XCom - Alliance
Ghosts of Games that never were
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Unfortunately the day I started as head of game design I was told that we had about 2 weeks to get these two games into a form that they could be presented to the US management to see which ones would go ahead.
XCom Alliance (Lead designer Andy Williams) had at that time had a mockup front end, a 3DS max animated cutscene teaser animation some artwork and an outline GDD of the game - but little else. This was partly because although a decision to use the Unreal engine was more or less made (This was before the first Unreal game had shipped) the deal was still not finalized, and the game had ticked on for some time with a very small team. Andy had extensive experience of the XCom brand having worked on the three earlier games and had co-produced Apocalypse.
At the time I was told that it was more likely that only one or neither would be given the greenlight. Over the next two week period we pulled everything together into a complete design deck and as comprehensive a game design as we could.
When the day of the meeting arrived the two lead designers presented their games. Both went down well, and both gained a stay of execution, but it was obvious that the cinematic teaser for XCom had gone down better.
It was only a few years later that I was told that when Spectrum Holobyte management came over the intent had really been to assess the best way of closing down the studio - so I guess we managed a great stay of execution.
While the original XCom game (Enemy Unknown) had been created by Mythos Games, it was in reality a jointly owned IP with Microprose who had created all the IP elements such as storyline, names and character designs.
This joint ownership had the potential to become difficult so after the first few XCom games Microprose bought out Mythos for exclusive rights to the XCom brand.
Having obtained the full IP ownership Microprose started creating a whole slew of other XCom products such as Interceptor (a space shooter), Genesis (A revised XCom game going back to the roots but in full 3D) and an FPS tactical game (Alliance).
We’d also discussed other avenues for future Xcom games including time travel, retaking the solar system (with interplanetary distances playing a significant role in recruitment and resources), and an resistance movement concept where you had to fight back after the world was taken and humanity was totally under the alien yoke.
XCom Alliance was to be a small squad-based game where the player controlled between 1 and four characters depending on the mission.
The game was set in the year 2062 (22 years after X-COM: Terror from the Deep but before X-COM: Interceptor). The story centered on the UGS Patton, a research vessel staffed by a mixture of scientists and military, that is sent to Mars to retrieve alien artifacts and recover what it can from the ruins of Cydonia.
Unfortunately on arrival the Patton triggers an automatic portal and activates a wormhole that transports it dozens of light years to the alien system that was the source of the invaders from the first game (UFO Enemy Unknown).
Once there they form an alliance (hence the name of the game) with a new alien race (The Ascidians) who are at war with Earth’s old nemesis.
Alliance was intended to revisit many of the original alien types encountered from the first Xcom game and rationalize their relationships to each other, along with adding a fair few new ones in the process.
Each mission would start with a briefing about the mission’s objectives and how many you were allowed to take, but the choice of who you took on a mission was initially entirely up to you.
Being cut off from Earth meant that the pool of engineers, scientists and military personnel you had at your disposal was fixed right at the start of the game – no recruitment as you were so far from home. Actually I say no recruitment but a few of the Ascidians would join the team as part of the story, with more joining if your numbers became to small.
It was intended that every character would be unique – each with their own quirks and personalities. For example one would tell long rambling shaggy-dog stories and jokes, only breaking off if danger or combat threatened, others would have the equivalent of ‘double acts’ where if they were taken together they might flirt, or wind each other up. The intent was to make them feel like real characters that you cared about. Each character would have a set of specific skills, but characters could develop new skills or improve on existing ones as time went on.
It was intended to make the most of each character’s emotional responses and personality so that their combat effectiveness and coolness under fire were all intertwined. Just as with the original XCom games troopers would not be 100% reliable.
Each mission would have primary goals (which had to be carried out) and secondary goals (which were not essential but which would convey additional information or resources). Some missions were even planned for onboard the Patton itself as you defended against alien infiltration. The Patton was a huge ship, and would have been fully explorable, with areas set aside for research, briefing, medical services, recreation and an armoury where you could practice.
Unlike the previous XCom games the mission structure was fixed, with no procedural content, and heavily story led with in engine cutscenes.
The following are a number of screenshots or mockups from the game. These are rather mixed and from different stages of development:
Working on XCom was difficult. We were working with the original unreal engine, but before the first Unreal game had actually been released. This meant that we were creating the game for a theoretical performance target based on what Epic thought they’d be able to achieve – something that would prove awkward when that performance didn’t fully materialise.
While Andy Williams was the game’s original designer it was a mammoth task and in addition to running the department I took over overseeing the level design, storyline and many of the game mechanics. I also created a lot of stand in textures for the game (some of which turned up much later in XCom enforcer).
The game was hugely innovative. We had a point and click method of controlling the squad which allowed for immediate and delayed orders. You could set up different actions for each of your squad and then have them all be carried out from a single keypress.
We had some incredibly original level design (for example one level even fooled the player into thinking that they were invading a vast machine that was trundling across an endless desert - something the engine couldn't really support). And some awesome procedural sounds/music that dynamically changed according to the player's current state. And a hell of a lot more, it would have been a ground breaking title.
The game's performance was always an issue (this was before garphics cards had taken off and we had to support software rendering). The original performance estimates from epic for unreal turned out to be a fair bit optimistic. Also most Unreal games only had a single render window - to worry about, while we had potentially 4. If the maximum number of enemy on screen was six then that meant that in theory you could see those 6 characters from 4 different viewpoints (24 characters) and the friendly character meshes as well (potentially another 12 characters), not to mention the overhead for drawing the actual level graphics 4 times as well! This huge overhead meant that we had to compensate by reducing our on screen polycount lower than similar games of the period.
The programmers really had it tough. We simply (at that time) couldn't rely on there being a graphics card of any type present.
I recently came across a whole set of old design docs for XCom Alliance.
If anyone is interested you can find links at the end of this section.
In 1997 GT Interactive almost bought Microprose from Spectrum Holobyte, but the deal fell through and the share price went through the floor. Microprose was struggling, and in 1998 Hasbro bought them (for less than a third of what GT had been offering) and they proceeded to demolish everything about the company that was good.
However, at first it seemed everything was going to go well, I can remember going in 3 days before Christmas, signing a new contract and being told that everything was going well and that we were all going to get a pay rise in the new year. Then 2 days into the new year a guy comes over from the US, calls us all into a room with no warning and says that they’ve decided to move XCom Alliance to Hunt Valley studios in the US and repurpose the studio for Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix only. Oh – and make redundancies!
In fairness XCom had been going on a long time, and had taken some time to get into its stride. It had on paper been in development for about 2 and a half years, However the first 8 months or so were largely planning, we were working with Beta code from Epic which changed every month, and it was an ambitious concept. In retrospect there's a lot I should have done and could have done to make the game easier to create, but hindsight is wonderful, and the decision to 'can it' was totally out of the blue and without any warning.
A week or so later a team from the US came over to analyse the best way of moving the project to the states. They were hugely impressed by what we had done on Alliance, and couldn't understand why we were being closed down. Their report stated clearly that we were doing ground-breaking work, they couldn’t complete it any sooner (in fact the reverse) and that they recommended that it stayed in the UK. But it was too late! Although Hasbro recanted and said they’d let us finish working on Alliance, they also said that we had to bring it in several months ahead of schedule. This was ridiculous and impossible, especially as key designers on it had already left or were working through their notice period having found new jobs!
It was shameful and wasteful. If Hasbro had only sent the investigative team first it could all have been avoided. I was really pissed off and left in disgust after helping to package it up to send to the states. Hasbro also closed down the XCom Genesis team in the US - which was ahead of schedule and looking good.
To put it bluntly, a toy company had bought a game company that specialised in creating complex simulation games (purely to get into game development) and had no idea what they were doing. Hasbro seemed to have no concept of what it took to develop computer games and seemed hell-bent on handling it and its staff like one of its regular toy suppliers. When the Grand Prix game was eventually finished they just closed what was left of the UK studio and Microprose effectively died. It was a horrible end to a great studio.
I don’t know how well the US redesign of Alliance went, I tried to keep an eye on developments but my not being with Microprose made information gathering patchy.
Talking to people afterwards I get the impression they went through the same learning curve as we did in finding out what worked and what didn’t (but with a much bigger team). As time had marched on, and graphic cards were getting better, they did up the polycount considerably and what I did see looked a lot better (but then we had to work to the limits of software rendering and the first generation of graphic cards) and they had a few more years of development and could raise the minimum/suggested target PC specs.
Unfortunately the US version was canned as well. It was a shame some of the things they were experimenting with sounded far more advanced than what we were going to do – but perhaps it ended up too ambitious there as well.
Eventually XCom enforcer came out – which was a total travesty of what could have been. Interestingly enough it still had some of the stand-in textures that I’d created years before.
Original XCom trailer
A playthrough of one of the first missions (from a recent rebuild of the game based on found source files and worked on by an Unreal modder).
I came across a whole set of Alliance documents recently. Just in case anyone is interested in seeing what it would have been like here are a number of them.
You'll find some inconsistency as they're from different periods of the game's development and some
sections were superseded by specific documents. They're also in many cases work in progress docs that are unfinished.
(Note these were never intended for publication, like all design documents they were work in progress and are often also filled with typos and other grammatical errors)
Design Bible (This is from an early stage of the game)
Level Designs - (a few of the levels)
A few more detailed docs.