Julian Gollop on XCOM

Julian Gollop on XCOM

Julian Gollop on XCOM

Julian Gollop hasn't been involved in Firaxis' remake of X-COM: Enemy Unknown, his classic 1993 PC strategy game. He didn't even know about the remake until its public reveal just after New Year. "I would have liked to have been, because in a way I've been trying to remake that game for so long, without much success," he tells us. 

Throughout his career, Gollop has been developing turn-based strategy games, releasing a string of titles from 1985's Chaos to 3DS launch title Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars that have seen the genre being superseded by the fast-paced dynamics of Dune 2 and Command & Conquer's realtime strategy, revitalised by Advance Wars and then become an integral component of mobile and social gaming.

With Gollop currently working on an unannounced game that's "part of a major Ubisoft franchise" at its Sofia studio, we ask him his opinion of what the X-COM remake looks from its few released screenshots, what he hopes Firaxis will do with his creation (read about the making of UFO: Enemy Unknown here) and his feelings on the future of the turn-based strategy genre.

Is there anything about X-COM you'd like to see being addressed in this remake?
Yeah, of course. Mainly in the realm of accessibility, which some people might call 'dumbing down' In the early 90s of course you didn't have in-game tutorials or help, because it was all in the big thick manual. Today people do not read manuals, they expect the game to teach them how to play it. Which is fair enough. In Shadow Wars we put a fair amount of effort into making the game accessible, teaching the systems as you're playing the game, hopefully keeping the player interested as they're learning.

This is the major thing, but it doesn't mean you have to dumb anything down in the sense that the full complexity of the game would be eventually revealed to the player as he learns all the systems. That was one thing that was difficult about the original UFO [X-COM was known as UFO in the UK]. It put you there and forced you to make decisions straight away without much idea of what you were supposed to be doing!

It was a problem that persisted in X-COM followup Terror From The Deep, which was even harder.
We [Mythos Games] had absolutely nothing to do with the development of Terror From The Deep because we licensed our code to Microprose. I think they made some classic mistakes in turn-based games, which is to make the difficulty too tough and the levels too big, long and tedious to get through. In turn-based games the really difficult thing to get right – and I wouldn't claim I've got it right – is that you need to keep each turn having at least some interesting decisions for the player about where to go, what to attack, how to attack.

If you have some boring turns where you're just moving guys around without any real interesting decision-making then turn-based games can get very dull very quickly. It's difficult to get right. We had this issue with Shadow Wars – although I tried to minimise it by stressing it to the level design team, but it's not easy to do. But the temptation is to make things big and complex and therefore ultimately a bit dull.

The screenshots indicate that XCOM: Enemy Unknown will have a 3D camera, while the original had a fixed, isometric one. Is disorientation a problem in tactical games like this?
It's difficult to see how the camera works from the screenshot, but disorientation is a problem. In Valkyria Chronicles it worked fine because you have a strategic map view that I thought worked well; I didn't find Valkyria Chronicles very disorientating. It is an issue – I don't know how [Firaxis is] doing their camera control but it's one thing they need to get right if they're going to get accessibility correct.

It makes people feel disorientated – they feel confused about where things are and where they need to go – then yes, it's a big problem. The standard isometric view we used on UFO and lots of others of my games works generally fine. We had this big argument with Shadow Wars where everybody wanted the camera to rotate freely. I said we really didn't want to do that because players would get disorientated and because it affects the level design – you can't design a 3D level to look good from all points of view. So we designed the levels from a single point of view. I had to say to constrain ourselves – I think they eventually accepted it. It doesn't look like Firaxis are going the same route here; it looks like freeform camera.

There's a minimap, though.
Yeah, but that's not going to be enough to help players, I don't think.

Are there aspects of the original game you'd like to see developed?
Yes – procedural mission and terrain generation, which we did very simply with the original game. We designed little sections and fitted them together semi randomly to create a unique map every time. Unfortunately the UFOs themselves were all fixed, so I'd like to see something which could generate an interesting tactical mission and be different every time it generated it.

Developing better AI would be interesting. In the original game I'd have liked to have gone more into the UFO lore which is generally known by people into UFOlogy. I'd have liked to have gone into the RPG element more, the character development. More options as to how they develop. That would be interesting.