The Story of X-Com

From the school playground to Laser Squad Nemesis in the words of Julian Gollop.

It's 1983. Thatcher has marched the Conservatives to a landslide victory, the Austin Metro is Britain's best-selling car, and a new BBC Micro game called Time Lords has just launched.

Time Lords was the first computer game designed by Julian Gollop who, along with his brother Nick, went on to make the first X-Com game in 1994, UFO: Enemy Unknown, and in the form we loved it best: turn-based tactical combat with a strategic metagame.

The X-Com licence was also the victim, like so many great licences, of sequel pressures, publisher takeovers, and an embryonic industry focused on short-term gain. We recently spoke with Julian about those days, to chart the genealogy of X-Com, and find out what really happened behind the scenes.

Eurogamer: So Time Lords was your first computer game?

Julian Gollop: Yes. It was originally designed as a pencil-and-paper game, but it wasn't very practical to play. So when a friend of mine at school got a BBC model B, I asked him if he could program it which he did.

From a very young age I played a lot of board and card games. My Dad was very keen on games of all kinds. Every Christmas, we didn't watch TV, we'd play games endlessly. My Dad was inspirational in this respect, as I was exposed to a lot of games, and this was before computers, of course. Time Lords, and later Chaos, were both board games before they were computer games. I made a lot of such games back then.

Eurogamer: And you released Time Lords commercially?

Julian Gollop: It was published by Red Shift, which was a company formed of a group of friends who were all gamers. I remember going to various computer fairs and selling it, in a bag with a cassette a cardboard insert. Very professional!

The first game I made on the Spectrum was a strategy game called Nebula, which was actually a sort of 4X game. You were expanding and colonising the galaxy. It had a basic combat system and AI, resource management and exploration.

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Eurogamer: You were really the architects of turn-based tactical combat games, weren't you?

Julian Gollop: The first tactical squad-level game I did was Rebelstar Raiders. I was working on that in late 1983. I'd left school, I bought a Sinclair Spectrum, and I started to program. It was inspired by a couple of board games: Sniper, and Snap Shot by Games Workshop. They had some interesting combat mechanic ideas which I used in Rebelstar Raiders.

Eurogamer: From Rebelstar Raiders, there seems to be quite a clear evolution of ideas to X-Com...

Julian Gollop: Yes, there was definitely a progression there. It's not too difficult to spot! After leaving school, I took a year out. During that year I did Nebula, Rebelstar Raiders, I did a little bit on a game called Battle Cars, then started work on Chaos which I finished at college. While I was at college, I also started and finished Rebelstar, and Rebelstar 2 came soon after.

Eurogamer: So after college, you devoted all your time to computer games?

Julian Gollop: When I left college, I set up Target Games with a friend. When he left, my brother Nick joined as a programmer. We made Laser Squad; I programmed the Spectrum and Amstrad versions, and Nick did the Commodore 64 version. Laser Squad was the first game where I was devoted to development full-time. It was a development of the Rebelstar ideas, which involved unit facings, hidden movement based on true line-of-sight, destructible terrain... all ideas which were then expanded by X-Com.

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