Time and Tide

by Jim "Bismarck" Cobb

Article Type: Comment
Article Date: May 28, 2002

Product Info

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Unprecedented Letter
On May 6, 2002, Carl Norman, Executive Producer at Ubi Soft, allowed an extraordinary letter to be posted on the SubSim.com forum. The letter is extraordinary for two reasons: it announces upfront that a company will no longer patch two games that have been out for less than eight months and also states why the support has been pulled, going into some detail.

Carl Norman's letter on Subsim.com (click the link in the paragraph above if you want to read the whole letter).

Usually, companies maintain silence about the death of support until the majority of players forget the issues and then the companies provide bland excuses for dropping the games. In explaining the situation with Silent Hunter II and Destroyer Command, Mr. Norman is not only honest but, with an assist from Neal Stevens (administrator of SubSim.Com), provides a history of how an exciting concept can be tarnished. Further analysis may provide insights into how the gaming industry may work in the future.

Too Long in the Oven
In 1996, SSI came out with Silent Hunter. This World War II Pacific theater game was considered the pinnacle of submarine sims at the time and still has a good reputation. Of course, it had a few design flaws that upset the hard core and could have used a few features to round out play and accuracy. Obviously, a Silent Hunter II was needed. Upgraded for graphics and more features, this game would be set in the Atlantic, replacing the aging Aces of the Deep. Had the game been done by 1998, SSI would have reaped accolades and simmers would have been happy.

'Silent Hunter II' box cover art.

However, the mid-to-late 1990s saw a sea change in gaming. The market demographics shifted solidly away from middle-aged veterans of board games to younger people whose initial exposure to serious gaming was on computers. The market wanted graphics that took advantage of new hardware and games that stressed multiplayer modes versus the computer AI. SSI had become a great commercial entity in the late 1980s and had to conform to market forces. More importantly, the ownership of SSI changed hands more often than the ball in an Edgars-Tinker-Chance double play. Each owner had a different view of the market, a different list of priorities and a different approach to what had been SSI’s stable of games.

SSI had also found a way to keep wargames lucrative; they found the rich seam down the middle of the expectation spectrum. The Panzer General series is the epitome of this approach. A great commercial hit, this simple, fun system enchanted casual gamers while being just historical enough to keep hard core gamers interested. The marketing slot was obvious: play mainly to the mass market and don’t cater to picky gamers.

'Silent Hunter II': A VIIC at periscope depth.

With all these shifts in budgets, priorities and management, the original Silent Hunter II development team, Aeon, missed one too many deadlines and were shown the door. Ultimation talked the owners of SSI into continuing with the development. Ultimation had done the sim equivalent of Panzer General with the Command series, producing middle-of-the road products that could appeal to a wide audience. However, years had passed and the naval sim community was getting restless. How to keep the lions at bay and still have time to get the project done within budget?

Try a marketing trick, of course. Release not one but two products. Destroyer Command would not only fill the void for World War II destroyer sims but could also be linked to Silent Hunter II. Through Internet multiplay, destroyer captains the world over could protect convoys while trying to hunt down their equally wily U-boat counter parts. Millions of re-plays of The Enemy Below and Das Boot motion pictures could occur weekly. Here was a prospect that even the most jaded gamer relished.

'Destroyer Command' splash screen

Of course, this tact was a mistake. Players’ expectations rose so high that the Command series philosophy could never fulfill them. Silent Hunter II hit the shelves in the Fall of 2001 and the naval sim community was underwhelmed. Promised or expected features weren’t there, single-play was only moderately entertaining and the improvements over Aces of the Deep were very modest compared to the seven-year difference in age. Patches were not quick in coming as the development team was finishing Destroyer Command. Oh well, multiplayer would make many gamers forget their disappointment. Destroyer Command would save both products.
“Multiplay between the two games is iffy at best. Play is possible if the stars are aligned just right but is very unstable.”
It didn’t. Multiplay between the two games is iffy at best. Play is possible if the stars are aligned just right but is very unstable. The fault lies in the multiplay engine, RTime. Ultimation discovered early on that RTime needed adjustment but Sony has purchased the rights to Rtime and Sony would not allow any tinkering with its property. Time and budget considerations would not allow Ultimation to create a new engine so the community is left with an unpatchable product. A Silent Hunter III set in the Pacific is being promoted to SSI management but, to this writer, the chances of seeing it are tiny. The executives know disgruntlement when they see it and know many players are very skeptical of any sub sim coming from SSI. Why would they put capital in so risky a venture?

'Destroyer Command': Near misses bracket a damaged destroyer.

Saving Matrose Reyen
Is the Silent Hunter II/Destroyer Command package doomed to founder? No. The gaming community is now savvy enough to take things into its own hands. Within weeks of their releases, Destroyer Command and Silent Hunter II received overhauls from modders working with Navalwarfare.net and SubSim.com. Many of the problems with single-play have been addressed to the point where they are no longer game killers. Neal Stevens is considering passing the hat to hire a programmer to write a multiplay mod. The dream of recreating the Battle of the North Atlantic lives on.

The lesson to be learned is that the older, larger game companies like SSI can no longer be trusted for serious simulation. They are the flotsam and jetsam of the larger corporate tidal basin. In-house teams working on a series cannot keep up with changes in market attitudes or even the wishes of their bosses. Hopes for good simulations lie in dedicated, single product developers and large publishers. Case in point: Ubi Soft, the company that published Silent Hunter II/Destroyer Command also published the acclaimed IL-2 Sturmovik in the same year. The difference was a developer who was single-minded and controlled his product. Look toward publishers like Strategy First who pick up the best ideas from around the world and nurture them. Watch the web sites of those developers with a virtual gleam in their eye. The future still belongs to the person with a dream, not a corporate business plan.

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