Feature interview - Julian Gollop

by Allen Stroud

Interview – Julian Gollop, creator of XCOM and Phoenix Point
January 31, 2020 sfbook

British game designer Julian Gollop has been working in the computer game industry since the 1980s.

Some of the games he made are regarded as being the best turn-based strategy games ever created. If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, it’s likely you’ll have played or heard of Chaos, Rebelstar, Laser Squad, Lords of Chaos or UFO: Enemy Unknown, which first introduced us to the X-COM franchise.

Now, Julian is back with a new game, released in December 2019 — and he’s here to tell us all about Phoenix Point.

Hi Julian, thanks for dropping in to talk to Parallel Worlds. We’re really excited to chat with you! For those that don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about Phoenix Point?

Phoenix Point is a strategy game in the tradition of X-COM, with a rich strategic layer, turn-based battles, squad development, and research. There is a strong Lovecraftian element in the nature of the mutant alien threat, but drawing on modern scientific concerns about genetic modification, artificial intelligence and global warming. The cause of the alien threat is something called the Pandoravirus — a virus so complex that it can cause multiple mutations in any living organism.

You were the original creator of the X-COM games, which have been reimagined by Firaxis in the last few years. Is Phoenix Point a return to that genre of science fiction horror? If so, what are the prevailing themes of that genre that appeal to you as a designer?

Phoenix Point is very much a return to science fiction horror set on earth in the near future. The original X-COM played on themes current in UFO lore, such as alien abductions, cattle mutilations, men in black and government conspiracies. Interestingly, just a month or so before we finished the game, one of the QA guys excitedly burst into our room talking about some US TV show which had all the stuff from our game. The show was The X-Files, and indeed X-COM and The X-Files both reflected the zeitgeist. Phoenix Point has a very different setting, but the idea that the alien threat is transforming and merging with humanity, rather than just taking over with ray guns is appealing to me.

What are the aspects of Phoenix Point that stand out for you?

The alien mutation system is very cool, where basic creature archetypes evolve different appendages and body forms as the Pandoravirus mutates them. This means that the player is facing a constantly changing threat. The three human factions are very interesting, and they provide three different possible endings for the player. New Jericho represents a more conventional military approach, with a military strong-man leader with an obsession about cleansing humanity from mutation. The Disciples of Anu are a religious cult, lead by a mutated woman known as the Exalted, who has found a way to control the Pandoravirus mutation for her own purposes. Finally, Synedrion are an ecological anarchist group with advanced technology, but continuous internal debates about how to deal with the alien threat. In terms of the combat system, I really like our ‘free aim’ mode that immerses the player in the targeting of every shot, and how the tactics of disabling certain alien body parts are a key part of the game.

I play both ‘AAA’ and indie titles to get a good sense of trends in game design and player audiences

There’s been extensive backer build feedback which has been hugely positive. Have there been any design changes you’ve incorporated from that process?

Not specifically, no — although it has helped us to focus on certain areas over others. We can’t possibly incorporate all the feedback we get, but it can help as a guide. In some cases there are contradictions; for example, between players of the original X-COM games who want a more detailed simulation approach, and player of the Firaxis XCOMs, who appreciate the accessible UI and great presentation. It’s not possible to satisfy both groups completely, but we feel that we have a good balance of old and new. 

You’ve been cited as an inspiration for many game designers and other creative artists and writers working in a variety of different fields. What inspired you to start and what inspires you now?

My first gaming passion was for board games and roleplaying games. I loved historical games as much as the fantasy games. In fact I would say Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader, and SPI’s Sniper games were directly inspirational for many of my games, including X-COM. Dungeons & Dragons was also a favourite during 1979–1981. Nowadays I am really inspired by indie games such as Darkest Dungeon, Slay the Spire and Into the Breach — but I still play board games. 

What was it like starting out as a game designer and programmer? How have things changed?

When I first started programming on my 48k ZX Spectrum it was a great feeling — a sense of creative power with a new and exciting medium. In those days I did almost everything on my own, including graphics and sound. Mostly I learned by experimentation and iteration. The board game influence was very much there, though. Things have changed dramatically, of course, with a lot more specialisation within the game development field. There are a lot more ways to finance games and collect metrics on how players are interacting with them. So many games now have online and social components which interact seamlessly with single-player experiences. It is a much bigger, much more complex and diverse industry.

Are you still ‘hands on’ in the programming and creative process? 

I haven’t actually done any programming since Chaos Reborn, a few years ago now. I am still very much hands on with the whole game design process, even though we have a team of very good game designers here at Snapshot Games.

We know you’re a great player of games too.  Does that help when you’re designing a new game?

Yes, it does. I consciously play games in different genres, both ‘AAA’ and indie titles to get a good sense of trends in game design and player audiences. Often it helps to incorporate ideas from drastically different games and genres in the design process — but without trying to slavishly follow a fashion or a trend.

If you could choose to play only one game for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Sounds like a fate worse than death! If I had to pick, I would go back to D&D.

What are you reading at the moment?

Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz.

Desert Island Games! You’re trapped on a desert island. Which three games would you have with you (assume you have people to play them with)? 

Arkham Horror: The Card Game, Keyforge (another card game), and Slay the Spire.

We’re really keen to try Phoenix Point. What’s your top tactical tip for first time players? 

Pick a faction you like and build an alliance as soon as possible, while stealing as much tech and resources from the other factions as you can. Also, don’t let your soldiers get killed (too much). Load up on the medkits, and retreat when you need to.

Phoenix Point, by Snapshot Games, is available from the Epic Games Store for £35.99.