The Gollop Chamber: XCOM is now a genre

All images courtesy Julian Gollop.
The Gollop Chamber

Julian Gollop has been in the games industry for more than 30 years. You probably know him best as the designer of games like Chaos and X-COM: UFO Defense. His column, the Gollop Chamber, will touch on games history, design, and, probably, a lot of XCOM.

Welcome to my first column for PC Gamer. What’s it all about, you may ask? You can look forward to my musings on games, the games industry, and also follow progress on my new XCOM-style game, Phoenix Point, which is underway at Snapshot Games in sunny Bulgaria.

Phoenix Point was first announced at the PC Gamer Weekender event in March last year, where I argued that XCOM is now an established genre, thanks to the tremendous success of the Firaxis games. Ever since I signed over the X-COM rights to MicroProse back in 1997 I have been trying to build a new X-COM-style game, but I never quite succeeded, despite releasing several turn-based games over the last 15 years. The XCOM genre is something special and distinct, and diverging too far from its fundamental design pillars results in something less than satisfactory.

At the Game Developer’s Conference in 1996 sessions on pathfinding for RTS games were packed with hundreds of developers with standing room only. The Dune II seed had become a forest.

MicroProse/Hasbro learned the hard way when they attempted to attach the X-COM name to games that weren’t really X-COMish enough, such as X-COM Interceptor (a space sim) X-COM Enforcer (an FPS) and the cancelled X-COM Alliance (a team-based FPS). Publishers, it seems, were no longer confident in the old school strategy/tactics style of X-COM. In the heyday of grand turn-based strategy games we had Civilization (1991), Master of Orion (1993), Master of Magic (1994) and the first X-COM (1994). All of them were highly successful games, and they were all published by MicroProse.

X-COM: Alliance, a cancelled team-based FPS.

Then something dramatic happened—the RTS genre became the dominant game genre on PC, thanks largely to Warcraft (1994) and Command & Conquer (1995). Although Dune II established the genre on PC, it took a while for the seed to grow. By 1996 it seemed like every developer was working on some kind of RTS game. 

At the Game Developer’s Conference in 1996 sessions on pathfinding for RTS games were packed with hundreds of developers with standing room only. The Dune II seed had become a forest. It’s fair to say that this turn of events did influence me to give X-COM Apocalypse a real time tactical mode (but with an option for turn-based battles). However, in no way could the game be called an RTS, as it was defined by Dune II.

In 1999 I began development on a new XCOM-style game called The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge for our new publisher, Virgin Interactive. I believed at that time that the PC market was going to be increasingly difficult to make a profit from, so the game was intended for the Playstation 2 as well as the PC.  

One planned feature for The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge was destructible terrain.

It’s true that PC gaming was having a bit of a crisis, due partly to rampant piracy, spiralling development costs and generally poor quality, buggy releases. There was also a general lack of design innovation. The flood of RTS clones had ended, but there was nothing new and exciting to replace it.

Although Dreamland was destined for the PS2, it was still fundamentally an X-COM-style game, with turn-based battles and a real-time geoscape. It did, however, involve a number of adaptations to the console game format. The soldiers were controlled by directly moving them in third person with the controller. An ‘action point’ bar diminished as the character moved. The shooting used a first-person view, allowing the player to freely aim via a controller stick, if desired. It was eerily reminiscent of a PS3 game released in 2008 called Valkyria Chronicles (since released on PC).

Sadly, Dreamland was cancelled after Virgin Interactive was sold to Interplay, and then Interplay to Titus Interactive in short succession. After my studio, Mythos Games, was liquidated, the code base for Dreamland would be given to Altar Interactive who went on to produce UFO: Aftermath, although not much remained of our original story and game mechanics. 

Shooting in Dreamland Chronicles used a first-person view.

In 2005 Take-Two purchased the rights to sci-fi strategy franchise X-COM from Atari (formerly Infogrames) after Atari had lost interest in the X-COM franchise following the cancellation of X-COM: Alliance in 2002. Reorganised under the 2K umbrella, the former Bioshock 2 studios, 2K Marin and 2K Australia, began development on a new XCOM game.

When it was finally announced to the public in April 2010 it was presented as a “Mystery-filled first-person shooter from the creators of BioShock 2.” The E3 trailer portrayed a 1950s setting with amorphous ink blob aliens and shapeshifters. A camera was used to collect evidence that then had to be ‘researched’. It looked like it could be an interesting game, but it just wasn’t X-COM, and unsurprisingly the reaction from X-COM fans wasn’t very favourable.

Christoph Harmann, president at 2K Games, explained that “the problem was that turn-based strategy games were no longer the hottest thing on planet Earth. But this is not just a commercial thing—strategy games are just not contemporary."

Phoenix Point, Julian Gollop's current project.

 I felt dismayed by these comments, and it spurred me to put a team together with the idea of raising funds on Kickstarter to make my own spiritual remake. At that time there was also another X-COM-like game in development by a small indie collective called Xenonauts, but I felt there was room for both of us.  

However, when Firaxis announced that they were going to release their own X-COM game everything I planned for seemed superfluous. If anyone could do X-COM properly, then it would be Sid Meier’s studio.

But here we are five years after the success of the Firaxis remake and Phoenix Point is a thing. We raised $760k in March through, and my own take on an XCOM style game is well under way. There is such a thing as 'the XCOM genre', and I am really excited for the future. I am not alone any more.