How X-Com's creator is reinventing his masterpiece in Phoenix Point

X-Com creator Julian Gollop and his studio Snapshot Games have raised over $750,000 on crowdfunding platform Fig to make Phoenix Point, a game that looks like a perfect match for anyone who's enjoyed Firaxis's recent XCOM efforts. Set on a mostly destroyed Earth in 2057, you lead part of an organisation called the Phoenix Project, and are tasked with saving the last pockets of humanity from aliens and an encroaching mist that mutates every living thing it touches. 

In doing so, you'll ally with one of three different conflicting human factions (or maybe more). Plus, with a strategic layer that borrows more from 4X games, it's a very different proposition to Firaxis's recent titles—but no less exciting. 

In this interview, I asked Julian to talk me through how they approached the game's tactical and strategic layers, enemy types and X-Com's growth into a sub-genre of its own. 

We've seen early footage of what a battle looks like in Phoenix Point. Can you give us an overview of what you're trying to achieve with the game? 

What I want to do with Phoenix Point is create a very rich and systemic game world that has a lot of dynamic interactions on a strategic level, not just on the tactical level. So one of the things I'm doing with Phoenix Point is taking something I did before, actually, with X-Com Apocalypse, where you had a city with different factions with different resources, and they had relationships with each other, and you could raid them, help them, or so on. So in the world of Phoenix Point, in its post-apocalyptic setting, humanity is basically fractured but there are three strong factions, and they're trying to expand and take control of things. 

They've got their own purpose, their own technology, their own strengths and weaknesses. And you, as a player, are almost like a fourth faction trying to interact with them. So there's diplomacy elements, there's resource management elements, and it, in a way, is a bit similar to how modern 4X games function, but one of the Xs is in reverse: the human population is actually shrinking and not expanding, because you're fighting against this mist which is coming in from the sea, which is pouring all these alien creatures onto the land. What you have to do as a player, which makes it different, is you actually have to find one of the possible solutions to the alien menace, and it will come from one of these three factions. 

But in a way, the game world on a strategic level, is much more systems-driven and dynamic in a similar way to a 4X game than maybe anything I've done before. And the tactical level is very similar to X-Com. The main additions we have there are these big monsters, and they can mutate and different limbs can come out of them. There's this mist that appears on the battlefield, which can really constrict it from a much more open firefight to a much more closed one. But I guess the main underlying thing I'm trying to do with the game is create a rich and detailed world, which although it's systems-driven, has a lot of game lore and back story to it, which gives a rich history to the whole thing before the game starts. 

The mutated creatures that form the enemies in the game look like a sidestep from the approach taken in X-Com. 

Yeah, they needed to do something different. These creatures are based on combining the DNA of humans with other animals, and they're going through an evolutionary process—so how would this work on the battlefield? What would they evolve or develop as you're fighting these things? They're still a work-in-progress. We've got a lot in progress now, they're definitely going to change a lot from the prototype you've seen. But the principle is, that you're fighting, in a way, a bit of a moving target because there are going to be evolutions where you have subtle differences between enemies from one battle to the next. Then bang: all of a sudden, you'll see a big evolutionary step, and a completely new monster appear, which will go down its own evolutionary path and so on. But the interesting thing is, each time you play the game, you'll probably get a different selection of these evolutions. There's a random element to it, it's not fixed, in a similar way to the way evolution works. You have random mutations, and if the mutations fit—if they're successful on the battlefield—they will produce more of them. 

Do you see this as you picking up where you left off with this kind of game?

Yes, definitely. The modern XCOM has shown how amazing turn-based tactical games can be, and we are evolving on that with Phoenix Point, for sure. But on the strategic side of the game, we wanted to do something a bit different. And, as I say, the closest thing I can really compare it with might be the original X-Com, or possibly some modern 4X games because it has some elements of those. And this will create a more interesting dynamic between the tactical and strategic, in the sense that the player doesn't always have a fixed objective for a mission, and it might be that you send your soldiers into a haven with the idea that you want to steal some technology. So you're going into his laboratory area, but you may find that it's proving a bit too difficult, so you can switch to just trying to sabotage it instead. If you can't get it, blow it to bits. That's a decision you can make on the battlefield, you don't have a pre-scripted mission objective. So what happens on the battlefield will have a knock-on effect on the strategic level, and the fact that you may steal stuff, you may kidnap people, you may assassinate people, sabotage. All these different missions are available to you as a player.

What the new XCOM game has allowed me to do is make Phoenix Point, because without it, I doubt I even would've attempted it.

I like the idea of strong connective tissue between the two layers. I really enjoyed Firaxis's Enemy Unknown, but I thought the tactical and strategic layers felt a bit far removed from each other at times, for example. 

Well, when you think about it, all the X-Com games, going back to the ones I worked on, the strategic layer is the thing that's changed the most. So the original was set on a globe, Terror From The Deep sort of copied that, but X-Com Apocalypse was radically different. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is reminiscent of the original but is actually quite different, because it's a much more scripted sequence of stuff. It's more like a min/maxing management sim. With XCOM 2, they changed it quite radically again. So this seems to be the area of the X-Com genre-style game that's changing the most. With Phoenix Point, again, we're doing something different on that area of the game, while retaining this core tactical turn-based gameplay which is more familiar across all the X-Com games. 

How do you feel about your creation becoming its own sub-genre?

I think it's fantastic. When you think that for so long I was trying to make this kind of game and no publisher was even interested, what it proves that there's now an audience for this style of game. It may not be absolutely massive, but it's a pretty solid, dedicated audience. People have been asking me to remake X-Com, or Laser Squad, or anything forever. They've always asked me to do it. It's just getting commercial interest from a publisher to actually do it has been very difficult. You may remember the original turn-based games were pretty much killed off by the massive RTS explosion in '96, in particular.

Which itself was then basically killed off, years later (except StarCraft).

Which itself was killed off by MOBAs, I guess, which have replaced RTSs, in a way? It's interesting, the ebb and flow of the different genres, but somehow, Jake and his team at Firaxis have managed to resurrect this genre that was considered practically dead, and resurrected it with a really modern up-to-date [game], and it's been fantastically successful. So it just goes to show that maybe I was right to pursue this kind of game. But what the new XCOM game has allowed me to do is make Phoenix Point, because without it, I doubt I even would've attempted it. God knows what I'd be doing. I think it's fair to say it's now a new genre of game. It's now established, and there are people who are actively looking for this style of game, and there will be more like them, which is really cool. It's brilliant. From my point of view, it's great.

Watching the videos of Phoenix Point, the area where I see the most similarities with the Firaxis XCOM games right now is the UI, in how contemporary it looks. Is that fair to say?

Yes. At the moment, our UI is basically the same as XCOM 2. It's probably not going to stay that way forever, because we've got some different requirements for our game. One thing that's very important in Phoenix Point is the willpower of a character. So you've got their hit points, but the willpower is a very important stat because it factors into not just the use of special abilities, but it also affects the morale system. Certain things can cause a character's willpower to go down. If it's forced below zero, it can cause your character to panic. Consequently, because the aliens are really nasty, they have special alien types that actually focus on attacking willpower. But then you can counteract it, because you can develop particular skills, like leadership skills, rallying and other stuff, then restore willpower to your troops. It has a bit more of a dynamic on that side of the game. So there will be some changes to the interface to reflect the different underlying mechanics we've got. 

On the next page, Julian discusses the different factions and how the game's diplomacy system compares to other 4X games.