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The Story of X-Com

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

Eurogamer And as a multi-platform game, was Laser Squad a success for you?
Julian Gollop

It didn't do too badly. The only problem was, I was self-publishing. We then got a publishing deal with another company called Blade Software. We did Lords of Chaos with them, the follow-up to Chaos.

This wasn't as successful commercially, so we went back to working on what, at the time, we called Laser Squad II. We built the demo on the Atari ST, and I remember saying to Nick that we needed to get a better publishing deal. The deal we had with Blade wasn't that good; we didn't get a good royalty fee, they ended up owing us some money... it was time to get serious and find a decent publisher.

So we made the demo, and it had a basic working tactical combat system, but with 3D isometric graphics so it looked more impressive. We had a shortlist of three publishers, one of which was Microprose. We were particularly keen on them, because they published Civilization, of course. We thought they were the best company for strategy games because of Sid Meier, and we wanted to do games for PC, because we saw it as the future of gaming.

We took the demo to Microprose in the UK, and they liked what they saw, but they said that they wanted something bigger. It wasn't a Microprose game; it needed to be something deep. There was a guy there called Pete Moreland, who suggested the theme of UFOs, and I thought this was a very good idea. So I went away and we came up with the whole strategic aspect of the game, with randomly-generated tactical missions, the Geoscape, the economics. In a couple of weeks I went back to them and said, "How about this?" and they thought it was great! So we started on X-Com, which was what Laser Squad II had become.

Eurogamer With its management metagame, X-Com was an order of magnitude bigger than Laser Squad...
Julian Gollop

Yes, well, we were trying to make a big game, a game that was comparable in size and scope to Civilization, for example, and I think we succeeded. But it took nearly three years to make. Mythos Games, which is what Target Games had become, was still just me and my brother, although the art was done by a couple of guys from Microprose; one guy did the aliens and characters, and another guy worked on the terrain.

Later we also had a musician at Microprose, John Broomhall. John did a great job with the music and the sound. It was great working with him. A thing a lot of people say about X-Com is that the suspense and fear of the unknown are accentuated by the fact you can hear something but you can't see it. It's a simple device, but it does work quite well!

Eurogamer How many platforms did X-Com reach?
Julian Gollop

The PC, Amiga, the CD32 and PlayStation. It didn't do too badly on the PlayStation, which surprised me – I was sceptical. I thought it wasn't the kind of game that was good for a console. The total physical sales were around the half a million mark. But of course many more people have played the game than that. A lot of people I meet played X-Com, but they didn't necessarily buy it!

Eurogamer And the sequel, Terror from the Deep, came next?
Julian Gollop

Microprose wanted us to do a sequel in six months. We told them the only way we could do a sequel in that timeframe would be to change the graphics and tweak a few bits. Eventually we came to a compromise: they'd license our code to make a direct sequel, and we'd do the third one in the series in two years. TFTD was made entirely by Microprose; we had no input apart from giving them our code. They managed to do it in a year, but they had a much bigger team. A shockingly large team, I thought at the time, 12-15 people.

We earned lots of cash from X-Com, so we hired more staff at Mythos. But the deal that Microprose wanted was that they did the Apocalypse graphics. It was a disastrous relationship from the start. They had some very fancy, rather expensive ideas: they hired some relatively famous artist who made physical models of the aliens, which were then scanned into their software. It didn't work very well. The Microprose artists couldn't quite understand how isometric graphics worked. It was enormously difficult, and I think overall the artwork was done pretty poorly on that game.

It was a disaster area. Apocalypse was quite a sophisticated and ambitious game, but it was a big mistake from our point of view. In retrospect, we should have originally agreed to do a sequel in six months, and spent a year doing it, like they did! It would've been a lot better.