UFO Postmortem Observations

I wrote yesterday about some of my observations on the Myst Classic Game Postmortem. I wanted to follow-up today with the UFO Classic Game Postmortem.

Full disclosure: I never actually played that much of UFO. I played a couple of missions. But most of my UFO experience comes from the sequel X-Com: Terror from the Deep which I played for well over 100 hours over the course of my life. With the two games being almost identical, I tend to project what I know about TFTD to fill my knowledge gaps of UFO. Both had been a very influential game for me and so I the video was fascinating to me.

  • Accidental UFO Theme – One of the major surprises of the presentation was the reveal that it wasn’t the developer Julian Gollop, who came up with the UFO setting. The publisher Microprose suggested it. Julian apparently only wanted to make a bigger version of his previous game Laser Squad, which seems to have been only the tactical combat part of what later became UFO. Microprose pushed him to add a global meta management layer and suggested the UFO theme to make it more recognizable. They made an attempt at making the game more similar to the Civilization series. This is also where the term “Ufopedia” came from.

    Of course, this was just a starting point. Julian Gollop then went on and actually made those suggestions a reality. The theme was inspired in particular by the British TV Series UFO which I had no clue about. He also drew upon UFO conspiracy folklore by UFO hoaxter Timothy Good. The latter was a particularly serendipitous move as the same UFO folklore became the basis for the TV show X-Files, which in turn became a major cultural touchstone of 90ies pop culture. And that’s something I always suspected: one of the reasons for the incredible success of UFO was X-Files. The game came out at EXACTLY the right time to ride the wave of UFO enthusiasm spawned by X-Files. With grey aliens and autopsies it delivered exactly the kind of supernatural fix the X-Philes were craving for.

  • Dissonant Aesthetics – Which brings be to the point of aesthetics. One thing I personally never liked was the dissonance in aesthetics in the original UFO. The game features a loud, fast, action-packed, gun-toting comicbook intro. The actual game is about slowly creeping with your soldiers through silent, murky urban environments and taking out hidden aliens one by one with precision shots.

    The presentation revealed that this was apparently the result of the lack of a coherent aesthetic vision. The art was done by two artist from Microprose. One of them was simply a fan of Marvel comic books and designed the characters as well as the intro. Julian Gollop himself didn’t seem to have a firm opinion on this so he let them do what they suggested. One thing he often underlines in the presentation is that nobody really understood how the game is going to play. So the basically ended up with an “everything but the kitchen sink”-approach: UFO folklore, UFO TV series, Laser Squad and Marvel Comics.

    I suppose the reason why it did work is because X-Files prepared the audience to gloss over the awkwardness of it all. Perhaps the different contradicting directions created a Rorschach test where everybody saw something different: a comic book or an X-Files spin-off. Be it as it may, the lack of aesthetic direction seems to have became a huge stumbling block in creating follow-ups.

  • Failed Sequels – I was fascinated to hear the story of the sequels to UFO. In particular, I was stunned to hear that Terror From the Deep was an in-house production by Microprose created entirely without Julian Gollop. I had no idea. It explains why Julian never built upon what TFTD done right. What I personally love about TFTD is that it’s the only sequel that managed to create a really coherent, effective aesthetic – an aesthetic Julian himself apparently never managed to conjure. TFTD drew on the Cthulhu mythology of H.P. Lovecraft and added some iconic B-Movie favourites like the Gill Man or floating brains. It dropped the comicbook cutscenes for more neutral CG ones. The aliens, the color palette, the sound, the overall atmosphere all suited the setting perfectly.

    Meanwhile, Julian worked on UFO: Apocalypse which became officially the game where UFO dropped the ball. It’s really heart-breaking Julian talk about it. During the Q&A he admits that it was one of the biggest mistakes of his career. It sounds like there is an amazing history behind it. Apparently, a lot of things went wrong with that game

    From what I can tell it seems like instead of consolidating what they had and creating a coherent aesthetic identity to center the UFO franchise around, the visuals were completely outsourced to Microprose again. Meanwhile the team around Julian just tried to just make a bigger, even more complex game. More destructible terrain. More sophisticated political simulations. With no guidance and no firm grasp of what the game was supposed to be, the art team made some really poor aesthetic choices. Both teams failed. The visuals didn’t work. The more complex game mechanics didn’t either.

  • Late-game Pacing – And this is really an interesting way of looking at how many early strategy games were made. The game design of them was often just a matter of creating a complex enough system and letting players play around in it – something that struck me as I was re-playing Populous as well. This was both – a strength and and weakness. The strength was that those games were able to create incredibly interactive, dynamic and engrossing experiences. Julian himself appreciates in hindsight how they never had to design levels and missions for UFO. They just made a bunch of prefabricated elements, some AI and the game would automatically assemble and re-combine everything to keep creating new, fresh scenarios. The weakness was that this approach makes it difficult to control the experience. Julian admits that the late-game of UFO often felt mis-balanced. Advanced weapons like the Blaster Launchers and Psionics delivered some really erratic results. The game tended to get quite lengthy too.

    More importantly, this game design approach also made follow-ups very difficult because it doesn’t necessarily scale. Aftermath demonstrated that adding more complex systems didn’t lead to the superior game they were hoping for.

Overall, I think it is telling that Julian always outsourced art and narrative to separate teams while he focused on the mechanics. I think this demonstrates quite well how you can’t treat those two aspects of a game separably. Both need to serve an overriding design vision – an fundamental understanding of what the game is about. I suspect nobody ever had that vision with UFO. It was a stroke of chance. But they never saw the necessity of taking charge of what they discovered there. They just continued developing games like he used to – make a convoluted system and let the art team slap some art on it. Or at least so it seems.

I would be really interested in a postmortem of TFTD now. That team had it’s own share of difficulties as it seems. But I still think they ended up with a more consistent overall game design. More insight into Apocalypse would be interesting too. I would love to hear the art team’s perspective on this.

As always, I strongly suggest you to check out the video. Feel free to leave you own thoughts on this below.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

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