Julian Gollop is playing Chaos Reborn, and he’s losing. Badly.
His wizard, both player avatar and font of all spells in this turn-based game of spellcasting, is backed into a hexagonal corner of the map - a charcoal island arena interrupted by jutting rocks and dotted with leafless trees. With an impotent fizz-crackle, his would-be spider goes the same way as a potential unicorn, an intended giant, and a whole host of sentient, violent flora that never quite materialised.
As our eagle and scorpion close in on his position in a pincer movement of Gollop’s own advising, you might even be tempted to feel sorry for him - but you shouldn’t. It’s sort of his fault.
Let us not forget: this man has been driven all his professional life to create strategy games in which every shot, swipe and grenade toss hinges not just on player intent, but on the fickle roll of the dice.
Here’s the thing: Julian Gollop cannot help but make these games. It’s this fact which has driven him to leave security at Ubisoft for unbound creativity, and to roll the dice on the goodwill of X-Com fans on Kickstarter.
Julian Gollop has spent more than six years of the last decade at Ubisoft Sofia - at the time of his joining, a gaggle of handheld game specialists with a fraction of the “power and political weight” of some of the publisher’s better known city states.
“Within Ubisoft, Montreal is in itself a little kingdom - not surprising given its size and reputation and its successes,” explains Gollop. “Especially during the first years, we were basically given projects. We didn’t have much of a choice. We had to prove ourselves.”
In those first years, Gollop worked on several DS projects for Ubisoft - most of which were cancelled. Increasingly creatively frustrated, the X-Com designer was eventually driven to invoke his own legacy, so that Ubisoft Sofia could work on an idea that was entirely their own - and that might stand a chance of weathering the publisher’s internal pitch process.
“You basically have to sell your game concept and game idea to an editorial board, to your team, to your studio manager or your editor abroad or whatever,” laughs Gollop. “I decided on, ‘Well, what can I pitch to the editorial board that might stand a chance of actually being approved?’”
Browsing the publisher’s IP catalogue for a likely turn-based strategy vehicle, Gollop happened upon Ghost Recon - the nominally tactical shooter series the publisher was then rebooting as Future Soldier.
“I pitched a game as ‘Ghost Recon-meets-XCOM for the Nintendo DS’ – fairly straightforward,” he says. “But partly, I was lucky because they were working on a new Ghost Recon game, and the way Ubisoft works is that – well, there’s this cross format release, so if they’re releasing a game on Xbox 360 and PS3 then there has to be a DS release, there has to be a PSP release and so on.”
As it happened, Future Soldier for the big machines was delayed and rehashed by an entirely different team - and Sofia were given the rare instruction to go their own way. The resulting turn-based tactics game was a bullish, often brilliant, X-Com variant Gollop describes as his “main achievement” at Ubisoft. But he doesn’t think he could have pulled off the same trick for Chaos Reborn.
“You don’t get a lot of freedom and [you get] lots of interference,” he says of his time at the publisher. “So how Capybara got away with [inventive match-three RPG] Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes I don’t know.
“I felt that Ubisoft, as an internal developer, is generally very inefficient. I just don’t have that kind of patience to spend a lot of time struggling against the inefficiency and the bureaucracy of it. I prefer [there] to be more creative obstacles to overcome than bureaucratic ones, you know?”
And so Julian Gollop went indie - and not for the first time.
“I’ve been an independent developer - if you want to call it that - for most of my career,” he says. “What’s called indie now is basically what I was doing at the beginning. When I was programming the original Chaos I was sitting in my bedroom with a 48K Spectrum, and I was the only person working on the project.”