Julian Gollop, the creator of the original X-COM franchise, is returning to the genre he created with Phoenix Point. Even having lived in England my whole life, you rarely meet people more quintessentially English than Gollop; he’s polite, self-effacing and well-spoken. But despite remaining the epitome of British culture, he’s actually been living and working in Sofia, Bulgaria, for the last 12 years, the opposite side of the EU from his hometown of Harlow, Essex.
And he couldn’t have made Phoenix Point for this much money in the UK, he admits: “Frankly no. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union and has the lowest living costs.” He says that those low costs is what attracted him to set up a studio there, adding that “it did seem the logical thing to do.” He continues: “There’s also some very good local talent, which helps!”
Sofia, in fact, already has something of a standing in the world of strategy titles, as it’s the home of Haemimont Games, creators of Surviving Mars and the Tropico series over the last few years. And then there’s Ubisoft Sofia as well, where Gollop first worked in Bulgaria – on Nintendo 3DS strategy mouthful Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars.
Gollop now has 35 developers at his Snapshot Games studio, though even that modest number has taken time to find: “So far we’ve been able to hire all the talent we need locally. We knew we would struggle somewhat, it’s a slow process, it takes time and effort to build a studio. We started quite small. Chaos Reborn, which was our first title, was a far more modest project with a team size around eight or nine. Although we did use a number of freelancers, some of whom later joined the studio.”
That’s not a big team, given that Phoenix Point is looking to match or exceed the quality of recent XCOM titles from Firaxis, so are there freelancers and outsourcing too? “It’s a combination, we’re focusing on building a studio at this stage,” Gollop says. “We’re nearly at full capacity, we do and will use freelancers and other outsourcing options as well.”
BOOKING IN SALES
With no publisher involved, at first glance the budget for the game looks to be based entirely on last year’s Fig crowdfunding campaign. “It was very successful, raising $765,000 through both traditional crowdfunding backers and investors,” Gollop says.
However that’s actually not a hard cap on what he has to spend on development.
“We’re actually still raising funds through our pre-order website,” he tells us. “And we have been doing increasingly well with that, so we’re now exceedingly $100,000 revenue through pre-orders a month,” he reveals. Those new consumers find the game “largely due to Facebook advertising,” he continues. “Based on our original audience, our backers, we can create target audiences. Facebook calls them ‘look-a-like audiences’, they use existing emails to try and match Facebook profiles and their interests in order to target their advertising. We have some configuration over this, but it’s basically a good starting point.”
For such marketing, Gollop relies on David Kaye, president and co-founder of Snapshot, who is based in LA. “He’s very much focused on producing the adverts for this, making sure people are aware of the game, getting the website set up. And it’s all proven highly effective.”
And while the exact details of the deal are secret, Phoenix Point has also committed to releasing day-and-date on Xbox Game Pass, another possible route of funding without bringing in an external investor. Gollop passes us onto Kaye to find out the thinking behind the deal.
“One of the biggest challenges you face launching a new IP is building an audience – it usually takes a lot of time and money,” Kaye tells us. “We’ve been really fortunate with Phoenix Point’s reception so far, but we have ambitious plans. As our conversations with Microsoft progressed, it became clear that working with Game Pass could help us progress much more quickly and introduce the game to a huge number of new players. That’s extremely valuable and very exciting.”
Having more money coming in, for a game that isn’t yet finished and without having to promise further stretch goals to achieve this, sounds like a dream for most developers. That said, and with the game recently delayed to mid-2019 from a late-2018 release date, resisting feature creep is key.
“It’s very tempting to start packing new features in,” Gollop admits. “But no, our approach is we are going to improve the quality of the experience as far as we can. There’s quite a high bar set by Firaxis with XCOM, the whole presentation of the game, and we’re really striving to meet that. So there’s a lot that’s going into every area in the game: sound design, music, animation, level environments, texture and so on. This is a major investment.”
The game isn’t in Early Access, but Gollop is looking to utilise his “demanding audience” of X-COM devotees to help make the game better still. “Players who have backed the game at our luxury digital edition are entitled to get some development updates, backer builds, and there will be a new build once every two months until the release of the game. Which gives them the chance to play the game and give us feedback.”
Crowdfunding has certainly lost some of its sheen of late, with publishers making something of a comeback after the initial fervour of fan-funded titles. Gollop of course has something of a reputation amongst hardcore strategy fans and a great track record across his career. The well-received (and also crowdfunded) Chaos Reborn in 2015 also helps his cause.
Given that the XCOM brand is being used by Firaxis we wonder if Gollop was tempted to put his name on the game, quite literally, in the way Sid Meier’s name appears on Civilization. But he isn’t keen on the idea.
“I honestly don’t think that Julian Gollop as a brand is anywhere near X-COM unfortunately,” he says. That’s true, but the name does have cachet with many people.
On the surface, Phoenix Point is very similar to the current XCOM titles from Firaxis, especially during the turn-based firefights, but Gollop is happy to explain where his design differs.
“The key difference in the underlying game design principle, it’s a bit more of a simulation and systems-driven game, especially at the geoscape level. There you have lots of interactions between different factions, with their own agendas and technologies. There’s a lot more scope for the player to try different approaches and also different amounts of random setup to the game, different factions you come across first.
“On the geoscape level there are two main influences: one is Stellaris and the other would be X-COM Apocalypse, with the different corporations in that environment. Phoenix Point is developed from that very strongly.”
The game is being developed only for PC, Mac and Linux at present. Speaking on a possible console version, Gollop tells us that “it’s really a consideration of resources and time, we do get a lot of requests for a console version, it seems to be almost every other question we get.
“Our [development] platform is Unity, so it does make cross-platform easier, so in theory doing a console port would be relatively straightforward, but you have to remember that consoles have a lot of restrictions and require a different optimisation approach to PC, so it is challenging to do a console version with such a densely graphical PC game. It’s by no means straightforward, even when you’re using a cross-platform engine,” adding that he “would like to, resources permitting.”
And those resources are still fairly tight. While Gollop has personal reasons for being in Bulgaria, his wife hails from there, it still seems somewhat odd that a game with such a strong UK connection isn’t being made in the UK.
But games are high-risk ventures and having low costs does a lot to mitigate that. Whether Phoenix Point goes on to sell a million copies – and it should, based on the work to date – or simply satisfies its current backers, it’s the talent available in Bulgaria that has made one English developer’s comeback possible.