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Lord of Chaos (Reborn): An Interview with Julian Gollop

Julian Gollop talks with author David L. Craddock about Chaos Reborn and Craddock's upcoming book THE X-COM FILES, which deals with the making of X-COM: UFO Defense.

Julian Gollop.

Upon reading the name, you were likely inundated with fond memories of late nights spent at your computer foiling little gray men from sucking out the brains of your fellow humans, and pouring millions of dollars into laser weapon research to prevent said brain-sucking. Gollop is renowned the world over for leading the design of X-COM: UFO Defense (UFO: Enemy Unknown in the UK), but X-COM is actually the culmination of lessons the famed designer learned from creating other turn-based strategy games over the decade preceding X-COM's release in 1994.

One of those games was Chaos, a game for the ZX Spectrum where players summoned dragons and other beasts and cast gooey blobs at one another in an effort to conquer a fantasy realm that consisted of a black background boxed in by blue borders. You could go it alone, or fill seven other slots with a mix of human chums and AI-driven wizards. Every player received a random hand of spell cards, adding elements of mystery and chance to the game.

Within minutes, the simple battlefield teemed with dragons, lions, and the undead. Players forged temporary alliances, called opponents' bluffs by casting disbelieve on creatures whose bite seemed less fearsome than their bark, and tilted the balance of the world by casting spells rooted in order or chaos, which made subsequent spells of the dominant type easier to cast.

The party-game nature of Chaos has persevered over the 29 years since its release, prompting Julian Gollop to launch a Kickstarter campaign for Chaos Reborn, a sequel/reboot of the original game. In between building on the playable prototype of Chaos Reborn and interacting with many excited Kickstarter supporters, Julian has set aside hours of his time each week to talk to me for The X-COM Files, an upcoming book that will chronicle the first decade or so of Julian's time in the (then-nascent) games industry. I plan to release The X-COM Files later this year, if you're interested in how arguably the greatest squad-based strategy game ever came to be.

Recently, Julian's and my conversation turned to Chaos Reborn, how it differs yet remains similar to its predecessor, and what prompted Julian to let me put his story down on paper.

Lords of Chaos, the sequel to Chaos, was released in 1990. Since then, all has been quiet on the Chaos front. What prompted you to return to that world?

I have been pondering a return to Chaos for many years. Actually, when I first arrived in Bulgaria in 2005, it was a project I was seriously thinking about. Then I got a job at Ubisoft, so [a new Chaos game] was out of the question for a while. Even before that, I was still getting 5 to 10 requests from people a year saying they wanted to do a remake of the game. Those reminded me that people were still interested in the game.

The art style in Chaos Reborn seems very reminiscent of the first Chaos game: monochromatic characters and creatures, which makes them stand out more on-screen. You've said that the art style will change a bit as the game solidifies. What changes do you have in mind?

We want to retain the almost-iconic look from the original game. The creatures were monochromatic, just brightly colored sprites, so the idea is for the creatures to have almost but not totally monochromatic themes with this glowing effect. That makes them stand out from backgrounds and gives detail where it's needed. Another key is animation. When I was designing the original game back around Christmas 1983, I had what I thought was this wonderful idea: everything on the screen should be animated. All the creatures, gooey blobs, and fliers--just to make the game feel more alive.

What I did was very basic. Everything had three or four frames of animation. It was very revolutionary at the time, but today is very basic and trivial. I still have that same objective: the creatures should have a lot of animations and interactions with each other to make the game feel more alive. Even [creatures] interacting with the camera; if you zoom in, maybe the creatures will interact with that in a breaking-the-fourth-wall situation. That will be a big focus of what we're going to do straight after the Kickstarter: get our animation system sorted out.

What are some of the new features in Chaos Reborn that have you excited?

The thing I'm most excited about is the single-player "Realms of Chaos" mode. This adds an interesting meta-game layer to the game, and a RPG aspect to it. It also uses something which is very dear to my heart, which is procedural generation of content and maps. The ideas is you begin the game as a very inexperienced, unknowledgeable wizard. You have a small selection of spells, and you start exploring these realms. You have a list of spells available to you each day to try, and new ones appear each day.

You enter a realm and it's basically a big map area you're exploring, filled with different types of terrain. Mountains, swamps, rivers, and so on. You've got citadels, towns. This realm is controlled by a king, and his minions, wizard lords, rule over regions of the realm. Your objective is to find and fight all the wizard lords to defeat them, then go and defeat the wizard king. As you explore the realm, you'll find things that can help you such as buying equipment, maps, passages through mountains. As you fight the wizard lords, you win gold from them; you win artifacts from them. You're constantly trying to build up your wizard's power and spell knowledge. When you confront the wizard king, you need to be powerful enough to face him.

It's not a very complicated idea, but we have a very interesting procedural generation system which ensures the player will always have fresh content [to experience]. As he levels up his wizard and acquires more equipment, he gains access to higher-level realms where he finds rare artifacts and spells. You'll also find new types of locations, so things get more and more interesting as you go along.

During our discussions for my book, you talked extensively about how you felt Lords of Chaos was perhaps too ambitious a sequel, leading to an overcomplicated game. It seems to me that one reason for that might be because you rolled the single-player and multiplayer games together, rather than delineate them as you have for Chaos Reborn. Does that seem accurate?

Originally, Lords of Chaos didn't work so well as a multiplayer game just because it took so long to play. I remember playing Lords of Chaos with four players using a [single] Sinclair Spectrum. It took us something like four hours to finish the game. So on the multiplayer side of Chaos Reborn, I want keep the really quick, dynamic aspect of battles. Multiplayer battles with be 10 to 30 minutes maximum. But in the single-player, of course, [time] is not so much an issue.

Lords of Chaos worked well as a single-player game. It had a lot of RPG aspects to it, but in Chaos Reborn, I take a few elements from Lords of Chaos--like the wizards finding equipment to equip themselves--and you have a bit more balance. The multiplayer and single-player sides both really work well together.

You also talked to me about how user interfaces were overcomplicated and too cluttered in those early days, since there was no proven way to build a tutorial-type mode into games. What game design lessons have you applied to Chaos Reborn's interface to keep it simple while retaining the depth and complexity that strategy gamers look for?

The basic interface in Chaos Reborn is really simple, and that's because the basic game mechanics are very simple. One thing that always happens is that complicated game mechanics tend to result in a complicated interface. Our underlying core mechanics are very simple. You select a creature, and you can attack with it. Simple as that. Selecting a creature shows you where you can move and where you can attack. Just select the enemy to attack, or click to move. You get a lot more feedback through the interface to make sure the player has the information he needs.

Another thing which I'm quite keen on these days is to make the mechanics of the game more exposed and explicit. There's no secret formula working behind the scenes; things are more straightforward. In Chaos Reborn, the combat system is based on the attacker's attack strength versus the defender's defense strength as a simple odds ratio. If your strength is 4 and the defender's strength is 2, that's 4:2 or 2:1 odds. I express that in the interface as simple percentages. In this case, you'd have a 66% chance of killing the enemy.

The basic information is there for players to make the best judgment on what to do. Because it's primarily a PC-based game, the use of the mouse is straightforward. You can play the whole game just by left-clicking.

You're also bringing back the order-and-chaos alignment. How does the feature work in Chaos Reborn as compared to Chaos?

The feature essentially works as it did in the original game: if you cast chaos spells, chaos spells become easier to cast, and vice versa [with lawful spells]. Nothing affects the casting cost of neutral spells. If you try to shift back toward law from chaos, that will improve the chance of law spells being cast. It works very well because it gives you a strategy for your games.

One thing I've made sure of is the neutral spells, which are unaffected by balance, tend to be better than law and chaos spells because they don't benefit from any [alignment] shift. They start with a bit of a bonus, and that's something to consider. Another thing I've tried to do is have a distinct flavor between what characterizes law spells, what characterizes chaos spells, and what characterizes neutral spells.

In this case, the chaos spells are the ones that are organic and uncontrollable, such as the gooey blob, and creatures that are malformed and unnatural like the undead. Lawful spells tend to be the tools wizards use such as magic weapons and mythical creatures, which are seen as defenders of righteousness and justice and so on. Neutral spells tend to be the ones that deal with nature-type powers and creatures.

There will be other ways to manipulate the law/chaos alignment. There will be artifacts that do it, and spells you can find it battles. For example, there will be an ability where a wizard can switch the current alignment to its opposite. So if the law value is 60, the chaos value jumps up to 60. There will be some interesting effects there.

What's the process of balancing spells and creatures so that, for example, chaos doesn't seem completely overpowered compared to order?

I use two things. One is a giant spreadsheet. [laughs] What I do is I put all the spells in a spreadsheet with all the attributes of the creatures, for example. Casting chances, alignment values, and so on. What I tend to do here is I build formulas to evaluate how good something is, how good a creature is, and I use that as a basis for setting the casting chance taking into account a number of other factors. Those formulas go into the spreadsheet.

Of course, I have to test to make sure those formulas are accurate enough. I enter the data into the game, we test it and explore, and maybe find, "Well, no, in practice, we're undervaluing the fact that a law creature can benefit from this shift in the balance whereas a neutral creature [is put at a disadvantage]." Then I go back and reevaluate the formulas to try and make them more accurately affect what's happening when we play the games.

What prompted you to turn to crowdfunding to finish up Chaos Reborn?

The main advantage is it would allow me to make the game I want to make, either one a publisher wouldn't be interested in, or if they were, they might want to change it in some what I wouldn't be too happy with, as is often the case with publishers. I preferred to have a more direct relationship with our customers. I did this before with LS Nemesis where we sold directly to our players over the Internet. It wasn't exactly crowdfunding; it was more early-access in the sense that we released the game in a somewhat unfinished state.

For example, we said there would be three factions but we actually released the game with two, and just continued to add features. We had a great relationship with the community and started creating tools for them to build maps and arrange their own tournaments. That's what Kickstarter offers: you've got that immediate relationship with your customer, who can be really demanding, but at the same time, they can really generate lots of interesting ideas and feedback, and help guide you in the right direction.

Although you do have to be careful because you can't do everything that everybody wants. At least, it gives you a big sounding board for your ideas and features you want to put in the game. Even now, I've found people have asked some pretty tricky questions about game design stuff from Chaos Reborn, which I've had to think about quite seriously. Even [so early in our campaign], it's proven a valuable tool for game design.

I've long been interested in how developers calculate the amount of funding they'll need for a crowdfunding campaign. Accuracy seems essential, since you likely want to cover all your bases in a single campaign.

That's based on overhead for salaries and running a studio for a year, maybe a little bit more. That's the [brunt] of the funding. Approximately $15k of that is for software licenses, which are quite expensive. Another $6k will be for setting up the hardware we need; PCs and so on. So [the amount] is all based on the cost of setting up the studio and development for a period of about 14 months. Being in Bulgaria, the dollars people will be giving us through Kickstarter will go further than they would in other countries.

The release date of spring 2015 is based on my project plan. I tally up the number of man-months involved in the project, divide that by the number of developers, and that tells me how long it will take [to develop and release the game].

What has your schedule been like lately? What's the current top priority?

Today, my main focus has been trying to get exposure for the game in new places. I've been trying to contact guys who run these YouTube channels, which are very popular. I did a playthrough and mini-interview with a guy called Unstable Velocity; he runs his own YouTube channel and does game reviews. I've been in contact with another [YouTube channel operator] to discuss the game with him. I've been doing a few posts on Reddit, running discussion threads, which tends to have an active gaming community. I'm trying to organize an AMA, one of those ask-me-anythings on one of the sub-Reddit [communities].

I've also been working on the next update for the [Kickstarter] project. I'm trying to release a new update every two days minimum. I probably won't get this one finished tonight, but it will certainly go out tomorrow. I'm trying to organize some new art with my art team to put in there. We were just actually discussing the unicorn [artwork]. A lot of time is also spent replying to direct messages people send me through the Kickstarter page. More messages come through that way than come through the public comments, interestingly.

I've also been gathering questions people send me so I can continue building my FAQ, which I plan to update tomorrow. I've also negotiated one cross-promotion with another Kickstarter project. I had a discussion with my business partner, David Kaye, who's at GDC, because he's been trying to find people there to speak to about the project. I'm also reaching out to indie websites; sending off emails, joining podcasts.

I think that about sums it up. It's quite a lot for one day.

What are your plans for the remainder of the campaign?

We had an absolutely brilliant start. We're up to 40% of our funding goal [as of this interview on 3/21] and on our fourth day. That's really good. There's been a lot of enthusiasm and momentum behind the campaign, but we've still got a long way to go.

What have you found most challenging about running a Kickstarter campaign thus far?

One of the big things you've got to do is reply to messages people send you directly through Kickstarter. It's not just the public comments [on the Kickstarter page] you've got to respond to. There are a lot of messages, and you've reply to those; you've got to build your FAQ; you've got to write the updates to the project that people expect you to send. You also get a lot of press queries and queries from other people offering their services, so they've got to be dealt with.

You've got to think constantly about how to keep promoting the campaign. In that case, it's about speaking to journalists, and some YouTube folks, which is very useful. There's also the matter of working with the team to prepare some updates and present, in our case, some new graphical stuff, for example.

I'm also trying to figure out stretch goals because I haven't done that. It's a controversial area because I'm fundamentally opposed to the idea altogether. [laughs] But there's a lot of pressure from people to add this or add that, so I'm considering those request. I've got a bunch of requests from people who wanted a voiceover in the game from an actor named Brian Blessed. And I thought, well, I can see the attraction. Brian Blessed is... how do I put it? He's just a legend. He's a British actor who's very well-known in Britain but probably not anywhere else. He's got an impressive voice, a Shakespearean voice. He could probably do the "This is Sparta!" line better than any actors who did it in the [300] movie.

So I've got to figure out what's feasible and what costs might be involved there.

What about stretch goals do you oppose specifically?

There is a temptation to add a lot of game features, which can be attractive to backers, but it runs the risk of making [the developer's] job more difficult, especially in terms of a timely delivery of the project. Adding money and features doesn't mean you're going to finish at the same time because there's lots of time dependencies in projects. What I did was I tried to gather some feedback and listen to what people are asking for, and think carefully about what our stretch goals might be.

We have two, which are not extra game features but could fundamentally broaden the reach of the game. The first thing is the localization stretch goal, which wasn't in my initial plan or budget. That will translate the game into French, Italian, German, Spanish, plus a small selection of other languages to be decided. The second stretch goal is to bring the game to iOS and Android.

It does seem like turn-based strategy games work well on tablets, perhaps even better than on other platforms. There's no pressure to act quickly, and you can play a few minutes here and there while you're at lunch or waiting for a table.

The difficulty with putting the game on tablets is you really have to design the interface for tablets and mobile phones. The reality is you're creating extra work, so we have to make sure the interface will look and behave a bit differently on tablets versus the PC. What we'll have to do is work within the constraints of tablets. It will mean, for example, that we'll probably have to produce separate assets. That's actually quite a lot of extra work involved.

Apart from that, I think the game is quite well-suited to tablets because of its turn-based nature. It's going to work quite well, I think, but I don't want to underestimate the amount of work that's involved.

I was so excited to get your participation for my book on X-COM and your other games. It never occurred to me to ask what led you to work with me. Until now!

I read [your book] Stay Awhile and Listen, and I thought it was quite an intricate, deep-dive into the inner workings of Blizzard Entertainment. I loved the Side Quests where you dealt in detail with topics that were maybe a bit geeky and nerdy, but there were some real gems there. The structure of the book was great, and I think it was really successful.

What would you like the X-COM book to accomplish?

I would like to see all the people involved who made the original X-COM a success get some credit and some mention, because maybe they're not as well-known. I would like to see the book as kind of a historical record of a game that was influential. Hopefully it can provide some inspiration, and also inspire some fascination for how things were done in the early days of the game industry. And in some cases, how badly things were done as well.

I guess in the history of any industry, there's this maturation phase. Looking back at it, in those days, things were kind of still amateurish in the early 90s. Particularly with regards to management of publishers and developers. It's very important [to document these stories] because it shows you how and industry can develop, and probably shows you how some of the things in place in the industry today came to be there.

It also shows you that there was some real pioneering stuff going on, and the people doing that stuff were interesting and had certain qualities that people should just appreciate--not just then, but now. In the pioneering days, some of the qualities of what people were and what people did stood out, and made a big difference.

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