The Making Of: X-COM: Enemy Unknown

Julian Gollop recalls the development of the title that first brought turn-based wargaming to the masses.

Right about the time the first generation of home computers were making their presence felt, tabletop strategy and role-playing was at its zenith. Wargame titles were readily available for the re-enactment of every major conflict in the history of man, while fantasy gaming went far beyond the reach of Dungeons & Dragons to encompass deep space adventures such as Traveller and even literary adaptations based around characters such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. It was only a matter of time before such gaming found its way onto the computer screen.

Armed with hex maps, the Americans got there first but, in the UK, many got their first taste of computer-based strategy gaming courtesy of Julian Gollop. Having designed two Redshift-published titles, he went on to code a third (Nebula), before really making his mark with the 1984 release of Chaos and Rebelstar Raiders. His next move was to form Blade Software with brother Nick, the pair working together on 1988’s Laser Squad, a winning evolution of the Rebelstar turn-based sci-fi strategy formula.

Strategy wargaming had become, if not quite a mainstream concern, then at least a profitable one for the Gollops. So much so that, with the success of Laser Squad and their next title, Lords Of Chaos, the brothers found themselves getting bogged down in the management side of their business. When the time came to begin work on a second Laser Squad game they took the decision to focus on development.

“I remember when our little office was piled high with Laser Squad expansion kits and mountains of Jiffy bags, with no room to work very comfortably,” recalls Gollop. “We were doing some good business, but we wanted a worldwide publishing deal, and so we needed to find ourselves a big publisher.”

In 1991, armed with an early demo of Laser Squad 2, the game that would ultimately become X-COM: Enemy Unknown, they approached Krisalis, Domark and, finally, MicroProse. The latter was their favoured publisher because of its experience handling Sid Meier and his Civilization strategy game.

“When we first got the contract with MicroProse we were very pleased but concerned about what they might require us to do,” he says. “We did have a few arguments in the beginning because they didn’t understand the game design I had written. They couldn’t see how the game was going to work. I had a tough job trying to explain it, and I had to produce a few more documents and attend a big meeting with their in-house designers, producers and head of development,” said Gollop.

The original demo was for a relatively modest, two player tactical game. MicroProse asked them to base the action on Earth and to expand on the original design to deliver something more in keeping with the other epic strategy games it already had on its roster. “That prompted me to add the strategic level, with the basic idea of an alien infiltration of earth and the need to capture and research the alien technology to defeat them. It was quite a radical design in many respects, but we were trying to create a grand scale that would rival that of Civilization. In fact the research and technology tree somewhat emulates the role of advances in Civilization, but it also helped to develop the storyline.”

Inspiration for the organisation carrying out these activities came from SHADO in Gerry Anderson’s UFO TV series, and also from Timothy Good’s book Alien Liaison. “After reading that I knew I was on to something good. The whole alien conspiracy angle was quite exciting, and the mind control powers of the aliens he described were chilling,”?said Gollop. “The book explained some of the alleged attempts by the US government to capture and replicate the alien technology, and even make some kind of secret deals with the aliens. All this would find its way into the game in some way.”

At its core, though, the game remained true to the turn-based strategy wargame roots of Laser Squad and the Rebelstar games. The AI system was based on that used in the earlier titles, the Gollops having developed and refined their own unique algorithms for pathfinding and behaviours. “We made sure that there was an element of unpredictability in the AI which often made it seem more intelligent than it actually was.”