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“The Strategy Wizards of Oz” – Part 2

by on Mar.17, 2010, under Gaming Interviews

Part 2 of an Interview with Strategic Studies Group’s Gregor Whiley.

CGS+: SSG has specialized in conflict simulations so far. Are there any plans to diversify your market into RPG/Adventure titles, etc,. the way, say, SSI did in the mid-to-late 80’s?

GW: No. Although if someone came to us with a finished version of an RPG similar in accomplishment to the Ultima series, say, we’d certainly publish it. However, we like what we’re doing, and we’re good at it, so why change? We can’t make enough strategy games to satisfy our current market, and we don’t see any need to diversify. o­ne advantage of being small is that game development costs are controlled, so we’re doing quite nicely in the strategy market.

CGS+: Sometime ago I remember another Australian player in the game industry; Panther Games. They used to make excellent boardgames (Trial of Strength springs to mind) and also tried their hand at a PC/Mac/Amiga game (Fire Brigade, which covered the ’43 Battle for Kiev). Their planned Flashpoint series of games advertised in the early 90’s never materialized. To the best of your knowledge, are they still around?

GW: Panther Games are trying to rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes, and SSG is doing everything we can to help.

CGS+: Just about every board-game/computer wargame ever made uses hex maps to regulate positioning and movement of units. 360’s Patriot broke new ground by dispensing with hexes, as well as introducing real-time combat; admittedly though, Patriot didn’t truly succeed as a game. What’s your view o­n hexes in wargames?

GW: I doubt that anyone in the industry will be using Patriot as a template for success. Certainly the hex grid is an abstraction. But it’s representing a very variable concept, the “position” of a unit or units in combat over some period of time. Given the inexact nature of the phenomenon that is being modeled, the abstraction is not a serious problem.

On the other hand, it does provide significant advantages, for both the user and the AI, which is why it’s unlikely to go away. I don’t think anybody – even 360 – feels that Patriot actually advanced the art of wargaming.

The “real-time” games enjoying success at the moment are really just limiting decision making time. You’ll be able to limit turn time in TLB. Playing a network game against a human opponent with five-minute turns will certainly concentrate the mind wonderfully.

CGS+: What kind of design philosophy do you follow at SSG? For example, Atomic Games aim their product at the hard-core grognard community. How do you balance detail and playability etc.?

GW: We have two basic strands. o­ne is the fantasy/strategy stuff like RFTS, where we concentrate o­n playability. The other is the historical simulation, where results must obviously match reality. In both games though, we take great trouble to reward tactically and strategically correct play, and punish bad play. We also ensure that the system can’t be “cracked” by producing o­ne unbeatable troop type, or following an unbeatable strategy.

CGS+: You’ve now announced a planned remake of Reach for the Stars, as well as the next iteration of Warlords. Can you describe some of the initial design goals you’ve formulated for these two titles?

GW: RFTS will retain the basic explore/build/conquer approach of the original game, but everything else will be bigger and better. You will build your own ships, using the fruits of your R&D program, and employ them in a new tactical space combat system. This will be carefully designed so that different ship building approaches will generate different tactical imperatives. As with naval design and combat, you will be exploring combinations of speed, armor and armament, but with electronic warfare thrown in. Space combat will be a lot of fun. There will also be different races, diplomacy, a much improved user interface, better AI, superb graphics and network and modem play.

Warlords III will incorporate a lot of the features users have been requesting. A magic system, expanded role for Heroes, troop types unique to a side, a much more realistic diplomacy system, better AI and a full campaign game with multiple linked scenarios. Naturally, we’ll also have much better graphics and full networking options. In a network game, you’ll be able to have simultaneous human play, which will make for a very intense real-time game, but we’ll also retain the sequential turn option, for those who like to take their time.

CGS+: The market is getting soaked with real-time strategy clones (can you say Warcraft and Command & Conquer?); what features do you envisage adding to Warlords III to avoid the clone tag and give it a more unique look?

GW: Warlords … has always had a lot more depth than the Warcrafts of this world. There is more to consider, more strategic possibilities, and less predictability about the gameplay. Warlords has also had a huge edge in solitaire play. These differences will o­nly be enhanced by the new features; Warlords III will remain a true strategy game with unmatched replayability.

CGS+: Finally, why was the decision made to market these titles through other game companies (Microsoft and Brøderbund)?

GW: The decision to switch was made basically due to distribution issues. As a small, independent company we were finding it harder and harder to get shelf space for our games. Even when we did get distribution, it was almost impossible to get paid, as companies would simply drag out payment for games almost indefinitely (and to the executives of those companies, might I offer the profound hope that your medical insurance expires halfway through your heart-lung replacement surgery).

The o­nly way to ensure that games like Warlords III and RFTS get the distribution and hence the sales they deserve was to go with big companies with lots of market muscle. Microsoft and Brøderbund are two of the biggest, and are also companies that we feel comfortable dealing with. They also provide financial support for development, which essentially removes worries about cash flow.

We’re still making the games that we want to make, and now they’ll get the world-wide distribution they deserve to get.

CGS+: Gregor, thanks very much for your time.

GW: A pleasure. Can I have the beer now?

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