X-Com Alliance still remains for many one of the great gaming what-if’s. I’m sure most players who have experienced one of the legendary X-Com games has imagined leaping into first-person with their laser rifle and battling sectoids at some point. Hauntingly, Alliance managed to survive cancellation once, only to be again struck down by unforeseen events and company decision. Seemingly, it just wasn’t destined to be.
But that won’t stop us trying to get as close as we can to it! So, I proudly bring you an interview with Bob Kathman, Artist, all-around thoroughly good guy and the "Mr Texture" of the X-Com titles Alliance and Enforcer.
(Please note all artwork is for Alliance and not Enforcer unless stated.)
» Cyke: How did you get into the gaming industry and would you give any advice to others who may be reading this, hoping to do the same?
A friend of a guy who worked at Microprose in Hunt Valley, MD, got him to drop off my resume in 1992. They’d begun making a new line of “Graphic Adventure” games (they were known for flight sims) and needed another painter. I was trained as an oil painter but coincidentally, I’d just done a series of paintings in acrylic at my apt/studio (a cruddy hole downtown which used to be a dental office). Keep in mind this was ’92, so they were painting on illustration board and scanning them in as backgrounds, then re-working them in Design Paint and Design Animator on DOS PCs. I was a Mac guy up until then so that was a hurdle, but one I got the hang of.
Some of the Microprose art team from Dragonsphere and CivII, along with other talented artists, were working on X-COM Alliance and X-COM Enforcer.
I did a painting test of 3 landscapes and timed them and then went back for an evaluation. I presented them to the 2 art directors; one flipped over them, the other picked one painting apart. I offered to re-do that painting and convinced the guy I could take direction and execute changes, plus I could crank’m out quick. So they hired me and I worked on Return of the Phantom, one of the very first games released on CD. Right after, we did Dragonsphere and I painted many of the backgrounds and also played the part of the evil Baron McMorn. If you finished the game, you got to kill me and I did a Shatner-esque death scene ending in a collapsing pile of bones. (BTW, there was a Euro release of Dragonsphere with the CD in a bound book that I thought really looked elegant.) I stayed on for the next 7 years. I had a blast and made a lot of friends.
My advice to those who want to get in the game art door follows what I’ve heard several game and non-game art directors recommend…be a well-rounded artist, bring in experience from outside of your field. Draw from life in addition to imagination, learn the basics of color and perspective, practice like a maniac, keep a sketchbook, stay flexible and experiment with media and techniques.
Find out what jobs fit your abilities and goals and do your homework on how much the computer art going rate is for 9-5 salary jobs or by-the-job freelance. Research the programs used in making games and get familiar with them, taking classes if need be. Sometimes a short intro course can be a launch pad for learning the rest of that program, especially mega animation programs. Ask around about what you don’t know…be a detective, Holmes!
The Snakeman symbol was supposed to be something that would distinguish their area or ship...basically wall art for Snakemen to look at.
Be aware, you don’t have to say what you were paid at your last job…if you do, they might low-ball your pay compared to others there who do the exact same tasks you’re being hired for. They should make you an offer you can accept or decline. Your willingness to re-locate to where a job is will help your salary go up. After you get hired and while you’re employed, keep your portfolio up-to-date and your ears open for a Plan B. Teams, projects and entire companies can get cut at the drop of a corporate logo hat.
Your employability goes up in relation to what you know, so you should know some modeling, animation and texturing, but you don’t have to know everything. You don’t even have to be a hardcore gamer but you need to understand the type of games you’ll be working on and how different platforms require different approaches.
Being familiar with programs that others on your team use can be helpful, but it’s more essential to know how to do your job right. Get your filing systems down, save off new versions, back-up your work with copies and you will escape the shame of losing the art you and your team-mates have slaved over.
Finally, the belief you can’t make a living by doing art (usually by non-artists) is bull-loney, forget it and follow your dream, if your dream is to be a professional artist. Look at all of the art in the world around you…somebody is getting paid to do it, so why not you.
Seated statue texture
This is a model texture for a seated statue of one of the new aliens created for Alliance. In the game there were 2 giant statues on either side of a doorway under one of their cities. Note the Egyptian influences or rather, how they influenced Egyptian styles (according to the game premise). If I'm not mistaken, going through the door led to a higher level.
» Cyke: Tell us how you came to be involved with X-Com? Where and when did you first start work on X-Com material? Were you a fan of the earlier games?
At the time I saw the intro poster for X-COM: UFO Defense, with the big alien face on it, I was working on Sid Meier’s Colonization in Hunt Valley (or what I like to affectionately call, Silic-hunt Valley) doing these faux woodcut screens. I was still painting and scanning by hand but I’d begun to use bump map techniques. I did some minor animations and the manual illustrations for Colonization too.
This was around 1994 and the first season of the X-Files was still going so the post-Communion covers, "alien" rage had yet to saturate the mainstream culture. By that time, alien abduction stories and UFO investigations had become a minor obsession of mine and I’d buy any book about them, even full priced hard covers. So to see a game with a "gray" on the poster was like, "Ho-lee shee-it!" and our company was publishing it!
Then my art teammates from the GA games, Kevin Boehm and Charlie Shenton, were playing UFO Defense and got me hooked. Easy to do in Cube land. That game could turn on a dime! Your hand-picked squad would be all healthy and then they’d just start getting hammered in one turn and you were helpless to do anything until the chaos ended and then you’re sitting there in shock, gawking at all of the carnage and…"OK, you’re turn!" That was a great game. "Dammit, I shoulda splurged for just one more flare grenade!" I experienced the sequels vicariously.
X-COM Action Figure
This painting was done as a concept for an action figure box. There was actually some talk about making X-COM figures of the troopers and monsters if the game did well. I was basing the boxtop on the old acrylic/guache painted G.I.Joe boxes (you can see it in his eyes). The uniforms had already been created and the rifle design was copied from the one in the game.
Years later we’d see some of the early levels the UK team had done for X-COM Alliance and were thrilled by it (and jealous too). After Hasbro had acquired Microprose (after Spectrum, and before Infogrames and lastly, Atari), the Klingons Honor Guard team I had been a part of, was working on a G.I.Joe game. I was psyched since I grew up collecting the one-foot tall Joes, but the game got shelved. We were presenting ideas for games ourselves (mine was a shooter called Quarry) when an offer came up. The new UK X-COM game, Alliance, was being cut. It was presented to us as an option, if we wanted to take it on. Being fans, and having seen the potential by way of the talented work already completed, we wanted to save it and championed the cause.
» Cyke: What range of tasks did you do? Was it concept stuff only for example or right through to implementation and ongoing tweaking?
» Bob: For Alliance and Enforcer, I was “Mr. Texture”. The level guys would come to me with their lists of things that needed textures (that they hadn’t already done themselves) and I’d crank’m out, first come, first served. I was working in Photoshop and Max. I did some minor model building, hardly worth mentioning. I also did character concepts and some short animations of control panels too.
Two concepts for the Snakemen. The first, a close copy of the X-COM UFO Defense games. The second, a more naturalistic type.
» Cyke: How much room did you have in your visions? Was it a case of being let loose to see what you could come up with or was it more "here's what we need, with these details"?
» Bob: Since we were trying to be true to the original UFO Defense look, which, as a fan, I was totally behind, we were initially and intentionally trying to make everything look like the first games. Then the skew was to "update" everything, which can irritate some purists. The squads would have a more generic "Space Marine" look. As Alliance was supposed to take place in space and on an alien world, it was a logical switch. To the team leaders’ credit, we had meetings where everybody could fly their opinions by everyone else, so we brainstormed and choices were made, as they have to be made to make and publish a game on time.
As far as each individual texture, I’d get the assignment and do it, using my own sensibility. Then I’d show it to the level builder or the art director. When there was a change needed, I’d change it until it was approved. I try not to get too precious or clingy to a file since I’m there to serve the game. On the other hand, part of why they hired me was to think on my feet and whip up something original out of nothing, so I tried to push the envelope when I could.
» Cyke: How directly influential was the look and style of the earlier games materials - the costumes, aliens, craft etc? And was this earlier stuff a help or a hindrance?
For me, I aimed close to the original look, so much so that my original character concepts had a guy with the big 80’s hairdo from UFO Defense…I got some scoffing for that but that’s what the concept stage is for, finding out what stays and what goes and I was working from “it’s going to look like the first X-Com”. I really liked the Sectoid ships covered in grid tiles and I was into the idea of having the player go into one of those, 1st person, as if you were able to walk into UFO Defense.
Alliance introduced a new alien race to be the major antagonist so those designs were invented and we didn’t have to rely on any past, established character for them. That’s liberating, of course. However, this race was a "Chariots of the Gods" alien, an ancient visitor to Earth so their culture was actually based on ancient Egyptian styles. That took reference images but we molded the motifs into something new and hi-tech. That was fun to do.
An Egyptian inspired texture
To the right is one of the more overt Egyptian referenced textures. This was a wall with a trigger in the scarab beetle...if clicked, the scarab would glow a lapis blue and a secret door would open up in another location. I did the animation for it. The carvings were bump mapped.
» Cyke: And what about Enforcer - again where were your skills put to use?
» Bob: I did textures for Enforcer too and some concepts. The Enforcer was this robot with jet boosters and guns built by a scientist to go after the invading aliens. Since it was an all-new creation, they had some concepts done for it. I did some before-the-final design concepts and then some after the design was finalized, just to put it in a landscape.
I also did a few level designs and I wanted to introduce and inject some of the elements from the abduction and UFO books. There was one level that got in and even though it wasn’t exactly like I’d planned or like I’d ever imagine it would actually look like in reality, we made a facsimile of Stonehenge with crop circles around. It was wild seeing Snakemen and Sectoids running around the crop circles with a landed ship…Charlie put some unfortunate cattle in the ship too.
Incidentally, I really get excited by crop circles. I’d like to take a summer trip to England sometime but now we’re getting more pictograms in the States. Last year there was one reported in my hometown and one here in California. We’ll see what happens this coming year…
Alien locks and consoles
» Cyke: Enforcer was made under some tight timescales. Did this affect your work in any way?
It was a strange turn of events. We went from having a whole team working on it for a year, with scads of finished artwork from 2 separate studios to suddenly an incomplete team and a "um, how can we put out a game?" mentality. There came a time when Alliance could not be finished due to unforeseen, surprise circumstances. It sucked since they had already done a huge E3 presentation, hiring a pro FX guy to make life-sized custom Sectoid and trooper suits.
UFO Defense style landing pad
We still had a few months before the release date and an idea came up that since the company and the public were expecting an X-COM title, we could create a new premise and just blast through the production. The art required changed from a far away, alien planet to right here on everyday Earth where civilians would be running around for their lives. So to help speed up the process, I did a bunch of photo shoots in the city and country to get details. I was using my own 35mm camera at first and then borrowed a digital camera, just becoming a rage at the time.
It’s tricky using photos. There’s a tendency for people to think “that’s not a real texture, it’s a cheat”. Well, photos do not just pop into a 64x64 tiling texture with the correct palette on their own; you need to work it like any other texture. I’m not above using a digital swipe photo either, to crunch time, but the trick is to make it blend in to the rest of the world so it’s not even noticed, to a point where it doesn’t scream out “Hey, look at me…I’m really a photo!” just by its appearance. Make it cohesive and seamless. Some work better than others.
Cohesiveness applies to the team as well…how do you make the end game look like it’s one world when the creators can have vastly different approaches. It’s like any other cooperative art project, you all shoot for a vision, try to steer everybody in a certain direction and then by the time it materializes it’s a little different than what anyone expected…with happy accidents, but that’s OK. We had some good people leading the Alliance and Enforcer teams, so even though there were some times of stress in the projects, we were finally able to contribute to the X-COM catalog.
» Cyke: Among the files you’ve made available, you’ve included two concept sketches for levels. Can you talk us through these?
"Night Woods" and the crop circle level sketches (I did 2 or 3 other crop circle level designs)were originally imagined as add-on, extra levels to Alliance... basically for squad deathmatch, capture-the-flag, etc. These were stand-alone levels which we figured we could add to the package even though they weren't plot guided, they might fill the need for more X-COM Defense-like skews the public seemed to want at the time. Plus, we assumed after release, they might turn up on the net anyway so why not capture some of that thunder? Little did we imagine the thunderclap would be the sound of Alliance being
(We had done some for Klingons Honor Guard too, I don't know what happened to them. My level was a huge Klingon symbol in space you could run around on as a deathmatch level. It actually got built with textures I did for it, but it was never released.)
Land Bridge: This was my first 3D Studio MAX in-game model, set on the Sectoid home world. You can see one of the X-COM troopers below it and a Sectoid building above.
When we worked on Enforcer, some of these ideas were incorporated into the story level designs themselves since it was a more jump-around-the-world concept. That's where we had a crop circle level as well as other levels designed by the level builders. One level guy, Chad, came from LA and he built the Getty Museum of Fine Art here in LA for Enforcer as an alien infested location...I went there for the first time last year and it was an odd feeling to know exactly where the steps and turns were as I walked through, since I'd played the level many times before. That was in Enforcer as well as an arctic level he did inspired by the Hasbro X-COM Email game, which we all liked and were playing at the time...a nice cross-platform tie-in. Talking about them makes me want to play them again!
If you are interested in those level sketches, I've got a handful more if you’d like to see them in the future. One is of the X-COM base...the buildings you add on, lab, HQ, etc. I also came up with a hovertank level. That was expounded on by some other guys. There was a level in Alliance of a huge mechanized desert trawler with tank treads from the original UK build. You could run to the back and see the sand trail it was leaving in the sand! Anyway, since we had that level in Alliance, I thought we could use the desert landscape and just switch out the trawler with some hovertanks. The final was just one huge multi storied hovertank with smaller hover craft used to attack it and each craft was like a bounce platform you jump from.
On behalf of myself and the wider x-community I’d like to thank Bob for his time, effort and the sharing of his artwork ! For further info on Bob I would recommend checking out his website at BobKathman.com
for more of his gaming and original artwork.
For more on X-Com Alliance head over to StrategyCore.co.uk
- Bob Kathman’s art can be seen in EverQuest Online Adventures & EQOA Frontiers, made for the PS2 by Sony Online Entertainment.