SUBSIM
Review
Joel Billings
Sim Producer -- BIO
September 1999

Life in the Wargames Biz


SSR is proud to offer you a glimpse in the career of one of the sim industry's founding fathers. Joel Billings founded Strategic Simulations, Inc. many years before most of us had a PC. He produced over 50 titles including the recent battleship sim Fighting Steel . Joel recently posted these comments on the naval newsgroup to shed some light on his background and motivations. He has always been responsive on the BBS and in the newsgroups and it's clear he cares about the future of commercial sims.

Silent Hunter

Silent Hunter

I was the founder of SSI in 1979. My extended family provided most of the money that funded SSI, and in many ways SSI was a family business for many years. I started SSI as a just out of collage 21 year old who had been playing wargames since the age of 7 and saw the potential for producing wargames on the computer. At the time I worshipped Avalon Hill and SPI and my dream job was to somehow work in the wargames business. After getting blown off by Avalon Hill, I realized I would have to publish the computer games myself, and my goal for SSI was to become the "Avalon Hill" of computer strategy games (i.e. a high quality publisher of thinking games).

I am proud to say that I was President/CEO of SSI from July 1979-December 1995 and in those years I worked with a lot of great people, employees and developers. I first met Gary Grigsby when in 1982 he called in with a tech support question on Torpedo Fire and I answered the call. I met Chuck Kroegel and Dave Landry in 1981 and was lucky enough to convince them to publish through SSI. Chuck started working with SSI as an employee in 1983 and was head of R&D ever since (more about Chuck later). These three individuals were big factors in SSI's early success and, like most of our employees, they became shareholders in SSI. I consider all three of them good friends, and I would like to think that although they may have disagreed with me on some things over the years, they would all say that I acted honorably in my dealings with them. As for SSI business/publishing decisions made during this time, I will accept both the credit and the blame for them as during this time the buck did stop with me.

Although wargames were only a small part of SSI's products (and usually a small part of the revenue stream), they were always near and dear to my heart. Although I developed (produced) most of the SSI games for many years, as the company grew I had less time to be directly involved in all of the products. However, I always tried to spend time on as many of the wargames as I could. Over the years I've probably worked on 50 wargames, some good, some bad, but most games that I can say I would enjoy playing.

Steel Panthers III

Steel Panthers III

In 1987, 20% of SSI was sold to Electronic Arts. In late 1994 SSI was sold to Mindscape. There were many reasons for the sale, with not the least of which being that my family could no longer assume the large financial risk that came with being of software publisher in the nineties. I continued to run SSI as part of Mindscape and SSI was very successful in 1995. In 1996 I took an executive job within Mindscape running the games division while Chuck Kroegel was promoted to President of SSI. Very quickly I came to the realization that I was not interested in being an executive in a large corporation and that I really wanted to get back to working on the wargames that I loved. So in late 1996 I went back to SSI as a Producer. I was very happy to work with Gary Grigsby again on Steel Panthers 3 and Roger Keating (and SSG) on Breakthrough in the Ardennes (I produced Roger's first games in the early eighties before he co-founded SSG).

In the meantime Mindscape was sold to The Learning Company, and The Learning Company was sold to Mattel. SSI became part of a games division that now contains many brands and there are many old-time SSI employees in this division striving to make great games, including Chuck Kroegel who is the Executive VP for games. Aside from personally designing/producing many successful games, Chuck has always been an integral part of SSI's success over the years and more recently its survival within the larger corporations that have owned it.

As for Fighting Steel, I was happy to become the producer of the game in early 1998 as I have been an avid naval gamer since 1972 when I played my first WWII miniatures surface battle. Although I had produced several naval games in the eighties, I saw FS as a chance to make a game that would provide the historical detail that I enjoy with the visuals that would be the computer equivalent of a miniatures game. In many respects this project was as close to a labor of love as one can get.

One thing few of you may be aware of is that in the late summer of 1998, Divide By Zero, FS's developer, lost 3 of its employees (about half the group) including 2 of the 3 programmers on the project. Needless to say this was a major disruption in the project. In any event, everyone on the project was disappointed and frustrated to find many users experiencing problems with FS as shipped in June. Not only did the game have bugs, but the release of DirectX 6.1 just prior to our game's release, and the requirement for a 3D accelerator card, caused many users to have problems that had little to do with the game itself. Several of us tried to help users that posted specific problems on the newsgroup, and many users were able to overcome the problems either on their own or with our help. As for bugs, we worked with DBZ to try to fix as many of these as we could. Many users report that Version 1.10 has fixed the important problems and many less important ones (I can vouch for that. --Ed.). As time moves on, I would guess that more and more of the graphic cards drivers have become compatible with Direct X 6.1 and that more users will find that the game works if they have the latest drivers.

Fighting Steel

Fighting Steel

Does this mean Fighting Steel is everything I wanted it to be. Of course not. Am I frustrated that it doesn't work on everyone's system. Absolutely. Do I enjoy playing the game. Yes, quite a bit, especially the few multiplayer games I've played.

I have seen a fall-off in specific technical problems being reported by users of FS. Although I am not very techno-savy when it comes to some of the driver/memory issues, I will continue to scan the newsgroup and reply to any users that have specific problems with which I may be able to help. The Associate Producer on FS, an ex-tech support person was especially helpful the first few months helping those with technical problems, but alas he has moved to another group within Mindscape and is no longer available to help out. As for additional patches, I don't expect any to happen at this point, although I hope DBZ will find a way to do some additional work on the game in the future. As for returning the game, I certainly hope that any customer not happy with the game is able to return it.

I am not in the producer group responsible for Silent Hunter II, Destroyer Commander, or Harpoon IV. I fully expect these games will be good games that I and many of you will enjoy playing. It's nice to see some naval gamers out there. My biggest concern is that there aren't enough people like us out there and we aren't getting any younger. Happy gaming.

1999 SUBSIM Review