Jake Solomon is a name synonymous with turn-based strategy. As a graphics programmer at Firaxis, it was Solomon who first pitched XCOM, which years later, when it launched in 2012, sparked a renaissance in squad-based tactics. Last month, following news that the superb Midnight Suns had not been the hit publisher 2K was hoping for, Solomon announced he was leaving the company where he'd worked for over two decades.
Speaking to Simon Parkin on the My Perfect Console podcast, Solomon explained what had inspired such a big change, and what he's planning now that he's a free agent.
One of the first games Solomon remembers playing was Silent Service, a submarine sim that pre-dates the era when Sid Meier's name was plastered all over his games. So when he decided to break into the industry, Firaxis ended up being the only studio he interviewed at. Meier, then, has had a big impact on his career.
"I came up under [Meier] and he taught me everything," Solomon said. "Everything that I know as a designer, I modelled on him." That made leaving tough. "It was the hardest for me, to tell Sid."
While Midnight Suns did not make the kind of splash XCOM did, it was still a critical success, as well as PC Gamer's GOTY runner-up. And XCOM, of course, remains utterly beloved. But it was time to move on. "Go out on top," he said. "That's what everybody's told me."
The decision to leave came about directly after the release of Midnight Suns, as Solomon was thinking about his next project. "OK, I'm going to make another turn-based strategy game, and am I excited about that? And I found that I wasn't that excited about doing another turn-based strategy game just because—not because the genre isn't amazing, that's where I've spent my life—but I felt like I didn't have anything more to say in that area."
Realising he wasn't excited about the idea of another turn-based strategy game, he started to ponder the alternatives. "Well, there are other things that excite me as a designer, and the idea of starting something new was really exciting to me. And I realised, as the company was changing, this was my opportunity to think about maybe I should make a change."
Even as he was thinking of parting ways with Firaxis, Meier was an inspiration. He'd founded multiple companies, and Solomon was excited by the idea of doing the same. "I feel like I could do this and do a whole new thing and be completely in charge of it."
Solomon is still figuring things out, but he says that his "intention is to open my own studio locally [in Baltimore] and make a new kind of game." He's looking for funding at the moment and this prospective studio doesn't even have a name yet, but he's already thinking about what its first game should be.
Even though he became a creative director, Solomon still sees himself as an "in-the-weeds system designer" and in Midnight Suns was still responsible for "designing individual heroes, enemies and their abilities." System design remains important to him, "so I want to make a sort-of systems-based game". But it doesn't sound like it will be much like XCOM. "I think it won't be turn-based strategy. I think I kind of want to make something that's a little more of a life simulator, like a simulation-style game."
This is not a complete surprise, though. While Midnight Suns is full of superb turn-based brawls, a significant amount of time is dedicated to developing platonic relationships and digging into the lives of superheroes. It's a social sim, but still dense with systems. So not a million miles away from what Solomon is thinking about doing now.
It's still a shame Firaxis has lost such an important member of the team, but I'm extremely excited to see what Solomon does with his own studio. In the meantime, give his episode of My Perfect Console a listen.