Julian Gollop talks tactics as his new strategy takes shape
By his own admission, Phoenix Point was something of a Hail Mary for Julian
Gollop. Here was an idea with the potential to make or break Snapshot Games, the company he founded to create the kind of games you would want Julian Gollop to create. Reaching its $500k Fig crowdfunding target within a week, this turn-based strategy game is set around 30 years into the future, and projects a nightmarish scenario where an alien virus has fused with Earth creatures, producing a range of eldritch abominations that have displaced humanity at the top of the food chain. Survivors have amassed at the titular settlement, and must band together to fight the extraterrestrial hordes.
Unfortunately for those that remain, these are adaptable foes. Fortunately, that makes them the ideal opposition for a strategy game. The aliens are capable of a range of mutations governed by a procedurally generated system based on a range of variables. “We have a number of chassis types, or archetypes,” Gollop tells us, “and there are different body parts, and each may have several levels of power. The way it works for the aliens is if they’re deploying a particular model that performs particularly badly in battle, then it’ll go through a mutation process to try and evolve some differently functioning limb or appendage, or even a method of mobility, for example. [Its aim] would be to make one of its existing body parts more powerful or more influential. And then it would throw that one back into the battle.”
By contrast, if the aliens find an effective mutation, they will attempt to deploy more of that particular unit type – at least until the player has figured out how to beat it. “It’s a little bit more sophisticated than that,” Gollop says. “There’s a certain element of randomness to it: the mutation system itself is quite random. But because the aliens never exactly repeat a particular model, they will tend to get a bit more powerful over time.” It’s a mechanic, he says, that is “self-balancing”, since the aliens won’t fix what isn’t broken, and will only mutate if they’re doing badly. This evolving threat fixes a common genre pitfall: often, growing familiarity with a game’s systems leads to a difficulty curve that levels off as you progress. But with an evolving enemy, players won’t be able to rest on their laurels. “Or not for very long, at least,” Gollop smiles.
Yet, as in so many apocalyptic scenarios, your biggest problem might be closer to home. “The most interesting thing about the world of Phoenix Point is you’re not alone,” Gollop elaborates. “There are three other main factions, as well as lots of other isolated human settlements. The initial problem you have as the player, controlling just one cell of an organisation of the Phoenix Project, is that you must somehow persuade, cajole, threaten or negotiate with these other factions and havens in order to pursue your objectives.” Your ultimate aim is to unite these disparate groups to find a common solution to the alien problem. There will, Gollop promises, be more than one way to win the game.
This extra strategic layer that sits on top of the tactical combat should, Gollop says, make Phoenix Point “more involved than even the first XCOM”. Talking of the series with which he’s most commonly associated, it’s clear he’s an admirer of Firaxis’ recent remakes. “[They] have seriously upped the stakes when it comes to the absolute quality and production values of strategy games in general. You could also argue they’ve widened the market. They’ve managed to prove there’s a relatively large niche for this kind of game. There’s definitely room for more XCOM- style games in the marketplace, for sure.”
Phoenix Point’s crowdfunding figures certainly support that argument. There’s still a way to go, and Gollop concedes that the total amount of funds the Fig campaign raises will determine how large and varied the finished game is. But he’s bullish about its prospects. “It’s a very expandable game system. We’ll see how far we get, but at the moment it’s already looking very interesting. I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to produce something really nice.”
“There’s definitely room for more XCOM-style games in the marketplace”
Gollop’s small team has achieved a lot in just over a year. “We’ve got a functioning tactical system, a functioning monster system, and a pretty good AI so far.” A rudimentary geoscape, meanwhile, is already up and running
You can have up to 16 units in your squad – ”although you probably wouldn’t see such a large battle unless it was a base defence mission,” Gollop says