Julian Gollop interview: on X-Coms old and new, the Ghost Recon strategy game that never was, AI, auteurs and "Fork My Fruit"
PC Gamer: The other thing that struck me about your Making of XCOM talk was the humility of how you describe how the game was designed. You describe it as you'd done the battle bit and then all of these other bits were suggested by Microprose. It's unusual in this industry, especially with the superstar developers that are around at the moment.
Julian: Yes, it is unusual, but then again if you work with a lot of creative people over the years like I have, you realise actually that you depend a lot on them. I've worked as a producer where I've had to try and build teams of people, get them to work together and you really have to make sure people are leaving their egos in their pockets or parking them at the door because you can get into big problems. What I did for my post mortem, actually, was I tried to contact all these people over the last few weeks to try and figure out what their recollections were of particularly the origins of the game. It was very interesting. There were some conflicts in what people remembered, for sure, and there were some things that I learned because I had no idea about the Spectrum Holobyte cancellation story.
PC Gamer: You didn’t realise it had been cancelled?
I did have some inkling from the QA team many, many years ago, someone some years ago saying that there was a threat to cancel it but I never realised that Spectrum Holobyte actually did make that decision, to cancel it and that the Microprose UK guy said, "Hmmm, nonono".
So I got this information when I spoke to people a couple of weeks ago, I guess. So I wanted to try and do an honest record of the development. Particularly guys who made a contribution which was never really recognised. Steve Hand, for example. because he wasn't in the credits or anything. Also, for the guys that did work on the project all those years ago: John Broomhall, the composer; John Reitze, the graphic designer - these guys really contributed something fairly unique and memorable to the project, without a doubt. Really, without my input to a certain extent. They were just doing this based on their own creativity.
PC Gamer: It's interesting that you had such a relaxed approach to the development. It was like, 'We have these people making music. We trust them, because Microprose UK have told us that they're going to be good at it.' You didn't select these people yourselves?
Julian: No, not at all.
PC Gamer: It was almost like it was, "We're doing our bit and they're going to do their bit and it's all going to work together in the end, so that's OK!" Nowadays you get people like David Cage or Ken Levine, the auteur theory, who have to go over every single detail in the game.
Julian: I think stuff today is so overdesigned, it's unbelievable. There are people obsessing about tiny details about stuff. Especially when you have marketing people involved about how your main character in a game's presented suddenly becomes a huge PR and marketing issue
PC Gamer: The whole thing with Booker holding a big gun on the cover of Bioshock Infinite. It's like crossword magazines in the UK, always having a very attractive blonde girl biting a pen. It sells more copies, amazingly.
Julian: What a shame.
PC Gamer: What are you doing at the moment? I know you're working in Bulgaria.
Julian: Yeah, I'm working in Bulgaria. I am establishing my own independent games development studio. I'm working on a turn based strategy game. It's a sequel/remake of a game I made back in 1995 on the ZX Spectrum called Chaos which was originally published by Games Workshop. This was this just fantastic multiplayer turn based game where you're a wizard, you summon creatures, You're just looking at a black screen as an arena with your wizard but it gets filled up with creatures and magic fire and gooey blobs and stuff. It worked brilliantly as a multiplayer game so I want to update it with proper internet multiplayer connectivity.
PC Gamer: I recall looking at your blog with the concepts on there.
Julian: We've got concept art going on now. Although the concept art is obviously a lot more sophisticated than on a 48k Spectrum, we wanted to have some kind of feel or some kind of reminiscence of how the original game looked with it's completely monochromatic but brightly coloured, primary colour sprites and this black background. We're not going to have a black background but we're certainly going to have a dark background, for sure, and a bit more of an abstract, stylish graphics which is more illustrative than purely real rendering stuff.
We're just working on that aspect at the moment, but the actual core gameplay, I made a decision that I'm going to retain the actual core gameplay from the original game. We will elaborate a bit on the spells, for sure, there'll be more spells. I think the core gameplay was actually very simple and going back to this whole poker mechanic thing, it had this great bluffing mechanic in there where you could summon a creature as an illusion.
There's a lot of probability in the game, every spell has a certain probability to be cast, so the more powerful spells tend to be the most difficult ones to cast. You roll to make a creature like a gold dragon and it was something like 20% I think it was, for casting it. If you cast it as an illusion you would automatically get it. There was no possibility that you'd fail, which was cool because every player has a disbelief spell. If somebody summons a gold dragon, probably most players would think, "Well no. Now, that's probably an illusion. I'll try and disbelieve it". But if you disbelieve it and you fail, you've wasted your opportunity to cast a spell and you could be in trouble.
So, this little simple mechanic creates little bluffing strategies between players. Because of the high element of randomness and probability in the game it kind of makes the gameplay less predictable and controllable for each player which in some ways is more fun because there's always a possibility to win the game, however small. The gold dragon could come out to your wizard and attack you, you might survive. Not very likely. You might then attack the gold dragon and you might kill it. Not very likely, but you could, for example. The odds are in there. Trying to analyse why it works is quite interesting but I know for sure it does work well as a game and I want to bring it back.
PC Gamer: There's the iOS and iPad version of the Settlers of Catan. Obviously Settlers is a dice based system so it’s random. They have a system in it where you can also choose a stacking system where the 36 possible results are treated as cards so you have to get through all the results before you move on. It kind of balances against pure randomness, with that.
Julian: So you know there is going to be at least one of each result there. It makes it a bit less arbitrary. Yeah, you could be screwed in Settlers of Catan, I've played it many times. I guess they’re trying to make it a little more controlled, but still retain some of the randomness. I'm just not worried about it. Basically, if you lose, you lose. If you win, you win. If you're a good player, you will tend to win and if you're a bad player you will tend to lose but it’s not automatic.
But I'm adding a whole meta-game to the game as well, this is another aspect. A single player meta-game. But you might have some multiplayer effects as well.
PC Gamer: Is this the second level type thing the same as you had in XCOM?
Julian: It's going to be a little bit simpler than XCOM, actually. The idea is that you're asked as a player to name the world that you wish to explore. This is used as a random number seed generator for the environment. So you have a world which is full of different regions, different types of terrain, and you're exploring. Your objective is basically to kill the Chaos King in the region but your secondary objective is to find stuff because there's lots of artefacts in the game which are going to be useful to you in multiplayer battles or single player battles, so there's a slight RPG element to it as well. So you've created this world and you're exploring it. You go from region to region, you'll fight any enemies in each region who have their own sets of spells or own personality. There's different terrain types in each region. There's special places within realms, places where you can learn your spells, places where you can teleport, places where you can move things around the world. It's a place that people can explore, still bearing in mind they have this requirement, this strategy, to find and locate the boss and kill him. Very simple.
PC Gamer: But it's all procedural?
Julian: Well, it's procedurally generated in the sense that yeah, you're still within an environment that consists of distinct regions, but they're randomly put together. A procedurally generated adventure, if you want to call it that way.
PC Gamer: It's nice to see you're still genre-busting.
Julian: Well, yeah. I really like games that generate stuff for you. I complained about stuff being over designed. My obsession was always with scenario generators, if you want to call them that, where things are generated for the player to explore and it may be something nobody else has ever played because it's pseudo-randomly generated.
PC Gamer: Which saves you programming time to some degree.
Julian: It saves level design, that's for sure. Yeah. It does allow you to create something vast and complex to explore with less effort, sure. Because you're not designing every single possible experience the player could have in the game at all. Yeah, it's one of my little obsessions I guess, and I've still to see it done well in games. Rogue-like games have randomly generated environments and that's part of their attraction, because apart from that they're very simple games.
PC Gamer: Well, that and permadeath.
Julian: It's true. So I still think this style of game has an attraction for a lot of people. We're going to keep it nice and accessible and simple like back in the Spectrum days, but obviously there's much nicer updated presentation of course.
PC Gamer: And the ability to patch.
Julian: Yes, and add extra content as you're going, of course, and proper multiplayer online. The thing about this generating from a name you type is that you can say to a mate of yours, "Look, try this particular word because in this particular region you will find a tower of mist where you can get the Cloak of Fortitude". You'll be able to exchange stuff with other players and discuss what you can get where in a particular realm. Of course, there's millions of possibilities of things that can be generated this way.
PC Gamer: Have you worked out how many possibilities?
Julian: More than millions. It depends entirely on the limits of the random number seed, I guess, but it would be a lot.
PC Gamer: Sounds wonderful. Have you got an idea yet when you want to release?
Julian: Next year. I can't be more specific than that, really. I'm trying to build the team and get resources for the game as well, so this is all part of the process. When you're an indie developer you don't necessarily have to start with a fixed budget and a fixed schedule and fixed resources.