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In a new interview with PC Gamer, Snapshot Games' Julian Gollop discusses Phoenix Point, an XCOM-like game he's currently working on. Quite a few questions revolve around Phoenix Point's strategy layer, where the majority of the genre's experimentation happens these days, but other things, like the evolution of strategy games over the years and the influences Firaxis' XCOM and X-COM: Apocalypse had on Phoenix Point also get a mention. As such, the interview has a lot of interesting stuff in it, especially if you didn't watch the recent lengthy EGX videos.
Do you see this as you picking up where you left off with this kind of game?
Yes, definitely. The modern XCOM has shown how amazing turn-based tactical games can be, and we are evolving on that with Phoenix Point, for sure. But on the strategic side of the game, we wanted to do something a bit different. And, as I say, the closest thing I can really compare it with might be the original X-Com, or possibly some modern 4X games because it has some elements of those. And this will create a more interesting dynamic between the tactical and strategic, in the sense that the player doesn't always have a fixed objective for a mission, and it might be that you send your soldiers into a haven with the idea that you want to steal some technology. So you're going into his laboratory area, but you may find that it's proving a bit too difficult, so you can switch to just trying to sabotage it instead. If you can't get it, blow it to bits. That's a decision you can make on the battlefield, you don't have a pre-scripted mission objective. So what happens on the battlefield will have a knock-on effect on the strategic level, and the fact that you may steal stuff, you may kidnap people, you may assassinate people, sabotage. All these different missions are available to you as a player.
I like the idea of strong connective tissue between the two layers. I really enjoyed Firaxis's Enemy Unknown, but I thought the tactical and strategic layers felt a bit far removed from each other at times, for example.
Well, when you think about it, all the X-Com games, going back to the ones I worked on, the strategic layer is the thing that's changed the most. So the original was set on a globe, Terror From The Deep sort of copied that, but X-Com Apocalypse was radically different. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is reminiscent of the original but is actually quite different, because it's a much more scripted sequence of stuff. It's more like a min/maxing management sim. With XCOM 2, they changed it quite radically again. So this seems to be the area of the X-Com genre-style game that's changing the most. With Phoenix Point, again, we're doing something different on that area of the game, while retaining this core tactical turn-based gameplay which is more familiar across all the X-Com games.
How do you feel about your creation becoming its own sub-genre?
I think it's fantastic. When you think that for so long I was trying to make this kind of game and no publisher was even interested, what it proves that there's now an audience for this style of game. It may not be absolutely massive, but it's a pretty solid, dedicated audience. People have been asking me to remake X-Com, or Laser Squad, or anything forever. They've always asked me to do it. It's just getting commercial interest from a publisher to actually do it has been very difficult. You may remember the original turn-based games were pretty much killed off by the massive RTS explosion in '96, in particular.
Which itself was then basically killed off, years later (except StarCraft).
Which itself was killed off by MOBAs, I guess, which have replaced RTSs, in a way? It's interesting, the ebb and flow of the different genres, but somehow, Jake and his team at Firaxis have managed to resurrect this genre that was considered practically dead, and resurrected it with a really modern up-to-date [game], and it's been fantastically successful. So it just goes to show that maybe I was right to pursue this kind of game. But what the new XCOM game has allowed me to do is make Phoenix Point, because without it, I doubt I even would've attempted it. God knows what I'd be doing. I think it's fair to say it's now a new genre of game. It's now established, and there are people who are actively looking for this style of game, and there will be more like them, which is really cool. It's brilliant. From my point of view, it's great.
I get more of an idea of the 4X elements you're blending with the game from the way tech works, there. Are your interactions with other factions similar to something like Civ?
It's similar. So each haven has a leader, with a personality that affects who they like, who they don't like, whether they're cautious, aggressive, more insular, whether they're looking for allies, that kind of stuff. Then each faction has their own leadership, as well. Again, they have their own personality and objectives, these leaders. Synedrion's leaders can change a lot, which can be a bit annoying, because they're a democratic, council-based kind of organisation. The leader of New Jericho is this charismatic leader, Tobias West, somebody who can also change his view on things, which can affect you in different ways. Disciples of Anu are a bit more difficult. To even reach a discussion with them, you have to go through a whole series of tests, going through layers of their hierarchy before you're even allowed to talk to their leader, The Exalted. So they all have a different way you interact with them. Systemically, they're much more different to each other than the civilisations in Civ.
In the case of the latter leader, that sounds reasonably arduous in terms of time investment. With humanity shrinking, do you have to be conscious of time ticking down when you make these choices?
Yes, because time is not on your side, the mist will start enveloping. There are things you can do to push the mist back, to stop it attacking havens. It depends on having access to the right technology at the right time. You can't spend forever doing this stuff, and there is a bit of time pressure involved. The aliens have their own agenda, and they'll pursue it regardless of what you do. They're not going to wait for you to have your conversation with the Disciples of Anu. You can't do everything.
A lot of it will be down to the player's attractions to these factions: their personalities or maybe their technology. It just gives the player a different way to play the game. It's a different balancing act, because you have to make sure that each of these factions are equally attractive to the player. Certain types of players will be attracted to the militaristic New Jericho, who like blowing stuff up. And if you really like blowing stuff to bits and burning everything to the ground with robots and big guns, New Jericho are probably the guys for you.
If you're much more interested in stealth and theft-type missions, then Synedrion are probably the guys for you. If you're really interested in weird religious cultist shit—maybe you're a goth, I don't know—with some really weird characters doing weird stuff, then Disciples of Anu are for you. That's basically the way we want it to work, so we tried to make sure at every level the factions have these very distinct technologies, ideologies and character classes. It gives the player a meaningful choice.