All Your History: X-COM Part 1 – British Invasion
Nasty, gun-toting aliens descending from the skies are the stuff of nightmares…and of hit video games. One of the most fondly remembered and influential titles featuring evil ETs is X-COM: Enemy Unknown, a game that spawned an entire franchise of sequels, as well as a 2012 remake from Firaxis and 2K Games. But just where did these invaders from space come from, and who brought them here? The answer isn’t in the stars, but across the pond…
In the 1980s, British game designer Julian Gollop was making a name for himself in the world of computers. He had been a lifelong gamer: growing up, his family played board games and card games all the time, inspiring Julian to pursue more complex strategy games. At first, he pursued his passion by making his own board games. But as computers became a popular home entertainment option, it was clear that video games were the future. In 1982, one of his pen and paper games, Time Lords, was recreated digitally for the BBC Micro computer. Gollop made the transition from the tabletop to the desktop, and he never looked back.
Soon after Time Lords, Gollop started designing and programming sci-fi strategy games on the ZX Spectrum computer. His projects were released by small, regional game publishers like Red Shift and Telecomsoft, and stayed confined mostly to Great Britain and Europe. In 1984, Gollop designed Rebelstar Raiders, a turn-based strategy game that put players in control of squads of soldiers. Rereleased as Rebelstar in 1986, the game’s squads would duke it out in close quarters or at range, armed with futuristic weaponry—and the strategy and wits of the players in command. Rebelstar II was published in 1988, improving on what had come before and helping to popularize computer strategy games in the UK. That same year, Gollop started his own development company, Mythos Games. Mythos became synonymous with Gollop’s projects, all of which stemmed from his lifelong love of fantasy and science fiction.
For his next game, 1988’s Laser Squad for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64 computers, Gollop added even more sophistication, challenging players with more missions and gameplay variables. Gollop’s projects were earning major praise in the press, scoring high marks and a cult following. Laser Squad was so highly regarded that, in 1993, it was named number 16 in the Top 100 Games of All Time. As it turned out, the critical successes of the Rebelstar series and Laser Squad were merely signs of what was yet to come for Gollop.
His next game was Lords of Chaos, released in 1990 for 8-bit and 16-bit computer platforms. A turn-based, fantasy-inspired strategy game, Lords of Chaos was a sequel to one of his older games, Chaos: The Battle of Wizards, and was yet another success. But by this point, Gollop and his brother Nick—with whom he collaborated on Lords of Chaos and in the running of Mythos Games—had been getting bogged down in doing much of the legwork for the small publishers that were releasing their games. So for their next project, the Gollop brothers set their sights higher, seeking a bigger publisher to publish their games worldwide. Working with a bigger company would allow the duo to move away from bureaucracy and focus on making their games the best they could be.
After the fantasy setting of Lords of Chaos, the Gollops decided to revisit science fiction for their next project. At first, the plan was to make a sequel to the successful Laser Squad. The two pitched their new demo to three major publishers: Krisalis, Domark, and MicroProse. In 1991, the Gollops struck a deal with MicroProse, the publisher cofounded by legendary game designer and Civilization creator, Sid Meier. While signing the contract with MicroProse signified a huge step forward for Mythos Games, working with the company wasn’t all smooth sailing.
In fact, even though they sought escape from bureaucracy with a bigger publisher, the Gollops’ agreement with MicroProse wound up creating some more unexpected headaches. Julian Gollop recalled some of the struggles of working with their new publisher in a retrospective piece with Edge:
“When we first got the contract with MicroProse we were very pleased but concerned about what they might require us to do. 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.”
Eventually, however, MicroProse’s oversight helped the Gollops make a more sophisticated game. The publisher ordered the brothers to set the action on Earth, doing away with the far-flung extra-terrestrial locales of the Laser Squad and Rebelstar series. Now, instead of depicting the clash of rival alien factions, the game featured an epic struggle for our planet’s security and survival.
To enhance the grand scale of the new game, the Gollops added a new strategic element to up the ante and increase the drama: in order to repel the aliens invading earth, players had to try and secure enemy technology and use it against them. These new mechanics, combined with Gollop’s years of experience designing enemy AI, helped shape the project into what looked to be Mythos Games’ best release yet.
Even still, getting the game finished on time was proving to be more than a little troublesome. Gollop explained to Edge how much of a nightmare the final two months of development turned out to be:
“We went to MicroProse to finish the game in-house with something that was barely playable. We had to finish the coding and do all the testing at the same time, and so were making changes right to the end. It’s definitely not the right way to do things, and the game would have benefited enormously from another couple of months of testing and tweaking without major changes to the code.”
In March, 1994, UFO: Enemy Unknown was released for MS DOS and Amiga. Reviews for the game were extremely positive, and it sold 600,000 copies. And while few of Gollop’s previous games had found much of an audience outside of Europe, the muscle of MicroProse provided a huge boost. Half of UFO’s sales came from North America, where it was renamed X-COM: UFO Defense.
The game was a smash. It was so smashing, in fact, that a PlayStation port—X-COM: Enemy Unknown—followed in 1995, bringing the game to an even wider audience, and giving the franchise its new, permanent name. In one fell swoop, the Gollop brothers went from small-scale game designers to industry hit-makers.
But the celebrations would be short-lived for the Gollops and Mythos Games. While X-COM’s first outing quickly flew to great heights, the franchise had no other direction to go but down…