The Long Road to Long War Studios

Long War Studios is the formal studio of the team behind the now famous Long War mod to XCOM Enemy Unknown. The mod radically changed the game by expanding the systems, difficulty and choices; creating one of the most in-depth mods we have ever seen. With the studio officially up, I had a chance to talk to them about the creation of Long War and the future of their studio.

Long War

The following interview was done with John Lumpkin, the original modder who started the development of Long War. 

1. To begin with, for people who haven’t heard of Long War Studios or the Long War mod, could you tell us a little bit about how you guys got started?

Long War started when I finished XCOM: EU in 2012 and wanted to keep playing, so I started modding it. Rachel “Amineri” Norman, approached me a few months later with some ideas, and she quickly made great strides in understanding how to mod XCOM code at the hexidecimal level, and we became partners in developing the mod. Last year, after some encouragement from players and game industry pros, we started the studio with the intention of developing original games.

2. The Long War Mod for XCOM is one of the most sizable mods we’ve seen in terms of changes to the base experience of a game. What made you guys decide to work on it in the first place?

It started off as a simple campaign extension that I talked myself into throwing up on the Nexus to see if anyone else might enjoy. We got enough interest and positive feedback for us to keep improving it and adding content. Over the months, we also had a great team of contributors — coders, voice actors and artists — volunteer their time to make the mod happen.

Long War

XCOM Enemy Within was a great game, but the team at Long War Studios had their own vision of expanding the gameplay and content

Part of the mod’s success is due to the great raw material we had to work with — EU and EW are great games, but we still found design space to add a lot more for players who wanted to keep playing in the XCOM world.

One goal was to make it feel more like a war, with both setbacks and glorious victories, rather than a steady climb to near-godlike capabilities ending with a victory lap.

3. For people curious about it, could you give us a rough idea of the timeline it took you guys to put out the first version of LW?

The very first version was a collection of configuration changes and very simple hex edits for EU that I put together and released on March 1, 2013. The final version we released last month was the product of nearly three years of effort with dozens of contributors.

4. One of the interesting elements of Long War vs. the base game is how Long War deals with complexity. One of the pluses by many fans of the base game was how Firaxis streamlined a lot of the complexities of the original experience. With LW, a lot of the underlining mechanics were altered and expanded upon: More weapons, more items, air combat etc. Given how far away LW is from the base experience, how did you guys decide on what elements you wanted to flesh out and what to leave alone?

One determining factor was technical limitations: Although we could do a lot, there were still some areas, like adding new 3D models, that we never figured out. Along those lines, the mod grew organically, as we solved certain modding problems — like, say, adding new weapons without having the ability to add new UnrealScript classes — we added new parts to the game.

Long War

Long War greatly expands the class system and squad sizes

I think it’s been to our advantage that we developed incrementally like that — we never started with a master plan that we felt compelled to stick with. That means we were never in the position that we were so let down by the modding limitations, or daunted by the work required, that we abandoned the project halfway through.

Instead, we kept modding as long as it stayed fun, as long as we found new places to add to the game, and as long as people kept playing. We probably could have kept going, but with XCOM2 in the offing, and our desire to start telling our own stories, it was time to call it a mod and get to work on our next projects.

5. Continuing along those lines, LW is also famously known for the difficulty increase. The aliens now have a campaign of their own and both squad and alien group sizes have been increased. This has lead to having encounters that are stacked against the player. What was the overall philosophy you guys had for defining the difficulty of LW?

One of the things we did is take something that was a gimme in the base-game and turn it into a problem, and then make players buy back something close to the original capability. An example is explosives damage — in the base game, grenades would never miss and do fixed damage in a certain area.

We randomized the damage and made it fall off from the centerpoint of the explosion, but then added a high-level perk that let you have maximum damage again to the extent of its area of effect. This means the players can’t take as many things for granted — while explosives will usually do what you want, you have to plan for the cases when it doesn’t, or pay dearly to avoid having to worry about that contingency.

Beyond that, we built around the campaign, and not necessarily individual missions, being winnable. That means players needed to make fleeing battles part of their toolbox, and I think that was a serious adjustment for people coming from the base game, where abandoning a mission was very rarely called for, and, when it was, it was much more costly to the campaign.

While some players truly enjoy losing and regard it as a learning experience, I also learned that some players expect “puzzles” in their games — that is, that we had embedded some perfect solution in the problems, and the player’s role was to uncover it, and then they wouldn’t lose any soldiers and could run perfect missions.

Instead, we designed for a more dynamic, emergent game, in which we let the game build different combinations of problems — like squads of aliens on particular missions — and make players constantly adapt to them with whatever tools they have prepared. Part of the fun is intended to be how to deal with things going wrong.

During development, we did try to dial back truly capricious outcomes as well as player tools that were simply overpowered. In both cases, players have less agency — capricious outcomes means there’s nothing you could have done, and overpowered tools means you have an I-win button you merely need to discover and press.

Long War

The greater variety of weapons and items added to the tactical gameplay and decison making on the player’s part

All that said, as the mod grew more popular, we did try to make it more accessible to players who just want to blast aliens without agonizing so much over the nasty choices we throw at them.

We added campaign options that help XCOM. I didn’t promote it very well, but in the final few Betas we also included an alternate configuration file that players can install that isn’t nearly as punishing as the four that are part of the default installation.

6. The tactics side of XCOM is one area that I always felt conflicted on. It’s very streamlined and easy to get into, but anyone who has played the original X-Com knows about the variety of choices that the player had on their turns. With LW, you added in several options along with modifying skills already in the game. How did you approach the tactical layer of XCOM when designing LW?

Our philosophy was to throw a bag of problems at the player and a bag of tools to fix those problems, and let the player design solutions with those tools. I’ll say one of my greatest pleasures in publishing the mod has been reading the strategy discussions that pop up on Reddit and elsewhere — players have come up with great tactics that we didn’t expect them to, and it’s fantastic to see.

7. Another major element behind the praise of LW has to do with actually modding XCOM to begin with. EW and EU were designed as console experiences along with the PC; making it not the friendliest game for modders. Could you talk a little bit about the challenges your team ran into when digging into game in order to mod it?

Rather than give you the condensed version, I’m going to refer you to this. This is a post by my partner Rachel (Amineri) about the technical history of the mod. It also gives appropriate credit to other modders (e.g. XMarksTheSpot, WGhost81, TrackTwo) who contributed to Long War and XCOM modding as a whole.

8. Perhaps the biggest praise LW has received is from the team at Firaxis; praising both the level of detail and the work that went into the mod. I’m curious, were you guys contacted by Firaxis during development/release of LW?

Sure. Firaxis has been great. Kevin Schultz, a community manager, reached out to us when the mod was fairly far along, and hooked us up with their sound team, who gave us guidance on how to incorporate new soldier voicepacks to the game. Kevin later scored us a bunch of unused recordings from the actor who voiced the gung-ho fan favorite Peter Van Doorn, who was the object of a rescue mission in the base game. One of our team had modded that character to join XCOM after the rescue, and we were able to construct a fairly complete, unique voice pack for him with Firaxis’ support.

Long War

Enemy Within added in-game modifiers in the form of the second wave, while Long War allows you to modify the files to suit your tastes and difficulty preference

9. To begin to wrap things up, I know it’s still too soon to talk about, but for people who are just finding out about LW, what is next for your studio?

We’ve announced that we’re working on a grand strategy alien invasion game, Terra Invicta, which will put you in the position of someone like XCOM’s council leader, trying to wrangle Earth’s nations into supporting the fight against the aliens, both on Earth and in space.

10. As fans of XCOM know, XCOM 2 will be coming out soon by the time of this interview; do you think your team will ever work on it, or are you going to be focusing on your own original titles from this point on?

We’ve just announced today that we’ve been working with 2K and Firaxis to provide some mods for XCOM 2 when the game launches. We can’t provide any details yet, but we’re thrilled to have been able to contribute.

11. Lastly, do you have any final thoughts or anything you would like to say to the fans reading this?

We owe a great debt to the players who gave the mod a try and decided it was worth investing scarce leisure time and energy into, and particularly to the ones who cared enough to come online and give us feedback on how to make it better — the mod wouldn’t be close to what it is without them. The response from the players is ultimately what led me to decide to try to go pro, so I hope we can keep telling the sorts of stories, and offering the sort of challenges, that brought them to Long War in the first place.

Thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions and congratulations on the success of Long War.

Thank you for your interest! It’s been a ride.

For more from Long War Studios, here is their official site and where you can download Long War for XCOM Enemy Within