Feb 28 2011


Totally unrelated – here’s a recent ambient track I did: Eclipse – enjoy!

Anyway. There was something about the mid 90s through to the turn of the millennium, when rapidly expanding budgets in game development and freedom to explore big ideas led to a run of mad, feature-rich, ambitious messes. Nowadays everyone knows to spend big budgets on polish, but back then there were just enough people crazy enough to throw money at great games like Terra Nova, System Shock, Metal Gear SolidDeus Ex, GTA 3 and Morrowind… and the one I want to talk about, UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM: UFO Defense), from 1994.

Now, there have been other games of similar complexity to all these since, but what sets these games apart is their lack of cohesion. They’ve got multiple overlapping and interacting systems, some of them really nonessential; they totally disregard core gameplay, with multiple game types or approaches to scenarios taking turns; and ‘balance’ is at least partially sacrificed on the altar of complexity (or simply letting you do whatever the hell you want).

I’ve been playing X-Com recently and, besides a few interface quirks, it holds up pretty well! I think I’d be proud to make a game like X-Com, even 17 years later. Here are the different ‘games’ in X-Com:

  • Base management. You spend money to build bases around the world, research advanced and alien technologies, and equip fighters and troops to attack incoming UFOs.
  • Aerial combat. When a fighter engages a UFO, there’s an abstract minigame where you can choose the range to engage at or decide to disengage. It doesn’t need to be there and it doesn’t serve much purpose, but it’s cool and it has its own music.
  • Tactical combat. When a UFO lands or is shot down, you send your troops in to clean up. This launches a grid-based, turn-based combat game on a randomly generated level, and there are at least five terrain types as well as numerous kinds of UFO. Sometimes, there are civilians.

The troops you bought in the base management mode show up in tactical combat, wielding the weapons you researched and manufactured. Win the mission and you’ll get new supplies to sell or use by salvaging the alien’s ship, as well as earning more funding. Soldiers also become more competent with experience. Lose (or retreat) and the game merrily continues – though if you don’t have the funding to assemble a new strike team it’ll be a painful death spiral as sponsors withdraw support.

Either mode could be a game by itself. Replace the tactical combat with a simple algorithm that weighs up the forces involved and gives you a ‘battle report’ screen and the game would be perfectly playable. Remove the base management and give the player 30 preset scenarios to fight through and, again, it’d be a fine game. It’s this total disregard for focusing around a single key strength, and the team’s determination to slog through until it’s all fun, which makes X-Com so great and so 90s.

Making two or more games and bolting them together is an inefficient approach to game design – but I think we’ve lost a lot by ironing out that inefficiency.

(As an aside, I’m quite taken with X-Com’s research mechanic. Unlike Civilisation, you can research multiple technologies simultaneously – but it doesn’t tell you how long they’ll take. The progress indicator actually starts off as “unknown” on a lot of technologies. This means it’s actually worthwhile researching several at a time, and it gives an appropriate feel to research: sometimes, you can’t see the goalposts and you’re hunting for a breakthrough.)