“The idea of defence as opposed to offence is so much more emotional. Protecting something precious from attack is much more visceral…” -Eugene Jarvis
With the exception of aliens, Julian Gollop’s strategy game, UFO: Enemy Unknown has absolutely no gameplay commonalities with Eugene Jarvis’s arcade side-scrolling magnum opus, Defender. The games both touch on a primal emotion however, defense against the unknown and fear itself. UFO: Enemy Unknown, or as most would eventually know it: X-Com: UFO Defense was the result of an iterative development process for Julian Gollop and his brother Nick, spanning a decade of prior work, and the game kicked off a cherished, though oft-mishandled franchise. Today we are going to journey through the history of the X-Com franchise, beginning with Julian Gollop’s earliest inspirations and works, through the original series, up to the War of the Chosen. Welcome to Arcadology: The History of XCOM.
Julian Gollop’s Early Career
There are four distinct eras in the history of the XCOM franchise. You have the pre-history, which consists of Julian Gollop’s early life and career as a Game Dev. You have the original series, starting with the release of the game from 1994, through Apocalypse. You have the dark times after Apocalypse, and then you have the Current Age, with the 2012 reboot. As with any story, we are going to start at the beginning and dive into Julian Gollop’s life as a young game developer.
Like many who would find themselves designing strategy games in the 1980s, Julian Gollop had a childhood filled with board games. Family night centered around the board game and around the age of 14, Gollop found himself getting into the more complex fare published by Avalon Hill, and Dungeons and Dragons. As he grew up, Gollop made the same realization that many of his peers did: The growing power of personal computers would be perfect for simplifying and streamlining some of the complexities of tabletop gaming.
Gollop with his coding providing by friend Andy Green, released two games while he was still in school in 1983: Time Lords, which was for the BBC Micro Computer, and Islandia. Islandia is the more significant of the two, as it’s in this game that Gollop first experimented with the concept of Action Points, which he had seen implemented in SPI board games. Soon after Gollop began to learn how to program on his own, designing and coding his first game called “Nebula” on the ZX Spectrum.
Julian’s next games would come while he was attending University. Chaos was based on a tabletop game that Gollop designed several years prior, which itself was influenced by a Games Workshop game named Warlock. In 1984, Gollop released the game that could be considered the first version of XCOM, called Rebelstar Raiders. While crude and not having a single-player mode, the basic concepts of squad-based tactics would begin to gestate and develop as Gollop became more comfortable as a programmer and designer. The sequel, simply titled Rebelstar was also intended to be a two-player game, but the publisher forced Gollop to give it a single player campaign as well. This made Gollop learn path algorithms, which basically dictated how the AI could move around the map.
Rebelstar was a marked improvement in many ways over the original with larger, maps and refined gameplay. There would be another sequel, Rebelstar II released in 1988, again on the ZX Spectrum. Following Rebelstar II, Gollop, joined with his brother to form a development studio called Mythos Games, to develop Laser Squad, which can be seen as a direct precursor to the XCOM franchise. Among the gameplay mechanics that they introduced with Laser Squad, some of which would become very important for X-Com, were line-of-sight, weapon and armor loadout changes, and destructible terrain.
The Gollop brother’s turned their attention to Lords of Chaos, which was a sequel to Gollop’s earlier game, Chaos. Lords of Chaos represented a significant shift for Mythos Games, as they journeyed away from self-publishing and found a publisher named Blade Software. Unfortunately the royalty deal they had was atrocious, Blade Software ended up owing the Brothers Gollop money, so when they began plans for a second Laser Squad game, they realized they needed a more serious publisher. From the shortlist they formed, the company they ended up reaching out to was MicroProse, whom they showed a demo of Laser Squad 2. Upon showing a isometric Laser Squad 2 demo to MicroProse, Pete Moreland, head of MicroProse development at the time, said they they liked the game, but wanted something bigger.
The Development of X-COM
Grand narrative, a phrase used to describe strategy games that tell player controlled stories on a huge scale, is what they wanted. Civilization, Railroad Tycoon, these were what MicroProse was looking for. Among the requirements were; the game must be set on earth, it needed to have a research tree and something equivalent to Civilization’s civilopedia. Gollop went back to the drawing board and began research on UFO’s per Moreland’s suggestion. The result was Mythos games taking inspiration from several sources. The style and theming came from the British TV series UFO, and the claims made by Bob Lazar about Area 51’s practice of reverse engineering alien technology as written in Timothy Good’s book Alien Liason: The Ultimate Secret. The concept behind the X-Com organization in the game came from the SHADO organization in the UFO TV show. Several of the game design ideas were inspired, first, by Gollop’s previous tactical games, tabletop games such as Sniper and Freedom in the Galaxy, and a sci-fi RPG called Traveller.
The Gollop brother’s crafted a design document with the ideas of having two separate layers of the game, the command layer which had base building and research, and the tactical squad-based layer. This element of the game was in part inspired from Freedom in the Galaxy, which Gollop has mentioned allowed him to appreciate having more than one scale in a game. Moreland and MicroProse loved it. Julian and Nick Gollop would be responsible for the coding and design of the game. Two Artists named John Reitze and Martin Simillie, were loaned to Mythos by MicroProse. According to Gollop during his GDC Post-mortem for the game, there were several other MicroProse employees who would be involved in significant ways, such as Mike Brunton and Stephen Hand. Stephen Hand was a Laser Squad fan who pushed for the game to be signed by MicroProse, and he was the one to come up with the name X-COM. Towards the end of the development process, composer John Broomhall was brought in to score the game and Andrew Parton did the engineering and sound effects.
There were several ups and downs during the course of the development. During the middle of production, Spectrum Holobyte acquired a controlling stake in MicroProse, and the game was nearly cancelled. In fact it later came out that the game was officially “cancelled” by Spectrum Holobyte. According to Gollop in an interview with PCgamer.com, while he was interviewing people to prepare for a GDC Post Mortem on the game in 2013, he discovered that Spectrum Holobyte had given the cancellation order, however MicroProse executives, such as Peter Moreland, decided it would be best to ignore the cancellation notice and allow Mythos to complete the game. The last three months of development were all in crunch time, as the Gollop brothers worked 12 hour days for seven days a week. Gollop stated that the game was finally finished in March of 1994 with a final development cost of around $180,000 dollars.
UFO: Enemy Unknown would be well received upon release and I remember sinking a fair number of hours into it between the ages of 10 and 14. The opening sequence of the alien attack was incredibly stylish. For those that have played the newer iteration of XCom however, the gameplay of the original might seem a little overwhelming at first. The user interface is littered with a number of buttons that if you are missed the instruction manual could cause some confusion. However with some patience it still feels like a rewarding game to play with some elements, like multiple bases, that would be cool to see in the new series.
Julian Gollop believes the initial success of the first XCOM game to be caused by a few coincidences. The X-Files had become very popular and much of the shows mythology was based on the same folklore and source material that Gollop had used for the game. Also, the PC Strategy market was growing and evolving in a number of ways. Gollop was never quite happy with the fact that the tactical missions had a randomly generated element to them, feeling the sum of the game was definitely greater than its parts. As of six years after its release, X-Com had sold around 470,000 copies across all platforms which included the PC, Amiga, and Playstation.
Terror from the Deep
Following the success of UFO Defense, MicroProse, now owned by Spectrum Holobyte, wanted to get a sequel for the game out in only six months. The Gollop brothers balked at this idea, stating nothing could be done in six months other than swapping sprites and using the original code. They agreed to license the code to MicroProse who would produce the first sequel, Terror from the Deep in house after a year of production. Gollop on Terror from the Deep: “I didn’t really play it that much to be honest. The graphics were quite impressive, but I think they made a mistake trying to expand the scope of the game by making the missions bigger and longer.”
When you fire up Terror from the Deep you are treated to a pretty cool (for 1995) CG cinematic. However once you get into the game you quickly realize that it literally is just a reskin of the original game. Obviously for fans of the first game this was not necessarily a bad thing: more XCom with a new locale, the depths of the oceans, to battle it out with the Alien menace. Unfortunately- any and all issues one might have had with the original game, including the overly complex user interface were translated directly into Terror for the Deep.
While MicroProse worked on Terror from the Deep, Mythos Games worked on the next installment. The game, titled XCOM: Apocalypse, would be the final game in the franchise that Julian Gollop would have involvement in. The core concept from the game arose from a Judge Dredd game that Gollop had conceived years prior, featuring a city in which the player had to deal with different corporations and factions.
Apocalypse never quite clicked. The game had a lot of concepts, but the vision was unclear. Mixing real time and turn based combat led to both feeling unfulfilling, and constant friction between Mythos and MicroProse over the art style for the game. According to Gollop in an interview with Eurogamer, MicroProse wanted to control the art style, even going so far as hiring a famous artist to create models of the aliens that would be in the game, and then scanning them into MicroProse’s software. Unfortunately, the MicroProse art team never quite grasped how to translate those models into sprites that would work in an isometric perspective.
Gollop stated in another interview on the final artwork: “Apart from the guy who designed the vehicles, who did a very good job – the aliens, city and buildings didn’t look that good.” In the end, Julian stated that he regretted simply not taking on the task of creating what would Terror from The Deep in six months, and then quote “just taking a year like they did!” Despite this, Apocalypse was still a profitable game.
After the acrimony over the handling of X-Com: Apocalypse, Nick and Julian Gollop decided that Mythos games would no longer be working with MicroProse. In addition to the poor relationship, MicroProse was undergoing a bit of a transitional period, as Spectrum Holobyte, its parent company was being purchased by Hasbro. Mythos ended up signing a development deal with Virgin Interactive, but could not bring their most valuable intellectual property with them. Gollop stated to Eurogamer that:
“There was some dispute about who owned the licence. In those days, companies weren’t terribly good about intellectual property protection. Our lawyers said that if it went to a court battle, we’d probably lose, and have to hand over the X-Com name. But strangely, their lawyers were telling them the same thing! We eventually struck a deal that we would get increased royalty rates for X-Com Apocalypse, and they would take the licence.”
Interceptor, Enforcer, Cancelled Games
X-Com continued on after the split between MicroProse and Mythos. The first game to be developed was X-Com Interceptor. Dave Ellis would take the seat formerly filled by Julian Gollop as the game’s designer. Ellis began his career at MicroProse in the early 90s working first in their customer service department, and then transferring to quality assurance after a few months. He was in a unique situation heading into the development of Interceptor, as he had previously been moonlighting as the strategy guide author for UFO Defense and Terror from the Deep. When the split between MicroProse and Mythos occurred, there was no one more knowledgeable at the company than Dave Ellis who mentioned in an interview with the website The Last Outpost, that he was appointed the X-Com Guru.
Part of the inspiration for pushing X-Com beyond the boundaries of its initial genre was LucasArts experimentation with the Star Wars games. As Ellis outlined it, the goal was to use one of the flight simulator engines and to set the game during one of the X-Com games, so the player would experience similar events from a different perspective. Ellis defends the game from the idea that this was an attempt to slap X-Com onto anything. The intention was to take X-Com and turn it into something grand, because Ellis and other MicroProse management felt strongly about its potential. This never quite happened.
During the course of Interceptors development , Ellis and his team felt strongly about calming fan concerns, and attempted to do so by allowing the “Cult of X-Com” to be able to contact the team through both a forum and an open e-mail address.
The game would stick to the retro-futurist aesthetic that the MicroProse art team had established with X-Com: Apocalypse despite the team’s desire to distance themselves from Apocalypse itself by setting the game in the years leading up to the third X-Com game.
Interceptor ended up with middling reviews despite the efforts of Ellis and team, and only sold around 30,000 copies. The side effect of Interceptor’s 18 months in development was that many at MicroProse were suffering from X-Com fatigue, leaving Dave Ellis to be the only champion for his next idea for an X-Com title, called Genesis. It would be six months before development began on Genesis but when it started, the team became populated by many who worked on Interceptor.
Genesis was intended to be a game designed in the mold of the original X-Com, with strategy, research, and tactics layers but with real time battles in place of turn based. According to Ellis, Genesis would have had an identical geoscape layer to the first two games, UFO Defense and Terror from the Deep, with the intent to also include alien races from those two games with both land and sea missions. Unfortunately none of it would come to pass. As Dave and Team were working on Genesis it became clear that Hasbro’s purchase of Spectrum Holobyte would not end well, given Hasbro’s history of trouble with video game development. The MicroProse Chapel Hill office, which is where the team working on Genesis was housed; was shut down on January 17th, 2000. According to Ellis, the design document for the game had been 80% completed and they had a semi-playable demo.
Running concurrently with the development of Genesis, was another doomed project, X-Com: Alliance. Alliance’s roots predated those of Genesis and the game survived for a few more years prior to getting the axe. Originally started in the Chipping Sodbury MicroProse office, under the direction of Terror from the Deep’s Stuart Whyte and Andrew Williams, the game’s development moved to the Chapel Hill office when Chipping Sodbury was shut down. When the Chapel Hill office was eventually shut down as outlined above, the development of the game moved over to the Hunt Valley office.
The development of Alliance was troubled, so the Hunt Valley office put the game on hold in favor of developing X-Com: Enforcer. MicroProse had been wanting to use the Unreal engine which was planned for Alliance, but with Alliance’s issues they flipped many of the art assets that were designed for it and used them for Enforcer instead. Enforcer is barely what one might consider an X-Com game, a third-person action shooter. It received mixed reviews. Shortly before Enforcer’s release, Hasbro, which had had enough of the video game world, sold off Hasbro Interactive and all its properties to Infogrames. Alliance, and X-Com in general was in stasis.
XCOM lands at Firaxis
Intellectual property law is bonkers. Though necessary in many regards, it has a myriad of complexities that often cause confusion. How did X-Com, which was originally owned by MicroProse find its way back to the spiritual successor of MicroProse, Firaxis? Much like another MicroProse title, Civilization, there was some IP shuffling that had to take place. After Hasbro Interactive was sold, X-Com ended up being held by Infogrames as well as the Atari name. Shortly thereafter, Infogrames rebranded itself as Atari and in the late 2000s, Atari sold the X-Com IP to Take Two, which then transferred it to its subsidiary, 2K Games, to eventually be developed by its OWN subsidiary, Firaxis. The responsibility for the development would fall on the shoulders of Jake Solomon.
As a highschool student, Jake Solomon could not get enough of X-COM: UFO Defense when it came out. He would play it every night for hours before falling asleep, going to school only to come home and do it all again. This was 1994 and Jake was on the precipice of going off to college. The plan, as laid out from his parents, was to go to medical school and become a doctor. But that was not in the cards. The mid-90s was a transformative era for gaming, and much like the golden age of the arcades leading many to become game designers, X-COM lead Jake Solomon into the field of computer science where he had only one goal, make a new X-COM game. Jake Solomon started at Firaxis right out of college around the year 2000. Sid Meier took Solomon under his wing, mentoring him through those early years of being a designer. Solomon refers to Meier as his “professional father” demonstrating a very strong bond between the two.
Solomon’s obsession over X-COM never waned. Whenever the discussion came up at Firaxis as to which game should be made next, XCOM was often Solomon’s suggestion. In 2003, he would get his first chance. From what I gather, Firaxis had not acquired the right to make the IP yet, however that hadn’t stopped others from playing within the confines of the genre. Julian Gollop had just designed Laser Squad Nemesis in 2002, keeping it very much in the same vein as X-COM. Jake Solomon took to making a prototype of an XCOM game with zeal. Unfortunately, it was not very good. Solomon in an interview with Polygon, stated:
“I made one of the shittiest, shittiest prototypes of a game that anyone has ever made,” Solomon says. “I mean, I’d only been in the industry for three years. I’m lucky I even got the opportunity. … And it was so shitty … I had so much to learn. It wasn’t fun. It was awful. It was awful. I’m not only the guy who remade XCOM, I’m also the guy who almost fucking killed it.” The game was a quote “Hot-key driven mess” and made very little sense despite being very inspired by X-COM. After the disastrous showing, Firaxis canned the project, letting Solomon learn from his mistakes rather than dragging it out any longer.
Solomon spent the next four years working at Firaxis, doing everything he could to earn another chance at designing a game. And when his turn came around, it was once again, a chance to design XCOM. At the time, Solomon was working on Civilization Revolution, spending his days at the office working on that, then working on the code for XCOM at night. And less than a year into the development cycle, Solomon thought he had finally gotten the prototype that he had intended to design several years prior. Except he hadn’t. The new proposal leaned on many things from the original that many thought could be refined. Time units, which determined how many actions you could take in a turn, large squads, and random, procedurally generated maps. Solomon would eventually have to walk back all these ideas, especially the maps. After the team completed a vertical slice of the game and showed it to the rest of Firaxis they received the bad news. Most did not enjoy it. It once again, only appealed to hardcore XCOM players.The vertical slice, was a failure, and a year of design had been wasted.
Solomon spent a lot of time talking to Sid Meier after that, trying to work through the issues that he was having with the game. Looking back on it, Solomon realizes the issue was basically attempting to remake the original game.
“I don’t know what I was thinking. It was the original game, and then over the top of that I had put … soldier abilities … a cover system … new alien abilities … new weapons. It was … incredibly complicated — not complex. Complex is fun, complicated is bad. This was a very complicated game. It was more complicated than the original.” Jake Solomon, “The Making of Jake Solomon” Polygon.
The first iteration of the game was completely thrown out, much to the dismay of many of the leads on the project. Solomon would spend days working on a new version with his team, while simultaneously developing a tabletop version of Sid Meier in order to work out some of the gameplay kinks. The process worked, eventually leading to a point where Meier and Solomon both programmed a playable version of the tabletop game. Many of the elements of Solomon and Meier’s different takes on that table top game would be combined into what would become X-Com: Enemy Unknown.
The game launched with lingering bugs, something that Solomon and team took rather personally. Given the final stretch of development it was to be expected. However the bugs didn’t effect the critical reception for the game, the vanilla version of which hit an 89 on MetaCritic. What’s more is that the game would go on to receive numerous game of the year awards, reaching levels of recognition that the original game never quite achieved. Though without the fever pitch of nostalgia, without people going back and remembering what that first hit of XCom was like, would the reboot have made as big a splash? Possibly. Divining an answer to that question would be pure conjecture. What isn’t conjecture however is the effect the game had on players.
Civilization has long been known to cause players to take just, quote: One More Turn. I even started my history of Civilization by speaking that oft used mantra of strategy gamers. X-Com Enemy Unknown truly lived up to that phrase, coined to describe Sid Meier’s addictive game. In a review for Official Playstation Magazine, David Houghton referred to the gameplay as “compulsive.” Develop of the game would continue with additional DLC expanding some of the gameplay elements, before X-Com: Enemy Within rewrote some of the core mechanics, adding a new faction, the Alien friendly EXALT, to deal with. It was overall well received.
But what t would not be so well received would be an XCom spinoff game known as The Bureau: XCom Declassified.
While Jake Solomon was undergoing severe growing pains at Firaxis, another 2K games studio, Irrational, would be put to the task of developing an XCom property as well. Irrational had been acquired in a Take Two spending spree, Take Two being the parent company to 2K Games. Irrational was known for being home to Ken Levine, whose System Shock 2 had been considered one of the best games of the previous ten years. Irrational had two studios, one in Boston, and one in Canberra. The Boston one was the headliner with Canberra acting mostly in a support capacity for the games that were developed, which would include BioShock.
Much like Firaxis, the idea of developing an XCom property had excited people at Irrational, with Ken Levine being a huge fan. The game took many forms over the years, from a team based tactics game, much like the original XCom franchise, to eventually being a third person shooter.
The full story, into how The Bureau happened, is not going to be told here. It shifted between three of 2K’s studios before getting its original 2010 release date pushed back all the way to 2013, after the world had already been introduced to Jake Solomon and Firaxis’s new vision for XCom. There would be no repeat of the late 90s, where a splintering grasp on what to do with the franchise spelled its doom. After the failure of The Bureau, the only XCOM in town, was tactical. In his first Gollop Chamber article in PC Gamer, the father of the franchise, Julian Gollop made a great point: “The XCOM genre is something special and distinct, and diverging too far from its fundamental design pillars results in something less than satisfactory…[The Bureau] 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.”
For all the ups and downs of the franchise, the development of X-Com 2 was comparatively normal. There would be no hidden cancellations, or tensions with the art department. No years wasted on ultimately discarded prototypes. No XCom 2 would be more of what made the first one successful, with some additional twists. One big twist would be the setting- the game’s setting was a future after a player loss in the first game. Losing XCom 1, became canon, strangely enough.
Another twist of a decision made during development would be that XCom 2 would start as a PC Exclusive. This allowed Firaxis to focus on higher end graphics as well as modding support. Firaxis would also partner with the developers of one of the most popular mods for XCom 1, The Long War, allowing them the access needed to release several mods on day 1 of the game’s release.
The release though, had some pain points. Many computers had issues running the game, as it wasn’t properly optimized for a number of graphics cards. My personal experience had me dropping the settings down as low as possible. For a point of comparison, I would run Doom 2016, released a few months later, on almost the highest possible settings. Many of the issues would be resolved with patches in the following months. The game currently sits at an 88 on metacritic, one point below its predecessor.
The phrase DLC gets used to describe a wide variety of content, from the infamous Horse Armor of Oblivion to massive expansion packs. XCom 2’s DLC the War of the Chosen, was the latter, so much so it was discussed, briefly, to possibly just be XCom 3. In an interview with Polygon, Jake Solomon said: “We definitely talked about [making it XCom 3] we have a lot of features that could have been the basis for a sequel, but for us a sequel also requires an entirely new narrative.”
Where does the franchise go from here? Ostensibly, XCom 3. I have a feeling that lessons have been learned about slapping the name XCom on things that don’t fit. Meanwhile, the genre is expanding broader than ever before. 2017 saw Nintendo and Ubisoft collaborate for an XCOM-lite style game called Kingdom Battle: Mario + Rabbids. But perhaps the most salient bit about the future of the series, comes from Julian Gollop himself, who is currently hard at work developing his own XCom style game, Phoenix Point. The first entry of his PC Gamer column was titled “XCOM is now a genre.” In it Gollop argues that the core pillars of design that represent XCom are unique enough that simply calling a game “an XCom game” should be enough of a genre descriptor. To quote the closing of his column: “There is such a thing as ‘the XCOM genre’, and I am really excited for the future. I am not alone any more.”
Thank you for joining me on what is my longest video to date. My sources can be found in the description down below, and if you notice any errors, please note them under the pinned fact check comment. If you are interested in additional histories in the same vein, check out my videos on Civilization and SimCity. My name is Spoiler Kevin, and thank you for watching Arcadology.