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Whatever Happened To X-COM's Julian Gollop?

"Turn-based strategy games can actually be successful and popular"

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Well, he eventually rebooted and remade war of wizards Spectrum classic Chaos Reborn, which I’ve had a lot of fun with over the last few days, and which took to Steam Early Access yesterday. You can read more about that here. But what happened to the co-creator of X-COM, Laser Squad, Magic and Mayhem, Rebelstar and more over the last ten years or so? While so many long-standing developers have seen their stars rise and rise, Julian Gollop seemed to fall out of sight. In this concluding part of my big interview with him, we talk about where he’s been, why he turned to Kickstarter for his comeback, how he was doing Early Access long before it ever existed, his thoughts on latter-day X-COMlikes such as Xenonauts, Invisible Inc and Mordheim, and the pressing question of whether we’ll ever see a new X-COM or Laser Squad=style game with him at the helm.
RPS: How confident were you that the Chaos Reborn Kickstarter was going to work out, both ahead of it and while it was going on?

Julian Gollop: Well I had no idea. It’s a shot in the dark. You just don’t know. I was very worried that I was asking for too much money, that we wouldn’t meet the target, that people had become too jaded and too cynical. But the response was very good, so that was encouraging.

RPS: You definitely launched at a time when it was a lot less certain than it was.

Julian Gollop: If I’d launched it just a year previously it might have made a big difference in terms of the amount that could be raised. It’s difficult to say but the biggest concern is how sustainable both the combination of Kickstarter and Early Access is for small indie developers.

Chaos Reborn

RPS: How much of a necessity was Early Access for you?

Julian Gollop: Well, at some point we had to do it, yes. Basically we had up to this point a publicly available webplayer-based version of the game, but we need to start making it more closed. That is, our existing Kickstarter backers and people who buy the basic package on Steam will be able to take part in the process of developing the game. And obviously we need to start integrating with Steam’s systems sooner rather than later because it’s a pretty fundamental distribution system. Hopefully we’ll be on other channels as well at some point in the near future. The main advantage of Steam is the exposure it can get to a much wider community of players that you just can’t reach anywhere else, even though Steam’s changed their rules, their discovery system, it’s still the case that it’s really the place to go to for PC games, especially for small to indie-sized developers.

RPS: Were you fairly well-versed in all these new development systems – Kickstarter and Early Access – when you set out to do Chaos, or did you have to have a crash-course outside of the studio system?

Julian Gollop: Well, there was a certainly a lot to learn, mostly in marketing and getting your game noticed I think. That’s the most difficult bit. I’ve done some things similar to Early Access before when we did Laser Squad Nemesis, but this is going back a long way. Back in 2001, when we started on Laser Squad Nemesis [which our Kieron ran a Making Of on years ago here], we had the idea to release the game after a year as a development, no matter how far we’d got with our original plan.

So for example, we’d always planned to put in these three different factions, but we launched it with two factions in February 2002 with the view to continuing to add stuff to the game, which we did. So it was a bit like an Early Access launch what we did with Laser Squad, because we said to players ‘we’ve got this plan, these are the features we want to put in, but we’re going to start selling it before they’re all there.’ That actually worked out quite well with Laser Squad Nemesis but the thing we lacked was any really big reach or distribution system.

Laser Squad Nemesis

RPS: I guess people were patching in the new stuff with magazine cover discs, which is a very strange thing to think about these days.

Julian Gollop: Yeah, it was still very much magazine focused, cover discs for PC, and PC games were not in a brilliant place at that point for indie developers. It was only at that point casual games on the PC were becoming very big and one of the main game-changers there was Bejewelled, but that came out in 2001. It was about the same time we were doing Laser Squad Nemesis and I remember having conversations with Jason Kapalka from PopCap about doing something using their PopCap development system, but it wasn’t really sophisticated enough for us to do something similar to Laser Squad Nemesis, unfortunately.

RPS: The PopCap then were nothing like the PopCap now I imagine.

Julian Gollop: No, but that was the time in PC games when the casual games side was becoming big, but online distribution of hardcore PC games just didn’t exist really.

RPS: Yeah, it was just something you’d see in Tesco mostly, they’d have a little games section with stuff like Bejewelled and maybe a copy of Theme Hospital.

Julian Gollop: But still, in a way that’s kind of what we did with Laser Squad Nemesis, it was like our own Early Access development, and so that’s quite familiar with Chaos Reborn here that we got a certain vision for the game that we want to implement and we’re implementing it feature by feature, step by step, with the involvement of our players and it’s a really nice way of developing games.

Laser Squad Nemesis

RPS: And basically you’re ahead of the curve in releasing unfinished games. Around that time I guess, and really up until Firaxis’s XCOM game came out, there was this sense that you were somehow elusive, you’d disappeared. Was there any truth to this or was it just journalists being lazy?

Julian Gollop: Well I guess, after Laser Squad Nemesis, we kept maintaining it for a few years actually, I think up until three years we were working on it still. But it wasn’t really gaining many new players, so it was getting a bit stagnant in the sense that we didn’t have enough money to really make a big step forward with it. We then did a game for the GBA, for Namco called Rebelstar, although it’s the name of a game that I’d used before. So we did that, that took us about 8/9 months I think at the time. I guess I did kind of disappear after that because I went to Bulgaria and took a year off doing games, even though I was still working on designs, and I started working for Ubisoft in Sofia, from November 2006 up to March 2012, so just over 5.5 years I was working there. It was a very… interesting time from many points of view. Not exactly very productive. I did manage to do an interesting strategy game while I was there which was good, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars,

RPS: Yeah, I heard good things about that, but I never owned the system…

Julian Gollop: Yeah, it was a cool, nice game. The core game system was really nice and that was a launch title on the 3DS, so I guess that was my crowning achievement in 5.5 years working at Ubisoft (laughs).

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars

RPS: But you were still out there, it was just that no one thought to talk to you?

Julian Gollop: Other titles I did were some Chessmaster games, worked on a bunch of games which were cancelled, worked for a year on Assassin’s Creed: Liberation on the PS Vita, before leaving again to take a break.

RPS: Was there a sense when, during all this time, something had gone wrong or was it more a matter of you were just personally casting about, not sure what to do?

Julian Gollop: Well I think I was still pretty sure what I wanted to do, which was my own design of strategy games. I guess it was finding the means and opportunity to do it, the right time and the right place. When I first heard of Kickstarter funding of games I though that this would be an ideal mechanism, but it actually took me a long time to really decide to leave Ubisoft and do my own thing.

RPS: It’s a hell of a gamble I guess.

Julian Gollop: Yes it is, especially as I had two young kids of course. So I needed a bit of help with it, so that’s when I spoke with my business partner David Kaye, so he runs Gaming Insiders Network, which you may have heard of, which is mainly focused on mobile developers and web developers and so on. He was a big fan of my early games and X-COM and stuff so he helped me set up the company and get the stuff organised on the US side for Kickstarter. That was a good encouragement for me to also get going on the Kickstarter and get moving with development, so that was very helpful.

X-COM: UFO Defense

RPS: How’s it felt over the years when X-COM particularly has got namedropped as the best thing ever, but your career hadn’t necessarily led you to the highest profile things?

Julian Gollop: Languishing in obscurity (laughs). Put it this way: I intend to change that so we’ll see what happens. How do I feel about it? Well I guess I’m still quite proud that XCOM has retained that level of interest, and it’s also very good that Firaxis did a pretty good remake of it because that’s also in some ways made it easier for me to talk about my earlier stuff as well, because again the XCOM name is well-known and automatically sparks some interest, so you can say it is still helpful (laughs).

RPS: From this side of things, it seems it very much put your name back on the table whereas if it had been The Bureau, the other XCOM game, that probably wouldn’t have happened.

Julian Gollop: No, it could have turned out very differently.

RPS: Was there a sense that your own fortunes have altered because of the Firaxis game?

Julian Gollop: Not really but it has helped. It’s helped to establish turn-based strategy games as something that can actually be successful and popular.

RPS: Yeah, that’s huge, it’s made turn-based strategy games almost cool in a way.

Julian Gollop: And there’ve been quite a few that have come out in the last year that have been pretty good as well, and I think there’s nothing as big as XCOM, but there are attempts to cater for this demographic, if you want to call it that.

RPS: I find myself using the phrase ‘XCOM-like’ in stories on the site about some new indie thing… [It’s like] hang on, this wasn’t even a concept until 2 years ago. Incredible.

Julian Gollop: Exactly, and now you see games like Mordheim, which is one that stands out recently, which has come out in Early Access.

Mordheim

RPS: Invisible Inc is worth checking out.

Julian Gollop: Yes, I’ve played that a bit. There’s Warmachine Tactics which has also come out on Early Access.

RPS: And Massive Chalice.

Julian Gollop: Yes, the tactical RPG genre which is making its way, which was a heavily console-orientated genre but is coming into PCs a bit more distinctly.

RPS: Abstractly all of these are your children…

Julian Gollop: Maybe. It proves at least that there is a lot of interest in this style of game out there, if they’re done well. If they’ve got a reasonably good backing and good development team behind them and are reasonably well-funded, then you can produce something which is commercially viable and has got an audience. And there are some really big strategy games which have come out which have been very interesting, from Age of Wonders 3 to Endless Legend. Endless Legend, although it has some very typical 4X tropes in it, it’s quite distinctive and innovative in its own way, so there’s a lot of good stuff there I think, which is high quality coming out.

RPS: Yeah, it’s all just coming back to life, which is wonderful.

Julian Gollop: Steam Early Access helps this process of diversity and I think players now have got far more choice of good quality games of vastly diverse genres and experiences than they’ve ever had before, to be honest.

Chaos Reborn

RPS: It’s just finding the right ones that’s become the trouble.

Julian Gollop: Yeah. It’s good for players at the moment, not so easy for developers, because you’re competing for attention from thousands of others, it makes it much much more difficult.

RPS: And I guess you’ve got to run the promotional gauntlet one extra time – you’ve already had to do it with Kickstarter, you’ll have to do it with release and now there’s this as well.

Julian Gollop: Yeah, and the Early Access release requires a lot more effort to get the game at least noticed and get attention. I think the process forces us to focus very much on what we’re adding to the game as we’re going along. The big mistake with Early Access is to release games which don’t have much gameplay value in them, so our approach has been, although we don’t have a huge amount of feaures in the game at the moment, is to make sure that what we’ve got really works very very well, and demonstrates that the game has that extendability, that it could be extended in terms of adding more content and stuff.

I think we kind of benefit also that our game has a lot of replayability to it. It’s not like an adventure game where you’ve got a fixed story that you play from beginning to end. I think Early Access is probably better for this kind of game, strategy games or games that have a degree of procedural generation or user generated content. That does seem to be a bit of a trend, multiplayer games too are better with Early Access games. I’m confident that we’re on the right path. Our next major thing that we’re going to air will be some AI modes, so we’ll have offline AI, online AI, so you’ll be able to play multi-player with AI, and this will be our next major update in the game which will be coming soon.

RPS: That’ll be handy especially as I didn’t have too much luck rounding up people to play against me right now.

Julian Gollop: No, it’s the big problem at the moment. I think especially with trying to do press previews you need to organise a game against somebody. It’ll be much easier once we have the AI system up and running.

The original Laser Squad

RPS: Was this comeback game always going to be Chaos or were you tossing up between doing that or Laser Squad?

Julian Gollop: Yeah, it was a toss up between this and Laser Squad. And I did work on a new design for the Laser Squad game but it was a bit more ambitious than Chaos. Also I still have a degree of fondness for the original Chaos, which I think it needed… I’d explored the Laser Squad style game quite a lot, but not so much the Chaos style game, so I think it really deserved to be made.

RPS: And indeed no one else had looked at it either.

Julian Gollop: Not really, no, and I mean there aren’t that many turn-based wizard combat games out there.

RPS: Was there any temptation to be quite cheeky yourself and make a spiritual XCOM sequel or at least a Kickstarter that was that, because it could have been the easy money?

Julian Gollop: Yes, I seriously considered that before Firaxis announced their XCOM, but of course once they announced it I thought well it’d be a hopeless cause because it’s just not going to get the same traction. I may have been completely wrong in thinking this by the way but (laughs).

Xenonauts

RPS: Well you never know, given Xenonauts did alright

Julian Gollop: I certainly wouldn’t have done it the same way that Xenonauts did it, but I think the Firaxis XCOM would take a lot of beating I think, to make an XCOM that is better quality than that. It’s not that I would have done things the same way they did it, I certainly would have done things somewhat differently, because although you had some interesting strategies to pursue and so on, it did feel like you were being constrained along certain paths, rather than have a more open random game, which is what the original XCOM was.

RPS: It’s much more about refining an approach game after game as opposed to reacting to a situation that is very hard to predict. Even though I’ve played it loads I’m aware that I’m doing the same thing each time, especially in the first turn. I’ve got a play that I’m going to endorse time after time.

Julian Gollop: I did think of doing something up until the Firaxis announcement, but after that I realised I had to abandon hopes of resurrecting an XCOM style game.

RPS: It’s not what you want to hear but I think you could have got away with it. And it’s not too late now. Whatever they do next will not be closer to what you would have done.

Julian Gollop: I probably could have. I don’t know.

With Firaxis' Jake Solomon

RPS: I hope it doesn’t sting too much anyway. There’s definitely room for a third route between what Xenonauts did and what The Long War mod is doing and then what Firaxis did. I’d quite like to see that certainly.

Julian Gollop: Well, we’ll see. Got to finish Chaos first.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Chaos Reborn is out on Early Access now.

Disclaimer: I backed Chaos Reborn on Kickstarter, because I wanted to play it.

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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