X-COM: UFO Defense (aka UFO: Enemy Unknown, or often just “X-Com“) is regarded as one of the all-time classic videogames. IGN rated it as the best PC game of all time in their 2007 list of favorite games. Even so, the X-Com franchise as a whole is plagued with mediocre sales, tepid reviews and general apathy from gamers who continue to rave about the original almost 15 years after its release. This strange dynamic underscores one of the great mysteries in the modern gaming world: What is X-Com‘s secret to success?
The Accidental Success
Today, X-Com is held aloft as an example of inspired game design. However, it was initially more of a sleeper hit than a blockbuster. Nick Gollop remembers the early days of X-Com. “When Julian [Gollop] went to show the game at MicroProse UK he had a good reaction. However they wanted the game to be more ambitious. They said they wanted a ‘Big Game’ like Civilization and also one which people could relate to in some way, again like Civilization.”
Instead they got X-Com. They weren’t even really sure what to do with the game once they had it. “Although the game was being published by MicroProse I don’t think the advertising [budget] was very much, as I don’t think anyone expected the game to be quite the success that it was.”
The X-Com formula was full of strange contradictions. It mixed real-time base management, turn-based combat, science fiction, a near-future setting, conspiracy theory as a theme and believable, likable characters into one game. This blend of gameplay elements was untested, and the game was only moderately popular in the U.K.
It was a different story in the U.S. X-Com was released right when the X-Files television program was becoming popular. Coupled with the release of a gameplay demo, X-Com became an unexpected success. “At the time we were looking in the strategy game newsgroups on the internet, and we noticed more and more people talking about the game. This word of mouth effect from game players also had an effect on the success of the game. At one stage, with the release of the game in the U.S., around one in every two posts on the strategy newsgroup seemed to be about X-Com.”
The X-Com phenomenon was borne of a couple of guys pitching the right formula to the right publisher, for the right audience at the right time. Perhaps the success of X-Com was really just an accident.
Second Verse, Same as the First
Players eager to experience more X-Com gameplay snapped up X-COM: Terror from the Deep (TFTD), the second game in the series. They quickly realized TFTD was the same game with new graphics.
Players criticized MicroProse for churning out a hurried sequel, but MicroProse had actually put their plans into motion before the original game became a hit. According to the Gollop brothers, “MicroProse UK wanted another sequel done immediately … so they persuaded us to license the code to do Terror from the Deep. … We agreed to this deal before we really knew how successful the game was going to be in the U.S., and in retrospect I think this was a big mistake at the time. Terror from the Deep was practically the same game but larger, harder and maybe the tactical missions were not as focused as the original game.”
And Now For Something Completely Different
By the time the third game was released in 1997, the gaming landscape had changed. The popularity of Command & Conquer and Warcraft had ushered in a wave of RTS games, and plans to include real-time component in X-COM: Apocalypse threatened to upset the gameplay balance. Even though the Gollop brothers were back at the helm, X-Com was now a corporate production. “With Apocalypse we did the game design and the programming while MicroProse UK did the art. Before, just two artists from MicroProse had mainly worked on the original game and had mainly done as we said. Now the whole art department was involved and had their own ideas about how things should look, which created some conflict. … This probably affected the quality of the game to some extent. I think in retrospect we were also too ambitious with the game design.”
With real-time combat and a colorful retro-1950s science fiction setting, the connection to the original game had been lost. “We also wanted to do something a bit different, as we had been doing turn-based tactical games for a long time. The decision to be both turn-based and have a pausable RTS mode was probably a mistake, as neither version was as polished or as good as it could have been.”
Where TFTD was too similar, Apocalypse was too different. The game changed both the setting and the gameplay, failing to fully connect with either new fans or old ones. X-COM: Apocalypse was the game without an audience.
The Sequel That Never Was
Hasbro purchased MicroProse in 1998, and the X-Com license went along for the ride. David Ellis was in charge of Hasbro’s new vision for the franchise. “We thought … X-COM was a strong enough brand that we could expand into other game genres. We were looking at the Star Wars games as examples – you had shooters, RTS games, space combat games, everything. … Our plan was to branch out with two games: Interceptor, and then Alliance.”
X-COM: Interceptor was poorly received, mainly because it wasn’t a good game. “Interceptor wasn’t embraced by the fans, and didn’t attract the space sim crowd; it was released at almost the same time as Descent: Freespace, which definitely hurt our sales.”
“We had a long-term plan that the fans never understood because they never got to see it play out over time,” says Ellis. “I still think it was a good idea, but maybe it was too soon to branch out. … After Interceptor failed to pick up new fans, the vision for Genesis went from ‘let’s continue the strategy/tactical X-Com franchise’ to ‘we’d better get back to the style of X-com game that the fans loved.'” Unfortunately, X-COM: Genesis never arrived. When Hasbro’s interactive division shut down in 1999, the project died with it.
In a last ditch attempt to utilize the X-Com brand, Infogrames managed to push one more game out the door in 2001. “Enforcer … was just a quick run-and-gun game that was put out there to use the Unreal license that had already been paid for,” says Ellis. “It used a bunch of the art assets that had been generated for Alliance. … It came and went very quickly.” Enforcer, hated by some and ignored by many, marked the end of the official X-Com franchise.
Following the Hasbro shutdown, the X-Com license disappeared, but that didn’t stop developers from attempting to re-create the mythical X-Com formula. The Gollop brothers started work on The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge, hoping to start over with the original premise. But it was not to be: Virgin Interactive canceled The Dreamland Chronicles in 2002.
“I think if Dreamland had been released rather than canceled maybe things could have been different,” says Nick Gollop. “Both me and Julian still regret the way things turned out with that project, as we feel it could have been the true sequel to the original game.”
ALTAR Games, a small European developer, purchased the Dreamland assets and re-christened the game UFO: Aftermath. Aftermath and its sequels have since built their own fan base and franchise. They pay homage to the original series but fail to satisfy as true successors.
The Legend Lives On
In light of the failed attempts to deviate from the original X-Com formula, it’s no wonder other developers have tried to replicate the original experience as closely as possible.
In 2007, Chaos Concept, a Czech development team, released UFO: Extraterrestrials. It was as close to an “improved remake” of the original X-Com as you could get. While it garnered relatively favorable reviews, something odd happened: It was widely criticized for being too much like the original X-Com. As with the response to TFTD, players were left wondering why they didn’t simply go back and play the original.
The original X-Com has taken on a legendary status of its own; a mythical game that transcends the boundaries of ordinary play. Sticking too closely to the formula draws criticism and comparison to the original, while any attempt to deviate from the original premise and gameplay alienates the fan base. The gaming community can’t win. Years of disappointing sequels and missed expectations have made the original seem relatively spectacular by comparison. Its interface flaws are overlooked in the name of nostalgia, and players remember only their favorable impressions from 15 years ago.
A successful sequel must incorporate the strategic/tactical gameplay mechanics and near-future setting of the original. More importantly, it must live up to everyone’s unique expectation of the X-Com experience. It’s an impossible task, and yet developers keep trying. In the meantime, I’ll continue to play a 15-year-old game and wait for someone to get it right.
Alan Au is a freelance writer, academic, and games industry advocate. When he isn’t busy defending the Earth from hostile aliens, he spends his time exploring the connection between games, education, and health..