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The Oracle of Delphi

Please pardon a brief Analog intrusion on this Digital world…

I just wanted to announce that the ebook version of my Analog Antiquarian series The Oracle of Delphi is now available in the Amazon Kindle Store; it includes the edited and polished final version of the text. (The same text is now on the website as well…) Or you can get a free copy of this and the previous Analog ebook, The Pyramids of Giza, by becoming an Analog Antiquarian patron. What a deal, right?

If you have read or at some point do read either or both series, whether online or in ebook form, an honest review on Amazon would be hugely appreciated. Thanks so much!

 
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Posted by on October 27, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Master of Magic

Steve Barcia started thinking about his second grand-strategy game well before he had finished creating his first one. While he was waiting for his latest iteration of Master of Orion to compile each day in the cramped Austin, Texas, offices of his company SimTex, he sketched in the mental details of a follow-up that would take place in a fantasy rather than science-fictional milieu. As soon as the one game was finished, he wrote up a design document for the next one and shared it with the rest of the SimTex staff. Within two weeks, they were charging full-speed ahead on Master of Magic. It would ship under the MicroProse imprint in time for the Christmas of 1994, only a year after its predecessor, despite being one of the most complex strategy games yet made for a computer. If there’s no rest for the wicked, it would seem that Barcia and company had been very bad indeed.

Given the new game’s title and its short development cycle, one might suspect it to be little more than a reskinned Master of Orion. In reality, though, such could hardly be further from the truth. Master of Magic is a wildly different experience from Master of Orion, enough so that one would scarcely guess it to have come from the same designer. Where Master of Orion is polished to perfection, its every element carefully considered and tested, Master of Magic is a far more ramshackle affair, a pile of diverse ideas thrown together — some more fully realized than others, some literally not working at all if we want to get pedantic about it. Nevertheless, it all comes out okay in the end; the game’s variety, generosity, and sheer chutzpah win through. Master of Magic is simply fun —  every bit as much fun as Master of Orion. Just don’t try this at home, budding designers.

Master of Orion was frequently billed as “Civilization in Space” by a slightly lazy press. It’s therefore ironic to note that it’s actually Master of Magic which betrays a major influence from Sid Meier’s 1991 magnum opus. Barcia began laying down the basics of his first game in the late 1980s, and thus its mechanics and interface are most indebted to the conquer-the-galaxy board and computer games which appeared before that point. By the time he started on Master of Magic, however, Barcia had had plenty of time to play and admire Civilization and to clone some of its approaches. It’s thus at least a bit more defensible to call Master of Magic “Fantasy Civilization,” as was and is done from time to time, even if doing so still falls well short of a complete description. Certainly the magazine Computer Gaming World made no bones about it in its review of the game:

The city display will be familiar to players of Sid Meier’s Civilization. In fact, we wouldn’t want to suggest that the same code was used, but it sure looks like it could have been. From the graphic representation of the buildings themselves to the rows of farming, working, and rebelling citizens, the city display is a near-verbatim copy of the earlier design.

The city-management screen in Master of Magic, which is almost a carbon copy of the one in Civilization. Many of the systems behind it work exactly the same as well.

This, then, is one important aspect of Master of Magic. You start with a single village which you must grow and develop. Meanwhile you send out settlers to found other cities, or armies to conquer ones that already exist. You improve your cities by ordering their populations to build structures that increase their production or otherwise cause them to function more efficiently. All of this will be very familiar indeed to any Civilization veteran. That said, the city-building side of Master of Magic is generally simplified in comparison to Civilization. There is, for example, no tech tree to research in order to unlock new types of buildings. Instead buildings themselves unlock other buildings, as shown by a handy chart included in the manual: constructing a builder’s hall unlocks the granary, shrine, library, miner’s guild, and city walls; constructing a granary unlocks the farmer’s market; etc., etc. Steve Barcia, who was eager for understandable reasons to ensure that the similarities to Civilization weren’t overstated, explained the simplifications by noting that the two games had fundamentally different design goals: “Civilization focuses on internal problems. In Master of Magic, it’s the external; it’s conquest.”

The main Master of Magic screen, where you examine the map and move your units around. While it departs a bit more from the layout of Civilization than does the city-management screen, the inspiration remains obvious, right down to the shortcut keys.

So, although you move your units around the map exactly as you do in Civilization — to be fair, that game in turn borrows the approach from the much older Empire — things go in a dramatically different direction once combat begins: Master of Magic places much more emphasis on combat than does Civilization. In the latter game, each unit moves independently over the map; in Master of Magic, you form larger armies by “stacking” up to nine units together. When two units bump into each other on the world map in Civilization, one loses and is completely destroyed and the other wins and survives completely intact, all depending on a single roll of the virtual dice which is compared against their respective attack and defense ratings. In Master of Magic, by contrast, combat takes place on a separate screen, with plenty of room for your tactical genius to make its presence felt. Units here can be “wounded” by having only some of their number killed, needing time to heal and replenish themselves.

Fighting a tactical battle. Given that I have only one group of halberdiers against seven groups of zombies and and one of skeletons, my best option here is to flee — assuming I don’t have a Turn Undead spell at my disposal, that is.

But the most important addition of all to the combat model, the game’s first real stroke of genius, is that of experience points: as units fight and survive battles, they become better, tougher and stronger, able eventually to punch well above their rookie weight. Granted, Civilization too has the barest inkling of this; a unit which wins a battle there has a chance of becoming a “veteran,” with a bonus to its attack and defense. Master of Magic, however, takes the concept to another level entirely. And then it adds a second stroke of genius: heroes, individual captains who can be recruited to join your cause and lead your armies into battle. They too earn experience and improve their skills; you can even find or make magical weapons and armor for them.

A hero levels up.

In the context of its own day, Master of Magic thus joined Julian Gollop’s X-COM, which was released about six months before it, as one of the foremost exemplars of a new trend in strategy games, that of using CRPG elements to forge a more personal, even emotional bond between the player and the figures she commands. It works brilliantly here, just as it does in X-COM. You come to identify deeply with your units and especially your heroes as you nurture their development, and come to mourn the loss of one of them almost like that of a real friend.

The debt which Master of Magic owes to the CRPG genre extends to other areas as well. Its randomly generated maps are seeded not just with neutral and enemy towns but with “fallen temples,” “abandoned keeps,” and “mysterious caves.” You can send your units and heroes to confront what is found within, if you dare; your reward for doing so is booty and the experience they earn, assuming they survive. Just exploring the world, revealing and clearing out more and more of the map, is thoroughly enjoyable even before you meet any of the computer players who are doing the same thing.

Do we dare to enter the fallen temple?

But it’s the game’s third and final layer rather than the city building or unit management that is its most defining attribute, not to mention the source of its name. The fact is that you really do play a master of magic, a wizard competing to conquer the world against up to four other wizards under the control of the computer. As such, you have spells at your disposal… boy, do you have spells. The magic system draws heavily from Magic: The Gathering, the collectible card game of fantasy combat that took the culture of tabletop gaming by storm in the early 1990s. Magic here is divided into five “books”: Life, Nature, Sorcery, Chaos, and Death. When you begin a new game, you choose your wizard from a list of fourteen possibilities, each of which specializes in one or two books of magic and has some other individual advantage to boot. Or, if you’re playing at one of the higher difficulty levels, you can also build your own wizard from scratch.

Most hardcore players wouldn’t think of playing with anything other than a customized wizard; you see one of them being made here. Not being much of a power gamer, I’m generally happy taking one of the fourteen pre-made wizards, which offer plenty of variety in themselves.

Either way, you enter the game with just a few low-level spells in your particular book or books. In place of the technological research trees of Civilization and Master of Orion, here you research new spells. Their number and variety are positively mind-boggling: there are 40 spells associated with each book, plus 16 that everyone can learn regardless of specialty, for a total of no less than 216 in the game as a whole. But Master of Magic borrows a trick from Master of Orion to great effect: not all of the potential spells in your books are available for research on any given playthrough, meaning that the sort of rote strategies that are possible in climbing Civilization‘s static research tree cannot be relied upon here. Because you get a different set of possible spells even if you play the very same wizard twice in a row, you constantly have to think on your feet. Needless to say, your overall strategy must be dictated to a large extent by the spells that show up in your research list. If you gain early access to Floating Island, for example, you have a handy means of crossing oceans before your opponents may be able to; if not, you might need to build expensive shipyards early on in at least some of your coastal cities.

Hmm… which spell should I research next?

Your source of spell-research points is mana, which you harvest from the land’s so-called “places of power.” It’s the most essential resource in the game, and thus the source of some agonizing decisions. For mana, you see, is not only important for research. You must balance the amount of it which you devote to research against that which goes to casting spells in the field and that which goes to improving upon your innate spell-casting capabilities; this last category of mana, in other words, serves as your wizard’s equivalent to experience points.

You change the ratio of mana you devote to various purposes by manipulating the three staffs to the left.

The thoroughgoing watchword of Master of Magic is variety, applying not only to the list of spells but to every aspect of the game. The sheer amount of stuff here would be impressive in a modern game, and was well-nigh unprecedented at the time of this one’s release. In addition to choosing one of fourteen starting wizards, you choose a starting race for her to command from another fourteen possibilities; each of these races comes with its own unique set of units to be unlocked and raised, as well as a unique mix of buildings that it can erect in its towns. You can choose a world with small, medium, or large land masses, with weak, normal or powerful magic. All these possible starting parameters alone ensure that the game will take a long time indeed to get old. Then, once you actually begin to play, you find an absurdly wide array of monsters to contend with, heroes to recruit, and magical arms and armor to dredge up. And then there are all those spells: spells to buff your units and heroes and to nerf your enemies’, to summon fantastical creatures to join your ranks, to disrupt your foes’ own magic. Eventually your powers become downright Biblical, as you control the winds and blight your enemies’ fields and forests — but be aware that they can potentially do the same things to you. By way of a final touch, you have not one but two complete worlds to explore and conquer; there are two separate dimensions in the game, the relatively mundane Arcanus and the magic-rich realm of Myrror. You can move between them by means of special portals on the landscape which you must discover and secure — or, inevitably, via yet another spell you can research. It will take you a long, long time to see everything that Master of Magic has to offer.

You can explore and conquer two different planes. This map shows part of just one of them.

Master of Magic‘s huge diversity of content does as much as its theme and its core mechanics to give it a very different personality from that of its predecessor Master of Orion. I love both games just about equally, but most others I’ve talked to tend to express a marked preference for one or the other. Board-game aficionados often speak of two schools of design, named after their typical continents of origin: the Eurogame, where a fairly small number of moving parts is carefully tuned for a perfectly coherent, perfectly balanced, Neoclassical experience; and the “Ameritrash” game, which is distinguished by its Romantic exuberance in throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, just to see what will happen. It’s hopefully clear by now that Master of Magic is very much the latter sort of game. While there are whole worlds of emergent strategy to be found in all of its variety, there are also moments of friction when things don’t quite gel.

The most disappointingly half-baked aspect of Master of Magic is, perhaps not coincidentally, its one feature that actually was lifted wholesale from Master of Orion: its diplomatic model. You communicate with the other wizards here just as you do the leaders of the other alien races in the older game, but it’s harder to divine why you should do so. In some circumstances, it’s possible to win a game of Master of Orion without ever firing a shot in anger, by persuading your counterparts to vote you into supremacy via clever diplomacy. Master of Magic, however, lacks any equivalent victory condition; the only way to win here is to wipe out your foes. This fact turns your negotiations over treaties and favors into an even more cynical exercise than it is in Master of Orion; it’s a foregone conclusion that absolutely everyone is only playing for time before unsheathing their trusty daggers for the backstab. Further, there’s little ultimate point to all of your diplomatic contortions. Any opposing wizard who agrees to a peace treaty is probably weak enough that you can defeat her in war, or is just trying to milk a little bit more tribute out of you before she declares war on you three turns later. There’s very little reason to ever even initiate diplomatic relations, other than perhaps to trade for a spell you have an urgent need for. I know that I tend to ignore diplomacy entirely, and have never felt overly disadvantaged by it — a statement one could never make about Master of Orion. When playing Master of Magic, I do sometimes find myself missing the intricate dance of negotiation in Master of Orion, which can be as exciting as any space battle — but then, Master of Magic is, as I’ve already noted, a very different game.

Those who’ve played Master of Orion will find this menu very familiar. Alas, it’s used to far less compelling effect here.

One consequence of your inability to schmooze your way to victory is a drawn-out endgame, a problem all too typical of these types of grand-strategy games which Master of Orion manages to deftly avoid thanks to its Galactic Council. There comes a point in every game of Master of Magic when you know you’re going to win — or the opposite. Assuming it’s to be the former, everything becomes a bit rote from that point on, even as conquering those last pesky cities of your enemies can be quite time-consuming. Although you can win by advancing all the way up the spell-research tree and casting the “Spell of Mastery” instead of wiping out all of your opponents militarily — this is the game’s equivalent of blasting off for Alpha Centauri in Civilization — that process is even more time-consuming. And because all of the enemy wizards rush to attack you with everything they have as soon as you start to research the Spell of Mastery, your game is still guaranteed to end in genocidal total war.

Master of Magic also runs afoul of another typical problem of its genre which its predecessor mostly manages to sidestep: the micromanagement bugbear. Most players develop a consistent pattern for building up their cities early on, one which they vary only under special circumstances. While the game does offer a “vizier” who can manage your cities for you, his choices tend to be hopelessly nonsensical. A way of setting up building queues in advance for each city, coupled ideally with a default queue you could define for yourself, would have been a wonderful addition. As it is, you’re in for an awful lot of busywork in the later stages of building your fantasy empire.

One final area of the game that’s frequently singled out for criticism is the artificial intelligence of your opponents, which leaves a lot to be desired. In the grand tradition of Civilization and Master of Orion, cranking up the difficulty level doesn’t make the other wizards smarter; as far as I can determine, it doesn’t actually change their set behaviors at all. What it does do is cheat on their behalf ever more egregiously, by giving them bigger and bigger production bonuses. Many understandably find this solution to the problem of making the game challenging for the veteran player to be less than ideal.

Still, a recent development in the small but surprisingly active world of ongoing Master of Magic fandom provides an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Just this year, a group of fans, working in association with the current owners of the game’s intellectual property, released Caster of Magic, a comprehensive patch/expansion that, among many other things, dramatically upgrades the artificial intelligence. Personally, I find it no fun whatsoever, and I’ve heard many others say the same thing. Playing against its smart, ruthless, ultra-agressive enemy wizards only served to clarify for me what I really enjoy about Master of Magic: exploring the worlds, building up my units and heroes, researching and trying out new spells. For me, it’s as much experiential CRPG as zero-sum strategy game. If I could add something to the game, it would be more diverse encounter areas, possibly with elements of story to them, to further emphasize these qualities. This is not to say that you’re wrong to play in a different way, wrong to enjoy the game for other reasons; certainly there are many who love what Caster of Magic does to the game. It does, however, serve to illustrate that the field of ludic artificial intelligence, which is so often characterized as simply the struggle to make the computer play just like a human, becomes more complicated than that formulation just as soon as it collides with real-world game design.

Caster of Magic is in fact merely the latest example of a long tradition of patching Master of Magic, stemming from the fact that the game as originally released desperately needed all the patching it could get. Both before and after their acquisition by Spectrum Holobyte in 1993, MicroProse was among the publishers most prone to ship games before their time in response to external financial pressures. As one of the company’s big titles for the Christmas of 1994, Master of Magic fell victim to this unfortunate tendency. In yet another marked contrast to Master of Orion, Steve Barcia’s second grand-strategy game shipped so riddled with bugs that it was essentially unplayable; the game crashed more often than not during battles. (“Save every turn, save before every battle, save every time you can,” became the player’s rule of thumb as summarized by Computer Gaming World.) A series of patches gradually solved the worst of the issues, but there remain to this day spells in the game that don’t quite work correctly. Master of Magic could have used its own incarnations of Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes, the two outsiders who took an early interest in Master of Orion during its development and offered so much feedback and practical advice over the months that followed that co-designer credits wouldn’t have been out of order. Failing that, just a few more months in the oven and a round or two of proper testing could have done much for it.

Although its overall reception was gravely impacted by its unconscionable state at the time of its release, a small group of players fell in love with the game for its crazy multitudinousness and kept its memory alive for years, then decades. They did so not least because Master of Magic became the opposite of Master of Orion in one final, supremely ironic way: whereas Master of Orion spawned about a thousand 4X rule-the-galaxy copycats of varying degrees of quality, nobody else has ever done a game quite like Master of Magic. The year after it appeared, New World Computing released Heroes of Might and Magic, a superficially similar blending of strategy and CRPG elements, but one that was dramatically different in the details: it was a more tightly focused effort, with pre-crafted maps in place of randomly generated worlds, a modest but carefully tuned suite of spells and creatures in place of a decadent cornucopia of same, and a multi-mission story-oriented campaign in place of a wide-open sandbox to play in. When Heroes of Might and Magic — admittedly, a superb game in its own right — became the hit that Master of Magic had not, it became the model for fantasy strategy games going forward.

So, Master of Magic remains a unique experience to this day. While it’s definitely no paragon of balanced game design, its rambunctious riot of possibility ensures that it stays interesting over the long term; this is one quality that it certainly does share with Master of Orion. In fact, I like to play Master of Magic just like I play that game: I throw the dice to set up the parameters of my world, my wizard, and my minions, and then have at it, assured that, whatever awaits me, it will be completely different from the last time I played. That’s the kind of variety that can keep you playing a game forever.

Each race has its own set of city names. Those of the barbarians are real-world German cities — including Flensburg, where my wife grew up. What’s up with that?

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of September 1994, December 1994, January 1995, May 1995, and October 1995; PC Gamer of January 1995; Electronic Entertainment of January 1995; Computer Player of February 1995; Next Generation of January 1995; InfoWorld of December 1994; Interactive Entertainment CD-ROM of October 1994 and November 1994; Hyper of June 1995.

Master of Magic is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

 
 

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This Week on The Analog Antiquarian

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Part 2: Babylon and Mesopotamia

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2020 in Uncategorized

 

Transport Tycoon

Anyone who has followed the career of the British game developer Chris Sawyer down through the years knows that he prefers to go his own way. This was true from the very beginning.

In 1980, when Sawyer was fourteen years old, Sinclair Research subcontracted out the manufacture of the ZX80 — the cheap microcomputer that was about to take all of Britain by storm — to the Timex plant located in his hometown of Dundee, Scotland. From that moment on, Dundee was a Sinclair town. And small wonder: by 1983, with the cheap and cheerful Sinclair Spectrum pushing Britain toward the status of the most computer-mad nation on earth on a per-capita basis, the house that Uncle Clive built had become a significant part of the city’s economy. Half of the Dundee kids who were interested in computers seemed to have gotten jobs at the Timex plant, while the other half had just gotten Speccys for their living rooms.

Sawyer was no less fascinated with computers than his peers, but he was also a dyed-in-the-wool iconoclast. Just as the Spectrum boom was nearing its peak, he saved up his money to buy… a Camputers Lynx, one of those oddball also-rans of the 1980s which are remembered only by collectors today. And when it became clear that this first computer of his was destined for orphandom, he chose to invest in a Memotech MTX, another doomed machine.

His strange taste in hardware proved a blessing in disguise. With very little software available for the likes of a Lynx or MTX, Sawyer was forced to learn how to make his own fun, forced to become a programmer of games rather than a mere player of them. He would read about a game for another, more popular platform in a magazine, look carefully at the screenshots thereof, and make his own version that played as he imagined the original must.

One day in 1984, Sawyer’s chemistry teacher called him aside. Knowing that his student liked to program, the teacher showed him a newspaper article he had clipped out, telling how another local boy had made £1000 selling his games. Sawyer was inspired. By the time he moved to Glasgow to attend university in the fall of that year, he had made contact with Memotech themselves, who were eager for software of any stripe for their struggling machine. Absolutely no one — least of all the soon-to-be-bankrupt Memotech — got rich off the MTX, but Sawyer did make enough money to buy a printer and floppy-disk drive.

Even after Memotech bit the dust, he continued to go his own way as stubbornly as ever. Instead of a Commodore Amiga or Atari ST like his friends were buying, he scraped together the last of his Memotech earnings to buy an Amstrad MS-DOS machine, another definite minority taste at the time among gamers in Britain.

Once again, though, the road less traveled proved advantageous. In need of a job just after graduating from university, he contacted Jacqui Lyons, a former literary agent who had made a spectacular debut as Britain’s first ever software agent when she auctioned off to the highest bidder the porting rights to Ian Bell and David Braben’s game Elite, a sensation on the BBC Micro that went on to become the British game of its decade, thanks not least to her efforts. Now, Sawyer learned from her that the British industry had need for MS-DOS specialists — not so much for the domestic or even continental European market, but in order to bring its games to American shores, where MS-DOS was fast becoming the biggest platform of them all. Thus Lyons gave Sawyer a contract to port StarRay, an enhanced version of the old arcade classic Defender, from the Amiga to MS-DOS (the end result would be published in the United States as Revenge of Defender). When that went well, he was entrusted with the MS-DOS port of Virus, the long-awaited second game from David Braben himself.

Sawyer spent the next five years doing yet more ports. He worked alone from his Scottish home, evincing already the reclusive tendencies that would eventually get him labelled one of gaming’s greatest “enigmas,” whilst building a reputation for speed and efficiency that would also never desert him. He was arguably better versed in the tricky art of Intel assembly language than any other person in the British games industry; he refused to write in a high-level language, a resolve he has stayed true to to this day. “I enjoyed the work and it paid well,” he remembers, “though I became very frustrated that often I was unable to finish a contract because I’d caught up with the original game’s programmer and had to wait for him before I could convert the remainder of the game. My solution was to take on two conversions at the same time.” He developed a particularly good relationship with Braben, becoming the only programmer besides himself to which the latter was willing to entrust the hallowed name of Elite. In 1991, Sawyer coded Elite Plus, an enhanced version of the game for the latest MS-DOS machines; he then ported Frontier: Elite II, its belated, ambitious, and ultimately underwhelming sequel, to MS-DOS in 1993.

Up to this point, Chris Sawyer had been widely and fairly judged as a technician rather than a creative force. The teenager who had cloned games he had never actually seen from magazine reviews seemed every bit the father of the man who still earned his living by making other people’s games look and play as well as possible on alternative hardware. But now came the great leap that would elevate his name into the firmament where lived the superstars of British game development — names like David Braben, Peter Molyneux, and David Jones (another product of the tech-obsessed city of Dundee, as it happened). Sawyer may have been a late arrival, but in the final reckoning he would outshine all of them in terms of the sheer quantity of pounds his games brought in.

As so often happens when you look closely at such things, Sawyer’s inexplicable dizzying leap into original game design is perhaps less inexplicable or dizzying than it first appears. Certainly his first masterstroke wasn’t made from whole cloth. It sprouted rather from the fertile soil of Railroad Tycoon from MicroProse Software, Sid Meier’s brilliant 1990 game of railroad logistics and Gilded Age financial warfare. Sawyer:

I was fascinated with Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon game. I played it for hours and hours; it was definitely my favorite game at the time. The viewpoint was just an overhead 2D map, though, and I wondered whether [an] isometric viewpoint would be better, and if other modes of transport should be included. I was inspired.

So, while he was waiting for his better-known colleagues to send him the next chunks of their own games for conversion to MS-DOS, Sawyer began to tinker. By the time Elite II was wrapping up, he had an ugly but working demo of an enhanced version of Railroad Tycoon which did indeed shift the viewpoint from vertically overhead to isometric. “I decided to devote all my time to the game for a few months and see what developed,” he says. He convinced a talented free-lance artist named Simon Foster, who was already an established name in commercial graphics but was looking to break into games, to provide illustrations, even as he made the bold decision to step up to cutting-edge SVGA graphics, at more than twice the resolution of standard VGA. At the end of that few months, he was more convinced than ever that he had a winner on his hands: “Even people who didn’t normally play computer games would sit for hours on end, totally engrossed in building railway lines, routing trains, and making as much profit as possible.” He soon made his train simulator into an all-encompassing transportation simulator, adding trucks and buses, ships and ferries, airplanes and even helicopters.

The choice of publisher was obvious. Jacqui Lyons connected him with MicroProse’s British office, who immediately saw the potential for marketing the game as a pseudo-sequel to Railroad Tycoon; thus it was agreed that it would be known as Transport Tycoon. It shipped under that name in Europe and North America in time for the Christmas of 1994. And just like that, Chris Sawyer’s days of toiling as an anonymous porter were behind him, as he took his place among the stars. His elevation was richly deserved based on his game’s surface qualities alone.



Indeed, its groundbreaking interface is as good a place as any to begin to sing Transport Tycoon‘s praises. Any long-running, in-depth historical project such as this one of mine winds up becoming a form of time travel for its propagator, who comes to live a part of his life in the past which he studies. The fact is, I just don’t have much time to play modern games that aren’t on the syllabus. My near-complete immersion in ludic antiquity means that I get some sense of how these old games must have looked to the people who saw them for the first time. When I fired up Transport Tycoon after years of playing VGA games sporting interfaces that were technically mouse-driven but still lacking most of the flexibility we’ve come to expect from a modern GUI, my jaw dropped to the proverbial floor. Transport Tycoon plays, looks, and even sounds completely different from any of its peers of 1994.

Transport Tycoon

But no need to take my word for it: Julian Gollop, the mind behind the iconic X-Com series, happened to visit MicroProse while the folks there were playing around with a pre-release version of Transport Tycoon. He describes it as looking “awesomely sophisticated” in comparison to anything else on the market: “Especially the interface, because he [Sawyer] had essentially programmed his own Windows-style interface on top of DOS, which in itself must have been quite a lot of effort, let alone making the actual game. The X-Com interface was incredibly primitive by comparison.”

Windows, windows everywhere. All of them are dynamically updated in real time, all of them are interactive, and all of them can be dragged where you will.

As Gollop notes, Transport Tycoon‘s interface is built around windows which you can open and close whenever you wish and drag around the screen to wherever you want them. All of these windows are updated in real time. If you bring up a view of a vehicle, you see it going about its business there in its window, moving through the same world that fills the screen behind it. Bring up ten vehicles, and you can watch all of them at once with a little judicious clicking and dragging. Click on a certain icon in any of those windows, and the main view jumps to the location of that vehicle. In the context of its time, all of this is absolutely stunning.

But we should step back now and cover the basics. Transport Tycoon presents 100 years of shipping — by railroad, by road, by sea, and by air — stretching from 1930 until 2030. It plays in real time, but is nevertheless a sedately paced, even relaxing affair on the whole. You begin with a modest bank loan and a map full of cities, factories, and natural resources craving connection, and go from there. Up to seven computer opponents can join you, or you can play with another human via a modem link-up, but competition isn’t the real heart of the game’s appeal. No, the core appeal — the thing that will bring you back to it over and over — is laying out your transportation network as efficiently as possible, then sitting back to watch it in action. You need to raise and lower land at times, build tunnels and bridges at others. You need to see to the signals on your railroad to ensure that traffic moves briskly but safely. And of course you need to purchase the vehicles themselves and assign them their routes. It’s almost indescribably satisfying to watch your network in action, just as it’s almost impossible to resist tweaking it constantly to squeeze that much more efficiency out of it. Transport Tycoon is a software toy of the highest order, as well as a series of endlessly intriguing spatial puzzles. (How can I get from Point A to Point B most effectively when I’ve already built all this other stuff in between?)

As with Railroad Tycoon, the economy of the world in Transport Tycoon is to at least some extent linked to your actions as a transportation mogul. And also as in Railroad Tycoon, subsidies will occasionally pop up to bring attention to under-served places. (These windows too are interactive. Clicking them once brings you to the first location mentioned; twice brings you to the second. The interface never ceases to amaze.) Hardcore puzzlers can take the subsidies as challenges; these places have often remained unlinked because getting between them is hard for one reason or another.

For all the obvious and acknowledged inspiration of Railroad Tycoon, Transport Tycoon gradually reveals a very different personality. Whereas Sid Meier’s game is at least as much a cutthroat business simulation as a model-railroad set, Chris Sawyer’s really is all about its busy little vehicles, lacking the stock trading of the earlier game or even its rate wars. Here you compete with your opponents for the choicest spots on which to built stations and terminals, and try to serve your mutual customers better so as to win more of their business, but none of it ever feels quite so life-or-death. This is a much more easygoing experience.

Unlike Railroad Tycoon with its maps based on different regions of the real world, Transport Tycoon take place in a landscape of the imagination — more specifically, the computer’s imagination; each new map is randomly generated. This makes its relationship to real history that much more attenuated. Although its timeline covers some decidedly fraught decades in our world, wars are never fought in its, and crises of any stripe are unheard of. Big-picture circumstances never change at all beyond more and more people needing to haul both themselves and more and more of their stuff from place to place.

Pleasantness is an underrated quality in games, as it perhaps is in people, but it’s one that Transport Tycoon has in spades. After a long stressful day, watching this bustling but orderly little world is a nice way to unwind, even if you’re not actually doing all that much. This was by design; Sawyer says that he consciously created “something that was fun to watch as well as rewarding to play.” Simon Foster’s graphics are the perfect compromise between clarity and detail. Nothing is static; everything in the environment, not just the vehicles that drive through it, is moving, changing, developing. Buildings go up before your eyes, towns expand, crops appear and then disappear on the farms as you haul them away, forests grow and are cut and grow again. Meanwhile John Broomhall, MicroProse’s long-serving in-house composer, outdoes himself with a jazzy soundtrack that screams mid-century Americana. Despite the game’s British origins, the whole experience evokes that time of boundless American optimism and prosperity before the costs of Progress became clear, back when better living and heavy industry were synonymous. It’s a soothing balm to our current disillusioned, pandemic-addled souls.



Then again, Transport Tycoon needs every ounce of good will it can generate — because, taken purely as a piece of zero-sum game design, it’s horribly, hopelessly broken. Pretty much none of the mechanisms that surround the core simulation engine — the things that ostensibly make Transport Tycoon into a proper game rather than just a software toy — work properly.

The drawn-out length of the thing is a good starting point for a discussion of its flaws. Transport Tycoon runs at only one speed; there is no fast-forward function. By my calculation, playing through the full 100 years would take you somewhere north of 30 hours if you never paused it at all in order to plan your construction projects. This is problematic in itself; some other, shorter options for playing a complete game would hardly have gone amiss. Yet it’s made worse because the rest of the game just isn’t set up to support such an extended length.

There’s a limit of 40 trains, 80 road vehicles, 50 ships, and 80 airplanes in the game. If you’re expanding with any degree of energy whatsoever, you’ll begin to hit those limits before you’re a third of the way in. After this, all you can do is optimize to take advantage of the newer vehicles which allow you to haul more stuff more quickly. But there’s nothing that compels you to do so beyond the siren song of your inner perfectionist because the economy is completely broken. Your finances might be mildly challenged during the first few years of a game of Transport Tycoon, especially if you choose the Hard difficulty level, but after that you have all the money in the world; you couldn’t go bankrupt if you tried.

This effectively infinite bankroll makes cost-benefit analysis meaningless, causing what ought to be interesting dilemmas — the meat of a good strategy game — to become moot. Consider: you need to run a railroad line over some very uneven terrain in order to connect a farm to a factory. In theory, you should be forced to balance the delays caused by steep grades on a track against the considerable cost of raising and lowering land to avoid them. In practice, though, you need do no such thing: money is flowing like water, so you just flatten out the land without giving it a second thought. Or: you need to choose which locomotive to employ for a vital but short jaunt between two neighboring cities. In theory, you should contemplate whether buying the latest 120-mile-per-hour silver streak of an engine is really worth the money on a local commuter route like this one, where the train will spend as much time loading and unloading in the station as traveling. In practice, though, you just buy the silver streak, because why not? What else are you going to do with your money?

Transport Tycoon likes to present itself as a hardcore business simulation. Don’t believe it for a second.

And as for the competition… oh, my. Your computer opponents succeed only in annoying the heck out of you with their epic stupidity; they’re forever building absurd Gordian knots of roads and rails that go absolutely nowhere, inadvertently blocking you from reaching the places that you actually need to get to. Building your way around their mess is a challenge of a sort, to be sure, but not a very satisfying one in that it demolishes any semblance of the clean, efficient networks that are such a pleasure to watch in action. Like a lot of players, I usually just turn the computer opponents off completely so I can concentrate on my own logistical works of art. The only way to get a really enjoyable competitive game out of Transport Tycoon is presumably to connect two computers, each with a real human behind the screen. (Unfortunately, I was never able to test that side of the game myself, as getting such a link-up working in DOSBox today is a tall order indeed.)

The artificial “intelligence” of your computer opponents provides the most vivid demonstration this side of a populist politician of what happens when extreme ambition collides with extreme incompetence. Its stupidity has become so legendary that at least one web page is devoted to showcasing the best or worst — depending on how you look at it — of its roads to nowhere.

Beginning about twenty years in, maintenance begins to annoy you even more than the computer players. Every vehicle in the game has a service life which, once exceeded, results in a constant stream of schedule-destroying breakdowns. It’s an interesting mechanic in theory, but utter tedium in practice. When you get a message that a vehicle is getting old, you have to manually send it to the nearest depot, wait for it to arrive, and then manually replace it with a newer version. There’s nothing fun or challenging about doing so; nor, what with all the money you’ve banked by this point, are there any financial concerns to balance. It’s just pure busywork. Not coincidentally, it’s right when vehicles start to age out of service that I tend to bail on most of my games of Transport Tycoon — and, if anecdotal evidence is any guide, I’m far from alone in that. If you become one of the few to persevere, however, you’ll eventually reach the late stages, where you get to contemplate manually pulling up all of your railroad tracks to replace them with monorail tracks. This is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it would be.

The end of a century of Transport Tycoon — a screen shockingly few players ever see.

Recluse that he is, Chris Sawyer has given very few in-depth interviews over the course of his career. He did, however, talk with Retro Gamer magazine at some length in 2015. I was particularly intrigued by one thing he said there, in response to a question about how much input MicroProse had in shaping the finished Transport Tycoon: “I think they did suggest some changes, but few made it into the game — either it wasn’t possible to do what they wanted or I was too stubborn!” I do have to wonder if those rejected suggestions might have fixed some of the game’s obvious, fundamental issues. But then again, the all-important Christmas deadline was just as likely the real determiner. MicroProse was one of the publishers most prone to releasing games before their time, and Transport Tycoon actually reached stores in far better shape than many of their other games.

A game with as many fundamental design issues as this one has shouldn’t be recommendable. And yet I find Transport Tycoon impossible not to like, much less to hate. The presentation is just so slick and charming, and building out your transportation infrastructure is just so soothing and satisfying, that the game transcends its faults for me, blows a hole through all of the critical facilities which tell me that a game needs to succeed as a whole to receive the label of classic. In fact, it leaves me in what feels perilously close to an ethical dilemma, as my critic’s brain wrestles with my player’s heart. The closest point of comparison I can offer is a game that is as different as can be from Transport Tycoon in most other ways: the CRPG Ultima VII. Please bear with me while I engage in the supreme arrogance of quoting myself:

Classic games, it seems to me, can be plotted on a continuum between two archetypes. At one pole are the games which do everything right — those whose designers, faced with a multitude of small and large choices, have made the right choice every time. Ultima Underworld, the spinoff game which Origin released just two weeks before Ultima VII, is one of these.

The other archetypal classic game is much rarer: the game whose designers have made a lot of really problematic choices, to the point that certain parts of it may be flat-out broken, but which nevertheless charms and delights due to some ineffable spirit that overshadows everything else. Ultima VII is the finest example of this type that I can think of. Its list of trouble spots is longer than that of many genuinely bad games, and yet its special qualities are so special that I can only recommend that you play it.

The special qualities of Transport Tycoon are special enough to yield the same recommendation. Most games focus on destruction in one way or another; the designer presents you with a complete, functioning system, and then you go through and tear it all down. How wonderful to be able instead to point at a smoothly humming thing of beauty on the screen and know that you built that.



So, the superlative reviews that followed Transport Tycoon‘s release were perhaps justified in spite of it all. “If you like the kind of ‘toying around’ and micromanagement offered by SimCity,” wrote Computer Gaming World magazine, “you might find that your romantic partners will split up with you, you will lose your job, your pets will starve, your computer will overheat, and you won’t even notice.” PC Gamer, the emerging populist rival to that older, more high-toned magazine, simply said that Transport Tycoon was “as good as PC gaming gets.” Edge magazine in Britain wrote that “it’s clear that Railroad Tycoon was a mere rehearsal. Transport Tycoon takes open-ended strategy games a giant step further.”

The game proved popular enough that MicroProse released a modestly enhanced Transport Tycoon Deluxe the following year, with optional fixed instead of randomly generated maps, with an editor for making your own versions of same, with new environments (arctic, tropical, or the ultra-whimsical Toy Land), and with some tweaks to gameplay (railroad signals grew somewhat more complex and flexible, and the timeline was shifted twenty years forward to run from 1950 to 2050, with a correspondingly more futuristic selection of vehicles on offer by the end). Rather bizarrely, however, no effort was made to fix the game’s fundamental issues of poor artificial intelligence, too much busywork, a broken economy, and an over-extended play time. In this sense, the deluxe edition was a colossal missed opportunity. Transport Tycoon is a really fun game even with all of its infelicities; without them, it could have been a staggeringly great one.

Indeed, Transport Tycoon‘s peculiar combination of fascination and frustration caused it to become one of those games that players felt a compulsion to somehow fix. Ten years worth of fan-made patches and tweaks finally yielded in 2004 to the first release of OpenTTD, an open-source clone of the game. The latter has continued to receive updates ever since, and has joined the likes of FreeCiv and NetHack as a staple of what we might call “hacker gaming.” As such, it evinces both the typical advantages and disadvantages of its species. A huge array of options and add-ons is available to correct every one of the problems I’ve outlined above and then some, but the process of choosing the right ones and putting them all together can be daunting, enough so as to drive away the player who just wants a fun, balanced game that plays well right out of the (virtual) box.

But enough of that; this is intended to be a review of the original Transport Tycoon rather than its later incarnations. In any such review, the obvious point of comparison remains its inspiration of Railroad Tycoon. This fact is not always to Transport Tycoon‘s benefit: it cannot be denied that the older game is also the more fully-realized. There are many reasons to prefer it: its carefully honed balance, the verisimilitude provided by its deeper connection to real history, its slightly more advanced train management (I dearly miss in Transport Tycoon the ability to change your trains’ consists automatically at stations), the fact that you can reasonably expect to finish a single game in an evening or two. And yet there’s something to be said as well for Transport Tycoon‘s more easygoing personality and more pronounced sandbox flavor, not to mention its groundbreaking interface and delightful aesthetic presentation. If I had to choose one, the critic and the pedant in me would demand that I take Railroad Tycoon. But luckily, we don’t really have to choose, do we?

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of October 1991 and March 1995; Edge of December 1993, February 1994, and February 1995; Electronic Entertainment of March 1995; Retro Gamer 4, 8, 58, 74, 98, and 138. Online sources include a Wired profile of Chris Sawyer and a EuroGamer interview with him, as well as his own home page.

Transport Tycoon has never received a digital re-release. I therefore take the liberty of hosting a version here that’s ready to run; just add the Windows, Macintosh, or Linux version of DOSBox. Do note, however, that most modern players prefer OpenTTD, which is free in all senses of the word.)

 
 

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X-COM

X-COM seemed to come out of nowhere. Its release was not preceded by an enormous marketing campaign with an enormous amount of hype. It had no video demo playing in the front window of Babbages, it wasn’t advertised twelve months in advance on glossy foldout magazine inserts, it had no flashing point-of-purchase kiosks. It didn’t come in a box designed by origamists from the school of abstract expressionism. It featured no full-motion video starring the best TV actors of the 80s; it had no voice-overs. It offered neither Super VGA graphics, nor General MIDI support. It wasn’t Doom-like, Myst-like, or otherwise like a hit game from the previous season; it didn’t steal the best features from several other successful games. It wasn’t even on a CD-ROM!

In short, if you plugged X-COM’s variables into the “success formula” currently in use by the majority of large game companies, you’d come up with a big, fat goose egg. According to the prevailing wisdom, there’s no way X-COM could survive in today’s gaming marketplace. And yet it sold and sold, and gamers played on and on.

— Chris Lombardi, writing in the April 1995 issue of Computer Gaming World

In the early days of game development, there existed little to no separation between the roles of game programmer and game designer. Those stalwart pioneers who programmed the games they themselves designed could be grouped into two broad categories, depending on the side from which they entered the field. There were the technologists, who were fascinated first and foremost with the inner workings of computers, and chose games as the most challenging, creatively satisfying type of software to which they could apply their talents. And then there were those who loved games themselves above all else, and learned to program computers strictly in order to make better, more exciting ones than could be implemented using only paper, cardboard, and the players’ imaginations. Julian Gollop, the mastermind behind the legendary original X-COM, fell most definitely into this latter category. He turned to the computer only when the games he wanted to make left him no other choice.

Growing up in the English county of Essex, Julian and his younger brother Nick lived surrounded by games, courtesy of their father. “Every Christmas, we didn’t watch TV, we’d play games endlessly,” Julian says. From Cluedo, they progressed to Escape from Colditz, then on to the likes of Sniper! and Squad Leader.

Julian turned fifteen in 1980, the year that the Sinclair ZX80 arrived to set off a microcomputer fever all across Britain, but he was initially immune to the affliction. Unimpressed by the simplistic games he saw being implemented on those early machines, which often had as little as 1 K of memory, he started making his own designs to be played the old-fashioned way, face-to-face around a tabletop. It was only when he hit a wall of complexity with one of them that he reassessed the potential of computers.

The game in question was called Time Lords; as the name would imply, it was based on the Doctor Who television serials. It asked two to five players to travel through time and space and alter the course of history to their advantage, but grew so complex that it came to require an additional person to serve in the less-than-rewarding capacity of referee.

By this point, it was 1982, and a friend of Julian’s named Andy Greene had acquired one of the first BBC Micros. Its relatively cavernous 32 K of memory opened up the possibility of using the computer as a referee instead of a bored human. Greene coded up the program in BASIC, staying faithful to Julian’s board game to the extent of demanding that players leave the room when it wasn’t their turn, so as not to see anything they weren’t supposed to of their opponents’ actions. The owner of the tabletop-games store where Julian shopped was so impressed with the result that he founded a new company, Red Shift Games, in order to publish it. They all traveled to computer fairs together, carrying copies of the computerized Time Lords packaged in Ziploc baggies. The game didn’t take the world by storm — Personal Computer News, one of the few publications to review it, pronounced it a “bored game” instead of a board game — but it was a start.

The two friends next made Islandia, another multiplayer strategy game of a similar stripe. In the meantime, Julian acquired a Sinclair Spectrum, the cheap and cheerful little machine destined to drive British computer gaming for the next half-decade. Having now a strong motivation to learn to program it, Julian did just that. His first self-coded game, and his first on the Spectrum, appeared in 1984 in the form of Nebula, a conquer-the-galaxy exercise that for the first time offered a computer opponent to play against.

The artificial intelligence disappeared again from his next game, but it mattered not at all. Rebelstar Raiders was the prototype for Julian Gollop’s most famous work. In contrast to the big-picture strategy of his earlier games, it focused on individual soldiers in conflict with one another in a Starship Troopers-like science-fictional milieu. Still, it was very much based on the board games he loved; there was a lot of Sniper! and Squad Leader in its turn-based design. Despite being such a cerebral game, despite being one that you couldn’t even play without a mate to hand, it attracted considerable attention. Red Shift faded out of existence shortly thereafter as its owner lost interest in the endeavor, but Rebelstar Raiders had already made Julian’s reputation, such that other publishers were now knocking at his door.

Rebelstar Raiders, the first of Julian Gollop’s turn-based tactical-combat games. Ten years later, the approach would culminate in X-COM.

It must have been a thrill for Julian Gollop the board-game fanatic when Games Workshop, the leading British publisher of hobbyist tabletop games, signed him to make a computer game for their new — if ultimately brief-lived — digital division. Chaos, a spell-slinging fantasy free-for-all ironically based to some extent on a Games Workshop board game known as Warlock — not that Julian told them that! — didn’t sell as well as Rebelstar Raiders, although it has since become something of a cult classic.

So, understandably, Julian went where the market was. Between 1986 and 1988, he produced three more iterations on the Rebelstar Raiders concept, each boasting computer opponents as well as multiplayer options and each elaborating further upon the foundation of its predecessor. Game designers are a bit like authors in some ways. Some authors — like, say, Margaret Atwood — try their hands at a wide variety of genres and approaches, while others — like, say, John Cheever — compulsively sift through the same material in search of new nuggets of insight. Julian became, in the minds of the British public at least, an example of the Cheever type of designer. “It could be said by the cruelest among us that Julian has only ever written one game,” wrote the magazine New Computer Express in 1990, “but has released various substantially enhanced versions of it over the years.”

Of those enhanced versions, Julian published Rebelstar and Rebelstar 2: Alien Encounter through Firebird as a lone-wolf developer, then published Laser Squad through a small outfit known as Blaze Software. Before he made this last game, he founded a company called Target Games — soon to be renamed to the less generic Mythos Games — with his father as silent partner and his brother Nick in an active role; the latter had by now become an accomplished programmer in his own right, in fact surpassing Julian’s talents in that area. In 1990, the brothers made the Chaos sequel Lords of Chaos together in order to prove to the likes of New Computer Express that Julian was at least a two-trick pony. And then came the series of events that would lead to Julian Gollop, whose games were reasonably popular in Britain but virtually unknown elsewhere, becoming one of the acknowledged leading lights of strategy gaming all over the world.



The road to X-COM traveled through the terrain of happenstance rather than any master plan. Julian’s career-defining project started as Laser Squad 2 in spirit and even in name, the next manifestation of his ongoing obsession with small-scale, turn-based, single-unit tactics. The big leap forward this time was to be an isometric viewpoint, adding an element of depth to the battlefield. He and Nick coded a proof of concept on an Atari ST. While they were doing so, Blaze Software disappeared, yet another ephemeral entity in a volatile industry. Now, the brothers needed a new publisher for their latest game.

Both of them had been playing hours and hours of Railroad Tycoon, from the American publisher MicroProse. Knowing that MicroProse had a British branch, they decided to take their demo there first. It was a bold move in its way; as I’ve already noted, their games were popular in their sphere, but had mostly borne the imprints of smaller publishers and had mostly been sold at cheaper price points. MicroProse was a different animal entirely, carrying with it the cachet that still clung in Europe to American games, with their bigger budgets and higher production values. In their quiet English way, the Gollops were making a bid for the big leagues.

Luckily for them, MicroProse’s British office was far more than just a foreign adjunct to the American headquarters. It was a dynamic, creative place in its own right, which took advantage of the laissez-faire attitude of “Wild” Bill Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant fly-boy founder, to blaze its own trails. When the Gollops brought in the nascent Laser Squad 2, they were gratified to find that just about everyone at MicroProse UK already knew of them and their games. Peter Moreland, the head of development, was cautiously interested, but with plenty of caveats. For one thing, they would need to make the game on MS-DOS rather than the Atari ST in order to reach the American market. For another, a small-scale tactical-combat game alone wouldn’t be sufficient — wouldn’t be, he said, “MicroProse enough.” After making their name in the 1980s with Wild Bill’s beloved flight simulators, MicroProse was becoming at least as well known in this incipient new decade for grand-strategy games of or in the spirit of their star designer Sid Meier, like the aforementioned Railroad Tycoon and the soon-to-be-released Civilization. The emphasis here was on the “grand.” A Laser Squad 2 just wouldn’t be big enough for MicroProse.

Finally, Moreland wasn’t thrilled by all these far-future soldiers fighting battles in unknown regions of space for reasons that were abstract at best. Who could really relate to any of that? He wanted something more down to earth — literally. Maybe something to do with alien visitors in UFOs… that sort of thing. Julian nodded along, then went home to do some research and refine his proposal.

He quickly learned that he was living in the midst of a fecund period in the peculiar field of UFOlogy. In 1989, a sketchy character named Bob Lazar had given an interview for a Las Vegas television station in which he claimed to have been employed as a civilian contractor at the top-secret Nevada military base known only as Area 51. In that location, so he said, the American Air Force was actively engaged in testing fantastic technologies derived from extraterrestrial visitors. The interview would go down in history as the wellspring of a whole generation of starry-eyed conspiracy theorists, whose outlandish beliefs would soon enter the popular media zeitgeist via such vehicles as the television series The X-Files. When Julian first investigated the subject in 1991, however, UFOs and aliens were still a fairly underground obsession. Nevertheless, he took much from the early lore and legends of Area 51, such as a supposed new chemical element — called ununpentium by Lazar, elerium by the eventual game — which powered the aliens’ spaceships.

His other major source of inspiration was the 1970 British television series entitled simply UFO. In fact, his game would eventually be released as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe, capitalizing on the association with a show that a surprising number of people there still remembered. (I’ve chosen to use the American name of X-COM globally in this article because all subsequent games in the franchise would be known all over the world under that name; it has long since become the iconic one.) UFO the television series takes place in the then-near-future of 1980, when aliens are visiting the Earth in ever-increasing numbers, abducting humans and wreaking more and more havoc. An international organization known as SHADO (“Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation”) has been formed to combat the menace. The show follows the exploits of the SHADO operatives, complete with outlandish “futuristic” costumes and sets and gloriously cheesy special effects. Gollop lifted this basic scenario and moved it to his own near-future: to the year 1999, thus managing to nail not only his decade’s burgeoning obsession with aliens but also its unease about the looming millennium.

The game is divided into two distinct halves — so much so that each half is almost literally an entirely separate game: each unloads itself completely from memory to run a separate executable file at the point of transition, caching on the hard drive before doing so the relatively small amount of state data which its companion needs to access.

The first part that you see is the strategic level. As the general in charge of the “Extra-Terrestrial Combat Force,” or X-COM — the name was suggested by Stephen Hand and Mike Brunton, two in-house design consultants at MicroProse UK — you must hire soldiers and buy equipment for them; research new technologies, a process which comes more and more to entail reverse-engineering captured alien artifacts in order to use your enemy’s own technology against them; build new bases at strategic locations around the world, as well as improve your existing ones (you start with just one modest base); and send your aircraft out to intercept the alien craft that are swarming the Earth. In keeping with the timeless logic of computer games, the countries of the Earth have chosen to make X-COM, the planet’s one real hope for defeating the alien menace, into a resource-constrained semi-capitalist enterprise; you’ll often need to sell gadgets you’ve manufactured or stolen from the aliens in order to make ends meet, and if you fail to perform well your sponsoring countries will cut their funding.

The “Geoscape” view, where you place your bases and use them to intercept airborne alien attackers. You can find a wealth of discussion online about where best to position your first base — but naturally, most people prefer to put it in their home town. Like the ability to name your individual soldiers, the ability to start right in your own backyard forges a personal connection between the game and its player.

This half of the game was a dizzying leap into uncharted territory for the Gollop brothers. Thankfully, then, they were on very familiar ground when it came to the other half: the half that kicks in when your airborne interceptors force a UFO to land, or when you manage to catch the aliens in the act of terrorizing some poor city, or when the aliens themselves attack one of your bases. Here you find yourself in what amounts to Laser Squad 2 in form and spirit if not in name: an ultra-detailed turn-based single-unit combat simulator, the latest version of a game which Julian Gollop had already made four times before. (Or close enough to it, at any rate: X-COM, the culmination of what had begun with Rebelstar Raiders on the Spectrum, is ironically single-player only, whereas that first game had not just allowed but required two humans to play.) Although the strategic layer sounds far more complex than this tactical layer — and, indeed, it is in certain ways — it’s actually the tactical game where you spend the majority of your time, fighting battles which can consume an entire evening each.

The “Battlescape” view, where tactical combat takes place.

For all their differences, the two halves of the game do interlock in the end as two facets of a whole. Your research efforts, equipment purchases, and hiring practices in the strategic half determine the nature of the force you lead into the tactical man-against-alien battles. Less obviously but just as significantly, your primary reward for said battles proves to be the recovery of alien equipment, alien corpses, and even live alien specimens (all is fair in love and genocidal interplanetary war), which you cart back to your bases to place at the disposal of your research teams. And so the symbiotic relationship continues: your researchers use what you recover as grist for their mill, which lets you go into tougher battles with better equipment to hand, thereby to bring back still richer spoils.

The capsule description of the finished game which I’ve just provided mirrors almost perfectly the proposal which Julian Gollop delivered to MicroProse; the design would change surprisingly little in the process of development. MicroProse thought it sounded just fine as-is.



The contract which the Gollops signed with MicroProse specified that the former would be responsible for all of the design and coding, while the latter would provide the visual and audio assets. MicroProse UK did hold up their end of the bargain, but had an oddly casual attitude toward the project in general. Julian remembers their producer as “very laid back — he would come over once a month, we would go to the pub, talk about the game for a bit, and he would go home.” Otherwise, the Gollops worked largely alone after their first rush of consultations with the MicroProse mother ship had faded into the past. Time dragged on and on while they struggled with this massively complicated game, one half of which was unlike anything they had ever even contemplated before.

X-COM‘s UFOpaedia is a direct equivalent to Civilization‘s innovative Civilopedia, its most obvious single nod to Sid Meier’s equally influential but very, very different game.

As it did so, much happened in the broader world of MicroProse. On the positive side, Sid Meier’s Civilization was released at the end of 1991. But despite this and some other success stories, MicroProse’s financial foundation was growing ever more shaky, as their ambitions outran their core competencies. The company lost millions on an ill-judged attempt to enter the stand-up arcade market, then lost millions more on baroque CRPGs and flashy interactivity-lite adventure games. After an IPO that was supposed to bail them out went badly off the rails, Wild Bill Stealey sold out in June of 1993 to Spectrum Holobyte, another American publisher. The deal seemed to make sense: Spectrum Holobyte had a lot of money, thanks not least to generous venture capitalists, but a rather thin portfolio of games, while MicroProse had a lot of games both out and in the pipeline but had just about run out of money.

Spectrum Holobyte sifted carefully through their new possession’s projects in development, passing judgment on which were potential winners and which certain losers. According to Julian Gollop, Spectrum Holobyte told MicroProse UK in no uncertain terms to cancel X-COM. On the face of it, it wasn’t an unreasonable point of view to take. The Gollops had been working for almost two years by this point, and still had few concrete results to show for their efforts. It really did seem that they were hopelessly out of their depth. Luckily for them, however, Peter Moreland and others in the British office still believed in them. They nodded along with the order to bin X-COM, then quietly kept the project on the books. At this point, it didn’t cost them much of anything to do so; the art was already done, and now it was up to the Gollops to sink or swim with it.

X-COM bobbed up to the surface six months later, when the new, allegedly joint management team — Stealey would soon leave the company, feeling himself to have been thoroughly sidelined — started casting about for a game to feature in Europe in the first quarter of 1994, thereby to make the accountants happy. Peter Moreland piped up sheepishly: “You remember that UFO project you told us to cancel? Well, it’s actually still kicking around…” And so the Gollop brothers, who had been laboring under strangely little external pressure for the past 26 months or so, were now ordered to get their game done already. They managed it, just — UFO: Enemy Unknown shipped in Europe in March of 1994 — but some of the problems in the finished game definitely stem from the deadline that was so arbitrarily imposed from on high.

But if the game could have used a few more months in the oven, it nonetheless shipped in better condition than many other MicroProse games had during the recent stretch of financial difficulties. It garnered immediate rave reviews, while its sales also received a boost from another source. The first episode of The X-Files had aired the previous September in the United States, followed by airings across Europe. Just like that, a game about hostile alien visitors seemed a lot more relevant. Indeed, the game possessed much the same foreboding atmosphere as the show, from its muted color palette to MicroProse composer John Broomhall’s quietly malevolent soundtrack, which he had created in just two months in the final mad rush up to the release deadline. He couldn’t have done a better job if he’d had two years.

X-COM: UFO Defense shipped a few months later in North America, into a cultural zeitgeist that was if anything even more primed for it. Computer Gaming World, the American industry’s journal of record, gave it five stars out of five, and its sales soared well into the six digits. As the quote that opened this article attests, X-COM was in many ways the antithesis of what most publishers believed constituted a hit game in the context of 1994. Its graphics were little more than functional; it had no full-motion video, no real-time 3D rendering, no digitized voices; it fit perfectly well on a few floppy disks, thank you very much, with no need for any new-fangled CD-ROM drive. And yet it sold better than the vast majority of those other “cutting-edge” games. Many took its success as a welcome sign that gaming hadn’t yet lost its soul completely — that good old-fashioned gameplay could still trump production values from time to time.



The original X-COM‘s reputation has only grown more hallowed in the years since its release. It’s become a perennial on best-games-of-all-time lists, even ones whose authors weren’t yet born at the time of its release. For this is a game, so we’re told, that transcends its archaic presentation, that absolutely any student of game design needs to play.

That’s rather ironic in that X-COM is a game that really shouldn’t work at all according to many of the conventional rules of design. For example, it’s one of the most famous of all violators of what’s become known as the Covert Action Rule, as formulated by Sid Meier and named after one of his own less successful designs. The rule states that pacing is as important in a strategy game as it is in any other genre, that “mini-games” which pull the player away from the overarching strategic view need to be short and to the point, as is the case in Meier’s classic Pirates!. If they drag on too long, Meier tells us, the player loses focus on the bigger picture, forgets what she’s been trying to accomplish there, gets pulled out of that elusive state of “flow.”

But, as I already noted, X-COM‘s tactical battles can drag on for an hour or two at a time — and no one seems be bothered by this at all. What gives?

By way of an answer to that question, I would first note that the Covert Action Rule is, like virtually all supposedly hard-and-fast rules of game design, riddled with caveats and exceptions. (Personally, I don’t even agree that violating the yet-to-be-formulated Covert Action Rule was the worst problem of Covert Action itself.) And I would also note that X-COM does at least a couple of things extraordinarily well as compensation, better than any strategy game that came before it. Indeed, one can argue that no earlier grand-strategy game even attempted to do these things — not, at least, to anything like the same extent. Interestingly, both inspired strokes are borrowed from other gaming genres.

The first is the intriguing mystery surrounding the aliens, which is peeled back layer by layer as you progress. As your scientists study the equipment and alien corpses brought back from the battle sites and interrogate the live aliens your soldiers have captured, you learn more and more about where your enemies come from and what motivates them to attack the Earth so relentlessly. It doesn’t take long to reach a point where you look forward to the next piece of this puzzle as excitedly as you do the next cool gun or piece of armor. By the time the whole experience culminates in a desperate attack on the aliens’ home base, you’re all in. Granted, a byproduct of this sense of unfolding discovery is that you may not feel like revisiting the game after you win; for many or most of us, this is a strategy game to play through once rather than over and over again. But on the other hand, considering the fifty hours or more it will take you to get through it once, it’s hard to complain overmuch about that fact. Needless to say, when you do play it for the first time you should meticulously avoid spoilers about What Is Really Going On Here.

Learning more about the alien invaders via an autopsy. The game was ahead of its time; the year after X-COM‘s release, at the height of the X-Files-fueled UFO craze, the Fox television channel would broadcast Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? in the United States. (For the record, it was most assuredly the latter.)

X-COM‘s other, even more brilliant stroke is the sense of identification it builds between you and the soldiers you send into battle. Each soldier has unique strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to carefully consider the role she plays in combat: a burly, fearless character who can carry enough weaponry to outfit your average platoon but couldn’t hit the proverbial broad side of a barn must be handled in a very different way from a slender, nervous sharpshooter. As your soldiers (hopefully) survive missions, their skills improve, CRPG-style. Thus you have plenty of practical reasons to be more loathe to lose a seasoned veteran than a greenhorn fresh out of basic training. And yet this purely zero-sum calculus doesn’t fully explain why each mission is so nail-bitingly tense, so full of agonizing decisions balancing risk against reward.

One of X-COM‘s most defining design choices is also one of its simplest: it lets you name each soldier for yourself. As you play, you form a picture of each of them in your imagination, even though the game itself never describes any of them to you as anything other than a list of numbers. Losing a soldier who’s been around for a while feels weirdly like losing a genuine acquaintance. For here too you can’t help but embellish the thin scaffolding of fact the game provides with your own story of what happened: the grizzled old-timer who went out one time too many, whose nerves just couldn’t handle another firefight; the foolhardy, testosterone-addled youth who threw himself into every battle like he was indestructible, until one day he wasn’t. X-COM provides the merest glimpse of what it must feel like to be an actual commander in war: the overwhelming stress of having the lives of others hanging on your decisions, the guilty second-guessing that inevitably goes on when you lose someone. It has something that games all too often lack: a sense of consequences for your actions. Theoretically at least, the best way to play it is in iron-man mode: no saving and restoring to fix bad outcomes, dead is dead, own your decisions as commander.

Beginning with just a name you choose for yourself and a handful of statistics which the game provides, your imagination will conjure a whole personality for each of your soldiers. Dwight here, for example, likes guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music.

In one of those strange concordances that tend to crop up in many creative fields, X-COM wasn’t the only strategy game of 1994 to bring in CRPG elements to great effect. Ironically, these innovations occurred just as the CRPG genre itself was in its worst doldrums since Ultima I and Wizadry I had first brought it to prominence. Today, even as the CRPG has long since regained its mojo as a gaming genre, CRPG elements have become the special sauce ladled over a wide array of other types of games. X-COM was among the first to show how tasty the end result could be.

I have to say, however, that I find other elements of X-COM less appetizing, and that its strengths don’t quite overcome its weaknesses in my mind sufficiently to win it a place on my personal list of best games ever. My first stumbling block is the game’s learning curve, which is not just steep but unnecessarily so. I’d like to quote Garth Deangelis, who led the team that created XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the critically acclaimed franchise reboot that was released in 2012:

While [the original X-COM] may have been magnificent, it was also a unique beast when it came to beginning a new game. We often joked that the diehards who mastered the game independently belonged to an elite club because by today’s standards the learning curve was like climbing Mount Everest.

As soon as you fire up the original, you’re placed in a Geoscape with the Earth silently looming, and various options to explore within your base — including reading (unexplained) financial reports, approving manufacturing requests (without any context as to what those would mean later on), and examining a blueprint (which hinted at the possibility for base expansion), for example — the player is given no direction.

Even going on your first combat mission can be a bit of a mystery (and when you first step off the Skyranger, the game will kill off a few of your soldiers before you even see your first alien — welcome to X-COM!).

There’s certainly a place for complex games, and complexity will always come complete with a learning curve of some sort. But, again, X-COM‘s curve is just unnecessarily steep. Consider: when you begin a new game, you have two interceptors already in your hangar for bringing down UFOs. Fair enough. Unfortunately, they come equipped with sub-optimal Stingray missiles and borderline-useless cannon. So, one of the first tasks of the experienced player becomes to requisition some more advanced Avalanche missiles, put them on her interceptors, and sell off the old junk. Why can the game not just start you off with a reasonable weapons load-out? A similar question applies to the equipment carried by your individual soldiers, as it does to the well-nigh indefensible layout of your starting base itself, which makes it guaranteed to fall to the first squad of marauding aliens who come calling. The new player is likely to assume, reasonably enough, that the decisions the game has already made for her are good ones. She finds out otherwise only by being kicked in the teeth as a result of them. This is not good game design. The impression created is of a game that is not tough but fair, but rather actively out to get her.

Your starting base layout. By no means should you assume that this is a defensible one. In fact, many players spend a lot of money at the very beginning ripping it up completely and starting all over again. Why should this be necessary?

You’ll never use a large swath of the subpar weapons and equipment included in X-COM, which rather begs the questions what they’re doing in there. The game could have profited greatly from an editor empowered to pare back all of this extraneous nonsense and home in on its core appeal. Likewise, the user interface in the strategic portion operates on the principle that, if one mouse click is good, ten must be that much better; everything is way more convoluted than it needs to be. Just buying and selling equipment is agonizing.

The tactical game’s interface is also dauntingly complex, but does have somewhat more method to its madness, being the beneficiary of all of Julian Gollop’s earlier experience with this sort of game. Still, even tactical combat, so widely and justly lauded as the beating heart of X-COM, is not without its frustrations. Certainly every X-COM player is all too familiar with the last-alien-on-the-map syndrome, where you sometimes have to spend fifteen or twenty minutes methodically hunting the one remaining enemy, who’s hunkered down in some obscure corner somewhere. The nature of the game is such that you can’t relax even in these situations; getting careless can still get one or more of your precious soldiers killed before you even realize what’s happening. But, although perhaps a realistic depiction of war, this part of the game just isn’t much fun. The problem is frustrating not least because it’s so easily soluble: just have the remaining aliens commit suicide to avoid capture — something entirely in keeping with their nature — when their numbers get too depleted.

All of these niggling problems mark X-COM as the kind of game I have to rant about here all too often: the kind that was never actually played before its release. For all its extended development time, it still needed a few more months filled with play-testing and polishing to reach its full potential. X-COM‘s most infamous bug serves as a reminder of just how little of either it got: its difficulty levels are broken. If you select something other than the “beginner” difficulty, it reverts back to the easiest level after the first combat mission. In one sense, this is a blessing: the beginner difficulty is more than difficult enough for the vast majority of players. On the other, though… how the heck could something as basic as that be overlooked? There’s only one way that I can see: if you barely played the game at all before you put it in a box and shipped it out the door.

To his credit, Julian Gollop himself is well aware of these issues and freely acknowledges them — does so much more freely in fact than some of his game’s biggest fans. He notes the influence of vintage Avalon Hill and SPI board games, some of which were so demanding that just being able to play them at all — never mind playing them well — was an odd sort of badge of honor for the grognards of the 1970s and early 1980s. He would appear to agree with me that there’s a bit too much of their style of complexity-for-its-own-sake in X-COM:

I believe that a good game may have relatively simple rules, but have complex situations arise from them. Strategy games tend to do that very well, you know — even the simplest ones are very good at that. I think it’s possible to have an accessible game which doesn’t have amazingly complex rules, but still has a kind of emerging complexity within what happens — you know, what players do, what players explore. For me, that’s the Holy Grail of game design. So, I don’t think that I would probably go back to making games as complex as [X-COM].

Like poets, game designers often simplify their work as they age, the better to capture the real essence of what they’re trying to express.



But whatever their final evaluation of the first game, most players then and now would agree that few franchises have been as thoroughly botched by their trustees as X-COM was afterward. When the first X-COM became an out-of-left-field hit, MicroProse UK, who had great need of hits at the time to impress the Spectrum Holobyte brass, wanted the Gollops to provide a sequel within a year. Knowing that that amount of time would allow them to do little more than reskin the existing engine, they worked out a deal: they would give their publisher their source code and let them make a quickie sequel in-house, while they themselves developed a more ambitious sequel for later release.

The in-house MicroProse project became 1995’s X-COM: Terror from the Deep, which posited that, forty years after their defeat at the end of the first game, the aliens have returned to try again. The wrinkle this time is that they’ve set up bases under the Earth’s oceans, which you must attack and eradicate. Unfortunately, Terror from the Deep does little to correct the original’s problems; if anything, it makes them worse. Most notably, it’s an even more difficult game than its predecessor, a decision that’s hard to understand on any level. Was anyone really complaining that X-COM was too easy? All in all, Terror from the Deep is exactly the unimaginative quickie sequel which the Gollops weren’t excited about having to make.

Nevertheless, it’s arguably the best of the post-original, pre-reboot generation of X-COM games. X-COM: Apocalypse, the Gollops’ own sequel, was a project on a vastly greater scale than the first two X-COM games, a scale to which they themselves struggled to adapt. It was riven by bureaucratic snafus and constant conflict between developer and publisher, and the resulting process of design-by-fractious-committee turned it into a game that did a lot of different things — turned-based and real-time combat in the very same game! — but did none of them all that well, nor even looked all that good whilst doing them. Julian Gollop today calls it “the worst experience of my entire career” and “a nightmare.” He and Nick cut all ties with MicroProse after its 1997 release.

After that, MicroProse lost the plot entirely, stamping the X-COM label onto games that had virtually nothing in common with the first one. X-COM: Interceptor (1998) was a space simulator in the mode of Wing Commander; Em@il Games: X-COM (1999) was a casual multiplayer networked affair; X-COM: Enforcer (2001) was a mindless shoot-em-up. This last proved to be the final straw;  the X-COM name disappeared for the next eleven years, until XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the reboot by Firaxis Games.

If you ask me, said reboot is in absolute terms a better game than the original, picking up on almost all of its considerable strengths while eliminating most of its weaknesses. But it cannot, of course, lay claim to the same importance in the history of gaming. Despite its flaws, the original X-COM taught designers to personalize strategy games, showed them how to raise the emotional stakes in a genre previously associated only with cool calculation. For that reason, it richly deserves its reputation as one of the most important games of its era.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Amstrad Action of October 1989; Computer Gaming World of August 1994, September 1994, April 1995, and July 1995; Crash of Christmas 1988 and May 1989; Game Developer of April 2013; Retro Gamer 13, 68, 81, 104, 106, 112, and 124; Amiga Format of December 1989, June 1994, and November 1994; Computer and Video Games of December 1988; Games TM 46; New Computer Express of September 15 1990; Games Machine of July 1988; Your Sinclair of August 1990 and September 1990; Personal Computer News of July 21 1983. Online sources include Julian Gollop’s X-COM postmortem from the 2013 Game Developers Conference, “The Story of X-COM at EuroGamer, and David Jenkins’s interview with Julian Gollop at Metro.

The original X-COM is available for digital purchase at GOG.com, as are most of the other X-COM games mentioned in this article.)

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2020 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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