X-COM creator Julian Gollop on "brute force" blockbuster game development and the lost promise of intelligent AI

In a genial interview, strategy-game elder statesman and creator of the original X-COM Julian Gollop talked to us about his imagined alternate history of gaming, his preference for procedural systems, and how he feels modern games have abandoned the promise of advanced AI in favour of shinier visuals and reward mechanics designed to massage players' egos.

Gollop first came to GDC in 1995, to discuss AI, when turn-based strategy games like UFO / X-COM were the cutting edge, just as RTS was taking over. “In those days, I believed firmly that the future of computer games was all about AI. That in twenty years time we'd be interacting with NPC characters in computer games that actually had real intelligence and could respond to you in really intelligent ways. Boy, I was wrong. So wrong!”

"I believed firmly that the future of computer games was all about AI"

Gollop reckons that more effort has been put into graphics than into AI ever since his time. “Because it's the thing that immediately impresses people. As soon as you start interacting with a world of pretty graphics then you realise that actually it's not really that interactive. It's always bugged me about the way computer games developed over the years. Even if you take Assassin's Creed, which is a phenomenally complex game with all these NPCs wandering around, it is nothing but an elaborate paper-thin illusion, to be honest.”

“I mean, computer games didn't develop really in that direction," he says, “and I guess what people enjoy and what they like at the psychological level is more to do with having their own ego massaged in certain ways through these very simple reward cycles.”

Not that all Gollop's own games were totally honest with the player. “Yeah, obviously when I was programming XCOM stuff we were faking intelligent. We had some very simple tricks to fake it. I talked a bit about the randomness element in XCOM and how we put it in the AI. But in actual fact, being unpredictable is a way of intelligently countering someone who's predictable.

“If you play poker, for example... the good poker players say, depending on your opponent of course, they'll say sometimes you need to mix up your game. Not necessarily that you're completely random but you're doing something which they're not predicting. You're maybe just changing the way you value something and it throws them because they can no longer predict what you're doing. In the original XCOM, we always tried to make sure that the aliens did not do things on a purely binary choice but always had a little bit of randomness in there. 10% of the time they'll do something really stupid perhaps but most of the time, within some kind of reasonable constraints, what they do is reasonable even though it may have some random element to it.”

"I think stuff today is so overdesigned, it's unbelievable"

The 'we' is important in that quote. Gollop's consensual design and management style was reflected in his self-deprecating GDC talk, where he emphasised quite how much a team effort the original XCOM was - to the extent that he restricted his own credit almost solely to the Laser Squad-style battle sections. Many would argue he's extremely unfair to himself. Here, he contrasted that with the auteur-driven games of today. “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 so how your main character is presented suddenly becomes a huge PR and marketing issue...”

He himself prefers procedural systems. "I really like games that generate stuff for you rather than have everything overdesigned. 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. It does allow you to create something vast and complex to explore with less effort. 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."

"Ubisoft and probably other big publishers actually, they're making games by pure brute force"

From that perspective it's not surprising that Gollop, who spent many years working at Ubisoft Bulgaria before departing to work on his new game Chaos Reborn, is wary of the scale of modern AAA development. XCOM: Apocalypse had a then-average team of five. “Well I know from working at Ubisoft they have hundreds upon hundreds working on Assassin's Creed - more than 400. Assassin's Creed III is absolute bare minimum 600 people, probably, were working on it for most of the time worldwide across many studios.”

“It's huge. Ubisoft and probably other big publishers actually, they're making games by pure brute force... Obviously, these games require a huge amount of asset generation. It's like a factory. They're an immensely difficult undertaking, to be sure.”

The full interview, featuring Gollop's thoughts on Firaxis' 2012 iteration of the XCOM series, tales from the development of Apocalypse and much more will be published this Sunday here on PCGamer.com.