Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 4, NO. 3 / JULY 1985


The story of S.S.I.

by JACK POWELL, Antic Technical Editor

May 8, 1945, V-E Day. The war was over. Robert Billings returned from the Army to finish his education and received his Ph.D. in English, specializing in American war novels. His doctoral dissertation was about The Naked and the Dead.
   While earning his living as an English professor, Billings pursued an interest in game design. He drilled holes in a piece of wood and drew a map of North Africa on it. He had screws and nuts and bolts that he would put in the holes, and you moved these pieces along and if you ran into another person's piece it would push through the other side and you knew you had combat.
   He had this elaborate system where he used nails as infantrymen, and carved out little tanks, and used marbles with mirrors and you had to roll the marble down and knock over the opponent's nail.
   He never published these games, but he played them with his son.
   In 1965, Robert Billings brought home a board strategy game that was a little different, Tactics II, from Avalon Hill, the first commercial wargame. He showed it to his son and then taught him how to play. At the age of seven, Joel Billings was hooked.

Joel BillingsJoel Billings
Photography Linda Tapscott

"I was trapped for good. That was it." Joel Billings is now president of SSI, Strategic Simulations, Inc., considered by many to be the premier computer strategy game company. He looks remarkably like film director John Landis. "I played through the whole series of Avalon Hill wargames. I definitely was a heavy wargamer for a long time."
   Joel's father eventually lost interest in wargames and and Joel lost an opponent. By the time he reached junior high, he discovered that wargamers were a minority. There was no one to play against. In desperation, he joined the school chess club, taught its members wargames, and started his own wargame club. "I had to create the opponents by getting them interested."
   But Joel's family moved and when he started high school, he was back to square one. So he began playing by mail. At one point, he was playing nine games simultaneously in two different tournaments.
   There was a company offering a service-almost like a dating service-where you paid $40 for a list of war gainers in your area. Joel paid. "Yeah, finding opponents was tough."

College came along and Joel found himself with little time for wargames. He was a math-econ major and into econometrics, mathematical modeling and forecasting. He was using computers a lot and began to realize they were perfect for wargames!
   Computers could handle far greater detail than board games and eliminate most of the tedious paperwork. But most importantly, the computer was an opponent! 90% of board war gamers played solitaire, moving the troops on both sides of the board. A lot of people out there were looking for someone to play with.
   Billings didn't know this at the time. He didn't even know home computers existed. He only knew he wanted to do wargames on computers and "Star Trek" was the only computer strategy game around. And it was on a mainframe.

In 1979, he was planning to go to business school, but all he really wanted to do was get into computer wargames. A friend had shown him a TRS-80, so he knew his idea could work. He tried to convince a programmer at IBM, but the man just wasn't a wargamer and didn't believe there were people out there who would buy these hard, complicated strategy games.
   "SSI all started with an idea and it was touch and go for awhile as to whether I was going to go to business school or start this company."
   Finally, Billings put questionnaires in local hobby shops for programmers interested in wargames. There were two responses: John Lyon and Ed Willeger. They were both programmers but, more importantly, they were wargamers. Around this time, a venture capitalist introduced Billings to Trip Hawkins, who is currently president of Electronic Arts. But back then, Hawkins was a marketing manager for Apple. He convinced Billings that Apple was going places. "We were very lucky that way or we could have gotten started doing TRS-80 games.
   John Lyon was a wargamer into miniature figures. He had been a programmer since the '60s but had done nothing in BASIC and had never worked on a personal computer. Ed Williger was more of a wargamer than Lyon, but also had no experience in BASIC.
   Lyon wrote SSI's first game, Computer Bismarck, and Willeger wrote the second, Computer Ambush. The first version of Computer Ambush for the Apple was incredibly slow. It could take three hours to process one turn! "It was just terrible." But it was one of their first products and they needed the money

Today, SSI has 60 games and sleek, modern offices in the Mountain View fringe of Silicon Valley. Serious computer wargamers consider it a company in a class by itself.
   There are, perhaps, four categories of computer games: arcade, adventure, fantasy role-playing, and strategy-simulation. SSI seems to be a solid Number one in the fourth category. There may not be as many wargamers out there as arcade fans, but wargamers form a hard core of faithful consumers.
   The typical elements of a wargame include statistics, a detailed combat map, statistics, charts, troop allocations, statistics, historical accuracy, and more statistics. SSI games are rated from introductory through advanced. Don't attempt an advanced SSI game if you're not a hardened combat veteran! The documentation alone will leave you gasping and bloody on the battlefield. Billings recommends Eagles or Field of Fire as excellent introductions to the genre.

Most SSI games are written in BASIC then compiled for speed. Almost all their games are written by outside contributors. Of the 12 games published last year, six were by regular contibutors-such as the prolific and popular Gary Grigsby-but six were by complete newcomers.
   "There's a decent amount of money to be made. A war game may bring in $10-20,000 for the programmer." Interestingly, Atari people are heavily into wargames. "Computer for computer, there's a higher percentage of Atari owners that play wargames than there are Apple or Commadore owners."
   SSI has developed in-house graphics tools-Graph-Pak and Square-Pak-which speed map design and handle special algorithms, such as "line-of-sight checks", which programmers find tedious. Utilities such as these simplify transfer between computers and "allow us to crank these games out."
   Billings referred to some of their games as "clone games." By keeping the core system and changing the weapons and the map, a new game is created. Gary Grigsby is their most prolific author partly because he's mastered their utility tools and the concept of clone games. "New math, new database, and you've got a whole new game."

Some may think wargamers are warmongers-right-wing hawks with a love of weapons and power. Billings says surveys show most wargamers are well educated and have a relatively high income. Not surprisingly, 99% of wargamers are male. Using one of his own games, President Elect, Billings rated himself', on a scale of 0-Conservative to 100-Liberal, as 60 overall. He was 83 on social views and 50 in foreign affairs. "When you play a wargame, you realize you wouldn't want to be in war."
   But the fascination is there. We asked what turned him on: "Charts. Charts with weapons. A list of all your weapons, each tank-about 50 different tanks, and anti-tank guns, the range and the speed of the gun, and the maximum penetration."
   Billings is particularly excited about a new SSI game called Colonial Conquest. It's a six-player game, where you play one of the major world powers during the period of your choice: 1880 or 1914. The powers are U.S. ,Japan, Russia, Germany, France, and England. You're out to control the world. Total global dominion. "It's fun to go out there and conquer the world on the screen."

Sorcerers & Soldiers: Computer Wargames, Fantasies and Adventures, by Brian Murphy. $9.95. 226 pages, paperbound. Creative Computing Press, 39 East Hanover Avenue, Morris Plains, NJ 07950. 1984.