Interview with Joel Billings of 2BY3 Games
by Peter "Zhukov" Pawelek
Joel Billings has long been a cornerstone in the growth and development of the computer wargaming industry. Having founded Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) in 1979, he has been directly involved in the production of many of the hallmark computer wargames we refer to today as classics. Many of these games, including Pacific War and War in Russia, were designed by the now legendary Gary Grigsby. Grigsby and Keith Brors are also the team responsible for the highly successful Steel Panthers series.
Recently Joel, Gary and Keith have formed the company 2BY3 Games, which will focus on producing high quality and historically accurate computer wargames of the Second World War. Three games are slated to be produced in conjunction with Matrix Games: Uncommon Valor, War in the Pacific, and a third title based in the Mediterranean Theatre.
We recently caught up with Joel and asked him about the upcoming offerings from 2BY3 and his thoughts about the budding small scale/independent computer wargaming industry.
COMBATSIM: The first two games that you're slated to do in conjunction with Matrix Games (Uncommon Valor and War in the Pacific) sound really innovative. Can you briefly describe the system they'll be using? Will both games use the same system, or will there be variations in scale and other details?
Joel Billings: The system will involve players giving commands to their units during an orders phase and then entering an execution phase that will resolve between 1 and 7 days of combat before returning to the orders phase. Players can set the number of days to resolve and we expect that players will choose to resolve 1-3 days of combat in Uncommon Valor (UV) but a greater number in War in the Pacific (WitP). Players do not take direct action during the execution phase, as units act based on previous orders and the information available to them. However, players will be able to have a great deal of control over their forces if they want it based on how they give their orders. For example an air unit with a primary target set will focus on bombing the target, but if a player wishes to give the unit more freedom of action they can skip setting the priority target. But there's five different settings that players can adjust for an air group and the interactions of these settings gives players a wide variety of options and control over their air forces. The number of days resolved between orders phases will help PBEM (Play By Electronic Mail) players determine how much action they want between mailings.
Both games will use a similar system, but the scale of UV is 30 miles per hex with aircraft squadrons, individual ships and land regiments versus WitP's 50 mile hexes, aircraft groups, individual ships (except for a few types like PT boats that are grouped together) and land divisions. In addition, War in the Pacific will deal with production issues and resources, and due to its greater time frame will have to deal with a few other issues that didn't factor into the war in the South Pacific in '42/'43. A player that's played Uncommon Valor will understand probably 60-75% of what's in WitP. Given the sheer size of WitP, UV will be a good way to get used to big parts of the system before tackling the full war in the Pacific. In addition, the UV player will enjoy the added detail level that you get by having the smaller units and map scale.
CSIM: In the course of designing a new game, roughly how much time do you devote to historical research?
JB: This question is really for Gary, but I'd say at least a few months goes into building the historical database and trying to get a handle on what's important to the situation being gamed. We're constantly reading military history on all sorts of subjects, and it's that background along with previous games we've developed on similar subjects that allow the time spent to be kept reasonable. Gary and Keith have also enjoyed the help of several individuals that have provided them with detailed historical and order of battle information (or have critiqued the initial efforts in order to improve on them).
CSIM: How much do your experiences with classic board wargames inspire your designs?
JB: Again, a question for Gary. Although Gary doesn't play many board games anymore, he used to play (or study) a lot of board games, and I think those games had a huge impression on him. However, Gary's developed his own game design style that is based on what he can do with a computer that can't be done in a board game.
CSIM: Do you intend to include printed manuals with your games?
JB: This is up to Matrix Games for the two Pacific games, but I think they are going to print a manual. Personally, I always loved having a printed manual, but as a purchaser of Panzer Campaigns: Smolensk, it didn't bother me that I had to print out the manual. It's obviously a lot cheaper to produce online manuals, and if they're done well, that might end up being the way Internet-published niche games should go.
CSIM: How will the process of designing and developing games within 2BY3 be different from your past experiences?
JB: For Gary and Keith I think it will be pretty similar to their past experiences. That is, except for the games being worked on currently with Matrix Games. In those cases Matrix has taken over the role of polishing the titles by actually getting involved with the computer code. This is possible due to their familiarity with Gary's and Keith's code from their previous work. This allows us to focus on the core aspects of the games. As for other titles, over time we hope to develop art and sound resources within 2BY3 so we are less dependent on publishers for this help. If we publish games ourselves we obviously will have more control over when they get released, but that's more like my experience in the early years of SSI.
CSIM: Do you have any plans to do a grand strategic level WW2 wargame? There's a big demand for this type of game, and the last great example that I can think of is Clash of Steel. Any thoughts?
JB: Yes, we are interested in working on a WWII strategic game covering Europe/North Africa. Over the last few years the idea of designing this kind of game kept coming up at SSI, but it never got off the ground. We think it's a good subject to be covered and fits with the strategic/operational kinds of games we are starting with. We should have more to say on this within the next six months.
CSIM: In the past couple years we've seen the rise of a number of small/independent game publishers(Battlefront, Matrix Games, Shrapnel Games). Have we achieved a critical mass, given the relatively small market for computer wargaming, or is there room for more competition?
JB: For wargames, this small/independent model is the only one that is going to get products to the marketplace with any regularity. The Internet model of distribution of these games is still in its infancy and hopefully it will grow as gamers get more comfortable with the idea of buying these games online. Are there too many companies? I don't think so as I think it takes critical mass to get gamers used to finding their games this way. So far the efforts have been mostly focused on tactical games, which is understandable given their much greater popularity. It's usually these types of games that bring in non-wargamers or more likely, casual wargamers, and lets them find out about what else is out there. We want to support these other companies, because their success will hopefully grow the market for all. A lot depends on the expectations these companies have regarding sales volumes. Although there will be the occasional hit product (witness Combat Mission), most of the products sold by these companies will have very small sales volumes which is how you have to plan the business. In the past, I've seen a problem occur when two titles on the same subject are published within months of each other. Hopefully the total number of products is still relatively small and these coincidences can be avoided.
CSIM: Are you worried that we might lose a lot of potential newcomers to computer wargaming with the rise in popularity of console games, or are we talking about completely different demographics here?
JB: Yes and no. We're not developing a large number of new wargamers as occurred in the 1970's because kids and teens interested in games have so many other kinds of games they are likely to play before trying a wargame. So aside from the small block of people that are interested in military history and thus naturally gravitate toward wargames, we're not picking up new gamers. The hope was always that computer gamers would come to wargames through military sims (flight, tank, submarine) which are closer to the real time action games kids play. This hasn't happened as much due to the siphoning off of gamers to console where these games have not traditionally existed. On the other hand, there are still a lot of older wargamers that are the bread and butter of the traditional wargame market, and increases in Internet and PBEM opportunities will hopefully continue to draw these gamers to computer wargames. In one sense I don't expect the traditional wargame market to ever be as big as it once was relative to all gaming, there's just too much out there for people to play. But at the same time, the Internet provides ways for the wargaming market to communicate with each other, spread information, and have reasonable distribution of products in ways that just weren't available in the past.
CSIM: Do you have any advice for an aspiring computer wargame designer who has great ideas for a game but little in the way of resources and manpower?
JB: Chuck Kroegel used to say about computer games that "designs are a dime a dozen". If all you have is a paper design, you're not likely to get very far. It's knowing how to turn that design into a program that's the key. Chuck's answer was finding Dave Landrey to do the programming and the Kroegel/Landrey team was formed. If you're a programmer designer I suggest you get a prototype of the game up and working along with a description of the game on paper. Initially you shouldn't be too worried about the graphics and sound other than to be able to explain what it is you think the game is going to need and be able to support why it's feasible to get it done. Hopefully you can find a publisher that can help out once you've proven that the design can be programmed and that you can do the job. This approach won't work well if the graphics are integral to the complexity and success of the program as in a flight sim but is more intended for a traditional wargame.
CSIM: Do you think the old paradigm of hexgrids and counters for computer wargames is here to stay? Would you ever consider designing a computer wargaming system that would be more experimental in its representation (as, for example, Road to Moscow at one time had promised)?
JB: I think that hexgrids are going to be around in wargaming for some time, especially in the niche titles for the core wargaming audience that enjoys board wargames. On the other hand there's plenty of opportunity for new systems to win the hearts and minds of wargamers. We won't be using hexagons in all of our games, and 12 O'clock High is a recent example of a Grigsby/Brors game that didn't use a traditional wargame approach. You can expect other new approaches from us in the future, but only when we think they're appropriate for the subject in order to make an enjoyable game to play. There's a reason why few experimental systems have made it to completion. They may sound great on paper but often they either are near impossible to program or they don't turn out to be very enjoyable gaming experiences.
CSIM: Can you discuss your current relationship with Matrix Games and what your long-term plans are?
JB: Currently we have an agreement with Matrix Games to publish our first 3 naval games, UV, WitP and a Mediterranean title. In addition to their publishing responsibilities, they are providing programming and artist support in order to polish the look and feel of the game engines that we produce. What this means is that we can focus on creating and tuning the game system, historical detail, and artificial intelligence while they assist in streamlining the interface and making sure we have outstanding map, unit and interface art in the games. They've also been able to add their input to the game engine itself as they have a better programming understanding of Gary and Keith's code than other publishers have had. This is due to the previous work Matrix has done on past Grigsby/Brors games like Steel Panthers.
At the same time, we are working on a Russian Front title for which we plan to do the complete development effort. This will give us the flexibility to publish the title ourselves if we so desire. We want to take some time to watch how the wargame publishing business develops during the coming year, especially as it relates to Internet distribution. We also need to decide where we can best spend our time as there are a lot of game ideas we'd like to turn into games in the coming years. You may very well see us become our own publisher next year, but it's just as likely that we will continue with Matrix or another wargame publisher. Only time will tell.
On behalf of COMBATSIM.COM, I'd like to thank Joel for taking the time out to answer our questions. We are all looking forward to 2BY3's upcoming releases and wish them the best of luck with their endeavours!
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