Do you remember Julian Gollop?
Gollop created XCOM - not the recent, superb remake from Civilization developer Firaxis - the original, the game that makes me feel a little tired when I realise it's 20 years old.
It was a game that, for some, perfected turn-based strategy. It influenced so many who played it, and so many who would go on to make games themselves, including Jake Solomon, the lead designer of the remake. The softly-spoken British designer's done well for himself, then. He's left his mark.
But where has he been these past few years? What's he been up to?
Most recently Gollop worked for Ubisoft's Bulgarian studio in Sofia. He led development on Nintendo 3DS launch title Ghost Recon Shadow Wars, a turn-based strategy game that played like a Julian Gollop game despite the branding that helped sell it. "I really enjoyed that one," Gollop tells me. "I think the game was pretty good."
Funnily enough, Shadow Wars spawned from development of a bigger game for multiple platforms that didn't end up seeing the light of day. That unreleased game was in development when Gollop pitched Ghost Recon Shadow Wars as "XCOM meets Ghost Recon for Nintendo 3DS", but because he already had a Ghost Recon game in production, and Ubisoft has a multi-format release principle that still governs much of its output today, the powers that be called for Gollop to add a Nintendo DS version to the slate. The DS version became a 3DS version because the 3DS had been announced, and the big Ghost Recon game Gollop had been working on was canned. And so, Ghost Recon Shadow Wars the 3DS launch title was born. It was "pretty good", as the understated Gollop puts it. Most agree it was one of the best 3DS launch titles.
After wrapping up Shadow Wars Gollop worked as the co-creative director of Assassin's Creed 3 Liberation for the PlayStation Vita - at least for the first year of its development. But it seems Gollop enjoyed working on Assassin's Creed less than Ghost Recon.
"Assassin's Creed, well, it was an interesting project," he says. Gollop spent a lot of time working on the game's character, its setting and story, as well as some of its more unique elements, such as the persona system, which allowed protagonist Aveline to change into one of three outfits that switched up her stealth options. But then real life threw a spanner in the works.
Gollop wanted to take paternity leave to help his wife with their twins. What he ended up doing was taking six months off "to contemplate my future". "I realised my future did not lie with Ubisoft. It lay with doing the games I really wanted to do." Gollop had, after five years working for Ubisoft, gone back to indie game development. Ubisoft continued with the development of Assassin's Creed 3 Liberation and it released on Vita in October 2012.
"I realised my future did not lie with Ubisoft. It lay with doing the games I really wanted to do."
I guess it's fair to say I'd forgotten about Julian Gollop, however mean that sounds. After leaving Ubisoft and as next generation console madness went ballistic, he slipped from my mind. Every now and then I'd see something online about the new XCOM and I'd think, what's Julian Gollop up to? And then I'd think of something else, probably to do with resolutions or frame-rate.
Gollop might have been out of the public eye, but he was still thinking intently about creating games. He first had the idea to launch a Kickstarter for a remake of his cult classic fantasty turn-based strategy game Chaos in October 2012.
"I wanted to get back to the kind of games I enjoyed making, and I know there is a certain audience for as well," he says. "Every year more or less since around 2000, I've had requests from people saying, 'can I do a remake of Chaos?' I normally had five or six of these requests each year. So lots of people were trying to remake the original Chaos. I thought, well, this game must have something about it that people liked."
Gollop is late to the party when it comes to remaking Chaos, despite it being his own game. He counts around 35 remakes that have been made over the years, off the back of hundreds of attempts. None, though, were by Chaos' original creator.
"When I was making it back in 1984, it was my first Z80 assembler project," he recalls. "It was a very cool project for me and I enjoyed making it. So I wanted to revisit the game, not do a straightforward remake, but try and keep the essence of the original gameplay, which is very simple, accessible gameplay, and expand it with a bigger single-player RPG element and more multiplayer online options. Those were my thoughts back in October 2012."
Then, they were just thoughts. But express a thought on the internet and it, instantly, becomes a plan, a statement of intent, a vow, a promise - and a potential disappointment. "Someone asked me a question on Twitter, saying, 'why don't you do a remake of Chaos?' I said, 'as it happens. I've just decided I'm going to do it.'" Gollop laughs. "That spread through the Twitterverse and people were getting excited about it, so I decided, yeah, I really need to make this a bigger project and get a team on board to help, and think about raising some serious money for it through crowdfunding. That's the stage I've got to now."
Kickstarter seemed like the obvious route because, according to Gollop, a publisher probably wouldn't touch Chaos Reborn. And there remains a core audience for the game, mainly in the UK, he says. And it's still unique, even after all of these years. And, of course, there are fans of XCOM who will follow Gollop to the end of the earth, no matter what he makes.
"It's not going to be a huge team, but it's going to be enough to produce a quite professional looking game."
Gollop launched the Chaos Reborn Kickstarter asking for $180,000 and with an endorsement from BioShock chief Ken Levine. Like Gollop, the pitch was understated, but, like Gollop, it was unique because already a version of the game was playable. This we're not used to when it comes to Kickstarter. We've all seen the pitches, those that talk about a game idea, perhaps alongside a fancy piece of concept art, game design philosophy, pillars, promises, but little else. Gollop didn't just have screenshots, or a fancy trailer. He had the game up and running.
This is what Gollop's been up to: he's had a few artists and a couple of programmers work on the prototype, but the bulk of the work has been done by Gollop himself. Indeed he's the only one who's been working on it fulltime, doing so living off of his savings. Everyone else who has worked on the game has done so voluntarily. "I felt I needed to create at least something playable just to convince myself it's going to work as a game and also convince investors, because that's what they are through Kickstarter - that the backers are going to get something that's not just a concept or an idea, something a bit more tangible and substantial," he says.
If the Kickstarter is successful development will begin in earnest in Bulgaria with a small team of around seven people. "It's not going to be a huge team, but it's going to be enough to produce a quite professional looking game," Gollop says.
"We want to make it look really nice. Although we've got a prototype here that's mostly placeholder graphics, we want to retain some of the visual stylisation of the original, which had these monochromatic sprites, which were fully animated. So we're going to keep a stylistic, artistic approach."
If all goes well, Chaos Reborn will then launch in spring 2015 on PC, Mac and Linux.
"If turn-based games are done right they can be very compelling and interesting, because you've got immediate feedback on what you're doing and it's very easy to manage for players. So I still like that approach to it."
Speaking to Gollop, I can tell he's quietly thrilled by the journey he's embarked upon. It's scary, but exciting. It's jam packed with risk, but for him it's a risk worth taking. And for a programmer who perhaps lost his way at a big publisher, it's a welcome return to his roots.
"The project is much more interesting," he says, "and I'm getting back to doing a lot of game design, as well as programming. It's very similar to what I was doing I guess back when I was working on the original Chaos, except now I've got a larger team to help me. I'm doing programming and design. It's much more interesting."
Kickstarter, of course, is a two-way street. You make the game alongside your backers, reacting to feedback and constantly issuing updates. Some developers have struggled with this aspect of crowd-funding, but for Gollop it rekindles memories of Laser Squad Nemesis, a game he worked on with his brother Nick for release in 2002. It was an online-only game that the Gollops sold directly to players through their website. "We built a very nice community around the game, which was very cool."
Chaos Reborn isn't even funded yet, but Gollop is already thinking about the future. He intends to add content to the game after it's released, responding to feedback, making improvements. "And if it keeps selling then yes, we'll keep working on it. But we will of course be starting a new project, if possible, alongside that."
What new project, I wonder.
"It will probably be Laser Squad Reborn!" Gollop says. "I might go back to the Laser Squad idea, possibly using the Laser Squad Nemesis system, or something like the Ghost Recon Shadow Wars system. We'll see..."
Turn-based strategy isn't exactly all of a sudden going mainstream, but it's enjoying a degree of success. Firaxis' XCOM remake revelled in turn-based combat despite the need to modernise the original's concept, and with the likes of the recently-released Age of Wonders 3 and the ongoing success of the Civilization series, turn-based strategy just keeps on turning.
"I'm still a big fan of turn-based stuff," Gollop says. "If turn-based games are done right they can be very compelling and interesting, because you've got immediate feedback on what you're doing and it's very easy to manage for players. So I still like that approach to it.
"Chaos reminds me of Hearthstone, except Hearthstone doesn't have a map or any maneuvering. Hearthstone is essentially a turn-based game in a CCG format. It's very compelling. Hearthstone has relatively short games, like Chaos Reborn does, and a lot of interesting combinations with spells, like Chaos Reborn does."
Gollop is hoping enough people find Chaos Reborn interesting that its development is completed. But either way, the understated creator of the original XCOM is back - and for fans of turn-based strategy, that can only be a good thing.