War Game Still Rages
Reprinted from The New London Day newspaper,
Robert A. Hamilton    December 19, 1998

Push is on for new version
of Sonalysts-designed game

Waterford —The shelf life of many computer games is measured in weeks, but the "688I: Hunter Killer" game, which Sonalysts Inc. designed for software company Electronic Arts, still has a loyal following 18 months after its release, and has sparked an on-line campaign for an update.

"688I players are still active," said editor Neal Stevens of Lake Jackson, Tex., who runs a popular web-site that rates submarine simulations, "SUBSIM Review," at www.subsim.com. "We still have three or four on-line ‘fleets,’ probably 1,000 players total, and we’re very interested in extending the line. We’re standing here with our hands open. We’re ready."

Stevens said he has collected almost 450 names on a petition to introduce an Arctic under-ice campaign, some technical "fixes," and interoperability with "Fleet Command," a new naval warfare game due out in 1999.

"I was hoping to hit 1,000 by the end of the year, and it got up to 300 pretty fast, but it’s slowed down to about five or 10 new names a week now," Stevens said. "When I hit 500, I’m going to e-mail all of them and try for an e-mail blitz on Jane’s and Sonalysts."

Jane’s is one of the premier producers of naval reference works in the world. The game was released under the Jane’s both because it uses databases provided by Jane’s and because of the credibility that gives the software.

Kim Castro, a vice president at Sonalysts who was heavily involved in the game’s design, said he is aware of the campaign — and the company supports it.

"We would love to do an upgrade. We’ve been in discussions with Electronics Arts about it, and I think the people there would also like to do it," Castro said. Right now, he said, Sonalysts is putting the finishing touches on "Fleet Command," which it is also doing for EA, but he is keeping track of some of the proposals made at Stevens’ web site and other Internet sites.

"A lot of their suggestions are quite good — in fact, I keep a file here of all the newsgroup postings and e-mails that have come in," Castro said.

For instance, Stevens said when two players are playing head-to-head over a computer network, they both have to choose the improved Los Angeles-class submarine, or 688I, because that’s the only option in the game. In real life, since only the U.S. Navy operates the 688I, it’s unlikely there would ever be a battle between two of the boats.

Castro said the company has discussed an update that would give players a chance to choose the Seawolf-class submarine, which came into service after the game was released, as well as a Russian Akula-class nuclear attack submarine or Kilo-class diesel submarine.

"That would make it a little more interesting, especially for head-to-head play," Castro said.

Stevens, an analyst for Dow Chemical who has never been a submariner — "when I was 18 and the recruiter told me I’d have to leave my girlfriend behind six months at a time, I decided to go into private industry," he jokes — said part of the problem is that the submarine simulation market is smaller than many others.

Flight simulations are far more popular, and gaming companies bring out news ones several times a year. But 688I is one of just a handful of submarine games serious enough to merit mention in his reviews, he said.

"Submarine simulations might not be the largest sector of combat simulations, but the players are the most intensely loyal," he contends. He began gauging support for an update of 688I earlier this year when there were complaints about some technical problems, particularly how the game operated with 3D accelerators on newer computers.

About a month ago EA released a "patch," a sort of addition to the program, that solved many of those technical problems, but Stevens said he is just as concerned about things that might work well — but not as they would on a real submarine.

Stevens said one of his major concerns is that on a computer network, one player can use a so-called "cheat mode" that would give him an advantage by allowing a view from the perspective of a torpedo once it is fired. Even if the other submarine tries to maneuver out of the way, such a weapons-eye view would allow the player to hone in on the enemy submarine.

"There are some players who prefer playing that way, but a lot of us don’t because it’s not realistic. The problem is there’s no way for one player on this sim to know if the other player is using it," Stevens said. "At one point I had the second-best kill ratio on one of the on-line fleets, but after about six months I realized that no matter how quiet I ran, someone could find me. At that point, it wasn’t much fun playing on-line."


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