English-language interview with games industry veteran Joel Billings.
By Joachim Froholt.
Some years ago, I wrote a large feature on computer wargames. In the process of doing that, I was lucky enough to get in touch with Joel Billings, the founder of SSI and current head of 2by3 Games (which he runs together with Gary Grigsby and Keith Brors). He kindly answered a few questions for me, and provided a lot of information (some of which never made it into the article). I decided to publish the raw text of the interview here, to preserve it for researchers and others who might find it interesting.
Back in the early days with Computer Bismarck, what were your motivations for first doing a wargame on the computer and what sort of challenges did you face?
Having been a player of board wargames since I was seven years old, I first started thinking about the idea of computer wargaming in my one computer programming class in college in 1976. This was before personnel computers, but I got to use bigger computers in my Economics and Math studies. When I saw my first personal computer in 1979 just before graduating from college, I started thinking about making wargames for these computers. I had spent a lot of time in high school playing board games solitaire, and I hoped that computers would be able to provide an opponent to play against when one wasn’t available.
Also, I had experimented with ways of adding fog of war to boardgames (playing double blind Sniper, an SPI boardgame, with a referee was one such attempt that showed me just how much more fun wargames were when fog of war elements were added). This was an area that was clearly where the computer could excel, revealing only some of the information to players. These were the big two elements that made me think that computer wargames would be the future of wargaming.
We picked Computer Bismarck as our first game because it was a situation that required fog of war (and previous boardgames had limitations in simulating this fog of war). It was also a situation where the AI would be relatively easy to program. AI is always among the hardest parts of a game to program, and when we were just starting out we knew we shouldn’t try to do too much.
Early challenges were figuring out how we could do the graphics on the screen. I think we used an off the shelf program that allowed us to make our map on the Apple II, and on the TRS-80 it was easier since it was only black and white. We also found that we needed more disk space and a faster disk operating system so we found a local high school kid that could write a special disk operating system for us that was both faster and gave us more space on a floppy disk. Since we were writing in Basic, the speed of the games was a problem.
Our second game, Computer Ambush, inspired by Sniper was terribly slow until it was redone several years later in assembly language. Also, in the early days, we dealt with new computers becoming popular and splitting the market, so at one point we were writing games on something like 6 different computers. Setting up tools that allowed us to port games from one computer to another became very important.
Can you give us an idea of what it was like to run a specialized publisher like SSI in the eighties?
Well first of all it was very exciting and a lot of fun, with some very difficult moments thrown in. We were making wargames and getting paid for it. What’s better than that. As the business demands got larger, I would spend more and more of the day dealing with business issues and spend evenings testing and developing our latest games. Work hours were long, but much of it was playing games, which is something I’d be doing anyway. Of course there was a lot of pressure as we were a family and employee funded business with not a lot of capital, so we were always working hard to make enough money to keep going.
My interest was historical wargames, but I was also interested in sports and other strategy games. In the early days some of our bestselling games were sports games. Then, a few of our programmers that were fantasy role-playing gamers as well as wargamers started making FRPs and developing other FRPs from outside designers. They were very popular and quickly grew to be the majority of our sales. This led us into getting the Dungeons & Dragons license, which tilted us even more toward role-playing games. We always produced lots of wargames, but the bulk of the company’s profits came from role-playing games (with still a little in sports, even though by this time Electronic Arts was the dominant sports game publisher).
My wife, who I met in 1986, described SSI as being a treehouse for gamers. The majority of the employees of SSI were strategy gamers of some kind, and while we worked hard, we also found time to play all kinds of games in the office (boardgames, role-playing games, miniatures and eventually collectible card games). Also, the employees tended to be young, and by 1989 we were playing basketball and sand volleyball at lunch, and in 1994 some of us even started playing roller hockey in the parking lot. Work hard, sports at lunch, work hard, then gaming in the evening. A treehouse for gamers.
One interesting thing about how times have changes is that when we first started, we tested games by mailing floppy disks to testers. We also got our updates from our outside game designers by disks sent in the mail. In some ways I think back and find it hard to believe we could operate that way, but times and computer code was simpler than. If I recall correctly, after a few years the idea of using FedEx overnight delivery really sped up our updates and testing turn around. I don’t think we were getting updates via a bulletin board system until sometime in the early 90s (Electronic Arts had this much sooner than us and we were amazed when we saw it). Of course, now we post everything on an ftp site and have testers all around the world with instant access to the latest updates. A very different world now.
Moving on to modern times, can you tell us a little about what sort of research is needed for a game like War in the West, to ensure that it meets the expectations of the audience?
Tons of research, although thanks to the internet, it’s easier to get that information now than ever before for two reasons. First, we now can have people all over the world help us create and improve the data and scenario files. Many of the contributors on our games now are fans of our previous games that got involved as testers and became creators of data or scenarios. This community can more easily work together thanks to the internet to refine and improve the data. A lot of the data was created and refined for some of Gary’s earlier games. With each game, the data is improved and carried forward. We use very detailed weapons data built in some cases for tactical combat games as the building blocks of the data in our operation games like War in the West.
The second reason it is easier is also related to the internet, in that there is a lot of great information available on the internet now. With team members that speak many languages, we have access to data from many countries. This is one reason War in the East was more accurate than Gary’s previous Eastern Front games as we had access to Russian sources that we never had access to before. It’s amazing what those interested in history have managed to put on the internet, which makes it possible to continually improve on the information we have.
Of course, Gary is an avid researcher himself. In order to work on the logistics for War in the West, he read the Allied logistics studies of the War in Europe, and this gave him an idea of how to go about simulating the situation and the basic numbers he needed to start the process. After over 30 years, Gary knows his audience pretty well and many in his audience end up joining in to help with each new game.
Spillhistorie.no is a Norwegian website mostly dedicated to indie-, niche- and retro games. If you liked this article, we have some more content in English.