All Your History: X-COM Part 2 – X-Communicated
Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Julian Gollop had worked on game after game, refining his designs with each passing project, but never making too big a splash anywhere outside of Europe. But with 1994’s UFO: Enemy Unknown, later renamed X-COM: Enemy Unknown for its 1995 PlayStation port, Gollop’s years of work had paid off with massive sales, critical acclaim, and the birth of a brand new franchise. But shortly after the original X-COM’s success, it became clear that the Titanic relationship built between Gollop’s Mythos Games and its publisher, MicroProse, had begun to sink beneath the waves…
Mythos Games worked for roughly four years to develop the first X-COM title, starting with their 1991 Laser Squad II demo, to the final release in March of 1994. But once X-COM proved itself in the marketplace with over a half-million sales, MicroProse wanted more. It wanted a sequel.
And it wanted it in six months.
Needless to say, Mythos balked at MicroProse’s idea. In response, Gollop told the publisher that the only way his team could create a sequel with that short a turnaround would be to make only superficial changes to X-COM’s graphics and gameplay. Instead, Mythos and MicroProse found a middle ground: the publisher licensed Mythos’s X-COM code and assigned the sequel to an internal studio. Meanwhile Gollop and his team set to work on a third installment—considered the “true” sequel—that was scheduled for release after two years of development.
Of course, the publisher’s six month timetable for a sequel proved just as impossible as Gollop had predicted. X-COM: Terror from the Deep wound up taking a year of development before it was released in June of 1995 for the PC. This time around, instead of fighting invaders from space, creatures from beneath the waves were, as the title implied, terrorizing Earth’s citizens. Set several years after the events of the first X-COM, Terror from the Deep brought players the same kind of strategic, squad-based gameplay, but underwater. The alien technology seized in Enemy Unknown didn’t function in the sea, giving the development team a convenient excuse to set players to work with the same “capture enemy technology” mechanic from the first game all over again.
Besides the new underwater setting, the other major change from the original X-COM was a ramped-up difficulty. Interestingly, due to the rushed final two months of development on the original version of Enemy Unknown, a bug managed to slip into the retail version that set the game’s difficulty on easy, no matter what players selected. As a result, the harder difficulty of Terror from the Deep managed to leave a lasting impact on many gamers who were unaware of the first game’s bug.
Gollop wasn’t impressed with MicroProse’s work, as he’s explained in numerous recent interviews. To him, the game’s difficulty was too high, and the game’s missions were tedious and often uninteresting. But his criticisms didn’t much matter: reviews for Terror from the Deep were generally positive. A reviewer for PC Gamer UK praised it as “not only a great sequel […] but a superb game in its own right.” Others saw it for what it was—a rehash of the original with a new set of visuals and tougher enemies and AI—but still maintained that the game was good at its core. Ports to the PlayStation and 3DO consoles followed in 1996.
Throughout Terror from the Deep’s development, Gollop and his team at Mythos Games were working on X-COM’s “real” sequel. Called X-COM: Apocalypse, its development time had increased from the planned two years to three, and it was given a bigger budget and far more attention than Gollop’s first installment. Due to an influx of cash from the original X-COM’s success, Mythos was able to expand its staff considerably. But despite having more resources to work with, Gollop’s recollection of Apocalypse’s development is unpleasant, at best.
MicroProse insisted on handling the game’s graphics while Mythos worked on the rest of the project, a situation Gollop called “a disastrous relationship from the start.” He explained to Eurogamer in 2010 that MicroProse brought in “some relatively famous artist who made physical models of the aliens, which were then scanned into their software.”
But according to the designer, “the artists couldn’t quite understand how isometric graphics worked.” The finished product, said Gollop, wasn’t up to par. The finished product, he said, “was a disaster area.” He’s also gone on the record saying that the game was “too ambitious,” featuring far too many big ideas—such as thoroughly detailed futuristic corporations and characters, randomly generated alien dimensions, and the option of real-time combat—none of which got implemented to their fullest potential by the end of the project’s three year development cycle.
But perhaps Gollop is his own worst critic. Despite his dissatisfaction with Apocalypse, when it was released for PCs in June of 1997, it still earned good reviews. Critics appreciated the increase in scope from the previous two games and the way it shook up the franchise. Instead of taking place in different settings across the globe or below the ocean, Apocalypse was set in one gigantic city, Mega-Primus, the only remnant of Earth’s civilization to survive the world-ending events of Terror from the Deep. Critics relished the changes and the new strategic challenges they brought.
Even still, Gollop seemed vindicated regarding some of Apocalypse’s visual failings. Amid one GameSpot reviewer’s praise of the game’s new, intriguing alien race, he did find one glaring problem with the bad guys that was impossible to overlook:
“They look silly. You’ll feel as if you’re waging war on the set of The Muppet Show.”
Despite the game’s solid reviews, Gollop was finished with MicroProse. To hear him tell it, the experience of working with the publisher was toxic from the start, growing worse with each project, and culminating in his feelings of disappointment and regret with Apocalypse. He left the company in 1997 to pursue opportunities with Britain’s big game publisher, Virgin Interactive. But as with all that had gone before regarding X-COM, even Gollop’s departure proved to be tricky.
The ownership of the X-COM license, it turned out, was in dispute. Gollop explained that Mythos’s lawyers believed that if the rights question went to court, MicroProse would walk away with the license—while MicroProse’s lawyers seemed to have the opposite opinion, believing that the courts would award the franchise’s rights to Mythos. Ultimately, the two sides settled on giving Gollop and his studio higher royalties for Apocalypse in return for the license. With that sorted, Gollop left MicroProse and the world of X-COM, and never looked back.
And all the while, two other MicroProse teams had been hard at work two completely different projects in the X-COM franchise…and they’d been toiling since 1995. But even with the rights to the series safely settled at MicroProse and another two titles long in the works, X-COM’s troubles had only just begun…
Tune in next time for total alienation…
For Part 1, click here…