’s Combat but otherwise keeping the gameplay loop of preparation before turn-based missions intact. More recently we’ve seen a Cold War thriller in Phantom Doctrine, a post apocalyptic stealth fighter with RPG elements in Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, and even mech-suit titles in Into the Breach and the latest Battletech. While the marketplace and technology didn’t make a place for this style of gameplay during the height of the console era, modern audiences have proven their appetite for X-Com and the games it has inspired to be extensive.

And I don’t think it’s just that there are more people playing on computers with a mouse and keyboard, or that gaming console gamepads are so much more capable of handling the mechanics of these games. Streaming has a lot to do with it.

While the top games on Twitch tend to be dominant online multiplayer titles like Fortnite and League of Legends, many streamers, even those with some of the larger audiences on the platform, are ‘variety streamers,’ players who aren’t primarily dedicated to a particular game or genre, and these channels are more inclined to play single player titles. Still, not everything ‘works’ for streaming; as a creator, you want to play titles that keep your audience engaged, that constantly present you with decisions and momentous events to keep things fresh and interesting. You also, ideally, want to play a game that provides some flexibility, that lets you tell your own story, something that would be different than anybody else’s experience of the same game, because it’s always different. X-Com provides all this and more. The planning stage provides myriad opportunities to get an audience involved, to talk through decisions with your chat, to just talk out loud about what you’re doing. Meanwhile, the turn-based nature of combat makes it tense, while it’s also randomized so it’s always different. Plus, there’s your squad, made up of unique individual characters to whom you and your audience grow attached, all of whom can be permanently ripped away, pumping up the stakes for every encounter. It gives a streamer the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows, and that’s really what makes for an interesting viewing experience.

All of this culminates, soon, with the upcoming release of John Wick Hex.

While not focused on a squad or permadeath, the still-in-development Epic Games Store exclusive takes the start and stop, turn-based tactics of X-Com and uses it to explore the world of one of Hollywood’s biggest action franchises. Not only is it a brand new game in the genre built around a large, established IP, but it’s also being designed by superstar indie developer Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone, Volume, and Subsurface Circular. Those three things - the mechanics, the major IP, and the auteur indie creator - combine to make John Wick Hex feel like an important moment, a unique elevation of the gameplay style that really establishes that this is a genre unto itself. It’s a demonstration of just how versatile, how broadly applicable, these gameplay tropes can be, and how popular they’ve become.

Moving into the future, we expect Hex to lead to an even more diverse marketplace of tactical, turn-based action games, one where developers and publishers continue to leverage all the things that make it work well, in streaming and in general, into achieving great success telling unique, interesting stories.

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