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"There is no Plan B"

Original XCOM dev Julian Gollop is betting people will crowdfund a spiritual successor to his hit strategy game, and his studio's future may be riding on it

Yesterday, Julian Gollop's Snapshot Games launched a Fig campaign for Phoenix Point, a tactical strategy game very much in line with his seminal work in the genre, 1994's XCOM: UFO Defense. The studio set a $500,000 target for the project, and as he told this week, he needs all of it.

"This is what we budgeted to finish the game to what we think is the absolute minimum necessary standard that will make a good quality strategy game," Gollop said.

The team of eight developers at Snapshot have been working on Phoenix Point for more than a year, but Gollop suggested that effort could go to waste if the crowdfunding campaign isn't successful.

"This is an all-or-nothing, make-or-break decision for the studio."

"There is no Plan B. We do not have an alternative plan," Gollop said. "This is an all-or-nothing, make-or-break decision for the studio. But I'm pretty confident we're going to do quite well."

Much of that confidence came from Fig's Backstage Pass program, which allows a group of investors with previous experience on the site an early peek at campaigns and the chance to back them early. The Phoenix Point campaign tested particularly well in this program, with about 30% of people who checked out the campaign going on to back it. That confidence appears to have been well-founded. Within a single day of launching, the game is just over 60% of the way to its goal, with $309,000 in pledges and investments.

"We had approached publishers and investors," Gollop said of the decision to crowdfund the game. "We looked at every possible opportunity we could think of, and for various reasons, we turned down a couple of these other offers. Some of the interest we got from some big publishers was there, but ultimately they didn't want to go ahead with the project, so coming back to crowdfunding seemed like a logical step for us. We would be in control of ownership and the IP in particular for the long term."

So why was crowdfunding a last resort for the project? Gollop said even successful crowdfunding campaigns are generally going to provide smaller development budgets than what publishers could provide, and they originally wanted more money to realize their ambitions for Phoenix Point. Additionally, spending nearly a year talking to publishers while the team worked on the game meant they now have a much more advanced version of the game to help attract backers for a crowdfunding campaign.

The aliens look different, but much of Phoenix Point should be familiar to XCOM fans.

As for why Snapshot went with Fig specifically, Gollop gave two reasons. First, he liked that Fig specialized in video games, while he thinks "tabletop gaming has taken over compared to video games" on Kickstarter. That also no doubt plays into other attractive qualities Gollop mentioned, like Fig's more closely curated selection of projects and a greater level of marketing and PR assistance provided to projects. Finally, Gollop found the site's combination of investment and reward-based backing to be an interesting business model.

It probably didn't hurt that Gollop's first experience with Kickstarter--the 2014 campaign for Chaos Reborn--was considerably more difficult than he'd anticipated. Gollop described it as a real bootstrapping process, but one that informed his decision making when it came time to put together a Phoenix Point crowdfunding campaign.

"We got some interesting feedback. People were really not interested in multiplayer. They were not interested in a console version."

The big takeaway from Chaos Reborn for Gollop was to focus on what the backers find most important. Unfortunately, there wasn't much agreement on that front for Chaos Reborn. Some of the supporters of that game were fans of Gollop's original 1995 magical duel game Chaos, while others simply wanted something like Hearthstone. There was dissent on whether the single-player or multiplayer mattered more, and whether outcomes should rely heavily on random number generators or almost not at all.

"I think we were a little bit split too much between the potential groups we were trying to cater to," Gollop said. "With Phoenix Point, there's definitely more focus."

Part of that focus comes from some early market research Gollop did after originally announcing Phoenix Point in March of 2016. He sent a survey to subscribers of the project's mailing list asking what they wanted from a new XCOM-style game, and it turned out they had pretty similar ideas.

"We got some interesting feedback," Gollop said. "People were really not interested in multiplayer. They were not interested in a console version. And given these people were likely to be our backers, it gives us a very useful guideline as to where to focus our limited development resources."

It helps that there's some handy reference material available when trying to answer the question of what people would want from a modern XCOM game. Firaxis breathed new life into the franchise with 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown and iterated on that last year with XCOM 2. Appropriately enough, just as Firaxis' XCOM was clearly inspired by Gollop's work on the original game, Gollop has found inspiration in Firaxis' efforts. Not only will Phoenix Point incorporate some of the elements that worked well in Firaxis' XCOM revamps, but Gollop cited one of the developer's older games--Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri--as an influence for some of the gameplay elements that will separate Phoenix Point from Firaxis' own XCOM successors.

"I might well have stayed at Ubisoft had I been able to do similar projects, but it wasn't possible."

"It probably deviates most [from Firaxis' XCOM games] on the strategic level of the game," Gollop said. "Phoenix Point is a lot more 4X-y, sort of open-world-y universe where you have different factions and groups, with their own objectives and agendas, technology, their own diplomatic relations, and things will happen in this world regardless of whether the player intervenes or not. It's a much more dynamics, systems-AI-driven world... In some ways, it's actually developed and evolved from ideas we built into XCOM Apocalypse back in 1997."

Gollop's desire to revisit ideas from his previous work shouldn't come as any surprise. After all, much of his career has been spent exploring new offshoots of his previous work, whether it's officially bearing the name of his series like Chaos, Laser Squad, XCOM, and Rebelstar, or simply bearing their DNA, as was the case with the 3DS launch title Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars. And while there's no Plan B for Phoenix Point in the unlikely event the Fig campaign stalls, it's difficult to imagine Gollop changing from that pursuit anytime soon.

"I formed Snapshot to make the games I really wanted to make, my strategy games, particularly my RPG-focused strategy games, XCOM-style games, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars-style games," Gollop said. "Especially after doing Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars at Ubisoft, which was a great project and I really enjoyed. I might well have stayed at Ubisoft had I been able to do similar projects, but it wasn't possible. So I knew I had to do something on my own."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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