Phoenix Point is now crowdfunding: we spoke to Julian Gollop about standing out in a post-XCOM world

The original X-COM (UFO: Enemy Unknown), Julian Gollop tells me, “succeeded in spite of itself”. I asked him how he felt about the game now, twenty three years after its initial release, and particularly about the way it’s often placed on a pedestal. He didn’t expect it to be a success and certainly didn’t think he’d be making a game heavily based on its legacy almost a quarter of a century later.

Yet here we are. The crowdfunding campaign for Phoenix Point [official site], a sci-fi horror strategy game about an alien onslaught, has just begun. Gollop is back where many people feel he belongs, and this time round he seems extremely confident in his game’s design.

That confidence is sure to take some hits over the next year and a half – such is the reality of building a game. Phoenix Point isn’t slated for release until the end of 2018 and even though it’s been in development for a year already, the trickiest parts of the process are ahead. You can read more about what the game is and what Gollop and his team hope it will become in this feature, which I wrote after seeing work in progress segments and speaking to Gollop at E3 last year. Here, I’m going to concentrate on the work that has already been done, and why I think it’s Gollop’s interest in simulation that will make Phoenix Point stand out in a post-Firaxis XCOM world.

I spoke to Gollop for an hour yesterday, talking about everything from how he built the team working on the game to his thoughts on new-XCOM, and XCOM-like games in the past. We also talked about crowdfunding, of course, and why he’s chosen to go that route again, after the successful Kickstarter for his new studio’s first game Chaos Reborn.

“It’s very tiring, running the campaign and looking at all the feedback, but I enjoy building a community and having those conversations. With Chaos Reborn, we had quite a big divide between people who wanted something like the very traditional Chaos game, and people who wanted something new. With Phoenix Point, I think there will be less of a divide in that sense. We’ve already done a survey, asking people what is important to them and it matches up with our own feelings very well.”

One of the big questions on that survey related to multiplayer. I can see the appeal of controlling mutated lifeforms in tactical combat scenarios, but I’d much rather have all of the time and resources spent on the game be put into the singleplayer campaign, with its emergent scenarios and dynamic AI factions. Gollop felt the same and was relieved to see the survey results agreed. Very few respondents felt that multiplayer was important.

Only people who have already signed up to the game’s newsletter ever saw the survey, so the sample size is relatively small and made up of people who are most likely familiar with Gollop’s previous work. That’s why I raised the question about UFO: Enemy Unknown’s status in its creator’s mind. It’s one of my favourite games but I rarely recommend it to people who’ve never played it before. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well and if I take off the rose-tinted glasses, I can see all kinds of things that I’d happily see changed or improved.

“There’s no tutorial, the interface has too many buttons…people don’t want to read a big manual before they play a game anymore. I don’t like games where I have to read a manual!”

Phoenix Point will be a complex game, with lots of moving parts to keep track of, but it shouldn’t be overwhelming or obscure, and should avoid too many dead-ends.

“It’s a strategy game so eventually players are going to have to make some smart decisions if they want to survive, but we give people enough options that they shouldn’t be backed into a corner. If you need resources, you can raid another faction, or trade with them, or do a smaller, simpler mission to get hold of what you need. The aliens do have an objective they’re working toward, which I won’t reveal, but you’re not locked into an escalating military conflict. There should always be interesting decisions to make even if you’re not doing particularly well.”

That’s all thanks to the dynamic world. Other human factions are playing the game, driven by AI, in the same way that you are. They have their own short- and long-term goals, and they need to perform missions of their own in order to achieve those goals.You can work with them or against them, and in the early game you’ll most likely be helping one another because the alien threat requires a team effort to counter, but you’re free to turn on them at any time. And they may turn on you, and will certainly retaliate if you work counter to their ambitions or directly assault them.

On that note, you can not only raid factions to steal resources, but can attempt to take over their bases (Havens) if you so choose. Giving the player so many options in a world full of simulated entities going about their own business is thoroughly exciting to me. The focus here is relatively narrow, with the aliens’ encroachment from sea to land taking precedence over convoluted diplomatic wrangling and dynasty-building, but there should be plenty of room to create alliances and enemies even in the endtimes.

“It’s a more complex Geoscape than in previous XCOM games because of that layer of simulation, but we’re not at the complexity of something like Civ.”

At this point, I should make it very clear that the image just above these words, of the Phoenix Point Geoscape, is one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I make no apologies for being an absolute nerd. Just look at it – weird temples devoted to cosmic horror, UI elements that look clear and useful, and a bloody great Behemoth. Missions will usually have some flavour to them beyond “go here to kill some aliens”, Gollop says, and I’m keen to see more of that sort of thing. I’m also pleased that he happily accepts my definition of Phoenix Point as a horror game.

“Oh, it absolutely is a sci-fi horror game. You can see the John Carpenter influence and The Mist is there as well as the cosmic horror elements. One of the most memorable aspects of X-COM was hearing shots and screams in the dark, seeing plasma fire but not knowing exactly where it’s coming from or what is waiting for you. The mist in this game is an extension of the fog of war, a manifestation of it, and it’s very dangerous. You have better tech than the aliens to begin with but the mist levels the playing field, as well as being a big part of the horror aspect.”

Gollop is a fan of the new XCOMs, going so far as to say Phoenix Point wouldn’t look or play as it does but for Firaxis’ games. One place where he feels there will be a very different flow, apart from the dynamic simulations themselves, is in the difficulty curve.

“XCOM games have traditionally started very difficult and become easier. The aliens have better tech than you but you turn the tables and eventually have very strong squads. In Phoenix Point, the aliens adapt to the way you play.”

This all goes back to the way the aliens are constructed. There are different cores, which Gollop calls “chassis”, and you’ll see different ones in different parts of the world. Africa has a chassis referred to as the Sphinx, which is based on a lion. But because these creatures are mutated mash-ups, that simply means it’s a tough, fast quadruped. It might have longer legs, borrowed from elsewhere in the animal kingdom, or human arms to hold a gun (and that gun will have been stolen from a human faction). If a gun-wielding sphinx manages to obliterate one or more of your squads, the aliens will stick with it, pleased with its efficiency. But if you find a new tactic or tech that takes out a whole bunch of them, the aliens will adapt.

There’s a random element to those adaptations but essentially the alien AI is discarding parts that don’t seem to work and cycling in new elements to find a way to beat you. What this should mean is that the difficulty curve has peaks and valleys rather than a steady trend in either direction. There is a doomsday clock element behind everything, giving urgency to your actions, but Gollop wants to encourage experimentation rather than having people try to discover the ‘correct’ route.

And that, I think, is the major difference between Phoenix Point and other XCOMs and XCOM-likes past and present. It’s intended to be a game in which systems interact, overlap and allow players to observe them and react to them, while encountering factions and entities that make up and are reacting to those same systems. In that way, it has much in common with my beloved but flawed X-COM: Apocalypse and I can’t help but see it as a continuation of some of the ideas in that game. It’s about time.

The most enticing loose thread I find to pull on involves a game that never saw the light of day. As we talk about the long wait for more XCOM-like games, Gollop tells me about a project he pitched at MicroProse immediately after UFO: Enemy Unknown.

“It was set in the 1930s and you controlled a team of occult investigators. Portals were being opened bringing paranormal entities in the world, and you had to fight all kinds of different supernatural creatures. And Nazis.”

The Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense: Enemy Unknown? Maybe once this next alien threat has been repelled.

31 Comments

  1. Relenzo says:

    Someone needs to tell Gollop that the crowdfunding link is broken! No one can throw money at him until this is fixed!

  2. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    The talk about other factions and hassling them sorta reminds me of XCOM Apocalypse, and to a lesser extend, X-Piratez.

    But I love the look of the horrible monsters in this, and I have to say, it looks freaking great. Looking forward to it.

    • Sakkura says:

      Ahh yes, the endless raids on the hapless alien-worship faction.

      Apoc had immense promise. Too bad Microprose was dying and didn’t have the resources to really follow through. Oh, and that art style… ehhh.

    • Hanban says:

      Oh, I love Apocalypse so much. I remember playing it when I was young, doing it much the same way as the previous X-Com games. Basically just fighting off the UFOs and defending from attacks. Then I went to a friend’s house and watched him play and he explained to me how he always raided the Cult of Sirius. It was fine he said, they were always infiltrated by the aliens and deserved it.

  3. OpT1mUs says:

    Check out the game subreddit guys link to reddit.com

  4. Palindrome says:

    I was getting a little worried about the lack of information on this game but all seems to be well :)

    X-COM Apocalypse is my favourite of the series, for all its faults, and this game looks very much like it is building upon Apoc’s ideas.

    The survey results can be found here:link to reddit.com

  5. stuw23 says:

    I’m quite tempted to throw some money at this, as it looks like a good concept that will scratch that XCOM-itch whilst offering something new. But, then I look at my steam backlog, and my general wariness of pre-ordering and crowdfunding creeps in, and I think maybe I’m best off waiting (especially with Xenonauts 2 somewhere on the horizon).

  6. rodan32 says:

    I wish to throw money at this. One thing I miss from olde-skool X-COM is a more strategic game. I like the simplified strategy in XCOM and XCOM2 just fine, but I also like a little more room to maneuver.

    Side note: I used to give all my rookies a pistol and a couple of electroflares. “Go find that chrysalid, buddy! We’ll be sure to shoot it if we can!”

    • DanMan says:

      I’m exactly the same, because my backlog is giving me stern looks as well. Firaxis’ XCOM 2 left me kind of cold, due to how it looked like more of the same and I don’t like the relyance on time limits (I know there are MODs, but still).

      This on the other hand looks like it’s going to be a fresh take on the concept, so I’m looking forward to it. Still, I don’t do Pre-Order / Crowdfunding, even though this is tempting for just 30 bucks for the game.

      I see it’s coming to Linux, too. Hmm…

      • Themadcow says:

        Unless there are great incentives or a deep discount, it’s rarely wise to crowdfund / advance order anything digital. In this case, I strongly suspect that there are a LOT of big fans of Gollop’s work who are either willing to support this project (regardless of anything) because of his track record, or simply very keen to get their hands on early access versions to be able to contribute to development.

        Unlike certain developers, Julian goes out of his way to acknowledge feedback and interaction from fans and the wider gaming community (check out the Fig comments page)…

  7. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Perhaps my expectations are skewed. I want to be excited about this, because more news typically means that game launch is quickly approaching, but then knowing it’s being crowdfunded suddenly pushes the release date back months or (worst-case) years. “Oh hey, this is reality calling, just to let you know that this game we’re making isn’t actually made yet, and if you give us enough money it’ll actually take longer to make.”

    Obviously crowdfunding doesn’t automatically preclude excitement, but there’s a big difference between simmering awareness for something that is a year or more away, and palpable anticipation and hype for a release that is in months or weeks.

    • Relenzo says:

      Gollop has been saying ‘end of 2018’ pretty much since the game was first announced months and months ago. So that shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone.

      • Premium User Badge

        Nauallis says:

        Fair enough, and aside from read RPS articles, I haven’t done any other research on this game. As far as I’m concerned this is still a “oh, that’ll be cool when it launches, but I’m in no rush” kind of thing.

  8. Themadcow says:

    Threw my money at this as soon as I got the email alert. If this can deliver on half of what we see in the concept / early screens then it’s pretty much my dream game. Snapshot did a great job with Chaos Reborn but I just didn’t have time to make full use of the Realms, and the single player was decent but not great.

    If it allows me to, then the first thing I’m doing in Phoenix Point is renaming all my soldiers to the names in Rebelstar Raiders 2. Kurt Levine, Vasquez and Captain Krenon.. come on down!

  9. Captain Narol says:

    Never crowfunded a game before, but I think I am gonna crowfund this one.

    This man created the whole XCOM genre and still he has lots of innovative ideas, I just can’t wait !

  10. Tommando says:

    So it’s a bit like XCOM set in the world of Stephen King’s The Mist…I may have to back this, if only to get those poor guys some electric lights.

  11. BaronKreight says:

    One of the questions in the survey was about console release. Feedback showed it was one of the least desirable options.

  12. aircool says:

    One of the things that seems to get forgotten about the original UFO is that the atmosphere; the designs of the UFO and the Aliens was part of its success.

    The X-Files was about to kick off and a lot about UFO sat well with the times (I think this is where literary types would use the word zeitgeist?), from the Greys, the abductions, cattle mutilations up to the comic book Mutons were familiar to everyone, but hadn’t been explored in depth, and certainly not in any video game I can remember.

    Even though TFTD was in some ways a lesser game, it still had the whole Lost City of Atlantis crossed with Stingray vibe which was enjoyable. As for the reboots, they are terrific games and in many ways better than the original, but it would take some effort and imagination to beat the ambience, tone and character of the original.

    There was a lot more to the original UFO that having your rookies getting killed on the Skyranger ramp.

  13. dethtoll says:

    If this thing hasn’t been funded by the end of the month I’ll toss in $30 — not being a huge fan of X-COM ’94 (though I can appreciate it from a distance) but definitely loving the remake series, I’m certainly excited for this.

  14. Phantom_Renegade says:

    Wanted to put some money into this as it sounds really cool! But then I saw it was on Fig. Pass. I’ll buy it when it’s out, I’m voting with my wallet on this one.

  15. JiminyJickers says:

    From the creator of the original X-Com … SOLD!!!

  16. Tortellini says:

    Dayum, 20 yrs away, but it’s never too late. Usually don’t back on kick, but on this on i’m gonna jump

  17. vargata says:

    finally good news. this is exactly what is missing from the gaming industry today. real Ai driven enemy with at least a little sense of sense :) hope they can deliver what they promise and this wont become just an other failed, never finished kickstarter project

  18. Premium User Badge

    MajorLag says:

    One of these days I hope to receive an email from Fig about the game I actually funded, instead of new ways to hand over money.

    • Phantom_Renegade says:

      Considering Schafer started it, that’s pretty much par for the course. Every project he’s ever done has been exactly the same. Missing milestones and going massively over budget. So it makes sense that that would rub off on projects done under his purview. One of the reasons I don’t back stuff on Fig is precisely because of his involvement. There’s a reason professional investors no longer give him money and it wasn’t, as he claimed, because he wanted to make niche games. It was because he’s a kind of Peter Molyneux.

      • upupup says:

        The oldest successful project on fig got funded less than two years ago and the next oldest a little over a year. That’s hardly a sign of mass delays, especially by kickstarter standards. It’ll take a while longer before we can judge if fig has a higher success rate or not than the rest, though I think it won’t be that different from kickstarter.

        But this weirdly personal dislike of Schafer people seem to have has lost all touch with reality; Schafer is not an omnipresent deity responsible for all the ills in your life. He did not hide your keys, break the remote or left the fridge open overnight. Let it go.

  19. caff says:

    Definitely backed this. Gollop and Co. can do this, Chaos Reborn was superb but (despite being a huge Chaos fan) I always felt the online multiplayer didn’t give me the same feeling of playing on a ZX spectrum at 12 years old.

    I’m hankering for a strategy game from a master of the genre, and I think this is it.

  20. Sandepande says:

    I can get behind this. Have money.

  21. LogicalDash says:

    The pitch at the end sounds an awful lot like a Laundry Files plot, and now I’m imagining Julian making a game of that, and