Back in my day, dying was a complete disaster in any MMORPG. Anytime my health ticked down anywhere close to zero, I started to sweat. In Ultima Online, I risked everything on my body and in my backpack. In EverQuest, I risked delevels. In Asheron’s Call, death was a not so happy middle ground between the two.
Nowadays, death is a slap on the wrist. I wait around even less time than in a competitive game like League of Legends to respawn and rejoin the action. This largely encourages lackadaisical playstyles and lowers the common denominator across the board for ease of content. I think in a genre that largely caters to character skill over player skill, death is a key element to adding tension.
The problem is death has only been considered in rather binary terms. You either permanently lose progress (levels or items) or you don’t. Some MMOs use a temporary debuff system to penalize death, but these don’t really change player approaches. However, there’s another option for death that’s been used successfully in other genres.
Solution to Bland MMO Death Penalties
Instead of negating progress, (thus making a grind even grindier) or lowering stats across the board (thus making a grind even grindier) I propose temporary restrictions of abilities. In this system, recently deceased players will select one of three ability-specific debuffs to “pay” for their revitalization. These debuffs can include increased cooldowns to lowered effectiveness, canceling talents, or even removing an ability’s use. These penalties should be enough to force players into a new playstyle to progress optimally without completely ruining the character. As such, it’s important that developers balance for a wide range of talent/ability combinations, the debuffs last long enough to matter but not so long as to frustrate, and that debuffs cap out at a certain number.
If done right, death is all of the sudden an interesting mechanic. Sure, retooling is tough, especially with multiple debuffs running. But long term it’s entirely possible to stumble upon a new rotation or set of abilities that work even better than in the character’s “former life”. In games like XCOM, the death penalty is quite severe but exemplifies the dynamic level of adjustment that’s possible from changing key setups. Losing one’s best sniper in XCOM (where character death is permanent but squads are six characters large) doesn’t mean the game is over. It does mean you can no longer rely on the same strategies that have worked in the past ten missions.
This is the type of penalty I’d like to see introduced into MMOs (though with less permanence since XCOM ends whereas MMOs do not). It adds tension from its uncertainty as much as it does from jarring the player’s sense of complacency. It’s pretty rare for most players to change builds in MMOs once we find something that works. Death now forces a constant reassessment of setups without permanently altering our ability to play the game we want.
EDIT: I reached out to the developers of all of the below games for comments and corrections. I will update this article as I receive responses. So far the teams for Fort Triumph, Forged of Blood, Phantom Brigade, and Zodiac Legion have added their own quotes.
You may not be aware of this, but I love XCOM. The tactical choices, the randomized characters I grow attached to, the progression, the feeling of triumph, and the despair of defeat. For someone that enjoys with high replayability, strategy games, tactical RPGs, and atmosphere, it’s simply fantastic. It’s not massively multiplayer but sometimes we can enjoy MMORPGs by playing non-MMORPGs. Now that XCOM is it’s own genre I dug around to see what titles were coming to it in 2018/19. In my opinion, the four defining factors for the XCOM genre are:
Characters can and will die. Players can lose a campaign, either through an official “Game Over” moment or an unwinnable state.
Tactical, Turn Based Combat
No real-time nor twitch based elements. Players in XCOM games control a small squad of units in instanced missions.
Outside of combat, there must be options for expanding one’s base/army. These draw inspiration from the 4x genre, but are not limited by it. Traditionally, this has included research, building structures, and creating items.
Characters need progression mechanics. Their growth over the course of several missions/quests is imperative to the emotional attachment XCOM games create when paired with permadeath. Additionally, this makes for interesting long term strategic choices in how to build an army.
Jake Soloman, creative director for XCOM 2, agrees on three of these at least. The only XCOM trait of his that I didn’t include was the need to play as humans. That’s fair enough for XCOM proper but the human vs. alien fight is certainly not a genre requirement. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see so many people asking for a fantasy XCOM game. Like Souls games, this burgeoning subgenre is not beholden to the setting from which it originated. Other features such as cover or reactive attacks like overwatch influence a similarity score but don’t negate any games from their rightful place on this list.
Alright, so what are these 9 upcoming games XCOM-like games? And how many can you name? I’ll put the over/under at 2.5.
So many strategic options in Phoenix Point
Phoenix Point is the brainchild of original X-COM progenitor, Julian Gollop. (For those unfamiliar with the series, X-COM refers to the 1990s games and XCOM to the 2010s games.) Like XCOM, players will be tasked with eradicating an alien threat against Earth. Their fig.co campaign raised $765k towards their $500k goal. Players can expect core gameplay with a mixture of both old X-COM and new XCOM. A good example of this is its hybrid 2-action system where soldiers will halt their movement upon spotting xenos with the option to continue forward. Squad sizes can also reach 16 soldiers, but that seems like it might be a rarity with injuries and death.
Unique features include boss battles, mutating aliens based on player tactics, Lovecraftian enemies, vehicles, and multiple human factions to interact. Phoenix Point’s factions will demand even more juggling and input from the player than War of the Chosen’s system. The strategic geoscape pushes the genre forward with more impactful choices of where to explore and expand. The Cthulian style enemies look downright scary. I think this game will end up most appealing to XCOM players who want more balance between strategy and tactical combat, but every XCOM fan should keep their eyes peeled on this.
The first Xenonauts is closer to original X-COM than XCOM. There’s less overall character to the game and fewer RPG elements. It feels more like a board game when playing. The Xenonauts overworld map encourages more proactive responses whereas XCOM feels more reactive. The biggest difference between these two though is in the tactical combat. XCOM uses a simple 2 action system with turns ending on almost any attack action. Xenonauts uses time units so there’s a lot more flexibility for planning. Whether or not this flexibility is worth a slower pace is up to you. Xenonauts 2 will be more evolution than revolution and plans to improve on the core elements of Xenonauts with new features such as psionics, deeper air combat, a deeper research tree, and a bigger emphasis on plot.
Release Date: 2018
XCOM Similarity: 85%
Purchase: Unknown. Currently unavailable for pre-order.
I’m pretty excited about Fort Triumph. Their feature list reads like “Fantasy XCOM + Divinity: Original Sin”. As in Original Sin, there’s a big tactical emphasis on using the environment to gain advantages, with possibilities like burning a tree to topple it onto an enemy. Characters come with their own personality traits and look like they’ll be fairly unique. The visuals are certainly more cartoony than XCOM. I’m sure it’ll turn off some but the quality of the art style is definitely high. Despite a more family friendly look, Fort Triumph isn’t straying from stressful gameplay or permadeath that makes it an XCOM like game. The campaign itself challenges players to overcome a dynamic series of events and quests that change each playthrough based on randomness and player action. The depth of long term strategic options Fort Triumph remain unclear but exploration is poised to play a big role.
Developer Quote: “These are exciting times to be a turn based tactics lover, for sure. Looks like we’ll have a double challenge in 2018 – developing on schedule AND playing all of these great titles.
As for Fort Triumph – all adventurers are welcome to try a fresh tactical demo (0.6.3) going live later today on Steam and give us your feedback and suggestions!”
Repel invading enemies until you can take the fight to them. Use small parties of soldiers to infiltrate, scout, explore, and sabotage the enemy. Deploy covert op squads alongside primary military forces. Research magical powers and technologies to equip your parties with the strongest of weapons. Does this all sound familiar? Zodiac Legion feels the most conceptually similar to XCOM of the fantasy games. The only thing it’s really lacking is a cover system. However, the game makes up for that on the customization side with artifacts imbued with the power of the zodiac. I expect conquering these sites of power to act as a late game challenge necessary to felling the opposition. Legendary equipment is something I miss in base XCOM (though Grimy’s Loot Mod adds it to XCOM 2) so these artifacts an exciting prospect. Unfortunately, the developer has only tweeted out a handful of times since the last blog post in May. I wouldn’t expect this until 2019 at the earliest. It’d be better late than never though.
Developer Quote: “We definitely want the strategic layer to have the organic feel of the older X-COM, where aliens would launch missions according to an agenda that the player had to adapt to. X-COM also made setbacks more common, but much easier to recover from. Still, we also think that the abilities and varied objectives of the recent XCOM add a lot of variety and tactical nuances to the formula.
The combat system itself is also inspired by games such as Mordheim, Heroquest, and Descent: Journeys in the Dark.”
Release Date: 2019
Price: Unknown. Currently unavailable for pre-order.
You could probably tell from the screenshot, but Kingsmen is not related to the movie franchise. Assuming the game actually gets released, they really should really consider a name change. It’s been in development for 4 years now, which initially had me worried. Luckily, when I reached out the developers, they were quick to answer that development is moving on schedule. Kingsmen revolves around ruling a medieval kingdom and sending out patrols to keep your citizens safe as you expand into untamed regions. In addition to expansion, diplomacy with nearby kingdoms will play a critical role in succeeding. This game will be much more grounded in reality than any of the other games like XCOM listed thus far. No psi ops or magic here. Combat will make use of cover, elevation, positioning, and buildings. Some features will read too much like a 4x for an XCOM game, but the developers keyed in on X-COM as a primary influence early on. Now we wait to see if they’ll release a finished product.
Release Date: Q4 2018
Price: Unknown. Currently unavailable for pre-order.
Forged of Blood
One thing you’ll notice the fantasy XCOM-like games aim to accomplish is including more story impacting choices. The plot of XCOM always plays out the same, but the strategic and tactical options offer such a level of variation that there’s a ton of replay on the gameplay level. Forged of Blood is no different, with a three-axis personality plot measuring moral choices. If this game (or another on this list) can actually merge gameplay variance with story variance then that’s really going to eat into my MMO time. Players in Forged of Blood start as the son of a murdered king. The goal is to reclaim the kingdom’s stolen territories. Players must contend with monsters and rival nations equally, choosing where to send their limited parties. In tactical combat, expect magic and positioning to play a large role in snatching victory. Like in XCOM, it will be difficult to have success in one area without the other.
Developer Quote: “Forged of Blood is a game that favors complexity and mechanical mastery. The depth of mechanics we’ve developed is one that thrusts decisions onto the player at every layer of the game. From the grand strategic layer all the way down to just how much power to add to the spells they want to use, and even the personality shifts that come from their actions, Forged of Blood is a game of choice and consequence.”
Release Date: Mid 2018
The designer describes the campaign as “XCOM” style so that’s a good start, right? In the strategic layer you’ll be presented with a number of missions, each with different rewards. In missions themselves, you’ll command a small squad of mechs with a variety of potential objectives. Phantom Brigade adds even more decisions when it comes to permadeath. Pilots can be ejected at any time to save their lives, but you may opt to continue fighting in their mech until the potential bitter end. You can even turn this against the opposition by forcing enemy pilots to eject and commandeering their mechs. A nemesis system like Shadow of Mordor/War and XCOM 2’s War of the Chosen add flair both to your own pilots and to your enemies’. Another appreciated XCOM feature is destructible buildings. Nothing says battle like turning a city into rubble. Finally, the best reason to support Phantom Brigade is that it’s built to be very mod friendly. Mods have been huge for XCOM 2, and this is a big plus for any XCOM like game.
Developer Quote: “In regards to our inspiration, we’re aiming for something more along the lines of classical X-Com, and games like the Front Mission Series.”
Release Date: Q3 2018
Price: Unknown. Currently unavailable for pre-order.
Iron Oath promises players the ability to oversee a medieval fantasy guild’s finances, alliances, and members in a world filled with over 50 cities. Permadeath is so ingrained in Iron Oath that guild members can even die of old age. Perhaps the most compelling feature is that each randomly generated character comes with their own backstory, alignment, beliefs, and traits that legitimately impact your choices. For instance, stealing will negatively impact your more honorable guild members.
The turn-based combat is a deviation from the other XCOM-like games on this list. Battles take place on a relatively small 2D grid. There are no alien pods to alert with a wrong move. Instead, you’ll run through the areas in a manner similar to Darkest Dungeon and then engage opponents on a Heroes of Might and Magic type battlefield. Resource management will play a critical role in defeating missions/dungeons. I’d describe Iron Oath as as fantasy XCOM meets Darkest Dungeon resource management with more potential personality than either of them.
Oh, my. Another mech game? Yes, that’s right and one based on a very popular franchise made by a studio who successfully adapted another tabletop game in Shadowrun. The initial funding didn’t call for any sort of strategic overlay, but their $2+ million on Kickstarter enabled BATTLETECH to qualify for this prestigious list. I think the strategic overlay will still pale compared to most other titles on this list, but the tactical combat and unit advancement options are potentially copious. Not only do pilots level up and learn new abilities but mechs can be customized six ways to Sunday. Still, BATTLETECH is first and foremost about operating a mercenary troupe. How the overworld changes isn’t as big of a concern to success or failure like the other games on this list.
XCOM walks a fine line when it comes to balance. Despite four difficulty levels, I’m not sure it’s ever gotten it quite right. It’s very snowbally so players will typically lose by the mid game or roll through the end game. That said, there’s always a good deal of challenge in overcoming an XCOM campaign.
Longevity is a funny thing. It’s feels great to dive into a game and really get your money’s worth. MMORPGs are certainly at the top of the heap when it comes to replayability and longevity. Not only is there a wealth of content for one character, but unique classes/races/factions can play quite differently. Is it a good thing though?
In an absolute sense, sure. Value is great. Who hates value? Not me. But there is a point of diminishing returns, and MMO games typically hit them faster than other genres. The loop of “level up, get new items, see new place” gets old quick, especially for genre vets. Now that’s not exclusive to MMOs. Other multiplayer genres like FPS, MOBAs, and RTS also offer a high quantity of repetitious gameplay for one price (excluding loot boxes I suppose). I’d argue only MOBAs really break that mold because different combinations of characters really throw each game on their head.
Clockwork City, new content from Elder Scrolls Online
Of course, unlike these other games, MMORPGs are in a situation where they can provide a lot of different types of content to alleviate potential boredom. One day you raid, the next you quest, then you craft, and finally you wander into some worldwide PvP. There’s still the benefit of familiarity but with less repetition. This adds longevity and provides players with a warm, comfy feeling to dive into after a long day.
The flip side of longevity is radically unique content that’s one and done. A good example is Pony Island. I promise it’s not what you think, and it’s a wholly interesting experience for 2 hours. The game is fantastic, but I can’t imagine playing it much longer than I did. There’s no longevity, and now I’m back seeking another unique experience. Unless I’m in the specific mood to compete, cooperate, or socialize, unique single player games provide pound for pound more fun than their multiplayer counterparts. The problem is that after beating Pony Island, now I have to spend valuable time determining what to play next. My backlog scrolls down pretty far, but a lot of those titles turn out to be poor matches. And that’s where the worth lies in a familiar game.
If I decide to boot up Elder Scrolls Online, Neverwinter, or League of Legends I know more or less what I’m getting into. When I boot up a new single player game, I’m just not sure. I might know that I’m playing an FPS like Dishonored or a tactical RPG like XCOM, but I don’t know the intricacies. I have to learn – which can be a lot of fun. But it can also be tiring, frustrating, and ultimately not worth my time if I don’t enjoy it.
I think longevity in games comes down to risk vs. reward. MMOs, other multiplayer games, and some single player games (like Civilization) carry with them a certain sense of contentment. I won’t expect anything too crazy, but I’m also not going to be let down. The risk is low and the reward is moderate. When I load up a brand new game, I might find something that will blow my mind for 5 to 40+ hours (Witcher 3 comes to mind). Then I’m done. Sure, I might replay The Witcher 3 but then I’m just falling into that comfortable routine. Repeating anything will never match your first experience. Games are no different.
So how do you balance the allure of comfortable longevity vs. the desire to experience something new and fresh?