History Lesson: The story of XCOM

Behold, the power of games testers.

Back in 1993, Harlow-based devs Julian Gollop and his brother Nick were deep in development on UFO: Enemy Unknown – the first game in the XCOM series.

Unfortunately the publisher they were working for, MicroProse, was bought out by Spectrum HoloByte. And the new owners were just not interested in this alien strategy game.

They effectively cancelled it, but the UK MicroProse guys just kept it going anyway,” says Julian Gollop.

What stopped it being cancelled was that it had gone into QA at MicroProse UK, and the QA team was very supportive. That kind of saved it.”

Gollop was a huge fan of MicroProse’s games (namely Railroad Tycoon and Civilization), and in 1991 he approached the publisher with a sequel to his popular Laser Squad title.

Laser Squad 2 introduced the isometric-style graphics and a genuine 3-dimensional modelling of positions,” says Gollop.

MicroProse was not initially impressed. Except for a designer there called Stephen Hand who was a big fan of Laser Squad.

MicroProse UK wanted to prove they could do the sort of game MicroProse US managed to do with Civilization. So they gave us three requirements: one was that the game had to be set upon earth, two: they suggested the theme of UFOs. And three: Microprose wanted something like the Civilization tech tree. That wanted a game as big as Civilization.”

Far from being frustrated by MicroProse’s demands, Gollop was excited by the new project.

I was absolutely up for it,” he says. I adored games that had these multiple layers of strategy, I am used to playing them in board game-format.”

Gollop took inspiration from a book called Alien Liaison by Timothy Good when creating the game, along with Gerry Anderson’s UFO TV series, board games and Civilization – just like MicroProse wanted.

The title challenged players to intercept UFOs, send off a team to fight aliens, recover material and build more powerful weapons. But MicroProse was confused by the concept.

I had an awful lot of explaining because there simply wasn’t any game like it. It wasn’t actually like Civilization. It was quite sandboxy in a way, at a time when such games didn’t exist.”

MicroProse UK trusted Gollop with the project, and as the game progressed they became quite fond of it – even defying its new parent company which ordered its cancellation.

Towards the end of 1994, Spectrum HoloByte were worried about their financials, and requested a project from MicroProse UK. It was here when it revealed that it never actually cancelled UFO: Enemy Unknown.

I had an awful time explaining XCOM because there simply wasn’t another game like it. It was quite sandboxy in a way, at a time when such games didn’t exist.”

Julian Gollop

All of a sudden, Spectrum HoloByte wanted it,” recalls Gollop. So they put pressure on me and Nick to get it finished. We had to crunch pretty hard.”

He recalls: In playtesting, I was never able to play the game from beginning to end, because every time I went to play it, I would reach a point where there were bugs I needed to fix. It could have been a lot better if we had more development time, or more programmers.”

The whole development project only cost 115,000, and the game made many, many multiples of that,” says Gollop.

The game tapped into the zeitgeist created by The X-Files at the time (which was born out of the same source material as XCOM), and the series became a popular one during the 1990s.

In 2012, Firaxis (the studio created by the old MicroProse team) decided to bring XCOM back. Although this time Gollop was not involved in the series. However, he is plotting a return to the formula with his next game, Phoenix Point.

We are planning to crowd-fund it,” he says. We are producing arts, screenshots, prototypes… we will be announcing our plans very shortly.”

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