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Soldiers patrol a rural neighborhood with explosions in the background
The cover art for the regular edition of Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defense
Illustration: Kristoffer Furacão

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X-COM got its name, in part, because ‘XCON’ sounded like ‘ex-convict’

A new book excerpt tells the story of how the X-COM series got its start

Ed. note: Now on Kickstarter, Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defense is author David L. Craddock’s latest book looking back at the history of the video game industry. Below, we have an excerpt covering the early brainstorming sessions between developers Mythos and MicroProse for the game that became X-COM.

Frowning, Julian Gollop hung up the phone and turned to his brother Nick. MicroProse UK wanted them to come in and discuss a sequel to their turn-based strategy game Laser Squad, but the publisher had a specific request. “They requested a storyboard of the game,” Julian says. “I was very confused by this request. I mean, how do you storyboard a strategy game? It’s not a film.”

Julian envisioned an introduction sequence that set the stage for the tactical gameplay to follow. When he and Nick arrived at MicroProse UK toting their storyboards, they were shown into a room where 10 developers waited. Pete Moreland introduced the brothers to Stephen Hand and Mike Brunton, two of his designers. Moreland would manage the project, but Julian, Hand, and Brunton would assist with design aspects. Tim Roberts, a producer who Moreland planned to assign to the project, was there, along with Rob Davis from the marketing department. If the studio was to make a new game, marketing needed to know what it was so it could prepare materials for it.

With pleasantries out of the way, Moreland got down to business. MicroProse UK liked the demo, but was less enthusiastic about producing Laser Squad sequel. Moreland wanted a bigger game. Julian asked him to define “bigger.” He half-expected Moreland to reference Civilization and was not disappointed. “They wanted an equivalent of the Civilopedia in the game,” Julian says, speaking to Civilization’s in-game reference manual detailing every unit, building, and technological evolution in the game’s research tree.

Aliens hover behind a mysterious tent with a light coming out of it
The cover of the special edition of Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defense
Image: David Craddock

Moreland viewed the Civilopedia as one of many features to work into Mythos’ game, and something greater. Civ was successful for MicroProse U.S. in part because of its grand scope. The UK studio wanted a game that could compete. “Looking back, I think there was a rivalry between the U.S. and UK offices,” says Brunton. “I may be being unfair, but I think the U.S. saw us Brits as country bumpkins who didn’t really get the whole PC gaming thing, but were good for lightweight games on other systems. Partly, of course, this was because UK coders didn’t work on PCs: they were all people who’d grown up programming Sinclair machines and BBC Micros.”

“We were looking to compete with our American brethren were producing, which were much bigger games. What Julian and Nick had was, although a strategy game, it was small scale,” Moreland says.

“At the senior level, we were trying to make MicroProse UK successful, so this kind of competition was to be expected,” adds publishing director Paul Hibbard.

MicroProse UK knew that most of the company’s games made in the U.S. and brought overseas did well. However, games produced in the UK didn’t always translate to the States. The company wanted something that proved to its peers it was just as adept at making a bestseller. “Hence the requirement to do a ‘bigger’ strategy game that would have the same perceived weight as Civilization,” says Brunton. “It’s pretty remarkable that Civilization and X-COM came out of the same company, at much the same time, and are both still spawning sequels 20-plus years later.”

To Julian, interest in making a bigger and bolder game came as fantastic news. “It was really cool because I ultimately had designs to make bigger, more involved and interesting games for sure, especially on the PC.”

While both parties agreed that the game needed to broaden its scope, no one seemed able to articulate precisely how they should do that. The meeting went for half an hour, then an hour, then 90 minutes. “To be honest, it wasn’t going that well,” Moreland says. “We were going around in circles without much being decided. I was becoming quite frustrated. No one agreed about the way it should go. We’d been going for an hour and a half without anything registering as progress.”

Then Moreland was struck by an idea: How did Julian feel about aliens? When Julian stared in reply, clearly confused, Moreland elaborated. A lot of the team members were fans of UFO, a short-lived British TV series from the 1970s that centered on the covert efforts of a government organization to prevent alien invasions. Producer and director Gerry Anderson collaborated with his wife, Sylvia, to develop it as an action-adventure series influenced by UFO sightings reported during the late ‘60s. The Andersons added the terrifying concept of aliens abducting and harvesting humans for organs, a notion inspired by cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard, who attained fame for performing groundbreaking transplant operations. Set in a dystopian 1980s, UFO courted an adult audience by weaving in mature themes such as characters struggling to hold down personal lives while working on top-secret work, and dark scenes of murder, abduction, and harvesting organs.

“They also had a moon base with an interception squad, and a satellite surveillance system called SID: Space Intruder Detector,” Moreland says. “That was kind of how the stage was set for chasing UFOs.”

Julian hadn’t watched UFO and was concerned with how aliens would affect his game’s design. The designers pointed out the importance of a good hook. “It’s not enough to have a really cool game that plays well,” says Brunton. “As soon as you say ‘UFO,’ you’ve raised certain expectations in your audience. People know what’s coming when you tell them you’re doing a UFO game: flying saucers, mysteries, and bug-eyed monsters invading Planet Earth. The idea has instant traction, and it’s easier to market a game that is based on something that people already know than to sell the idea behind the game as well as the game itself.”

Stephen Hand recalls being one of its most enthusiastic supporters of the UFO theme and shepherding its incorporation. The Laser Squad 2 pitch was a blank slate. There was no story and only a vague setting. Without a hook, it boiled down to a generic spaceman-with-ray-guns-versus-alien-bugs encounters. A strong theme would bring it up to MicroProse’s lofty standards. “In its heyday, one of the tasks MicroProse UK excelled at was to take people’s diverse demos and ideas and to work with those people, if they wanted, to transform their original vision into ‘a MicroProse Game,’” he says.

MicroProse UK’s team knew its target demographic. Male, adult or middle-aged, patient, and detail-oriented. These customers bought MicroProse products not just for the strategy game in the box, but for the box and its goodies: huge manuals that added color to a product’s lore, outlined its baffling but nuanced control schemes, and hinted at all the advanced concepts players would have access to as they played.

Games branded with the MicroProse logo conveyed a verisimilitude that grounded players in their setting. Centering the Gollops’ game on alien invaders and the dread they inspired would transform their demo from a generic space setting into a world teeming with details, and a worthy peer to MicroProse heavyweights like Civilization.

Hand and the other designers impressed on Julian the value of setting the game on earth rather than in space. Players would respond better if events unfolded in their backyard, so to speak, rather than on a fictional planet. They wouldn’t just be fighting to kill aliens. They would be fighting to save their friends and family.

The meeting adjourned, and Julian ensconced himself in research. He bought video tapes of UFO episodes and gravitated to the concept of organizations that intercepted alien ships from locations such as moon bases. “That influenced the design, although we didn’t have moon base interceptions,” he says. “We intercepted ships in the air, and again on the ground when they landed.”

Although Julian came to understand MicroProse UK’s enthusiasm for UFO, he didn’t care for many of its elements. He felt the aliens, in particular, were boring. Too humanoid, too recognizable as actors in bad costumes. He preferred designs chronicled in Alien Liaison: The Ultimate Secret by Timothy Good. Ostensibly nonfiction, Good’s book covered everything from the mythology of aliens and their spaceships, to the Men in Black, to abductions and experimentation, to comments from Bob Lazar, an employee at Area 51 who claimed the government had captured nine flying saucers and attempted to reverse-engineer them. Further, Lazar asserted the government had captured and interrogated aliens, and flipped the script by dissecting them for their organs.

Good’s book also displayed classic interpretations of extraterrestrials, including the now-ubiquitous little gray men. “The actual alien, the main alien I wanted, was the little gray-man character,” says Julian. “My original designs for the aliens were very limited; I think I had about four or five types. There were some robots and some monster types. But I wanted the little grays to be the main alien type.”

Julian folded other ideas from Alien Liaison, such as the concept of aliens mutilating cattle into his design. Hand recalls Moreland championing the idea, which Moreland took from issues of Fortean Times, an ongoing British magazine that delves into strange happenings: “Julian remembers that after meeting with us, he went away and researched real UFO sightings and abduction stories. And yet I do have a strong recall of that being Pete’s focus. Maybe this was something Pete developed later.”

A short time later, MicroProse and the Gollops held another meeting and, agreeing on theme and project scope, signed a contract to publish UFO: Enemy Unknown, a strategy game meant to evoke mystery and dread over faceless enemies.

Much later in development, Hand, Moreland, and Brunton brainstormed names for the elite research organization that players would control in their effort to intercept and eradicate invaders. Julian had pitched several such as DISC (Defense Intelligence Security Corporation) but wasn’t attached to them. Brunton wanted a name that evoked U.S. military jargon like DEFCON. “I was the military history specialist with almost every Jane’s Recognition manual on my desk,” he says, “and proposed a few names as sounding like military nomenclature, a bit like NATO or U.S. military organizations. U.S. Central Command, for example, gets abbreviated to CENTCOM.”

One of Brunton’s suggestions was XCON, for eXtraterrestrial CONtact Force. Hand populated his list with more generic titles and preferred Brunton’s name but saw two problems with it. “XCON” sounded too much like ex-convict, and “contact” was too soft-sounding for an organization of hardened soldiers who fought and died to protect Earth against ruthless alien invaders.

Moreland pushed Hand to make the final call. Staring at his computer screen, Hand made a quick change, then considered the result.

X-COM, short for eXtraterrestrial Combat.

“And boom — there you have it,” Hand says. “Mike Brunton deserves 95 percent of the credit. But staring at that screen, looking at the list of names, I had no idea I was about to create a brand.”