All Your History: X-Com Part 3 – Extinguished.
Game designer Julian Gollop had worked with publisher MicroProse through the development and release of three titles in the X-COM series. Though all three games were successes, the working relationship between MicroProse and Mythos Games—Gollop’s development team—had become positively toxic. In 1997, after the completion of X-COM: Apocalypse, Gollop left MicroProse for greener pastures with Virgin Interactive. To make his departure final, he left the rights to the franchise he created with the publisher to do with as it pleased. And as Gollop walked out the door, MicroProse already had two more XCOM projects in the works by two different development teams. But despite the company’s apparent commitment to the brand, the publisher had its own share of mounting problems that proved more threatening than an alien invasion…
During the original X-COM’s final phases of development in late-1993, MicroProse was experiencing some major financial problems. To keep the company afloat, MicroProse cofounder Bill Stealey sought help from his friend Gilman Louie, president of publisher Spectrum Holobyte. That help came in the form of acquisition, as Spectrum Holobyte purchased MicroProse that year, leading to Stealey’s departure soon after in 1994. The company’s other cofounder, Civilization creator Sid Meier, exited the company himself in 1996.
But Spectrum Holobyte’s bailout would prove to be a temporary fix. By 1997, the company’s finances were in bad shape once again, leading to a takeover bid by GT Interactive, which failed. MicroProse’s stock fell to new lows, and caused speculation about the company’s future.
Meanwhile, a new X-COM title was getting ready to take flight. X-COM: Interceptor was the brainchild of Dave Ellis, a former QA tester at the company who had written strategy guides and other content for earlier games in the series before being made a game designer in 1995. Ellis was a huge fan of the series, and when he got the chance to make games of his own, he saw the potential for the franchise’s expansion. To Ellis, X-COM should be as rich a property for MicroProse as Star Wars had been for LucasArts.
To test his idea, he pitched a project that he hoped would kick off his vision to massively extend the brand: a space-combat simulator that had more in common with X-Wing than X-COM. Once it got the green light from his bosses, the work began for Ellis and his Chapel Hill-based team, culminating in the game’s May 1998 release. Published by Atari, it was undoubtedly the departure from the tried and true formula of squad-based strategy that Ellis had planned. Whether or not it turned out the way he envisioned is another story.
Players were placed in the cockpit of an Interceptor space fighter and tasked with defending human colonies in star systems far from Earth, all set during the time between Terror from the Deep and Apocalypse. Though it took a backseat to the space-combat, strategy did played an role important part in winning the game, since resources had to be efficiently managed by players.
But despite Ellis’s intentions to use Interceptor as a jumping off point for X-COM’s transformation into a gaming powerhouse, the result left fans of the series somewhat cold. Reviews were decent, but critics found fault with the dramatic shift in gameplay as well as the astronomically hard difficulty. Looking back in an interview with The Last Outpost a few years later, Ellis admitted that both criticisms were well-founded. Apparently, the development team was hamstrung by the 18 month development time, not to mention relatively scarce resources. Interceptor boasted a 14-member team and a budget of about a million dollars. When compared to other games in the space-combat genre—projects like Wing Commander that often commanded budgets of over $10 million and development teams more than double the size—Interceptor never really stood a chance. By Ellis’s account, Interceptor’s sales failed to live up to the numbers racked up by its series predecessors, moving only about 30,000 units when all was said and done.
The poor sales couldn’t have been much of a salve to the cash-strapped MicroProse. Only a few months before Interceptor’s May release, the assets held by the game’s publisher, Atari, had been purchased by Hasbro Interactive. A subsidiary of the toy company behind properties like Monopoly, Transformers, and G.I. Joe, Hasbro Interactive had been on a spending spree since its formation in 1995, acquiring smaller companies to quickly gain a foothold in the video game industry. The division brought in huge amounts of revenue for its parent company: in 1997, its revenues increased by 145 percent, and by 1998, its revenues grew by another 127 percent. In September of that year, the good times continued to roll when Hasbro Interactive purchased MicroProse outright for $70 million.
That purchase included the in-progress X-COM: Alliance, a project that had been in development at MicroProse’s UK studio for years. Like Interceptor, Alliance was planned as another twist on the strategy-heavy gameplay of the original X-COM. This time around, however, gamers would fight aliens in a first-person shooter, with strategy appearing in the form of squad management. But in early 1999, the game was on the verge of cancelation by the company’s new corporate bosses. When the foundering project was presented to MicroProse’s Chapel Hill studio, its development moved to North Carolina from the UK that April.
With what seemed like a renewed focus and commitment to the X-COM brand, Ellis and the Chapel Hill team embarked on yet another installment in the franchise. Soon after Interceptor shipped, work on X-COM: Genesis began. The game was going to bring the series back to its roots, offering up squad-based strategy set after the events of Apocalypse.
Strangely, Hasbro released a budget-priced X-COM title that was meant to be played via e-mail in September of 1999. X-COM: First Alien Invasion was loosely based on the first game in the series, but Ellis—regarded by the company as the XCOM Guru—apparently had nothing to do with the game’s creation or release.
Ellis’s lack of involvement now seems like a sign of what was yet to come. As it turned out, Hasbro Interactive’s reach had far exceeded its grasp. In early 1999, the company had plans to hit a billion dollars in revenue within three years—a path it was on thanks to its countless acquisitions of smaller companies. But by December, the harsh reality had set in, along with the discovery of poor accounting practices within the fledgling game publisher. The division’s massive growth of only the year before had shriveled from 127 percent to a mere 20 percent. The higher-ups at Hasbro started keeping a closer eye on the video game division—and with increased scrutiny came cuts.
In December 1999, management from Hasbro came to the Chapel Hill studio to tell the assembled developers that they were getting shut down—one of many studios culled in order to cut the company’s costs and improve its financial outlook going forward. Genesis was axed. By January of 2000, the studio was closed, with Ellis and many of his colleagues setting up shop across town as a new developer, Vicious Cycle Software.
The cuts and closures didn’t help, of course. Soon after, Hasbro Interactive began to collapse under the weight of its unsustainable expansion and relative inexperience in the industry, not to mention the sudden financial instability of its parent company in 2000. In January of that year, work on Alliance had been relocated to another MicroProse studio in Hunt Valley, Maryland. But in late 2000, the new development team was ordered to put Alliance on hold to quickly put together a completely different project in the franchise: a third-person shooter, X-COM: Enforcer, set during the events of the first game.
With progress on Alliance stalled yet again and a rushed shooter being prepped for release, Hasbro washed its hands of the whole ordeal, selling its video game division to French publisher Infogrames at the end of the year. In April 2001, Enforcer was released by Infogrames to mixed and mediocre reviews.
And after Enforcer’s completion, work on Alliance seemed to fizzle completely. In February 2002, a website for Alliance went live for about two days before it was pulled. According to a spokesperson for the publisher, the website’s sudden appearance had been “some kind of accident.” Alliance was never finished, the project having been canceled without any formal announcement.
Though the X-COM franchise had started out as a huge success, each subsequent release moved further and further away from the game that started the franchise. Eventually, the series ended with a second-rate shooter, two canceled projects, and a creator who’d walked away from a series that wound up as more trouble than it was worth.
It looked like the end of the road for X-COM.
But looks can be deceiving…
Tune in next time to see X-COM get a second take…