The year is 1988. Movie tickets cost $3.50 (on average), the Salmonella bacteria crisis is ravaging the UK's farming industry, and the first issue of the official Nintendo Power magazine is unleashed on an expectant gaming public in July. 1988 is also the year in which Julian Gollop, a British game designer from Harlow in England, released a little strategy game called Laser Squad with his team at Target Games. Laser Squad was a turn-based tactics game in which players were given control of a squad and tasked with completing certain objectives by using said squad's tactical ingenuity and mastery of weaponry. Laser Squad is an underrated gem, but it's perhaps best known today for strongly influencing the development of 1994's seminal X-COM: UFO Defense.
X-COM was also created by Gollop and his brother Nick, along with some of the folks who worked on Laser Squad. X-COM as a franchise is still going very strong, with 2016's somewhat confusingly named XCOM 2 receiving an expansion pack, War of the Chosen, in the following year. Though many have found this franchise anew as a result of Firaxis' work on the 2012 reboot and its follow-ups, the original X-COM is fascinating for its place in gaming history and its eventual influence on gaming culture. To commemorate the game's 25th anniversary, we spoke to original designer Julian Gollop about the process of creating the game, as well as some of the creative decisions he made during X-COM: UFO Defense's creation.
In 1991, American publisher MicroProse was riding high. According to Julian Gollop, MicroProse, which was founded by strategy kingpin Sid Meier, was "the best company in the world" at the time, so landing a contract with them was seen very much as something to aspire to. With "a very ambitious project" in the works, Gollop and his brother needed a publisher's weight to lend the project credence and get it funded. They were planning a sequel to Laser Squad, which would improve the central mechanics and expand the gameplay, not to mention bringing the visuals up to competition standard. Eventually, the two managed to broker a deal with MicroProse, which left Gollop "absolutely awestruck" and ready to work on the game MicroProse wanted his team to make.
Gollop says that MicroProse wanted Laser Squad II to share the scope of recent smash hit Civilization designed by Sid Meier. The publisher wanted "something that could compete with Civ, but also had some elements from [that game]," and the scope of the Laser Squad II demo Julian and Nick Gollop presented to the publisher wasn't cutting it. The scale wasn't right; the gameplay ideas and concepts the team presented were solid, but it needed to be bigger and the stakes higher. "[Assistant publisher] Pete Moreland wanted something based on the television series UFO," says Gollop. "I thought it was a great idea, but I went away and bought a few videotapes, and thought 'this is pretty boring' because the aliens look like humans and don't do very interesting things." Gollop's team decided to look more into the contemporary side of UFO mythology—Roswell, cattle abductions and flying saucers—in order to create something with the size and scope MicroProse wanted from them.
That's not to say nothing survived from the time when X-COM: UFO Defense was Laser Squad II. Several design decisions, such as implementing a sanity system and the general feel of the combat, transitioned from Laser Squad II to X-COM pretty much unscathed. In fact, Julian Gollop says that "pretty much most or all of the stuff we'd done on the Laser Squad demo went straight into X-COM." As part of the expansion of scope that MicroProse requested, a "UFOpedia" was created for the game in the same vein as Civilization's Civilopedia. The UFOpedia contained information about all of the aliens, technology, and other features of the game, and could be perused at will by players who wanted to do so. Along with Sid Meier's opus, X-COM: UFO Defense was explicitly inspired by board game Sniper! and tabletop role-playing system Traveller, each of which contributed something towards the game's combat systems and overall tone and aesthetic.
The name "X-COM" originally began as "X-CON," a shortened form of the phrase "extraterrestrial contact." X-COM—short for Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, placing the emphasis more on the player than the threat to which they are responding—was suggested by Laser Squad fan Steve Hand, who doesn't appear anywhere in the original game's credits despite what some might see as a pretty sizeable contribution to the franchise (albeit not one Hand might have anticipated being as important as it was). The name wasn't the only thing that was changed during development, of course. Originally, Gollop and his team envisioned a cadre of suspect "Men in Black" who would interfere with the player's endeavors. This system was removed, as Gollop says, because "MicroProse wanted to make their own Men in Black game, so we were told we couldn't include them." Other features like smarter pathfinding, AI-run factions, and a more in-depth UFO interception system couldn't be included due to time constraints.
The aforementioned sanity system speaks volumes about something Julian and Nick Gollop wanted front and center of X-COM: panic. Gollop says he "absolutely wanted players to feel panic" while playing the game and made several design decisions based on what would most effectively instill this emotion. Rather uniquely, X-COM: UFO Defense continues to play itself out whether the player actually does anything to interact with the game or not; if you simply sit and twiddle your thumbs, the alien invasion will progress and you'll still lose. Gollop says that he "created a structure for what the aliens are doing" in which "they divide the planet into regions, start flying basic reconnaissance missions, then abduction missions, then they take over governments, and so on." The Geoscape's smallest time increment is 5 seconds, so even while players are sitting and thinking about what decisions to make, the clock is still ticking. Nothing much is likely to happen during the 5-second intervals, of course—you'll need to advance the clock faster in order to quickly encounter alien invasions and incursions—but the sense of an ever-approaching deadline is palpable while playing X-COM: UFO Defense.
For the tactical combat gameplay, Gollop and his team developed "an isometric 3D system that could actually simulate 3D space", in which "bullets could go up and down rather than just left and right." The inspiration for the varied enemy types in the game came from several sources, including Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 movie Alien. The Chrysalids, aliens which could "inject you...and turn your soldiers into zombies," were directly inspired by Alien. The mind control powers exerted by the more powerful Ethereals are a direct callback to the UFO TV series. Gollop's love of HP Lovecraft's work is clear to see in the sanity system, which places a heavy emphasis on aliens being terrifying unknowable entities as well as aggressive threats. Also important to the combat was the sense of "hiding stuff from the player and revealing stuff to the player," as Gollop puts it, "according to certain rules." Line of sight, or "only being able to see what your soldiers can see," was crucial to creating a sense of the unknown, as was the "hidden movement" phase of the turn-based combat system in which aliens that could not be directly seen by the player had their movement obscured. In this way, Gollop and his team created a sci-fi tactics game that wasn't just strategic but scary too.
There were, of course, bumps in the road along the way. Gollop recalls problems with the game's semi-random scenario generation owing to "pathfinding issues ... and figuring out how much data we can pre-process, and how much we can process on runtime since these were not very fast computers." Artificial intelligence also proved a problem. Many of the artificial intelligence routines in X-COM: UFO Defense were directly inspired by the Gollop brothers' work on Laser Squad, as well as an earlier series named Rebelstar, created for the ZX Spectrum system. The Time Unit system shares a lot of similarities with Action Points from Rebelstar, but the pathfinding behavior of AI enemies was programmed by Julian Gollop from scratch for UFO Defense. Speaking at GDC 2013, Gollop expressed his regret at this and says he "should have concentrated much more on design" rather than programming.
When the time came to develop a sequel to X-COM: UFO Defense, MicroProse wanted a much faster turnaround for the project (around six months) than Julian Gollop and his brother thought possible. As a result, MicroProse themselves handled development duties for X-COM: Terror from the Deep, which was released within a year of X-COM: UFO Defense. During the time that Terror from the Deep was in development, Gollop and what was then Mythos Games were hard at work creating what would eventually become the third X-COM game, X-COM: Apocalypse. Gollop wanted to implement "a learning system" that would be "programmed by one of our genius programmers" in which the enemy AI would react and change its behavior based on what the player did, but he says he's "never 100% sure on whether [the system we eventually created] works amazingly well or not at all ... I'm not necessarily convinced those types of systems make for the best games."
Apocalypse expands the scope of the game while simultaneously scaling it back a little; the whole game takes place in a single city, but base management, combat, and the interactions between X-COM and ancillary factions are all far more complex in nature. The decision to implement optional real-time strategy combat—to "succumb to the dominant trend in PC gamingm" as Gollop puts it—proved challenging, especially given that Apocalypse also featured a turn-based system the player could switch to. Unlike in X-COM: UFO Defense, Apocalypse featured AI-controlled corporations, with the player's relationship to them (as well as their relationships with one another) changing depending on the actions taken throughout the game. This is a much more detailed system than anything that was in UFO Defense, but Gollop says it'll be "prominent" in Phoenix Point, the upcoming spiritual successor to X-COM he's creating with Snapshot Games.
After the release of Apocalypse, Gollop embarked on the ill-fated The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge, again with his brother Nick and the team at Mythos Games. Intended to be a remake of the original UFO Defense in 3D, Freedom Ridge failed to find a publisher, which led to the cancellation of the project and the dissolution of Mythos Games as a company. The rest, as they say, is history: MicroProse created and distributed two more games in the X-COM series, Interceptor and Enforcer, in 1998 and 2001 respectively, with the franchise then lying dormant until Firaxis and 2K Marin rebooted it in 2012 with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Gollop says that he "hasn't actually thought about" what he himself would do with the series now were he given the license again, but he has said that he "would have designed Enemy Unknown differently" to what Firaxis eventually created. If you've never gone back and revisited X-COM: UFO Defense, do so—you'll find a unique and interesting strategy game with a fascinating development history.