XCOM’s Jake Solomon is moving on to the life sim genre at new studio

Marvel's Midnight Suns group walk

Game developer Jake Solomon first made a name for himself by helming Firaxis’ revival of XCOM and Marvel’s Midnight Suns. In an interview, Solomon told Digital Trends that he has no problem being known as “the XCOM guy,” and he joked that there is a world where he could see himself dying during a playtest of XCOM 17. But after Marvel’s Midnight Suns, Solomon wanted something different.

“Marvel’s Midnight Suns was a very personal game for me to make, but it was very scripted narratively,” Solomon tells Digital Trends. “After that, I wanted to go back to where player narratives are more emergent. Then, I don’t know, maybe it was a midlife crisis, but I got this brain worm, and it was like, ‘what about really, really doubling down on the emergent narrative.’”

That led to the creation of Midsummer Studios, a new Maryland-based developer helmed by Solomon and alumni from Firaxis and The Sims developer Maxis. The team’s first game will be an ambitious life sim that focusues on the choices we make in our daily lives.

Founding a studio in 2024, a year of turmoil for the video game industry, isn’t an easy feat either. Solomon offered insight into what it will take for his studio to survive and what will make his game stand out.

The start of Midsummer

Despite how Solomon’s departure may have looked after the underperformance of Marvel’s Midnight Suns, he tells Digital Trends he wasn’t forced out of Firaxis. In fact, he’d been thinking about leaving the 2K studio since the summer before Marvel’s Midnight Suns launched in late 2022 and had made a firm decision about doing so by that fall. Solomon tells me that he’d always wanted to make a game about navigating life and relationships.

Jake Solomon headshot
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The desire to make a game about modern life became much more appealing to him than any other project idea. “When I started thinking about how I could do another XCOM or Midnight Suns, those just all of a sudden didn’t seem as appealing to me,” he says. Without consulting anyone, Solomon left Firaxis in February 2023 and formed Midsummer Studios, whose name is derived from his family’s Norwegian roots.

Solomon secured $6 million in funding and established Midsummer Studios in Firaxis’ old offices in Hunt Valley, Maryland. As of right now, it’s a 10-person outfit, soon to be 11. “As a studio, we are fortunate that we were able to be funded and have this runway to create a prototype, but we really thought about how to make this a sustainable studio. We’re really careful in hiring so we can tell the people who work here that they are fine because we have this much money, and it lasts us this long,” Solomon says.

Ryan Meier, the son of Civilization’s Sid Meier, was one of the studio’s first hires. Looking forward, Solomon wants to establish a sustainable studio that holds a Midsummer party and then takes a week off once every year. To foster that, Midsummer Studios needs a pretty enticing first game and must successfully navigate the rough water of the video game industry.

An ambitious life sim

Typically, when new studios announce themselves with a vague game concept, their developers don’t want to say too much about what they’re working on. That isn’t the case with Solomon. There isn’t a direct comparison to be made to games like The Sims or Stardew Valley either. “It is truly a life sim; you’re guiding your character through their daily life, but there’s a real focus on interesting events like daily drama, relationship drama, and family drama. All these events, the player is able to author,” he says.

The logo for Midsummer Studios shows a black and white eclipse.
The logo for Midsummer Studios. Midsummer Studios

Solomon describes it as being “as much a toy as it is a game.” Players don’t just customize their characters (which they can), but the kind of story they want to tell too. As the game creates the small town it’s set in, it will generate “cast members” that fit the story — perhaps an ex-partner, childhood bully, or estranged father. From there, players will have direct control over making choices in dialogue trees and telling their stories.

Resources like humor, romance, and conflict will be generated with each choice, and the game will occasionally entice players to make riskier decisions or throw in narrative curveballs to shake the story up. Solomon has two touchpoints for the extremes at which players can end up with their choices: Monica helping people in CBS’ Touched by an Angel and the devil causing chaos in Stephen King’s Needful Things.

The project’s main goal is to double down on emergent narrative moments. There will even be a creative mode where players can fully customize the goings-on of their game world by taking control of any character

“We’re trying to make it as emergent as possible, to where the player can truly do what they want, treat people how they want, say what they want, and pursue whatever relationships they want,” Solomon said. “But it’s all in this town that’s built to recognize the dramatic choices the player is making and respond to those.”

The challenges ahead

The idea behind Midsummer Studios’ first project is very ambitious. While Midsummer is making the game on Unreal Engine 5, it has to start from scratch when it comes to the common game knowledge it could apply to games like XCOM 2 or Marvel’s Midnight Suns.

“Even though the mechanics weren’t the same from XCOM to Midnight Suns, it was still combat,” Solomon says. “Points? Great! Damage? Fine. You have all these basic systems that every game has. When you then go, ‘This is about navigating minor and major drama in everyday life,’ hit points don’t make any sense. There’s no damage. Instead, how do we systematize and put resources on a character’s time, choices, drama, and friendships to make a system design about modern life? It has been very gratifying, and it is at times terrifying.”

I understand that a lot of people will be thinking ‘What the hell is he doing?’

The game is in early development and in the prototype stage, so there aren’t screenshots, trailers, or a firm release window for it yet. For that reason, Solomon admits that how Midsummer Games will create its dialogue is still a “work n progress.” He likes the “they will remember that” cliché from Telltale’s games, but also points out the precautions the team will take if they start handcrafting every line of dialogue. After all, a restrictive narrative was one of the things he wanted to move away from after Marvel’s Midnight Suns.

“Handcrafted is extremely difficult, so one thing we’re working on right now is how far we’ll go,” Solomon says. If it’s handcrafted, it has to be generic enough to where characters are able to say things and reflect their emotions. We have to handle a lot of different situations because we really want the player to be able to do what they want to anybody and have that trigger feelings and cause other characters in the town to come up and talk to you.”

Opening a new game studio in 2024

There are still plenty of game design problems for Midsummer Studios to work out, but it must survive long enough to publish its first game. Since mid-2023, funding has been particularly tough for game developers. Solomon is well aware of that.

“The business of games is a cascade. The first thing that dries up is funding, and then the second thing that happens is layoffs and cutbacks to existing stuff. It’s ‘let’s make less new stuff’ and then ‘now we need to cut down on the things that we are making,’” he says. “It has been terrible; the amount of layoffs is frankly horrific to see. When I left a little over a year ago, the layoffs hadn’t started, but it was very difficult to find funding.”

In the time since I spoke to him, Firaxis’ parent company, Take-Two, shut down two studios, Kerbal Space Program 2’s Intercept Games and OlliOlli World’s Roll7, while Microsoft shuttered three in Tango Gameworks, Mighty Dog Games, and Arkane Austin. Even before all that, Solomon lamented, “I’ve never seen anything like this; now, it doesn’t even cause comment when somebody lays off another 500 or 1,000 game developers because it’s all piled on top of so many.”

The player character grinds in the Nintendo Switch version of OlliOlli World.
Private Division

Solomon turned to venture capital for his funding because he wanted to get that $6 million upfront and not have it tied to milestone payments from publishers in a tumultuous time for the industry. Midsummer Studios found investment from Tirta Ventures, Betaworks Ventures, 1Up Ventures, Krafton, and Day Zero Productions. Solomon claims the company’s finances are “fine for the next two years.”

Solomon doesn’t want to grow Midsummer Studios to a AAA level because of the dangers that come with games of that size. “I think that AAA is really difficult because you have to look at the numbers and say we’re to have this many teams. If anything doesn’t go to schedule — and by the way, when the fuck has anything ever gone to schedule? — what does that do for your burn rate and the money you’re spending? And is this truly something where you see a realistic return on that?”

Solomon sees Midsummer Studios’ life sim title occupying the “mid-premium space” that games like Helldivers 2 inhabit. He wants to make something unique because “the calculus of how you want to build a successful studio is a difficult one right now,” and he wants to capture people’s attention. People might be surprised to hear that a guy who thought he would be working on games like XCOM until he died left Firaxis to create a life sim game different from what he’s done before, but Solomon is content with that.

“I understand that a lot of people will be thinking, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ I think it’ll be interesting,” he says.

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This post was originally published on Digital Trends

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