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Welcome back! This is part two of my analysis of X-COM. If you want to hear what I thought about the game itself, check out the first installment. This is going to look into where the series went, and maybe where it’s going.
I’m sure you all heard that some lame company bought the rights to X-COM and decided it’d be awesome to absolutely desecrate one of the greatest strategy games in history by turning it into a shooter. Here’s what the original programmer of X-COM had to say when he saw it demo’d to him:
“It was basically a tactical shooter. You had a squad of four guys, you directly controlled one of them, and I was shocked. It was an FPS. It didn’t bode well basically… It was very buggy, and poorly done. It had the other elements of X-Com – research and base-building – but it looked like an FPS to me. They spent quite a lot of money on it, but it was canned.”
Catch that at the end? The game we’re talking about isn’t the new XCOM game being produced by 2k, but X-COM Alliance, a game being produced by Hasbro Interactive after they bought Spectrum Holobyte after they had bought Microprose, the people who published X-COM after it was developed by Mythos Games.
For a game like X-COM, to be so loved for so long, you’d think there’d be six or seven games to the name all sporting the same core elements. Instead, just four years after X-COM was released we got the flight sim X-COM Interceptor, third person shooter X-COM Enforcer and the limp bargain-bin joke of X-COM Email Games. It’s an object lesson in how not to manage an IP, or a great roadmap in how to squander one.
Let’s go back ten years before it was made… to the era of Rebelstar and Laser Squad. These were some of the earliest games created by the eventual creators of X-COM and in particular a guy named Julian Gollop. He’ll be important to this story because, like us here at Lunar Giant, he was basically the sole programmer for these games. Of them all, Rebelstar Raiders came out first, and back in 1984 when graphics looked something like these screens here:
The first thing someone who played X-COM should notice is that the user interface contains some information that is strikingly familiar. These are from different ports of the same game, but you can see how the core stays the same. These elements would be the high point of the series, earning the game hugely positive reviews and leading to the development of several more Rebelstar titles, as well as two other IPs—Chaos, a Games Workshop title that really shows off how much they like to stick with what they know, and Laser Squad.
Laser Squad improved and expanded on Rebelstar’s mechanics, but the core was the same. It’s no surprise that later in the early 90’s, when Gollop pitched the concept of a Laser Squad sequel to another company, a lot of the same mechanics that had worked since 1984 were still there.
If it hadn’t been for one simple factor, Laser Squad 2 may have come out in ‘94 and been little more than an interesting tactical multiplayer game with a few scenarios and gameplay that was mostly unchanged since the 80’s. So what was this one factor?
Microprose was a pretty big deal at the time. They had published one of the most epic strategy games of all time, a little title called Civilization, as well as Master of Orion, Master of Magic, and Railroad Tycoon. In a perfect demonstration of how collaboration, especially collaboration that creates creative conflict, Microprose saw a great mechanic and built up around it a great game. Here’s how Gollop put it himself:
“We took the demo to Microprose in the UK, and they liked what they saw, but they said that they wanted something bigger. It wasn’t a Microprose game; it needed to be something deep. There was a guy there called Pete Moreland, who suggested the theme of UFOs, and I thought this was a very good idea. So I went away and we came up with the whole strategic aspect of the game, with randomly-generated tactical missions, the Geoscape, the economics. In a couple of weeks I went back to them and said, “How about this?” and they thought it was great! So we started on X-Com, which was what Laser Squad II had become.”
It was an incredible hit, leading us to where we are now. So where did it go wrong?
Well, Microprose knew what to do with a great title. You make more of them. And this is where things start to get crazy. Microprose wanted a sequel within six months of X-COM to capitalize on the incredible success and name recognition, but Gollop knew that such a timetable was impossible. His reply was that the only way to make that kind of a turnaround would be to just copy the game, change the art, and fiddle with the barest of gameplay features.
So Microprose decided to do that on their own while Gollop, got to work on what would be X-COM three, known as X-COM Apocalypse. The result of Microprose’s pallete-swap sequel, closer to what we might nowadays market as a standalone expansion pack, was X-COM: Terror From the Deep.
I loved it, and was lucky enough not to be hit by the bugs that plagued it’s release. Like the original, it was bright and colorful and silly, with goofy sonic guns, Lovecraft references and an entire alien species made up of creatures from the black lagoon. Look at these guns, don’t they look like Earthworm Jim’s pistol, or the one used by Stich? I’m not sure where the design came from, but it’s sci-fi camp and that’s just perfect for X-COM. Sectoids were back as Aquatoids, you had Screaming Brains in glass-jar UFOs, Deep Ones and Dinosaurs, and they made the Cryssalids fly. Oh, and they had the Lobstermen. Gotta love the Lobstermen.
It’s not an evolution of the gameplay from X-COM one, but if you look at it as a direct sequel more in line with an expansion pack, it’s really not all that bad. When people say “I want to play a game a lot like X-COM, but with better graphics and maybe new aliens and things,” TFTD was basically that.
Meanwhile, Gollop was finishing up X-COM Apocalypse, and the relationship with Microprose was beginning to show some rough edges. He wanted to create a great tactical game, but Microprose had ambitious plans for the art of this sequel and the arrangement made the production a disaster area.
“They had some very fancy, rather expensive ideas: they hired some relatively famous artist who made physical models of the aliens, which were then scanned into their software. It didn’t work very well. The Microprose artists couldn’t quite understand how isometric graphics worked. It was enormously difficult, and I think overall the artwork was done pretty poorly on that game.”
I personally would agree. Gone were the bright palettes and colorful, comic-book inspired designs of the aliens and X-COM agents. Instead, we had an antiseptic environment of disappointing faux-realism and a screen that is dominated by a lifeless gray user interface. The active elements did not blend, the animations were lazy, and the clay-model roots of the creatures were all too apparent. This seemed like an X-COM Alien War conducted between men in monster suits and some kind of football team with the worst jersey colors imaginable.
It’s also fair to say that the game deviated too far from the tenants of the previous games. The addition of a real-time mode forced the design into strange directions, and among them were massively lowering the difficulty curve. Instead of X-COM being this terrifying experience that I talked so much about before, it was a hideous city-crawling Muppet Hunt. The aliens didn’t even carry weapons for half of the game’s progression, and the most dangerous opponents you face are the human corporations who sell you your gear or provide your team with taxis. It just felt off. What, I can’t fight the aliens because I pissed off the Cabbie’s Union?
Apoc wasn’t a complete failure, and it wasn’t as if they were lazy. The game was hugely ambitious–set in a massive mega-city, your agents could investigate buildings like space-age detectives and try to uncover clues and evidence to root out alien subversives and maintain good relations with the humans you defend. The content they cut would have allowed you to actually track individual citizens around to locate these secret meetings with the aliens. Kinda like if you combined Sim City with The Sims and with X-COM all at once. It would have been interesting, but it wouldn’t have saved it in the eyes of fans.
We simply wanted another X-COM game, and this was not it. Sadly, it was also the last Tactical combat game that the X-COM name would be associated with. In stark contrast, Civilization—the game that had made Microprose such a big deal—continues to this day being produced with gameplay that has been improved and expanded but not entirely remade, and the Tycoon games also persist to this day.
X-COM showed, in many ways, the weakness of a franchise game title, and the result of a poorly handled IP. But it also showed the strength of a good idea remade over and over, improving upon a formula that is fun, and giving people what they want. Remember, X-COM may not have had the sequels we wanted, but it was the sequel we wanted to Rebelstar and Laser Squad. A big budget, beautiful, interconnected reinvention of the previous games in the series.
It showed you can stick to a formula while innovating, and that you don’t need to cling to a name, you can change it and pick what works and players will win no matter what you do—so long as you’re doing it to make a good game.
It also shows that if you just do it because it makes sense in the short term, and lose sight about what made your game fun, and great, and made people love playing it, you’ll produce horrible abominations that nobody will want to buy.
And from the ashes of X-COM came a legion of pretenders to the crown. There are literally so many of these fan remakes, failed startups, and professionally made copy-cat games, that I would need days to talk about them all. The UFO series and the upcoming Xenonauts are two of the most prominent, and the fact is that “XCOM” is being made not on the strength of Enforcer or Interceptor, but on Enemy Unknown.
I originally wanted to talk about this for a good ten or fifteen minutes, but I think you get the idea. X-COM’s remakes nearly all fail to capture those elements that made the original X-COM such an inspiring title. Like with Apoc and the rest, they lose sight of the real aesthetic base of the game, and they lose the heart. They stray away from the format that makes you emotionally connected, and focus too much on the combat. Even Gollop’s own creations since then have failed to recapture that magic. It was more than just one guy, afterall, who helped make X-COM. The biggest thing was probably that first fan who told Gollop, “Hey man, why don’t we use UFOs?” And that really set it apart from the other tactics games.
Right! X-COM wasn’t the only good tactics game out there either. Jagged Alliance deserves special mention as an incredible series itself, with the special honor of releasing Jagged Alliance 1 the same year as X-COM. While Jagged Alliance 2 may have been influenced by X-COM, it was a great example of how to do good sequels, and it was a great tactics game—some say better than X-COM. I would hope so, personally, it’s never good to have old battleships that never get eclipsed.
If you love X-COM then you’d probably love Jagged Alliance 2, and the good news is that Jagged Alliance is getting the kind of loving treatment X-COM fans could only dream about. They’re making a new game that should be out sometime this year and it should be a big, beautiful update of JA2. There’s even talks of a film in the works.
If you want to prove the 2k guys wrong, that nobody likes or buys tactics or strategy games anymore, I recommend you check this game out and wish it well.
Beyond strategy, X-COM’s cautionary tale applies to all mediums where the vision of one creator can be co-opted by the interests of money and franchising and soon the idea loses much of the original power. Look at the different way Portal and Diablo have been treated, basically like children, as compared to Command and Conquer or Duke Nukem.
Heck, compare Portal to Indiana Jones, or the Star Wars prequels, or anything else that was done just for the money really, and not because the format demanded it. When a developer said “We should make this an X-COM game,” but had no interest in keeping the same format, they’d already made a terrible, terrible choice.
In essence, the decision to continue a franchise needs to be because those core elements of the franchise need to be continued. Civ games are still great, so that’s why we keep naming them Civ. There was nothing stopping Hasbro from naming X-COM Alliance “Terran Defense Force Alpha” and just changing IPs. Nothing except the appeal of riding an old game’s coattails that was.
As a developer, I understand the appeal to make a new game and break new ground. When we talk about Delve Deeper 2, I begin to froth at the mouth and uncontrollably mutter words in the Black Speech of Mordor. But I know that making a game with the same name and nothing else is just a cheap cash-grab. That motivation is probably what killed X-COM more than anything else. Hopefully it won’t kill it again.
For the final look at X-COM, I want to end on a softer note, and we’ll take a bit of a trip into the 90’s, and have a short but interesting look at the way your game can—through branding, art, design, and all these little things, tap into a moment in time to make a game part of culture rather than just consumer junk.