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XCOM: A Series That Almost Wasn’t

X-COM didn’t change the world. In fact, even if you were a gamer throughout the early ‘90s, it’s possible the game flew under your radar. However, this science fiction strategy title quickly developed a cult following and is widely considered one of the best turn-based strategy titles of its era. With 2K Games’ upcoming series reboot, this is the perfect time to look back at this innovative game that almost didn’t see the light of day.

[This article originally appeared in issue 224 of Game Informer.]

The Man From Nowhere
Julian Gollop has always been a nomad. Born in Ludhiana, India, his family moved to Yorkshire, England, when he was two – then spent a few years in Sweden before moving back to Britain. The young Julian spent several years in transition as his family moved around a number of small towns surrounding London. One of the few constants during his childhood was his love for games. “My dad was really keen on card and board games,” Gollop says. “So we played a lot of games as a family, especially at Christmas.”

It didn’t take long before Julian was constructing his own homemade board and card games. “I was always interested in making games, even before computers came along,” Gollop explains. “I saw home computers as a huge potential for making board games that had an artificial intelligence.” At 17, with the help of a friend, Julian created a 4X computer game called Nebula, and he instantly knew he’d found his lifelong career.

Gollop hadn’t received any schooling in computer programming; formalized computer training didn’t exist back in the early ‘80s. Instead, the ambitious young designer learned much of what he knew about computer programming through trial and error. “I bought a book on assembly language,” says Gollop, “but that was essentially my only source of reference and training, aside from a little help from friends who also had home computers.” When Gollop eventually did go to college years later, he took a basic computing class and found that his self-training had been thorough. “I don’t think I attended any of the lectures, but I still passed ­the ­exams.”

After programming a number of strategy games published under his own start up company, Julian finally hit on a winning formula with a game called Laser Squad. The game was a futuristic strategy title about a war that erupted between Earth’s interstellar colonies hundreds of years in the future.

Laser Squad was heralded as inventive because it incorporated concepts like destructible terrain, hidden line of sight (enemy locations remain unknown until they fall within a character’s line of sight), and opportunity fire (characters have the opportunity to fire on enemies when they come into view out of turn). These features sound mundane today – and many were pioneered by board games – but when Laser Squad released in 1988, these concepts felt entirely fresh to PC users.

Laser Squad was so successful that Julian decided to immediately start working on a sequel. Julian’s brother Nick had helped port Laser Squad to the Commodore 64, so Julian asked him to stick around for the official sequel.

The brothers didn’t know it at the time, but they were about to embark on one of the most grueling development endeavors of their lives. The results of their labor would leave an undeniable mark on ­the ­industry.

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