18 Sep

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, as are most of the other X-COM games mentioned in this article.)


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


Tags: , ,

64 Responses to X-COM

  1. mycophobia

    September 18, 2020 at 3:58 pm

    “Bob Lazar had given an interview for a Las Vega television station”

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 18, 2020 at 5:48 pm


  2. Chris D

    September 18, 2020 at 4:10 pm

    Brilliant article, as ever Jimmy. The way you synthesise all these sources into a single narrative is really impressive, and your comments on the game are invariably spot on.

    I loved UFO: Enemy Unknown, but given that I played it on an Amiga, it had all of the above problems plus painfully long waiting times between turns. On the relatively simple early levels, it wasn’t too bad, but on the complex urban terror missions with lots of aliens and civilians, you would have to wait up to ten minutes while the computer had it’s go. Even on an A1200. I used to have to play it while reading a book.

    I can scarcely believe I had the patience to play it, but I certainly had plenty of spare time as a teenager, so doggedly stuck it out (without ever managing to complete it). As you say, the lure of the lore you got from capturing live aliens or dissecting dead ones was strong enough to overcome the ludicrous slowness of the AI on the Amiga version (which was otherwise splendid, and had beautiful 256 colour graphics).

    • Captain Kal

      September 25, 2020 at 10:01 am

      I used to play the CD32 version. No saving between the battlescape missions that one!!!!

    • Simmerhead

      January 5, 2022 at 2:24 pm

      I had the same problem with Railroad Tycoon. As your railroad grew in size my Amiga 500 couldn’t keep up. I used to set the game speed to “turbo” for hours, then leave home while my cash pile increased so I could do my next big move. It was the single reason I sold my Amiga, and got a 386 PC in 1990!

  3. Howard M. Lewis Ship

    September 18, 2020 at 4:12 pm

    Typo: “Las Vega” (missing the S).

    I was no good at this when it came out, and no better at it when I got the modern version for my iPad. Still fascinating though.

  4. Benjamin Steele

    September 18, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    One of my older brother’s friends stopped by the house one afternoon when my brother was absent; I told him he was welcome to hang around until Ick got back. He watched me play X-Com for a little while, and then I offered the computer to him while I went off to do homework.

    He was still playing when I got up in the morning to go to school.

    I absolutely adored the original game. I thought the Firaxis reboot captured the magic pretty well.

    Thank you for the story behind something that soaked up the better part of a year of my gaming time in high school.

  5. Josh T

    September 18, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    Meir -> Meier
    Vega -> Vegas
    Stringray -> Stingray (I think)
    It think -> I think

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 18, 2020 at 5:50 pm


  6. Andrew Pam

    September 18, 2020 at 5:06 pm

    “volitale industry” -> volatile

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 18, 2020 at 5:50 pm


  7. Aula

    September 18, 2020 at 6:03 pm

    “and as well as” is a bit redundant.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 18, 2020 at 7:39 pm


  8. Peter Olausson

    September 18, 2020 at 6:04 pm

    Chaos on the Spectrum was awesome; highly addictive, and the magazines wrote lots about it for a while. Truly a cult classic. Didn’t know it was written by the same guy as X-COM.

    • Steve Kemp

      September 22, 2020 at 7:25 am

      Chaos is a game that I still return to 20+ years later, firing up an emulator to have a game every couple of months.

      I’ve never played Lords of Chaos, or even the recent kickstarter-based sequel/reimaging. But the original holds up well.

  9. Pedro Timóteo

    September 18, 2020 at 6:09 pm

    Great post as always, but you’re probably tired of me saying that. :)

    Maybe it was because of the piracy situation in Portugal, where, by 1994, I had been playing games for over a decade almost always without access to manuals — don’t get me started on Bard’s Tale, where I had to use a Multiface to show and allow me to copy to paper, by hand, the 4-letter spell codes from my ZX Spectrum’s memory, and then having to test one by one to guess what they did :) –, or the fact that I mostly grew up with British games and their idiosyncrasies, but I didn’t have any real problems with X-Com’s interface at the time. Then again, I was (and am) a big Julian Gollop fan (though to me he’ll always be the Chaos and Laser Squad guy, with X-Com being only his third-best game, but still one of my favorite games ever) so I was used to his user interfaces and terms (e.g. “action points”, these days mostly known as “time units”; “snap shots”, “opportunity fire”, and so on) already.

    The “demolishing your base and building a more defensible one” thing is something I only ever heard about over a decade later, in the 2000s… I sometimes think the Internet makes a certain kind of player (probably the ones who tend to write FAQs and strategy guides) far too obsessed with “perfect builds” and “perfect strategies”. I never did that (didn’t even consider the possibility) the several times I beat the game in the 90s, and the game was perfectly winnable without it — and I’m far from being a great player. One MIGHT need to rebuild their base optimized for defense if playing on a higher difficulty level (with a bug-fixed version), I guess, but that’s not how the game was like before unofficial bugfix utilities or source ports appeared, much later.

    Terror from the Deep is supposedly too hard because of the original game’s difficulty reset bug — MicroProse had complaints about the game being too easy even on higher difficulties (due to it being reset to “Beginner”), so they kept making it harder and harder… and, on an unrelated note, they also fixed the bug, so difficulty levels work again. Plus, those levels — especially those 2- and 3-part missions — are *huge*. :(

    One thing we can agree on: the Firaxis remake, and its sequel, are very, very good (despite what some purists may say (“no time units! small squads!”)), and probably the best way these days to introduce newcomers to the series.

    By the way, in his quote, Chris Lombardi was wrong: the game did support General MIDI. :) It was in fact how I played it back then, with a Roland SCC-1 (music) and SoundBlaster (sound effects) combo. (Unless they removed that option for the US release? I played the original European UFO…)

    As for strategy games with mysteries, I can’t help thinking of another one of my favorite games of all time, Sid Meier’s (really Brian Reynolds’) Alpha Centauri. It’s mostly done with text interludes and subtext from tech videos and leader quotes, and yet it’s brilliantly (and chillingly) done, IMO. Hope you eventually get there. :)

    • Pedro Timóteo

      September 18, 2020 at 6:44 pm

      I sometimes think the Internet makes a certain kind of player (probably the ones who tend to write FAQs and strategy guides) far too obsessed with “perfect builds” and “perfect strategies”.

      To clarify: the problem with that kind of players, IMO, isn’t that they’d rather play a game that way (it’s their right, of course); it’s that they insist that that’s the only way to play properly, and everyone else is doing it wrong.

  10. Kaj Sotala

    September 18, 2020 at 6:37 pm

    As someone who loved the original X-Com and mostly ignored Terror in the Deep after trying it for 15 minutes, I thought that Apocalypse was pretty good. Not as good as the original, but it was clearly trying to do something novel and ambitious, and it gives a strong feeling that it could have been really great if only it’d had more time. (E.g. all the diplomacy with the different factions, that I think the developers explicitly mentioned was intended to be a lot more sophisticated in the original plan.) A good attempt to make a substantial revision to the original formula and take it somewhere new while still maintaining the essential spirit of the original, and which I still had a lot of fun playing.

    And yeah, it probably would have been better game design in a sense to pick either turn-based _or_ real-time and stick with that. But… for me, this choice worked. If they had gone with pure real-time, I would have grumbled and felt unhappy about it “not being real XCOM”. This way, I got to try both, determine that real-time was more fun, and then feel like I had voluntarily picked the option that made for better gameplay.

  11. Noel

    September 18, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    An absolutely brilliant article. Well-researched and quite beefy.

    I take a bit of an exception at the needlessly feminine gender pronouns though, especially since the author is a male and probably 98% of the audience who played this game were dudes. Enough of the political correctness already.

    All-in-all, a fascinating read on one of the most looming works of art from my formative teen years.

    I couldn’t play the game at all, except for a few short spurts on a friend’s uncle’s PC, and a one-time affair on a friend’s computer down the street. (I still fucking remember each play of the game if that tells the truth of its impact on my psyche.) My dad was always a Mac diehard, so I was relegated to the bargain bin of PC ports during those early years until Blizzard saved the day.

    When the reboot of X-Com came out, I dumped countless hours and explored every inch of it a plethora of times over. Perhaps it was cathartic to have been able to finally play a version of that game which had me under a spell all those years.

    • Premislaus

      September 19, 2020 at 7:15 pm

      >I take a bit of an exception at the needlessly feminine gender pronouns though, especially since the >author is a male and probably 98% of the audience who played this game were dudes. Enough of >the political correctness already.

      That’s an extremely common English writing convention. Take your complaint to manuals of style authors.

    • stepped pyramids

      September 19, 2020 at 8:53 pm

      Do you expect the author to change his writing style because you “take a bit of an exception” to it? Why not just get over it and move on?

    • Sandra Day

      September 20, 2020 at 3:55 pm

      Yes, it’s annoying when writing assumes a gender that isn’t you, isn’t it? Gosh, that must be hard for you in this one tiny place on the entire internet and in the entire history of English writing.

  12. Sarah Walker

    September 18, 2020 at 7:17 pm

    If you’d asked me, age 10, what my favourite game was, I’d have answered UFO without any hesitation.

    It’s fascinating just how compulsive the battle-research-build loop is. Every time I replay the game (must be about once a year), I’ll end up utterly absorbed in it for several days, despite there being absolutely no surprises left in the game. Should anyone be in doubt as to how much the Geoscape section adds to the game, have a look at Laser Squad’s other 1994 descendant, Sabre Team; a perfectly competent tactical game but a fraction as compelling. The sheer scope of UFO is what makes it. Possibly the best publisher intervention of all time?

    Possibly it’s a result of having played it so much as a kid, but I find myself much more forgiving of the game’s flaws than Jimmy is (as I was with the Bullfrog games); I’ve long since learnt to never move on the first turn, to avoid half my squad being immediately lost to alien reaction fire, or to immediately change fighter & soldier loadouts on starting a new game, or to just not bother with night missions if I can avoid them (one of the mechanics that sounds great on paper but really doesn’t work that well in practice). The basic core of the game is so good that I’m prepared to put up with such issues.

    Terror From The Deep on the other hand, must serve as a great study in how you can change so little in a game and so effectively break it. It’s pretty depressing to start up what was a full price game and discover so little changed since its predecessor; the battle-research-build loop doesn’t work as well a second time if the research tree is mostly unchanged, and while the underwater setting is a change it’s a pretty poor excuse to effectively undo everything achieved and discovered in the first game.

    It’s only once you’ve played it for a bit that you discover that something’s badly wrong; while Jimmy’s right that it’s much more difficult than UFO it’s mostly not for deliberate reasons. The research tree, as it turns out, has been tweaked, but it’s buggy. It’s extremely easy to block progress and lock yourself out of victory due to researching artifacts in the ‘wrong’ order. The new terror missions would be a welcome addition of variety to the game if anyone had actually playtested them; I’ve spent hours hunting for ‘the last alien’ only to find the AI stuck in a cupboard or wandering in circles somewhere, issues that UFO didn’t suffer from to anything like the same degree. All in all it’s just no fun to play. Curiously it got higher scores in the UK magazines than UFO did, something I can only assume was the result of publisher pressure.

    Apocalypse on the other hand… it’s a very, very flawed game, but I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it. The basic battle-research-build loop still mostly works (and the research tree is different this time!), and the detailed city with opposing factions, along with the implementation of the alien life cycle, are genuinely impressive. When the game comes together, which I’ll admit it often doesn’t, it’s brilliant.

    • stepped pyramids

      September 19, 2020 at 8:59 pm

      Sequels to groundbreaking works (not just games, but music, movies, books) are often overrated by critics relative to the original work at the time of release. The charitable explanation for this is a priming effect — the reviewers go into the sequel expecting a great game.

    • Doctor Casino

      September 21, 2020 at 5:44 pm

      Great comment. I love the point about the battle-research loop and how much more compelling the game is with base-building and the overall strategic element. I think it complements Jimmy’s points about the imaginary stories one can build up about the squad members, etc. I’m reminded of Scott McCloud’s arguments about how much of comic books take place in the readers’ head, in between the panels — likewise, I think you could say that a great deal of this game’s “plot” as *experienced* (and its emotional impression of forever being barely ahead of impending doom) happens in the player’s head, in the space between the Geoscape and the tactical view.

  13. David Boddie

    September 18, 2020 at 9:06 pm

    “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.”

    You forgot to mention the awesome opening titles!

    • CdrJameson

      September 19, 2020 at 1:36 pm

      Another interesting-but-flawed series from Thunderbirds puppet-master Gerry Anderson!

      I played UFO in the mode of earlier, semi-depressing (Anderson frequently let the aliens win) alien-invasionathon Captain Scarlet. All my units were called Captain Puce, Corporal Beige or whatever colour the size of the roster reduced me to.

      UFO managed the ‘enemy unknown’ scarily well. Chryssalids, Blaster Bombs and the later Sectoids turned everyone into Commander Brown (trousers) the first time you met them.

      This personalisation feature was great, but the big steps for Gollop’s strategy games for me were firstly that they were absolutely lethal. No attritional ‘tank’ builds here – any shot from the darkness was potentially lethal. Secondly that ‘simple rules, complex situtations’ idea with the destructable scenery. Setting fire to barns, smoking out opponents and using civvies to see round corners were all possible,

  14. Michael Muñoz

    September 18, 2020 at 9:21 pm

    You should have mentioned Phoenix Point, as it is the true spiritual successor of the original X-COM franchise, as it is was created by Julian Follow himself. It has been out almost a year on Epic, but they have just announced it is launching on Steam December 10th, including all DLC”s to date.

    • Zack

      September 19, 2020 at 12:26 am

      He probably doesn’t mention it because it is ultimately irrelevant to the subject of the article ; many games tried to do X-COM after it released, for instance. Beside, Phoenix Point isn’t terribly good right now. Ironically, it is plagued by many of the original X-COM flaws !

  15. Jason Dyer

    September 18, 2020 at 9:42 pm

    Honestly felt like the Terror from the Deep problem was simply the level size; the two-part level at the end of original X-COM was acceptable as a climax, but the game had multi-part levels all the time and ended on a four-part mission instead.

    I never had any issues with the difficulty, and I’m nothing close to a strategy maven. (I would in fact describe my strategy game skills as “below average” — I could never beat Civilization over beginner difficulty, to give some comparison.) I never did tear out the opening base and I don’t recall ever having it get demolished by the aliens at any point, so it can’t be *that* sub-optimal?

    Same with the weapons — I guess some of them might be useless but I have no idea which ones. I never thought in min-max terms and I was fine. Eventually, when I could shoot with alien guns I upgraded to those, but that seems normal?

    • Brian Roy

      September 19, 2020 at 4:19 am

      I think it comes down really *to* the alien tech. Since you could research them in any order (depending on what you recovered from missions), there was no reason to ever bother with plasma pistols or plasma rifles; the heavy plasma was simply better. Anybody who couldn’t carry one, you might as well leave on laser rifles until you simply ran out of other things to research and researched the plasma rifle.

      On the topic of research, I also learned early to wait for as long as possible before researching personal body armor and then tearing through the armor chain as quickly as possible after. Ironically, I tended to feel safer before armor was researched for one simple reason: Researching personal body armor triggers Snakemen. And Snakemen bring Chrysalids with them. Since an alien with a heavy plasma is going to kill you just as dead whether you’re wearing the tier 1 armor or not, it’s not worth the increased danger/difficulty. If you put off researching it, you can effectively *skip* Snakemen, and almost never see them or Chrysalids except for in alien bases.

  16. Brian Roy

    September 19, 2020 at 4:12 am

    For the record, the long range missiles that you need to buy for the Interceptors at the very beginning of the game are Avalanche missiles. The Avenger was the end-game interceptor/troop carrier. The cannon does have a purpose: it’s pretty much the only weapon you can use to take down Very Small UFOs without destroying them. But since the game hardly every uses Very Smalls and they’re hardly worth the effort of dealing with in terms of risk vs. resources…yeah, pretty much useless.

    I didn’t realize that the Gollops were directly responsible for Apocalypse, no wonder Phoenix Point reminds me so strongly of it. Phoenix Point much more clearly apes X-COM: Apocalypse than X-COM: UFO Defense.

    I’ll always remember X-COM with great fondness (which is why I’ve bought it so many times; I think I own a copy from each collection and re-release it’s had). When my parents bought it for me for Christmas, our computer couldn’t run it. It wouldn’t be until the following July that we upgraded the computer and I could finally play. I play pretty much all tactical games and even a lot of third-person shooters by the rules I learned in X-COM: Try to stay in pairs, always crouch, engage at range, stay out of sight when you’re not taking a shot.

    • Brian Roy

      September 19, 2020 at 4:20 am

      “Apes” is the wrong word. “Descends from” would be better.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 19, 2020 at 6:39 am

      Ouch. Thanks!

    • Andrew Nenakhov

      September 19, 2020 at 7:49 pm

      For all it’s flaws, Apocalypse delivered me a single greatest burst of adrenaline when my three commandos were caught in the middle of the room with those headcrab-type aliens swarming from all sides. Played in real-time, my guys were shooting pistols from both hands, killing off wave after wave of aliens, barely surviving in the end.

      But in general, the game was hard to play and hard some weird weird alien graphics. Interestingly, next to nice 3d models of weapons and vehicles and other stuff.

  17. Gál Hegedűs

    September 19, 2020 at 2:34 pm

    I always found unjust that while Julian Gollop thrived even after leaving the Speccy behind, Mike Singleton who similarly made a legendary unique game (with sequels or similar ones) on the platform slowly faded into oblivion.

    Anyway Chaos is THE GAME on the Zx Spectrum.

    • Pedro Timóteo

      September 19, 2020 at 8:06 pm

      Midwinter (ST, Amiga) was pretty popular, I think.

  18. Mayhaym

    September 19, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    I discovered Laser Squad on the Amstrad CPC via my friends older brother (who also had a hand in introducing me to industrial music and table top RPGs), played it to death on my Atari ST later. Still my favorite squad level strategy game.

  19. Andrew Nenakhov

    September 19, 2020 at 7:42 pm

    It’s very easy to fix starting base. Just put two hangars in the left and right corners, and demolish the bottom ones. Hangars are cheap, and your base quarters are right next to entry points for aliens, making them easy to thwart.

    This game is great, I play it to defeat evil aliens every few years. Interestingly, I never did with reboot: the animated base is great, but somehow I miss free roaming the globe, and i don’t like the overall constraints the reboot puts me it.

    However, X-Com 2 is way better in this regard, because as a member of the resistance, such constraints and limited time for missions make a lot more sense in this setting.

  20. Wolfeye Mox

    September 20, 2020 at 3:02 am

    I just realized that I have most of the X-com franchise on Steam, even though I’ve only played Enemy Unknown. I guess I got an X-com bundle or got them during a sale, I forget. After reading this article, I’m not sure if I’d enjoy the older games, sounds like they’d be too difficult, and the reboot might have made some good changes. I put a lot of hours into Enemy Unknown, it’s one of my favorite games. Still haven’t gotten X-com 2, the sequel to Enemy Unknown, because I haven’t had the money. Oy vey.

    Anyway, I usually hate turn based strategy games. Can’t stand Civilization and games of that ilk. I’ll always prefer RTS games like Empire Earth and Starcraft, or hybrid games like Total War.
    But, X-com, and similar games like Shadowrun Returns, hit that sweet spot of controlling a small squad, so turns go by relatively fast. Being able to personalize the soldiers was a cool feature. I always ended up reloading saves if I lost one, because I got attached to them.

    It was nice to read about how the franchise got it’s start, and a bit more information about the games I have sitting in my Steam library. I might not play ever the original X-com games, but it’s still nice owning a bit of gaming history.

  21. Nikolai Kondrashov

    September 20, 2020 at 7:35 pm

    Thank for a lovely article, as usual! UFO: Enemy Unknown was loved very much in Russia and played everywhere (although probably never paid for). Aside from gameplay I loved the graphics very much. Does anybody know who drew it?

    Laser Squad was loved as well by the Spectrum users, of whom there were still many well into the 90’s. Interesting that Julian left the Spectrum to keep making his game, but the hardcore Russian Speccy fans later did a real-time UFO “port” of sorts:

  22. Avian Overlord

    September 21, 2020 at 4:40 am

    “Was anyone really complaining that X-COM was too easy?”

    Yes, actually. The release version of X-COM had a bug where the difficulty would always be set to the easiest level no matter what you actually picked. However, no one knew that at the time so all their initial feedback was that the game was too easy even on superhuman. And TfTD was designed to rectify that. At least, that’s the story I’ve heard.

    Although it’s also worth noting that X-COM is a game that feels harder than it actually is. It will kill your dudes with impunity, but they’re pretty replaceable. And every iteration of X-COM down to the recent remakes has a problem that the difficulty just collapses in the endgame once you get the endgame tech online.

  23. BoardGameNut

    September 21, 2020 at 10:07 pm

    Great article! Even though I was a big time video gamer during the time of XCOM, I was more on the C64 because I didn’t own a PC. My friend showed me XCOM, but I never got a chance to play it until a few years ago. I was hooked instantly with the just “one more turn” syndrome much like Civilization. I also played it with the OpenXCom project that reimplemented it true to the original but fixed the game breaking bugs in it. It was a truly a masterpiece of it’s time,and I would stay it still holds up quite well.

    I eventually got around to playing XCOM2, and I was duly impressed by it as well. It was definitely more streamlined and added much better character progression to the squad mates over the original and it’s 2012 predecessor making it a far better game. What’s interesting to me is how the designer of XCOM2012 and XCOM2 got back to board game roots of more modern board game designs that is reflected in it’s more streamlined gameplay. The new XCOM’s do play more like a tactical board game where I could see the actions being a set of player cards for each unit type and you’re moving your pieces across the board. I think that is part of the reason for it’s more modern day rejuvenation of the turn based tactics game genre. I hope you have a follow up about how the new XCOM’s have greatly impacted modern day tactical combat games because I see it all over even in Mario Rabbids Kingdom Battle from Nintendo (excellent game in it’s own right).

  24. James H.

    September 22, 2020 at 11:28 am

    Long time lurker; first time commenter.

    “X-COM” is absolutely my favorite game of all time, because it came at exactly the right moment in my childhood.

    This was a great writeup. Amazing to know about the context and business decisions behind the game, which I had no idea about.

    Also, the disappointment in knowing that your favorite/strongest soldiers had weak resistance vs. psionic attacks later on…that was great. We all had our weaknesses!

    Funny (or fitting) that in one’s youth, abstract difficulty and bad initial on-boarding into the game felt way less punishing. I saved up my allowance money for this game, and I was going to figure it out, no matter what. I can’t see the adult me completing these games today.

    Cynically, one could also say that the initial difficulty made the Official Strategy Guide an easier sell. I certainly had my copy!

  25. Bogdanow

    September 22, 2020 at 9:09 pm

    Great article!
    I had been playing X-Com:Terror From The Deep as a elementary school student. I somehow skipped original X-Com. It was a really difficult game and I have never finished it. The best thing was a launcher that made it possible to set a few way-points working as a long range precise artillery, great fun to use, but it worked only underwater. That made surface missions a much more difficult undertaking.


    September 23, 2020 at 5:58 am

    X-COM was definitely ahead of its time, as a fan from the first game in the series I continue to play it. I just wished that there would be more of these types of games out there. As a fan, I bought all the titles to date and all the DLCs available.

  27. Patryk

    September 24, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    Great article, as usual, thanks! I remember a public appearance of Gollop who told a funny anecdote that originally he had intended to name the organization as X-CON. However, he or someone else came to the conclusion that this will sound like a game about ex-cons, and they renamed it.

  28. Michael

    September 24, 2020 at 5:57 pm

    I have so much respect for your prose, Jimmy, that I’m almost shy about pointing out that you’ve used a malapropism – “hone in on” – not once, but twice in this article.

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 24, 2020 at 7:25 pm

      Thanks! Although I only see one instance… (If I used the same idiom twice in the same article, that’s a problem in itself.)

      • Michael

        September 25, 2020 at 6:00 pm

        The first time it was “honed” rather than “hone,” which could be how you missed it.

        • Jimmy Maher

          September 25, 2020 at 7:06 pm

          Ouch… one time too many to hone or home. Thanks!

  29. Kevin Butler

    September 28, 2020 at 6:23 pm

    Excellent article as always. I never played the original PC version of this game. My introduction occurred from the Xbox 360 versions of XCOM Enemy Unknown and XCOM Enemy Within. I thought they were really good turn-based games and also the research aspect added another dimension. In other words, how a game should be put together.

    Unfortunately, I did notice one typo: “…It was riven by bureaucratic…” probably should be driven instead of riven.

    Again, excellent article.

    Kevin Butler

    • Jimmy Maher

      September 29, 2020 at 8:29 am

      Thanks, but as intended. “Riven” meets “shot through with” or “plagued by” in this context.

  30. Anon

    October 1, 2020 at 8:47 am

    The great thing is UFO Defence is still going! There is a missing group which has made Openxcom a full overhaul of the game as well as an extended version which can be modded, it’s 100% worth noting.

  31. Gilles Duchesne

    October 4, 2020 at 4:25 pm

    Sources nitpick: you’ve mentioned “Amiga Format” twice

    • Jimmy Maher

      October 6, 2020 at 6:17 am


  32. Sebastian Redl

    October 16, 2020 at 10:00 pm

    I was just old enough to play the sequel (or not – I was frequently terrified) when it came out, so I missed the original. Therefore my fond memories are of that game.

    In hindsight, it’s unbelievable just how badly they managed to bungle what was effectively a reskin. Aside from the mentioned tech tree bugs, which I of course managed to stumble into, there was also the gauss weapon issue.

    The gauss tech line was the equivalent of the laser weapons in the first game: the only advanced weapon that isn’t reverse engineered.

    But while there was one alien vulnerable to lasers and pretty much nothing else, the gauss weapons had no such reason for existing.

  33. John Elliott

    October 23, 2020 at 9:10 pm

    ‘The game being rushed out, still with bugs’ is a problem that also affected Chaos — there are text and sprites in the game for features that were never implemented, and some of its bugs attained memetic status among players.

  34. Andy Bailey

    May 13, 2021 at 9:38 am

    I had a chance to speak with Jullian Gollop about UFO a couple of years ago.

    One thing that I notice is that some of the sound effects that I first heard in UFO, especially sounds like the opening of doors, I’ve heard in numerous places since. I wanted to find out whether the sounds were originally created for UFO, or whether they were taken from sound libraries. Unfortunately Julian didn’t know where they came from, but we still had a good talk about multiplayer gaming in general.

    He also signed my original UFO instruction manual, and a friends copy of Lords of Chaos, and that totally made my day.

  35. Richard Garner

    January 29, 2022 at 6:00 am

    Great article!

    Minor typo: it should say “Thus you have plenty of practical reasons to be more LOATH to lose a seasoned veteran”.

  36. The Wargaming Scribe

    February 13, 2023 at 6:38 pm

    For people interested, I tried to give a bit more background on the youth of Julian Gollop and his first video game [Time Lords]. I also cover the short-lived Red Shift (1983-1985?), which was the first publisher of Gollop… and of Games Workshop games.

    I was lucky compared to you, as I had a source not yet available to you in 2020 : the book “Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defense” ; basically a biography of Gollop. It is sometimes incorrect (it contradicts primary sources like magazines or ads of the era), probably because the author(s) trusted too much the testimonies of people trying to remember events which happened 40 years ago, but it still add a lot of information of a part of Gollop’s life barely covered elsewhere.

    I also did a multiplayer AAR of Time Lords. The game is not really fun, but fascinating in its ambition and how different it is to anything I played.

  37. Paladin

    July 1, 2023 at 7:37 pm

    I must be one of the very few who thought that the firaxis reboot was inferior to the original. Even so, I can’t blame firaxis for the changes they did to the series; the game needed (in the executives minds) broad appeal in order to be successful, so it was consolized with many of its mechanics dumbed down so that the casual player may enjoy it. The game was tense not because your troops were extremely fragile even with top tier armor but because their numbers were too few in the field.
    One example its the classic chrissalid, in the reboot that alien its more annoying than anything else, in the original no armor would save you from it unless you had the one that lets you fly.
    Still those of us who wanted a more, let’s say, cerebral experience got new titles like Xenonauts, Battle Brothers or fan projects like OpenXcom or Ufo alien invasion.


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