Julian Gollop is the master of strategy games, being responsible for some of the best examples in the genre. Laser Squad, Xcom, Rebel Star Raiders are just a few of his titles and he continues to work in the industry to this day. We caught up with Julian to discuss his early 8-bit games.
What would you say were the roots behind your twin passions for board games and computer strategy games?
Largely thanks to my father, I think. Ever since I was a young child we used to play all kinds of games – board games, card games, chess. Actually, we as a whole family played games a lot, especially at Christmas time – we didn’t watch many films. Because I liked relatively complex strategy games, when home computers came along I immediately saw them as a very useful medium for playing these kind of games – the kind of games we went on to make.
What prompted you to start designing your own games?
As soon as I started playing games I was making them. Around the age of 14 I started getting into more complex games – Dungeons & Dragons, SPI board games, Avalon Hill… a lot of stuff. From then on I developed a big interest in strategy games.
You devised Time Lords and Islandia while you were still at school. How did the publishing deal with Red Shift come about, and what do you remember about creating those two titles?
I got involved through a friend of mine, who was involved in a group of war-gamers in Harlow. Red Shift was set up by a guy who was a miniatures war-gamer to create computer games. Time Lords and Islandia were programmed by a school friend of mine, Andy Greene, who later on worked with us at Mythos Games.
He had a BBC Micro, I had nothing apart from some game designs, so we combined the two. Time Lords started out as a pen-and-paper game. You had to generate the universe using dice, and it required a game master to run the game. It was clearly really designed for a computer game naturally, so that was my first computer game design, I guess. For Islandia I wanted to do a game with some very basic resource management economics and, for some reason, naval combat. I had the idea of randomly generating a map with islands, apart from the central island where the four players start.
Nick (far right) in a promotional shot for Laser Squad Nemesis. His brother Nick is in the middle of the photo.
It must have been pretty exciting for you. How did they do sales-wise? Though we’re guessing you probably didn’t see huge piles of royalties come flooding your way…
It was a tiny amount, actually. Not being too business-savvy at that stage, the owner of the company took most of the money, of course. I didn’t really know how well they were selling relative to other games; there weren’t any sales charts that I knew about at the time. I don’t think I ever saw them on sale in any shops. We sold them at various computer shows and mail order, and I guess some were sold through distribution channels to various independent shops. I was pretty excited when they were published – when we actually had a physical product printed with the instruction manual, and the cassette tapes were manufactured.
So where did the idea of action points, which we first see in Islandia, and an important feature of most of your subsequent games, come from? Does the concept derive directly from strategy board games?
Yes, from board games. Many of the SPI games used concepts like this. They had fairly sophisticated things like simultaneous movement and trying to simulate the cost of different actions. They didn’t really work well as board games. In fact, they would have worked better as computer games.
How did you get into programming games yourself?
I bought a ZX81 from a friend at school for £25 and started to learn programming. I was quite amazed by it, in fact. I could really appreciate the power of these machines, even though it was a ZX81 with 1K of memory, chunky characters and no graphics processing to speak of. I then bought a ZX Spectrum and started programming Nebula. It wasn’t a bad little game, I programmed it relatively quickly in BASIC, and it did pretty well.
You were obviously quite a sci-fi fan from an early age. Time Lords is clearly influenced by Doctor Who, and do we detect a bit of a Star Wars vibe with Rebelstar Raiders?
I can’t deny a certain influence, it’s true. But still, I would probably say that the main influence was some of the science-fiction board games I’d played. Game Designers Workshop had a game called Snapshot. Even though I’d never actually played the game, I did read the rules. I think that game had the concept of ‘snap-shots’ and ‘aimed shots‘, which is a concept I used in subsequent games, of course. Rebelstar Raiders turned out to be very popular with friends and people who had bought it, despite being just a two-player game.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to pursue game design as a full-time profession?
Immediately after I left school, I think, or at least in my final year. Once I’d got my hands on a ZX81 I realised this was the future and never looked back, apart from a minor diversion at college. Although I didn’t do a lot of studying, I managed to complete two computer games while I was at college: Chaos and Rebelstar.
The iconic title screen for Chaos remains extremely memorable.
What were the inspirations behind Chaos?
Chaos was actually based on a board game I made in 1982, inspired by a game by Games Workshop called Warlock, which I remember some kids at school playing, although they wouldn’t ever let me play it. So I thought, ‘Screw them, I’ll make my own magic game and it’ll be better than their game anyway!’ So I made this board game in 1982, and a preliminary version was programmed by Andy Greene on the BBC B. Then I decided to do an adaptation for the ZX Spectrum. It still had a lot in common with the board game, although it had some new elements – the idea of casting creatures as illusions, for example.
In a way, Chaos is one of my favourites of all the games I’ve ever made. I’m not quite sure why, but it was a good, fast-playing, fun game; you could play with up to eight human players or a mixture of human and computer opponents; and it was certainly chaotic with that many people! But yes, I liked the game a lot when I was making it and playing it.
What do you remember about working with Games Workshop?
I wasn’t the one involved in directly negotiating with them; it was mostly former Red Shift guys who had decided to do some games for Games Workshop. We actually did some adaptations of some of their board games including Battlecars, which I programmed the car designer for, and Talisman, which was done by another colleague of mine. Chaos was an original game, of course, although I don’t think I ever told them it was inspired by Warlock. I think they pulled out of publishing computer games after a short while, although at one point they did want me to do a game based on their Judge Dredd board game. I wanted to do a strategy game where you controlled a squad of judges and sent them to crimes, with a tactical combat sequence where you dealt with the perps, but they didn’t like it, and opted for some sideways-scrolling platform game with Judge Dredd on his bike, which was awful.
Why do you think Chaos was so appealing to players?
It has an interesting balance of randomness and strategy. You don’t know what spells your opponents have, there’s a certain amount of randomness in whether you can cast a certain spell or not, and at the same time you’ve got to think tactically depending on what spells you’ve got and what you’ve managed to cast. You could say it’s a nice blend of tactics and chaos… I get a number of requests each year from people wanting to do a remake of Chaos, and I say, ‘Yeah, go ahead. Not a problem.’
After Chaos you created Rebelstar and Rebelstar 2 for Firebird, which updated the turn-based tactical scenarios seen in Rebelstar Raiders. What do you remember about creating it?
I did Rebelstar at college, entirely on my own. Again, it was originally just a two-player game. I took it to Telecomsoft, because they had an office in New Oxford Street, very close to where I was living in Islington. They liked it, but they said they wanted single-player, so I went back and spent a few weeks working on the single-player version. I had no idea how to do it: I had to invent a path-finding algorithm and I knew nothing about such things, so I had to come up with something from scratch. But it works. You had the single-player version on one side of the tape and the two-player version on the other side. They published it, and it sold pretty well, even though they decided to put it on their Firebird label – I was hoping they were going to put it on their more expensive label. The royalty was a pittance – I think I got ten pence a copy – but it sold tens of thousands. I can’t remember the exact figures, but it did sell a lot. I bought a nice shiny red guitar and dotted around for a bit spending some money, so yeah, it was cool.
How did you find the jump between programming relatively simple single-screen titles in BASIC (Nebula and Rebelstar Raiders) and the more complex, multi-scrolling Rebelstar games in assembly language?
Pretty natural really. I didn’t have too much of a problem with it. Chaos was the first assembly language game I did and Rebelstar was the second. Although I do remember debugging was something of an involved process: I often had to print out the Spectrum source code on long rolls of printer paper and go through the code line by line, which was a very reliable method, by the way. I was relying on dual microdrives with a small set of microdrive cartridges, which I have to say proved 100 per cent reliable through the whole development. Amazing, really.
Laser Squad was massively popular and adorned our cover for issue 81.
The Rebelstar games were your first foray into the ‘squad-based tactics’ genre in which you later made a big name for yourself. What attracted you to making them, and why do you think you continued to be interested in producing this style of game through to X-COM and Laser Squad Nemesis?
Again, it goes back to board game roots. One I was playing called Sniper stands out as being quite influential. Also some miniatures games we were playing in our games group in Harlow were actually closer to Rebelstar Raiders and Rebelstar. The tactical decisions in the game, like whether to use a quick snap shot or higher AP aimed shot are interesting, as they require the player to make decisions which sometimes might be obvious, or sometimes might be a fine balance between risk and reward.
Laser Squad is generally seen as your ‘classic’ 8-bit era squad tactics game. What improvements or changes did you try to make to the already successful Rebelstar formula for that game?
One of the main things was to create a scenario-based system where we had multiple scenarios because we wanted to release expansion kits to add some configurations to your squad, so you got to choose weapons and arms before going into battle, improve the AI, and have something of a continuous story. We introduced a line-of-sight system in Laser Squad, so you had hidden movement of the enemies, according to line-of-sight rules, which Rebelstar didn’t have. It was a number of innovations, really.
I was keen on innovating and exploring the basic turn-based tactical combat system.
My brother Nick joined me at this point, and we set up Target Games. We did so many versions of this game – Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC. We did separate disk-based versions of all these, and there was a PC version by Krisalis Software, who also did the Amiga version. So it was a major step up, I guess. I got most of the Spectrum version done and Nick was working on the Commodore 64 version – the Amstrad version used the Spectrum code because it was the same processor, of course. The Commodore 64 version was a bit trickier because the hardware was a lot more complicated.
Your games always seemed to achieve a level of critical acclaim in publications like Crash and Sinclair User that must have pleased you at the time. Was the critical response satisfying or a good source of motivation to create better and more complex games?
It was very inspiring, I guess because I was doing stuff nobody else was really doing, which helped. I was making games I wanted to play. It was important to me that the games would be something I would be actually interested in playing at the end of making them, so I was pleased that other people liked the games as well. You could say I was pleasantly surprised.
Lords Of Chaos was possibly your most complex game up until that point, from a design point of view. How did you set about updating the core ideas behind Chaos for this game?
I’d set up Target Games with a friend of mine. He left, so me and Nick decided we would create a new name for the company – Mythos Games. It was just the two of us, so I was still programming and designing, of course. Lords Of Chaos was a bit more role-playing oriented – you had a sort of wizard creator and you chose spell levels and basic characteristics. The idea was as you played through the mission scenarios you gained experience points and improved your character. The problem with Lords Of Chaos was that it was a much slower, more time-consuming game compared to Chaos, so the immediate fun factor was a little bit lost. It was better as a single-player game. We actually created maps that could be multiplayer and specific missions that were single-player only, which had much more puzzle-like elements to them.
It had some neat ideas: you could buff up your creatures with potions to increase their attack, defence and speed, and there were other useful ones like invisibility potions, for example. You could have creatures riding other creatures, such as horses and gryphons, and had flying creatures and ground-based ones. Each spell had eight levels so a level one spell would summon one creature, but if you had a level eight gold dragon spell you could summon up eight gold dragons and your opponent would probably be quaking in their boots! Although having said that, the mana cost would probably have been prohibitively expensive…
As a multiplayer game it probably didn’t work so well. Because of the hidden movement system, you weren’t supposed to see what the other players were doing. I remember playing four-player games of Lords Of Chaos… it took hours. You had to be very patient.
Notable Julian Gollop Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Julian Gollop in issue 81. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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