How a Publishing Nightmare Set the Stage for the Original 'X-COM'

The Gollop brothers achieved a breakthrough with 'Lords of Chaos', but a publishing deal gone bad would force them to invent a masterpiece.
March 9, 2021, 2:00pm
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A detail from the cover art of 'Lords of Chaos'

Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defense tells the story of the early years of legendary strategy game designer Julian Gollop and the making of the original X-COM, and is funding now on Kickstarter. In this excerpt from the book, Julian and his brother Nick collaborate on the gameplay for Lords of Chaos, a fantasy-themed sequel to one of Julian's earlier hits, and an influence on X-COM, the game he would turn to next.

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Julian set aside lasers, grenades, and droids. It was time, he decided, to return to one of his earliest creations, the wizarding wars of Chaos. Sales of the ZX Spectrum were still going strong in Europe. That platform would make an ideal launching pad for Lords of Chaos, a sequel he wanted to encompass everything he'd learned about game design over the past several years.

Although Games Workshop owned the publishing rights to Chaos: The Battle of Wizards, the rights had reverted to Julian by the time he was ready to expand on what he viewed as one of his most threadbare games. Chaos was fun, but lacked depth in mechanics and visuals. Julian wanted to design more than another tactics-heavy wargame. A fan of roleplaying games, he stirred RPG elements into Lords of Chaos such as earning experience points through combat and equipping wizards with more and more powerful spells.

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"As you earn experience points, you can improve your wizard to go on to the next mission," says Julian. "We added an option whereby you could just create a character for one particular scenario. I also had this idea, because I still liked the idea of multiplayer, that some scenarios would be multiplayer and others would be single-player. The single-player-only ones would be more quest-type [scenarios] where there were certain objectives you had to complete."

Lords of Chaos included a character editor, accessible through a separate program that could be finicky on the cassette tape edition of the game; the version available on floppy disks worked much better, enabling players to invest more in the creation and evolution of their wizard. "In particular, the idea with multiple scenarios was that you had a wizard character you could carry over from one mission to the other. There's a lot more of a role-playing element in it, I guess. I don't think the idea of a tactical RPG existed at the time."

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Not all the systems and concepts of Chaos made the jump to its sequel. Instead of pushing players to battle one another and their creature minions, players in single-player or multiplayer sessions gathered treasure. "So, in theory, you might never encounter another wizard," Julian says. After gathering treasure, they must step through a portal that transports them to the next scenario, or mission. "That's more important than battling because if you don't get through, you've lost. There's more of an emphasis on exploration, discovery, and finding treasures, rather than just killing your opponent."

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AI-controlled wizards explored the world as well. Players could battle them and gain more experience, or stick to treasure hunting. Unlike before, where a single hit toppled every creature and wizard, characters in Lords of Chaos had hit points, so battles became more tactical engagements. Other variables determined how players chased victory. The exit portal remained open for a set number of turns, prodding wizards who crept around the map to move faster. Terrain was more sophisticated as well, such as forests impenetrable to the eye but able to be flown over, and buildings with roofs that prevent flying creatures from dropping into them.

"You've got two things," Julian says of the gameplay. "You've got a sense of time running out, because the portal only remains open for so many turns; and you've got a sense of risk because you might bump into the enemy wizard and he might try to stop you from getting through the portal. He doesn't have to kill you to win; he just has to stop you from getting through."

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A few new spells stopped rather than killed players, leaving incapacitated wizards to either break free or sit and sweat while the portal's remaining turns trickled away. One returning strategy from Chaos was deploying monsters for actions other than combat. As a way around their wizards' finite action points, players moved their avatars into safe locations and continued exploring by controlling their monsters. Spells boasted levels, so players could specialize in one spell, or one type of spell, rather than learn lots of spells but master none.

"You could create a really [combat-oriented] wizard by leveling up your enchant spells to create really powerful magic weapons," Julian explains. "And if you rode into battle on something really tough, like an elephant, for example, you had quite a formidable force, there."

Not all creatures consumed the same amount of action points. Players had to think several steps ahead and mete out actions points as needed. Julian wasn't sure that flavor of complexity made for a better game. "It was more sophisticated, but whether that sophistication made the game more interesting to play is still debatable. Lords of Chaos gave you a lot to manage. Once you've got lots of creatures moving around, trying to collect stuff—it can be a bit of a headache trying to remember what you're doing with all of them."

Playing Lords of Chaos with friends, the main draw of the first Chaos, heightened the game's intricacy. "I think it was more successful as a single-player experience, because the multiplayer experience was a very slow game. On the Spectrum version, we played one multiplayer game with four players, and it took something like four or five hours," Julian recalls. "I was getting into this idea of making games more complex and sophisticated, which is not always the best thing to do, of course. So I think Lords of Chaos was a less successful game, more of a nerdy game, for sure. There was more depth to it in terms of its game systems, but it lacked immediate accessibility, even compared to Laser Squad."

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Nick and Julian converted Lords of Chaos to the 16-bit Atari ST, while Blade Software assigned an in-house developers to convert the code to Commodore Amiga. Rather than clone the 8-bit version for the more powerful Atari ST, Julian and Nick reworked and added to Julian's design. "We wanted to make it more graphically appealing," Nick remembers. "I had to do some optimization of code. That was mainly something that I used to do. If there were areas of the game that weren't running fast enough, I'd change algorithms to see if I could make things run quicker."

Lords of Chaos on Amiga boasted animated sprites and backgrounds, such as swamps that bubbled and spit, characters that walked in place while awaiting orders, and candle flames that guttered in unseen breezes. The 16-bit conversion also featured a new gameplay mechanic, the fog of war, that tied in with enhanced visuals. A military term describing the uncertainty of a situation, fog of war had been incorporated into board games to hide obscure pieces by turning them face down or away from opposing players. Julian and Nick implemented fog of war in Lords of Chaos by cloaking unexplored terrain in darkness.

"The map was revealed according to what your creatures could see, so the game used a lot of line-of-sight checks in the 16-bit versions," says Julian. In the 8-bit versions, the map was just there. We were really reaching the limits of what you could do on a Spectrum in terms of the sophistication of the game."

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"That became a major part of the tactical games that we did and added quite a lot to the gameplay," Nick adds. "It made our games more distinct from the board games Julian had been designing to games that could really only be done on the computer."

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Despite its complexity, Julian and Nick hoped Lords of Chaos would prove as commercially successful as Laser Squad. Then a distributor phoned Julian asking when he could expect the hundreds of copies he'd ordered from Blade Software. "That set alarm bells ringing," Julian says.

The brothers investigated and discovered that Blade Software had been mired in financial problems. That only increased their anxiety: Were distributors missing copies of Lords of Chaos because Blade didn't have the funds to manufacture more games and boxes? The game made its way to retail slowly. Months later, Julian and Nick waited on royalty checks that never arrived. They confronted Jeremy Cook and Tony Kavanaugh, who had the gall to assume they would publish the next project from Mythos Games. "You're not getting Laser Squad 2 unless you pay us our outstanding royalties on Lords of Chaos," Julian told them.

Rather than keep working and hope the checks would arrive, the Gollops dropped Blade. "We realized we needed to find a good publisher for our next project, which is what we did," says Julian.


David L. Craddock is the author of the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen trilogy detailing the history of Blizzard Entertainment, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and over a dozen more books about video game culture. Follow him online @davidlcraddock on Twitter. Monsters in the Dark: The Making of X-COM: UFO Defense is funding now on Kickstarter.