Julian Gollop created X-COM, and in the decades since he has made a string of critically acclaimed strategy games: Laser Squad Nemesis, Rebelstar Tactical Command, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, and more. Now in charge of his own indie studio, Julian is finally in a position to return to the genre that made him famous. With Phoenix Point he’s taking the opportunity to address what he sees as some systemic flaws that have plagued the X-COM series.
“The game can actually start really tough, because your soldiers are basically crap. And you get to a point in the game where you’ve managed to develop your squad of super-soldiers, and suddenly stuff gets a lot easier [laughs]. And again, I’ve had this problem with the Firaxis X-COMs as well. And X-COM 2 in particular, which I played recently. I thought that the initial stages of the game were potentially very tricky, especially for a player that’s not familiar with the game yet. But I got to a point where it was getting very easy. And I guess it is part of the way that your soldiers develop into superheroes, and the fact that you can’t really afford to have them get killed. You can get a situation where you’re spiralling down into oblivion, and you’re on that downward slope, and there’s almost nothing you could do to get out of it. Or, you tend to be on the opposite spiral, going up, where things are getting easier and easier.
“That kind of pacing issue is something that has plagued X-COM. I think there are ways to fix it, and one thing we are going to attempt is that in our scenario the aliens themselves have an evolutionary programming, in the sense that they don’t have quite the sentient intelligence that you have to start with. So you’ve got this advantage of intelligence and technology, and the aliens have this advantage of just sheer mass.”
In the near-future world of Phoenix Point an alien microbe has infested the oceans, contaminating all marine life and wiping out most of the human race. It is this insidious, rapidly changing biome that will keep players on their toes. “Effectively the aliens will respond to your successes. If you start beating them in battles, if you start giving them a big pummelling, they will attempt to respond through their evolutionary process and they will come up with stuff that is going to give you a severe challenge. And then it will put you on the back foot again, maybe for a little while, until you figure out a way to counter it. Again, you might gain the upper hand, but again, that will force another evolutionary step from the aliens.”
Through this mechanic, Julian’s team at Snapshot Games will try to fix the problem of difficulty spiralling up or spiralling down. He’s also planning to largely do away with perma-death. “In Phoenix Point it’s going to be a lot more difficult to actually kill a character. Whereas you will be able to knock them out in battle, and they will be disabled, unconscious, and so on, it’s going to be much more difficult for the aliens to actually kill them. And you’re not constantly trying to [laughs] save-scum, or whatever, to fix things.
"It means that you don’t have to be so obsessively protective of your best characters. And it also means that rookies will always have something to contribute to a battle, even if they’re not quite the same level as your more experienced soldiers.”
He’s also keen to deliver a fresh take on how the strategic level works, which has been a real bugbear for him in the Firaxis X-COMs.
“Obviously, in the original X-COM, that is, my X-COM: UFO Defense, you had a simple, but relatively engaging mechanic where you had countries funding you, you had to respond to threats in order to maintain your funding, and you used that to fund bases, and your research, and your forces. When you go into tactical battles, you recover stuff, and that will benefit your technology and so on, which you can then sell... It’s all these interactions going on which were pretty cool.
“Then the Firaxis X-COM very much streamlined that bit, and it is all about building bloody satellites as far as I can remember [laughs]. Which got annoying. But then in X-COM 2 they changed it radically again, and you’ve got this almost board-gamey feel where you’re hopping around in your mobile base. But I’m still not satisfied. Either with my original X-COM, or even the Firaxis X-COMs, when it comes to that strategic world view scale of the game - the base-building bit.”
Julian confirmed that the ‘spinny-globey thing’ of the ‘94 X-COM’s interface would return. “We’re going to do something which is similar to the original X-COM: UFO Defense, for sure. In the sense that you have a degree of freedom, and you can build and construct bases anywhere in the world.
“In Phoenix Point’s case, though, you have to expand carefully, because you don’t initially have a global reach. So you have to deal with things at a local level. And expanding can be a case of trying to locate and refurbish air bases, or to actually have agreements and deals with human factions for refuelling and operating your aircraft.
“So the strategic position of stuff on the world becomes much more important. Whereas in the Firaxis X-COMs it wasn’t really important. Or certainly in the initial one it wasn’t. The new one, X-COM 2, has this idea that you’re contacting the resistance, and building up your contacts, and so on. But ultimately, it felt to me that there weren’t enough really interesting decisions there. If you see what I mean.”
Phoenix Point will force the player into conflict not only with terrifying platoons of gargantuan crab creatures, but also with other factions of human survivors. The scarcity of resources will force you to deal with these factions, and their conflicting ideologies will make some skirmishing inevitable – base invasions will be another returning feature.
This brought us to another huge problem with the new X-COM: how players respond to the cruelty of the Random Number Generator. “Which is a big complaint from a substantial... minority of players, I guess. You get these complaints whereby: ‘I had three 80% chances to hit in a row, and they all missed! And the AI always hits!’ You see these complaints frequently. Or: ‘I’m standing next to an alien, I’ve got my gun in his face, and I still miss!’ This kind of stuff. So, we are figuring out a way to deal with this issue, so these players are not frustrated by these RNG issues.
“And this is also something which we got for Chaos Reborn, which is unashamedly... basking in RNG. It absolutely revels in it. And we found that it is quite divisive. Some players really enjoyed it, and a significant minority really just can’t deal with it. They just cannot cope with it. I’ve come to this conclusion that fundamentally many players cannot deal very well with RNG-based systems in games. And you need to figure out a way to mitigate their issues with it.”
Julian cited the randomly-generated levels of Invisible Inc. as a good example of how to circumvent RNG dread. “They use input randomness, but no output randomness. In other words, it’s all about how the level is created, is where the random elements are. But the actual mechanics and dynamics of the game are, from the player’s point of view, quite deterministic.”
Board games have greatly influenced Julian’s thinking in recent years; both Star Wars: Imperial Assault and Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures have impressed him. He will be reusing some elements from his under-appreciated 3DS game Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, but perhaps the biggest inspiration for Phoenix Point is Incubation, a cult classic turn-based tactics game from 1997. “One of the interesting things it did is that when the aliens moved, sometimes you would see the game from their point of view as they’re moving in to attack your guys. And that really was quite unnerving.”
In parting we asked Julian if he had any words for his millions of fans, to reassure them that Pheonix Point will be a true spiritual successor to X-COM. “Well, you can say that we are definitely going to put the fear back in turn-based tactics [laughs]. And we’re going to put the strategy back into the strategic layer. And it’s going to be as deep and as involving as they could possibly expect it to be.”
For more details, visit www.PhoenixPoint.info.