Julian Gollop’s PC Gamer column
(Image credit: Snapshot Games)
Did you know that Julian Gollop wrote four columns for us, covering topics such as building deckbuilder style? Find them all here (Opens in new tab).
X-COM: UFO Defense, better known as UFO: Enemy Unknown here in the UK, is an integral part of PC gaming history. It was part of the microprose glory days of the mid-’90s, when strategy games were being rolled out at an unprecedented rate. It spawned sequels, questionable spin-offs, and several successors, spiritual and otherwise. It’s an impressive legacy, and for producer Julian Golop, the X-com itch “never goes away”.
While the X-COM/XCOM series is now 10 games deep, Gollop was only responsible for the original and Apocalypse, the third game. Of course, none of them would have existed without her, her brother Nick, and the small team of actors that started it all. And now you can’t set a store like Steam or Epic on fire without seeing countless turn-based tactics and tactics, many of them capitalizing on the success of Firaxis’ XCOM.
“XCOM was originally a triple-A turn-based strategy game that was hugely popular, and I think it breaks the perception of turn-based games as being old-fashioned and unattractive,” says Golop. “So I have a lot to thank Firaxis for that.”
Gollop also notes all the interesting turn-based tactical RPGs that keep appearing, especially those that draw from tabletop games, like Wildermith and Gloomhaven. With this greater overlap between tabletop and digital, and so many more people getting into board games, there is an incredible amount of diversity, both in terms of audience and the game itself.
A quarter century after X-COM, Gollop and Snapshot Games released a spiritual successor: Phoenix Point. Like UFO Defense, the battle between humans and aliens can be a grueling conflict, but with a story, factions, and an overarching strategic conflict fueled by Gallup’s love of tabletop gaming. And now Snapshot is calling it complete, with Phoenix Point: Complete Edition Available now with DLC and Steam Workshop support. But does this final version match his vision for an X-COM follow-up?
The original vision was not just to recreate an X-COM-style game, but to bring something new to the table.
“Yes, it does,” Golop says. “But it went a little further than that, as we explored some interesting options with the DLC. It’s the most intense and detailed tactical squad based game in existence. And it can stay that way for a long time. So obviously we’ve tried it.” The whole team is very proud of what we achieved together. And it was incredibly ambitious. I mean, the original vision was to not only recreate an X-COM-style game, but to bring something new to the table. The sense of how the world is represented, the faction interacts with the elements of the story, and so on.”
Some of that ambitious vision initially caused issues, however, like the evolving alien threat that responded to the player’s actions. “It worked as planned,” Gallop says, “but players didn’t really see it very clearly, or it felt a little too random.” One of our initial complaints was the difficulty spikes, as the aliens had evolved some appendage, which was quite dangerous for the player, and they started using it because it was effective. So, in a way, I guess you could say it was a little too good. So we had to try to reduce it so that overseas progress is a little more gradual.”
(Image credit: Snapshot Games)
There were also groups of players with very different expectations. Much of the presentation and systems evolved into Firaxis’ XCOM, which is by no means a walk in the park, but it is significantly more accessible and less brutal than its predecessor. The players coming from that game, weren’t prepared for the ass-kicking they were about to get.
“It’s very difficult to get it right the first time,” Golop says. And I must admit, we probably didn’t in this regard, in terms of the difficulty progression of the game. Because Phoenix Point is less structured in progress than modern XCOM, this makes it even more difficult. On one hand, we want players to explore and experiment with things, and if they do different things then different things happen. But on the other hand, we don’t want to dominate the player and make them feel like they have been cheated. The game has got an unfair advantage, it doesn’t seem fair. So yes, it’s a tough balancing act. And we’ve made a lot of changes to the way we try and address that. And I think the game is in a much better place.”
It’s very difficult to fix it the first time.
One thing became clear from the feedback, as well as hardcore players who are hungry for a challenge, “there is probably a larger group of players who are looking for an experience, want to experience the story or feel the character. Development”. RPGs and strategy games have had a close relationship for a long time, but this is even more apparent now, and it is expected that some RPG mainstays will appear in squad-based strategy games as well.
With Phoenix Point’s future now up to modders, Snapshot Games is leading the way, but Gallup isn’t saying that. While the X-COM itch never goes away, it’s not a guarantee we’ll see another bit of Alien-Prey Squad-based strategy ever again. “We’ll do a few different things,” he says.
One thing that is clear is that he is still excited by the tabletop games and the digital games that inspired him. He’s written about Deckbuilders for PC Gamer before, Indeed (opens in new tab), and remains a fan. “It’s quite fashionable now,” he says. “And I think it’s great, because I really love Slay the Spire and love Dominion—I love that style of play. I also think it’s really interesting that The mechanics developed in board games are surpassing those in video games and are becoming popular again. Because even now, the board game space is certainly the most innovative place in terms of true pure game design. And the fact is that now, some To an extent, a lot of videogame games are pretty good now, following innovations from the board game space.”
While he hesitates to act like an oracle and make big predictions about videogame trends, he expects deckbuilders to be around for a long time. “They will be a permanent part of the gamescape.” And that doesn’t mean we should expect a deckbuilder to develop from Snapshot, both the symmetry of Firaxis – with Midnight Suns (opens in new tab) – and the gollp working on deckbuilders very attractive.