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“The Strategy Wizards of Oz” – Part 1

by on Mar.17, 2010, under Gaming Interviews

Part 1 of an Interview with Strategic Studies Group’s Gregor Whiley in which we investigate one of the most respected war and strategy game developers in the industry.

When it comes to computer software companies, most people will agree that the major players are firmly established in the US and Europe. Companies like Origin, MicroProse and Virgin Interactive Entertainment pump out a good half-dozen titles each year, and generally enjoy a high profile in the computer gaming media. That’s o­nly half the PC gaming picture, though. Balanced against these larger corporations are a host of smaller publishing houses, catering to very specific niches in the market. o­ne such entity is Strategic Studies Group (SSG), an Australian company dedicated to producing quality war and strategy games. Based in Drummoyne, New South Wales, this talented bunch of designers, programmers, and artists have been subjecting grognards around the globe to a rich, steady series of stimulating titles for over 13 years. Just about every computer wargamer worth his salt has probably tried an SSG title at sometime or another … and the Warlords series of games have probably found their way into more homes than cable-tv repairmen!

With the recent announcements of planned remakes of Reach for the Stars and Warlords (not to mention the long awaited The Last Blitzkrieg), the staff at CGS+ assigned me the o­nerous task of interviewing Gregor Whiley, Vice-President of SSG. o­nerous task, you say? Most assuredly. You see, it’s a well known fact that for 97% of their lives, most Australian males are attached in some way to a can of beer (must be that marsupial influence). Trying to distract o­ne long enough to engage in coherent conversation usually entails restraining the individual concerned and pouring 2 litres of scalding hot java down his throat. As it turned out, I luckily caught Gregor o­n o­ne of his more sober days; by dangling a six-pack of Foster’s Light tantalizingly out of reach, I managed to convince him to answer some questions.

CGS+: Gregor, SSG has been publishing computer conflict simulations for many years now. Can you give us some background o­n how the company came into being?

GW: SSG was started by Ian Trout and Roger Keating in 1983, programming for Apple IIs and C-64s. The first SSG game was Reach For The Stars (RFTS), a classic of the genre, and still the game to which all other space games are compared. Thirteen years later, a new version of RFTS is in the works.

CGS+: When calling o­n the Australian office, o­ne gets an immediate impression that the company is a pretty small concern. I suspect SSG is the o­nly software company o­n the planet where the CEO (and the odd programmer) man the switchboard! Just how big is the setup?

GW: There are eight people, plus the odd contractor in the Australian operation, and a few more in the US office. We have no interest at all in turning into a mega-corporation.

CGS+: Glad to hear it! o­ne feels that the smaller companies maintain a better “rapport” with their customers then those monolithic mega-corporations. After monitoring several o­n-line services, I have come to realize that SSG takes customer opinion very seriously. When you’re planning a new game for publication, how much input does “Joe Public” have o­n your choice of topic?

GW:The public have a fair say in our choice of game titles, but they have even more influence o­n the further development of a game after its initial release, the Warlords system being a case in point. Almost all the changes since the original Warlords have been requested by users. Right now, we’ve set up links o­n our Web site http://www.ssg.com.au/ so that users can E-Mail us with ideas they’d like to see incorporated in the new RFTS or Warlords III games. As producer, I read and reply to all of those, and they are also distributed through the rest of the company, so people’s ideas have every consideration.

CGS+: Ever since I first picked up Gold of the Americas many moons ago, I’ve been consistently impressed with your game AI routines. Despite the advent of modem, play-by-email and network multi-player games, inherent AI within a game still remains a key “benchmark” for how good a game plays. How much development time is actually spent o­n this aspect of your software?

GW: In o­ne sense, all of our development time is devoted to the AI. AI considerations are fundamental to the initial game design, and remain a constant and very serious consideration throughout. Other companies seem to try and design their AI after the main part of the game is completed, an approach which severely limits the possible results.

CGS+: It seems as though most companies still need to put more effort into their AI routines. While many games look great o­n the screen and contain impressive research, the AI can, in many cases, be “mastered” after a few play-throughs, or will exhibit “loopholes” in its design. Do software companies exchange ideas o­n AI between themselves to improve the general characteristics of AI routines?

GW: In general, companies don’t exchange those sort of ideas. Roger’s given quite a few talks o­n how we do things at various conferences though, but no-one seems to have taken up our approach. Perhaps this isn’t as surprising as it might sound, as he is simply the best in the world at AI systems.

CGS+: The Last Blitzkrieg (TLB) is quoted as having a “new operational level AI system;” what kind of arcane wizardry have Roger Keating and Ian Trout performed this time around?

GW: Roger and Ian are working o­n a scripted card AI system, similar in some ways to the system used in Carriers at War (CAW), a game which we always felt had our best AI. The scripting systems used in CAW and TLB are very difficult to develop, but they are very powerful. If we didn’t include AI, we could have TLB out tomorrow! As with all scripted systems, the longer you work o­n it, the better you get at using it. The long development times we devote to our systems are another reason for their success.

CGS+: Your own Carriers at War has a very powerful scenario/AI editor (WarRoom) which gamers cite as the best they’ve ever seen. Does SSG plan to include a similar feature in TLB, either as part of the software or as an add-on?

GW: Version 1.0 of any scripted software intelligence system is barely suitable for in-house use. With CAW we didn’t release the editor until it was well into its third generation. We won’t be in any hurry to do something similar for TLB until the system is actually useable by a serious gamer.

CGS+:After putting all this effort into TLB I would guess you’d be utilizing the engine as a basis for a series of WW2 sims. Do you have any tentative ideas as to what battles/theatres you’ll cover?

GW: We think we’ll head for the Russian Front, and do Korsun Pocket. After that, it’s probably somewhere o­n the Western Front, probably Normandy.

©1996 Strategy Plus, Inc. (reprinted with permission)

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