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: Why Bulgaria? Is that because there are established programmers out there?
Julian: No, it's where I live. I've lived there since 2005. Because my wife is Bulgarian and I've got two children as well, two years old. I worked for Ubisoft from November 2006 to March last year, just over 5 years.
PC Gamer: What were you working on?
Julian: Ok, so when I first started at Ubisoft Bulgaria - it's a small studio, 13 people - I was employed as a game designer. The first project they wanted me to work on was Chess Master which I was a bit surprised at. So that's 2006, 2007 they were working on Chess Master 11, I think, for PC. I'm not sure why they wanted me to work on this because I thought the game of Chess had already been designed. Actually, what they wanted was a DS version of Chess Master. We added some mini games based on Chess which I designed.
PC Gamer: So you redesigned Chess?
Julian: I actually designed some original games using some Chess-like rules. There was one, my particular favourite, called Fork My Fruit where the Chess board had bits of fruit on it and you had to, using the forking principle in Chess, you could fork fruit. You got the fruit from the board.
I did Chess Master, then I worked on some projects that were cancelled. Then I worked on Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, which was a launch title for 3DS. This was a project that I actually pitched. I just wanted to do a decent turn based strategy game again. I wanted to do something similar to XCOM still and I thought, well, you know, what's Ubisoft got that could be used here? Looking at the franchise, OK - Ghost Recon, possibly. So I pitched it initially as XCOM meets Ghost Recon. One of the guys at Ubisoft central office in Paris said yeah, OK. He OKed the project and we did a working demo and design. I think we spent maybe 3 months on this. It did have aspects of XCOM. There was supposed to be a world view you know, generated battles and maps, different bosses in different parts of the world that you had to tackle. The tactical game that we had for this design was very much like the new XCOM where you'd have two actions per turn for each character.
PC Gamer: What do you think of the new XCOM?
Julian: It's great. It's very very good. It's different from mine.
PC Gamer: Jake Solomon, the lead designer, seems to have been very respectful to elements of it and has obviously just gone "but we need to make this work on consoles".
Julian: He was worried what I would think of it. He's changed so much. I think he was probably worried that I'd come up to him and say "Jake, you've been a naughty boy. What have you done to my XCOM?" but no. It wasn't like that at all.
PC Gamer: You've played it then, I take it?
Julian: I have played it. I've actually restarted it twice. Maybe I should try it on an easier difficulty level because I haven't managed to get to the end yet! If there's anything that's a problem with the game, it's that you can be playing it for quite a while without knowing that you are actually completely screwed and you should have stopped and started again.
I think my second playthrough I did a lot better but it got to a point where I could see I was in a bit of a downward spiral, and I just couldn't see a way out of it. I thought, well ok. I've got to restart again. I was losing too much funding. It's quite unforgiving, actually, in that sense.
PC Gamer: I was lucky that I never had a satellite shot down but I forgot to put any more up. I was just running with that minimal level.
Julian: That's the mistake I made on my first run through. I wasn't paying enough attention to the satellites. I wasn't getting the funding.
PC Gamer: Yeah, you need to circle the world. It's something that you learn as you play. Which is an interesting game design element.
Julian: It is, and pretty much every decision you make has to be fairly carefully considered, because there's always a very distinctive trade-off in decisions. I think Firaxis did a really, really good job. If you ask me, would I have designed the game in the same way? I would have to say no.
PC Gamer: How would you have designed it?
Julian: (laughs) I certainly would have gone back to my idea of generators again. I would not have accepted anything less than pseudo-randomly generated maps. I probably would have had less contrived elements to it. I felt that the... was it the Terror missions? Where you had to pick one out of three spots. Aliens are terrorizing three places. You've got to pick one of them and you have to -
PC Gamer: Ugh, God, yes. You know that the other two continents are going to be on minimal support and if something goes wrong, you're going to lose that funding on those two countries.
Julian: You're going to definitely lose out somewhere. You have to choose which one you're going to lose. I would have designed it differently, for sure. Would it have been as successful as the new XCOM? Probably not. No, I'm afraid.
PC Gamer: They probably wouldn't have given it the marketing money, to be honest. An awful lot of it was that they actually backed it, which was amazing. They backed a turn based strategy game on console.
Julian: That is absolutely incredible. I mean, it's unheard of really, unless it's Civilisation. Civilisation was the only game that was really surviving as a turn based franchise.
PC Gamer: And thriving, with Civilisation Revolution as well which was wonderful.
Julian: Exactly. It's actually made Take 2 Interactive the new Microprose because they're the only company that's got these really popular well known, established turn based franchises. Civilisation and now XCOM.
PC Gamer: Was there anything you would have added to the XCOM as it stands?
Julian: Well, yeah, the Geoscape is kind of missing. In the original game, the position of your bases - what you put in those bases - was important because aliens were active in particular areas, but the position of stuff in the new geoscape from the new game is actually, irrelevant, really. It doesn't really play any part in the game, so you don't have that. The Interceptors are based in each region. I guess my original game was a bit more simulation-ny and the new game is a bit more board game-y.
PC Gamer: Which is a way the industry's going. There's a whole video games made by board game designers section in the West Hall at GDC, so everyone plays board games now. I went to Jagex and Jagex have a whole room dedicated to their employees playing board games.
Julian: Yeah. This is very good and the new XCOM shows a lot of board game-y influences, without a doubt.