Developing the distinctive look of the original X-COM: UFO Defense
By Christian Westermann on March 9, 2021
Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defense tells the story of the early years of legendary strategy game designer Julian Gollop and the making of the original X-COM and is funding now on Kickstarter. In this excerpt from the book, Julian and his brother Nick coordinate with X-COM publisher MicroProse UK on the design of alien enemies and the game’s cinematic intro.
Julian and Nick Gollop signed a contract with MicroProse UK in 1991. The agreement granted them approximately £3,000 per month (roughly $2,224 in 1991 US dollars) to tide them over while they developed UFO: Enemy Unknown, which the publisher estimated should take 18 months.
“They didn’t really have any sophistication about planning a development release schedule for a game,” says Julian. “It was 18 months: That’s how long these games take, so that’s how long it will be. Of course, it took a lot longer, almost twice as long as that, which got us quite worried, actually.”
Nick was content with the arrangement. “To have proper funding made a huge difference to us. Before, we didn’t really have money.”
At the start of the project, MicroProse UK’s Pete Moreland asked Julian to provide Mike Brunton and Stephen Hand, the designers assisting with UFO, a design document. Julian was as confused by this request as he was by MicroProse’s earlier appeal for a storyboard. “When I produced an initial game design document for them, which was about twelve pages long—I’d never written a design document before, by the way—it was a very high-level thing. It didn’t go into a lot of detail,” Julian admits.
Design documents have grown into understood constructs. Developers write them to explain a prospective game’s art style, atmosphere, gameplay systems, production needs, costs, and a timetable with milestone dates for completing tasks and showing playable builds or demos of the game to the publisher. In the early ’90s, they were virtually unheard of.
Steve Hand called Julian to complain. The design document was so poor, he declared, that if not for his love of Laser Squad, he would have dropped the project. Julian returned to the MicroProse UK office to walk them through his plans. “I think they were happy enough with the explanations I gave, but clearly the document wasn’t good enough.”
The meeting illuminated Enemy Unknown‘s grand scope. Players would fight back against aliens through two interfaces. The first, called the Geoscape, showed a view of Earth from space. Players started with a base in a random location on the globe and built others to more quickly research technologies, build weapons, train soldiers, and more. The Battlescape interface took place on earth and gave players control over their soldiers, where they deployed and positioned them to search out and exterminate aliens.
You’ve got the look
Julian’s breakdown of the design document gave MicroProse UK’s team a chance to weigh in on all aspects of development. For instance, Julian’s document included sketches of aliens players would encounter. Steve Hand raised concerns about the artwork. “The original aliens were boring or comical. Some graphics were almost childlike,” Hand remembers.
Hand realized he and Julian were approaching aliens from different perspectives. He was thinking of creatures seen in Marvel comics, classic horror films such as Dracula remade by British production studio Hammer Film Productions, and Gerry Anderson’s UFO show. Julian seemed to have a more contemporary vision, such as abductees abducted by flying saucers, experimented on, and dropped back to earth with no memory of the encounter. Little gray men worked as a cultural touchstone, Hand thought, but the rest of Julian’s sketches portrayed fantasy creatures such as gnomes, or Vikings with floppy faces and elephantine noses.
Moreland assigned Tim Roberts as Enemy Unknown‘s project manager, and Roberts, with input from MicroProse UK’s art directors, added John Reitze and Martin Smillie to handle artwork. Reitze had been busy drawing sketches of aliens, so Julian, Brunton, and Hand went to Reitze’s office to look at what he’d come up with. “We went down to John’s computer and he had a whole selection of sprites. Steve Hand and I picked from those sprites which aliens would be in the game,” Julian remembers.
Hand was impressed by Reitze’s creations. He had combined the artistic flair of Marvel artist Jack Kirby, renowned for illustrating characters with distinctive texture and line weight and recognizable symbols such as a soldier holding a rifle to communicate visually a character’s intent, with Japanese-influenced portraits far ahead of their time in 1991. “John had a superb art style that everyone at MicroProse thought was brilliant for the game: it was manga-esque,” says Mike Brunton. “And it was a way of MicroProse giving added value to the product: day-to-day design and coding was being handled extremely well by Julian and Nick. Art was an area where we could bring something really worthwhile to the party.”
“I didn’t talk too much to John directly,” Hand says, “but I’d helped to form John’s brief, and I looked at all his finished work and was involved in choosing which graphics we planned to ‘persuade’ Mythos to like most.”
Julian needed little persuasion. “I think I did most of the picking, and I was trying to pick things that would be interesting in terms of what aliens could be doing,” he says. “From the images John made, I had to sort of retrofit what the alien was about and what was his role in the alien hierarchy.”
War on “terror units”
Over development, MicroProse UK and the Gollops sorted aliens into low-, medium-, and high-threat categories. Sectoids, the most common type, resembled the classic “Greys,” or little gray men. Sectoids wore no armor and fell easily to most weapons, but packs of them could overwhelm players who grew reckless. The aliens hailed from different species, and each species had special fighters known as terror units that intentionally challenged players’ understanding of low, medium, and high threats. Terror units accompanied standard units such as Sectoids on more difficult missions, but wise players viewed low-threat invaders such as the Reaper, a bipedal creature coated in armor and able to chew on players at close range, as formidable obstacles. Any alien was a dangerous alien.
John Reitze showed off more alien types in Enemy Unknown‘s striking introduction cinematic. Painting in vibrant colors that came to life over MicroProse UK composer John Broomhall’s eerie score, UFOs arrived on earth and unleashed aliens such as the purple-skinned Muton, a behemoth outfitted with high-tech weaponry, on earth’s cities. That was when the X-COM Force hit the scene. Soldiers clad in space-age armor opened fire with heavy-duty rifles and machine guns. The invaders roared their fury before fleeing their spaceships. With the attack squashed, the X-COM Force returned to base to tend to their wounded and continued surveillance, knowing that another large-scale attack was a matter of where and when, not if.
Reitze’s use of colors, smooth animation, and scenes that flowed perfectly between unsettling and action-packed galvanized the team. It also set the table for players’ primary mission. Obliterating aliens was step two. Step one as commander of the X-COM Force was to win the allegiance of earth’s governments, who would repay X-COM’s loyalty and protection with funding for players to perform research.
“Everyone loved it,” Hand remembers, “and it seemed to crystalize more clearly than anything previous what the finished game should be trying to represent: violent, comic book action, with a dark, realistic kick.”
The team dreamed up more alien types than they could use. Mike Brunton proposed an editing program for players to create invaders. “Once the tactical, turn-based combat was going to be linked to an alien invasion game and planetary defense management system, those ideas fell by the wayside,” he says.
Another unused special, men in black as created by Julian, would have infiltrated governments to sew dissension in countries funding the X-COM Force. Over several turns, funding from those countries would dwindle as the aliens spread. “We were told to remove the men in black from the game because MicroProse had another title in development which featured men in black, and they didn’t want it to conflict with UFO,” remembers Julian. “That game never saw the light of day. So it was on a bit of a whim that we removed it, and a bit silly, really, given the success of men in black in the Men in Black film, which came later.”
David L. Craddock is the author of the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen trilogy detailing the history of Blizzard Entertainment, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and over a dozen more books about video game culture. Follow him online @davidlcraddock on Twitter. Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defense is funding now on Kickstarter.