Part Three: If you build it, they will come.
Ever since I can remember, I have loved using level editors. I got my start before I was even a teenager building Lode Runner levels on the Vic 20, by my mid twenties I was making levels in UnrealEd to play with friends, and my first game industry job was as a level designer. The game level editor was at least as important to my personal creative development as was the word processor. I believe a good level editor can be as engaging and entertaining as a game itself and - when combined with a great game - has the potential to create a positive feedback loop between playing and creating. This is important if you believe - as I do - that playing and creating are fundamentally the same thing.
But designing and building level editors is hard. On one hand, you want to give players unchecked freedom to design and build any environment they can imagine, from a space station to an African savanna to the Eiffel Tower, or even all of these things at once. Conversely, you also want player created environments to play well within the context of your game. Designing a level editor that connects creators who want to express themselves with players who want tightly designed levels is a challenge I believe can be overcome by making level building into a game itself.
The first time I saw a screenshot of the isometric grid of flowerbeds and fences, cornfields and cattle that we call Farmville, I was stricken with clammy-skinned flashbacks of Floaters and Chrysalids. I needed to know where 'Sniper' Sato was, and who was packing the Blaster Launcher. But regardless of superficial similarities, Farmville is nothing like X-Com. Farmville is essentially a level building game, and X-Com is a game that needs an unending stream of new levels. What a match.
Farmville affords player expression through the design of farms, and a forum for sharing those expressions with others. The actual gameplay of Farmville is either shoddy, evil or non-existent depending on your worldview. X-Com, by contrast, is a hardcore, single-player strategy game in which players express themselves through the way they confront the game challenges. The forum they have for sharing that expression is non-existent (but at least it's not evil).
One of the amazing achievements of X-Com is that it uses a procedural 'level assembler' to construct appropriate levels on demand, offering an infinite variety of terrain in which players battle to repel the alien invasion of Earth. Underlying this 'assembler' are simple rules which determine what makes a valid level. Farmville farms, by contrast, are player generated. Because Farmville explicitly rewards time spent with experience and profit, many Farmville farms are rigorously optimized with dense fields of high-yield crops. But because Farmville is also a platform for socialization and expression, there is also an incredible variety of farms that reject progression entirely; from eclectic need-one-of-everything collections, to idyllic pastoral scenes where some kind of virtual Feng Shui reigns.
In order to give players the feeling of scope required by an X-Com game, a modern remake must confront a difficult challenge. Building an entire planet worth of content by hand is not feasible. Procedural generation risks feeling wooden, and lacking in creative flourish. Relying simply on user generation risks undercutting serious themes with an overwhelming percentage of penis-shaped levels. But a game that incentivizes players to make appropriate X-Com levels can potentially solve this problem.
A casual game for mobile devices or the web that puts players in the role of Mayor, Farmer, or Ranger, and gives them the tools to build all the urban, rural and wilderness landscapes needed, while explicitly rewarded their time spent with experience and profit would quickly generate the needed content. Adding another reward axis selecting for designer-defined 'appropriateness' would lead to player created maps suitable for playing X-Com in. Those maps could then be published to the cloud and pulled down by the game on demand. These casual players cum level designers would be rewarded with experience, gifts, rare items and prestige for designing X-Com appropriate environments. Friend management, sharing, and publish/subscribe tools would begin to bridge the sadly widening gulf between two important groups of players.
It's been almost twenty years since X-Com and an entire generation of similarly hardcore games excluded a mass-market gaming audience a hundred times the size of the audience they chose to service. Today, the pendulum is swinging the other way. The casual revolution - as exemplified by Farmville - is excluding the hardcore gamer. It doesn't need to be this way. We do not have to accept the cynical segregation of diverse audiences when the technology exists today to unite us. By linking our games, we create new domains in which all kinds of players can create, co-operate, compete, collaborate, and ultimately converge.