The X-COM itch “never goes away”, says X-COM creator Julian Gollop

Julian Gollop’s PC Gamer Chronicles

An alien from Phoenix Point

(Image credit: Snapshot Games)

Did you know that Julian Gollop wrote four columns for us, including topics like creating the deckbuilder genre? Find them all here (opens in a new tab).

X-COM: UFO Defense, known as UFO: Enemy Unknown here in the UK, is an integral part of PC gaming history. It was part of MicroProse’s glory days in the mid-90s, when groundbreaking strategy games were spewed out at an incredible rate. It spawned sequels, questionable spinoffs, and multiple successors, spiritual and otherwise. It’s an impressive legacy, and for creator Julian Gollop, the X-COM itch “never goes away”.

While the X-COM/XCOM series now has 10 games, Gollop was only responsible for the original and Apocalypse, the third game. Of course, none of them would have existed without him, his brother Nick and the small team of artists who built the game that started it all. And now you can’t launch a store like Steam or Epic without seeing countless turn-based strategies and tactics, many of which capitalize on the success of Firaxis’ XCOM.

“XCOM was basically a triple-A turn-based tactical game that was hugely popular, and I think that kind of broke the perception of turn-based games as something old-fashioned and unattractive,” Gollop says. . “So I have a lot to thank Firaxis for that one.”

Gollop also notes all the interesting turn-based tactical RPGs that keep popping up, especially those inspired by tabletop games, like Wildermyth and Gloomhaven. With this greater overlap between tabletop and digital, and the growing number of people getting into board games, there is incredible diversity, both in terms of audiences and the games themselves.

A quarter century after X-COM, Gollop and Snapshot Games have released a spiritual successor: Phoenix Point. Like UFO Defense, the combat between humans and aliens could be a grueling conflict, but with story, factions, and larger strategic conflict influenced by Gollop’s love of tabletop games. And now Snapshot calls it complete, with the Phoenix Point: Complete Edition available now, along with DLC and Steam Workshop support. But does this final version correspond to his vision of an X-COM sequel?

The original vision wasn’t just to recreate an X-COM style game, but to bring something a bit new to the table.

Julien Gollop

“Yes, it does,” Gollop says. “But it kind of stretched a bit beyond that, as we explored some cool options with DLCs. This is the most in-depth, detailed tactical team-based game out there. And that can stay that way for a long time. So obviously the whole team is immensely proud of what we’ve achieved with it. And it was incredibly ambitious. I mean, the original vision wasn’t just to recreate an X-COM style game , but to bring something a bit new to the table in the sense of how the world is represented, faction interacts with story elements, etc.

However, part of this ambitious vision caused problems initially, such as the evolving alien threat that responded to player actions. “It worked as expected,” Gollop says, “but players didn’t really see it very clearly, or it felt a little too random. One of our first complaints was about difficulty spikes, as the aliens had developed an appendix, which was quite dangerous for the player, and they started using it because it was effective. So in a way, I guess you could say it was a bit too much beautiful. So we had to try to tone it down so that the alien progression is a bit more gradual.”

(Image credit: Snapshot Games)

There were also groups of players with very different expectations. Much of the presentation and systems evoked Firaxis’ XCOM, which is by no means a walk in the park, but is considerably more accessible and less brutal than its predecessor. The players from this game were therefore not prepared for the kick ass they were going to receive.

“It’s very difficult to get it right the first time,” says Gollop. And I have to admit we probably haven’t in that regard, in terms of game difficulty progression. Because Phoenix Point is less structured in progression than, say, modern XCOM, that makes it even harder . On the one hand, we want the player to explore and experience things, and for different things to happen if they do different things. But on the other hand, we don’t want to overwhelm the player and make them feel like they’ve been cheated. The game has unfair advantages, it just doesn’t feel fair. So yes, it is a difficult balancing act. And we’ve made so many changes along the way to try to fix that. And I think the game is in a much better place.”

It’s very difficult to get it right the first time.

Julien Gollop

One thing that’s clear from the feedback is that, in addition to hardcore players who crave a challenge, “there’s probably a larger group of players who are more looking for an experience, looking to experience the story, or looking to do the experience of character development”. RPGs and strategy games have long had a close relationship, but it’s even more evident now, and there’s growing expectation that some RPG stalwarts will show up in team-based tactics games as well.

With the future of Phoenix Point now in the hands of modders, Snapshot Games is moving on, but what Gollop doesn’t say. While the X-COM itch will never go away, it’s no guarantee we’ll see another alien-hunting squad-based tactic again. “We will do different things,” he said.

One thing is clear, he is still enthusiastic about tabletop games and the digital games they inspire. He’s written about deckbuilders before, for PC Gamer, actually. (opens in a new tab), and continues to be a fan. “It’s quite fashionable now,” he says. “And I think that’s great, because I really like Slay the Spire and I like Dominion – I love that style of play. I also think it’s really interesting that the mechanics developed in the games of society find their way into video games and become popular again. Because still, the board game space is definitely the most innovative space in terms of pure game design. And the fact that now, to some extent, there are a lot of video games now following the innovations of the board game space is pretty cool.

Although he’s hesitant to act like an oracle and make big predictions about video game trends, he expects deckbuilders to be around for a long time. “They will be an integral part of the game landscape.” And while that doesn’t mean we should expect Snapshot to develop a deckbuilder, the symmetry of the two Firaxis — with Midnight Suns (opens in a new tab)– and Gollop working on deckbuilders is very appealing.

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