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A lot of games never see the light of day, even when they're close to being finished. Some games nearly get cancelled but then still manage to pull through. In the case of one of the greatest turn-based strategy games ever made, it actually did get cancelled... but then it managed to get released and go on to become a runaway success.
There's a really cool retrospective on the development of X-Com in a piece recently published on Eurogamer's YouTube channel. They explain how Nick and Julian Gollop had a tough time pitching X-Com to publishers, but they managed to get Micropose UK to pick it up. Micropose was then sold to Spectrum Holobyte, and they had to cut some costs and corners at Micropose, and X-Com was one of them.
However, three of the heads at Spectrum Holobyte decided that they saw some serious potential in X-Com, and they decided to continue to allow development of the game in secret, without letting the shareholders in on the details.
Nick and Julian Gollop continued working on X-Com with another artist, putting in the time and effort to create the classic that helped revolutionize the modern tactical turn-based strategy genre.
The real shocker here is that the Gollops didn't know that they were working on a project that was technically cancelled. They were simply given the instructions to keep working on it, and so they did.
As explained in the short eight minute mini-doc below, things took a decidedly different turn for development after Spectrum Holobyte ran into a serious financial roadblock.
It turns out that one of the games that they had planned to ship was scrapped and they needed something quickly to fill the void. The other higher-ups at Spectrum Holobyte who had secretly had the team at Micropose working on X-Com found this as a perfect opportunity to inform the investors that they had another game in the wings and that they could ship it fairly soon.
Micropose UK and the rest of Spectrum Holobyte were on board with the idea of having X-Com fill the gap. The team had to go into crunch time in order to get the strategy title up and out before the end of the next quarter, so the parent company could revel in some sweet, sweet profit. They actually did manage to complete the game, and they sold more than 500,000 copies pretty early on, according to one of the royalty reports that the Gollops received.
Of course, X-Com definitely managed to move far more than just 500,000 copies. The game was spread far and wide throughout the PC gaming scene, and ended up becoming one of the defining properties to help push the turn-based strategy genre forward.
These days the brand is known as XCOM and Firaxis, under the 2K Games label, is heading up development and content for the popular strategy series.