A few highlights from Julian Gollop’s illustrious portfolio
tiles, and they’d be randomly put together based on the environment type.
“We knew this would be the trickiest thing to do,” recalls Julian, “and it was difficult. The contract we had with Microprose was for 18 months, and the idea was that we sort of split the divide between the tactical and Geoscape side on a two-to-one basis.”
Julian and his team were concerned that their plans for the Geoscape mode could take considerable time because it involved a detailed 3D representation of Earth that was programmed by Julian’s brother, Nick. “As far as we know, it’s the first representation of the Earth in 3D with a day/night cycle that’s ever been done,” says Julian. “We didn’t have 3D engines or 3D cards then, it was all software-based rendering techniques.”
Thankfully, the nifty spinning globe that
X-COM became famous for wasn’t quite the time sink that Julian anticipated. “It didn’t actually take us too long to do that, even though it was really innovative for the time. Then we focused on how to build all the other systems, the
UFO interceptors, the base building, the base construction, the research.” Julian notes that they spent so long working on the game’s complicated systems that the weapons and aliens were only added in right at the end of development – and with some help from Microprose.
Microprose was able to help with the alien designs. “They asked the artist John Reitze to come up with a bunch of concepts,” says Julian. “He actually came up with quite a lot of stuff. I visited the Microprose offices in Chipping Sodbury and we looked at these screens of sprites that he designed, which all looked really fantastic.
“I was trying to think of what these creatures do in the game – you know, what makes them interesting. One of them was the floater type thing, a cyborg that flies. Another was the Chrysalid, this sort of crab-like, insect-looking thing – that kind of reminded of the alien from the Alien film, so I got the idea that it would impregnate your soldiers.”
After being inspired by John’s drawings, Julian came up with the concept of terror units – bigger, scarier companions to the more regular aliens
– and asked John to sketch out what became things like the terrifying Cyberdisk and Sectopod. “We actually got more aliens in the game than I originally hoped for,” he says.
UFO: Enemy Unknown launched in 1994 for Amiga and PC, and was later ported to the Amiga
CD32 and Playstation. It received almost universal acclaim, garnering a 9/10 score in Amiga Format and selling more than 600,000 units on PC alone – with around half of those sales in the US.
The success of X-COM convinced Microprose to greenlight a sequel, X-COM: Terror From The
Deep, although this time Mythos Games wasn’t on developing duties. “We licenced the code to Microprose,” says Julian. “They rebuilt the game using new assets and new story stuff very much based on the original code base. We had nothing to do with it basically.” Instead, Julian and his team set to on what would become the third game in the X-COM series, X-COM: Apocalypse.
Terror From The Deep was set 40 years after the first game, when a strange signal awakens aliens that have lain dormant in the oceans for millennia. X-COM is reformed to take on the threat, and the game involves building underwater bases and fighting the soggy aliens on their home turf. It climaxes in a catastrophic ending that sets up the events of the third game.
Players had complained that the first game was too easy, so Microprose ramped up the difficulty for the sequel. But then players complained that
Terror From The Deep was far too hard. What was going on? It turns out it was all down to a bug in the original X-COM that set the difficulty to beginner no matter what difficulty level you selected, says Julian. “When you save the game, it forgot to actually save the difficulty level you selected, so that when you reloaded the game, it always reset to the default, which I think was the easiest level.”
Neither Mythos nor Microprose’s QA team had spotted the bug before release, mostly because the game was designed to get harder if players were doing well. “We had a sort of a dynamic difficulty adjustment system in the game,” says Julian, “and the way it worked was that if you gave the aliens a thrashing, it would provoke them to progress a bit faster along their progression track. We put that in because we realised that there’s no way that we can balance such a systemic game with all these interactions going on perfectly.”
He says that this dynamic difficulty system ended up masking the save-game bug, meaning that the testers didn’t notice until it was too late. “So we just didn’t catch the bug. Looking back on it, we probably accidentally did the best thing – the game did kind of adjust to however good you actually were, regardless of the actual difficulty level you selected.”
When you save the game, it forgot to actually save the difficulty level you selected Julian Gollop
While Microprose was busy re-skinning the first X-COM game to make Terror
From The Deep, Julian and Mythos Games were working on something altogether more ambitious. Set 50 years after the apocalyptic ending to Terror From The Deep, in the third game humanity lives in giant self-contained cities. “I guess the underlying influence comes from Judge Dredd,” says Julian. “Judge Dredd had Mega-city One: basically, most of the Earth was a wasteland apart from a few mega cities.”
X-COM: Apocalypse tasked the player with defending just one city – Mega-primus – rather