Lizzunchbox here. Wikia Games attended Julian Gollop’s post-mortem on XCOM: UFO Defense. It was fascinating to hear Mr. Gollop speak about the challenges, trials, and success of one of the most influential games in PC gaming history, and the odd legacy that followed it.

Here are some of the highlights and interesting factoids of his talk:

  • The design document for XCOM: UFO Defense was only 12 pages long (“It was the first design doc I had ever written”). The concept was so progressive at the time that Gollop had to travel to Microprose (the game’s publisher) to explain the concept in more detail. Still though, according to Gollop, “the game in its final form didn’t change a whole lot from the original design document”
  • Gollop still considers the Chrysalids “the most annoying monster in the game.” He said it seemed like a good idea at the time. He also said that in the case of this game, the function of the aliens actually trailed the design/form of the alients. “I had to adapt the functions and abilities of the aliens based on the forms that our designer chose.”
  • It’s hard to believe in this day and age, but the original XCOM: UFO Defense only was able to utilize 2MB for everything in the game. That means graphics, music, AI, and more.
  • Board games influence Julian Gollop’s design in a big way. He’s currently playing a game called Eclipse quite a bit now.
  • There were a few Production issues. First, and Gollop called this both a good and a bad thing—the game’s producer was fairly laid back. It meant for an easy design process, but the team could have probably used a big kick in the butt. Second, towards the end of design, Microprose was sold to Spectrum Holobyte, which nearly cancelled the game. Thankfully, the QA team was already testing it, and liked it so much that this wasn’t the case. (The QA team also killed itself over the last three months of the game’s design, Gollop says.) 
  • Mythos Games originally signed contract to make XCOM in 18 months. “No one thought that we actually could make it in 18 months,” Gollop said, but that was the standard contract that Microprose made at the time. Ultimately, it took nearly 2.5 years to make, which felt like too long. For the last three months of the game, the Gollops ended up working in-house at Microprose to finish the game.

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Gollop still considers the Geoscape to be the most innovative aspect of the game. It was “innovative, brilliant programming by my brother Nick”, he said. It gave players a sense of controlling this worldwide ageny, with incredible freedom of decisions, but an incredible burden as well. On the downside and in retrospect, he admitted that this was probably a little overwhelming for new players. “Those days, the tutorial was in the written game manual,” Gollop said. “So it was not easy for players to grasp.”

The other big hook was the Battlescape, the tactical battle map. Destructible environments were new, of course. But the bigger part of the game was the emotional investment players had in their squad. Building soldiers up and investing energy in them made all the decisions more nail-biting. It created fear, tension, and suspense. 

“The core of the game was the turn-based tactical strategy,” he said. “And the Geoscape gave it context.”

Gollop admitted to being quite embarrassed by the fairly famous (and “embarrassing” according to him) save game bug, where if you started the game at a higher difficulty, then reduced it, then saved the game, reset the difficulty to the most basic level.

Ultimately, the strength of the game, according to Gollop, was that the whole experience is the sum of its parts. All these various elements are so inter-related—and integrated into the reward cycle of the game’s play mechanics.

Structuring the player experience: All the random elements of the game—alien deployment, map generation, tactical alien AI, and strategic actions—meant that there was never an entirely predictable system of behaviors. The player was never absolutely sure whether there was an alien hiding behind the corner or not. “This gave the game a lot of variety without having to rely on game design,” Gollop said. Also: “It meant we could reuse a great deal of the assets of the game.”

The legacy of XCOM

XCOM was successful enough that Spectrum Holobyte wanted a sequel within 6 months. “That was a bit of reversal,” Gollop said, “because they wanted to cancel it a half year earlier.” Ultimately, Mythos licensed the game to Microprose, and the company built XCOM Terror From the Deep.

Meanwhile, Mythos Games started working on a game called XCOM Apocalypse. And, at the same time. Microprose began building XCOM Alliance as well as XCOM Interceptor. “No one was managing the brand,” Gollop said.

PC game historians remember the rest. Both Microprose branches –UK and US—ended up closing, and all subsequent XCOM games were cancelled.

Meanwhile, Take 2 announced the XCOM first person shooter, which Gollop joked “horrified everyone.” He said that it felt like this Take 2 game embraced the “same schizophrenic approach that other people had tried.”

Thankfully, Gollop said, the Firaxis design team saved the day. That game was “like a Phoenix rising from the ashes.” He also said that, from his point of view, “I no longer feel the need to remake XCOM because Firaxis has done such an excellent job.”

He closed by saying that, “There was never a time when we doubted what the final game was going to be. All of the projects I had worked on up until that point were like that. Everything I worked on since then has had that problem.”

Gollop is currently working on a turn-based game called Chaos Reborn.

(As a personal aside, I had the privilege of spending a half day with Julian Gollop and his brother Nick in the UK almost 13 years ago when they were working on a cancelled XCOM game. I found both brothers super smart and incredibly down to earth. It remains one of the most memorable moments from my career as a games journalist)

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