“I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet,” says theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in his 2010 documentary, Universe. He continues: “Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”
If videogames have taught us anything, Hawking is on the money here. If aliens do ever descend upon us from the heavens above we can expect a fight. Not to worry, though, because videogames have also taught us that we, as mere mortal human beings, are well equipped if such an extinction level event should occur. Who you gonna call? The Extraterrestrial Combat Force, of course. That’s X-Com to you or I.
In his formative years, X-Com mastermind Julian Gollop played board games. In a world pre-personal computers, he’d spend hours poring over chess and backgammon with his father, before graduating to fantasy tabletops such as Dungeons and Dragons and the wargame offerings of Avalon Hill and SPI. “We didn’t watch TV,” says Gollop. “We played board games.”
His introduction to computers came in 1982 courtesy of the Sinclair ZX 81 - a machine that packed just 1K of RAM, prompting Gollop to opt for a 16K RAM pack immediately after purchase to make it more usable. He taught himself programming whilst still at school and had a penchant for implementing the types of tabletop games he enjoyed in his spare time - a career he’d considered pursuing prior to the advent of desktops. In 1983, he acquired a Spectrum and set about creating his first title: Nebula, an ambitious resource-building galaxy exploration game.
From hereon, Gollop was keen to chase a career in game design. After starting a small venture with his father and his friend, he eventually convinced his brother Nick to join him after finishing university. Whilst his friend at this stage dropped out, his father thereafter assumed a financier role. Mythos Games was formed and in 1984 released its debut title Rebelstar Raiders for the Sinclair Spectrum - a simple single-player turn-based tactical game.
A sequel followed in 1987, which added features such as a scrolling map and second-player compatibility, and Laser Squad followed that in 1988 - Mythos’ most ambitious project to date, which incorporated a line-of-sight system, destructible terrain, and multiple scenarios.
This proclivity towards the strategy genre, not mention Mythos’ vision and talent, laid the foundations for one of the biggest, most revolutionary games in history.
In 1991, Mythos released a demo for Laser Quest 2 on the Atari ST before pursuing a publisher - a company that they hoped would nurture the project. MicroProse topped the list. Although sceptical they’d be interested - Nick Gollop was a huge fan of Civilisation, as was Julian with the rest of the esteemed outfit’s catalogue - it was nonetheless decided they’d reach out to their Glouchester office.
“We thought MicroProse was the best publisher and developer of videogames in the entire universe,” Gollop recalls. “Interestingly, MicroProse UK didn’t really have a clear direction as to what they really wanted to do - they were doing console ports, they were publishing some third party stuff. They had some interesting stuff going on but they really wanted to prove themselves and show that they were able to do games as good as their US partner. That’s why they pushed us to do something that had elements of Civilisation in it.”
In essence, MicroProse saw potential in Laser Quest 2, but wanted things to be bigger. It was to be set on Earth, there’d be research, there was to be something similar to a civilopedia in it, there’d be invading aliens and strong sci-fi elements. As far as MicroProse could determine, these basic notions would facilitate a game worthy of challenging Civilisation in scope, quality and scale; expanding on the straightforward Laser Quest sequel idea into what would become X-Com.
Gollop recalls Gerry Anderson’s ‘70s television series UFO, as well as Timothy Good’s novel Alien Liaison as key sources of inspiration as he set about the research that would back up his first ever design document. When first presented it, MicroProse hated it.
“It was a bit bizarre actually because at first MicroProse wanted me to do a storyboard. I was a bit puzzled on how to do a storyboard for a strategy game because it’s not really a linear story. I did something which was more like something that’d be part of an intro to The Thing, or something. That didn’t impress them. With the initial design document, they didn’t understand how the game actually worked.”
Naturally, this struck fear into the heart of Gollop - here was a group of people he so wished to impress with his ideas, completely failing to grasp what he was trying to convey. Yet, when you think about it, this isn’t exactly surprising.
Conceptualising something that had never been done before would have been a challenging prospect - X-Com was unique in its design projections and there were no other games around at the time attempting what it said it would - thus for MicroProse to struggle with its premise at this stage should not only have been expected, but underscored the fact that Gollop was onto something special.