by Les Ellingham


Issue 31

Jan/Feb 88

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the Ultimate wargaming and fantasy company

There are several companies that have produced wargames and simulations for the Atari but perhaps the best known is SSI whose products have always been held in the highest regard. Prior to their recent agreement with U.S. Gold there was a flourishing trade in importing SSI simulations with dedicated wargamers thinking nothing of paying 70 or so for a top-class product such as War in Russia! So how does a Company such as SSI gain this sort of reputation and support?


SSI started out in 1979 with Computer Bismarck which was one of the first computer games to provide 'support materials' such as movement charts and grease pencils and quality packaging which was copied by many others and still remains a hallmark of SSI products. The company was founded by Joel Billings, an experienced board game player who gained a huge following at war gaming tournaments where he often played in three divisions simultaneously, managing to win all three! He began gaming at the age of seven when he became fascinated with the challenge and realism of strategy board games. After his school education he had to decide whether to go to graduate college but opted instead for writing computer games and so Computer Bismarck was born on a borrowed computer.

Joel wanted to use the power of computers to enhance the board games by providing animation, quick response and challenging opponents for solo play. It seemed that none of the established companies was interested in this use of the home computer so, based upon a few surveys of the likely market, he borrowed $1000 and founded SSI. At the time many 'first' computer programs, such as those put out by Scott Adams, were home produced in polythene bags with crudely typed labels but Joel felt he was competing against an established board game market and so invested in an innovative four colour bookshelf-sized box, with contents to enhance the software packaging which has since become an industry standard for this type of game.

Like many youngsters starting in business, the family helped out and SSI, despite having an estimated turnover for 1987 of $5 million, still retains close family connections. Joel's sister Susan is the company's operations executive and his mother Leona writes many of the instruction books and has even learned to program herself. Father Robert, a professor of English, writes many of the colourful background stories found in SSI rule books. The company is now quite sizeable with several more board members and 32 staff. It's continued growth over the past six years has meant moving four times before settling in a 12,000 square foot facility in Mountain View, California.


Although they started with wargames, and have produced many of the 'classics' to be found in M. Evan Brooks' survey of war games in this issue, SSI now has a broad range of products including Fantasy Adventures and Sports simulations. Many of their titles such as Questron, Wizards Crown and Roadwar 2000 are well-known to Atari users and several have won awards. Roadwar 2000, reviewed in this issue, was voted as `Best Strategy/War Game of 1986' by a leading American magazine and Gettysburg and Wizards Crown have also recently been awarded similar titles. In all SSI have produced 75 different titles and currently market over 60 programs in 200 different versions.

Never a company to stand still, SSI target over 50 new games a year, including conversions, and uses a strong team of internal and external developers to produce their titles. Despite this output they regard quality as paramount and this has led them to an agreement with TSR which promises to be the most exciting event of 1988 for anyone interested in computer adventuring and simulations.


Earlier this year SSI entered a competition with several other companies in a bid to become the publisher of computer games based on the phenomenally successful Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games developed by TSR. The official Dungeons & Dragons has an enormous worldwide following and any company that could produce computer games with TSR's blessing would be sure to have a very successful 1988 and beyond!

Obviously many companies wanted Dungeons & Dragons so TSR set some very high standards and invited interested companies to prove to them why they should have the privilege. SSI already had a quality background and were able to better their competitors and so win the licensing agreement which will last at least five years. SSI will produce a a series of role-playing adventures and, as a result of their marketing agreement with U.S. Gold in this country, the latter will produce five multi-player arcade style adventures all of which will be marketed worldwide. SSI will also be producing Dungeonmaster/ Player Aid disks to assist players of the conventional board games.

It won't be an easy task, for TSR will vet every step to ensure that the products are of the highest quality but SSI, with their past product history, should have no problems.


The scope for the Fantasy Adventure simulations is enormous as TSR have created a whole new fantasy world in which the computer simulations will be based. Entitled Forgotten Realms, it will be supported with conventional Dungeons & Dragons board games, novels and calendars the first of which have already been produced. SSI's first fantasy adventure will be set in the mountains of the Forgotten Realms which take up about 27 square inches of a map measuring some 24 square feet! If they get the first one right, and there is no reason to think that they won't, there is likely to be a lot of adventuring coming your way in the next five years!


If SSI's wargaming followers are worried that they won't get a look in, they needn't be for SSI promise that the work on the Adventure games will be carried over into a continuing series of wargames that will feature enhanced graphics. In the pipeline are several games from the guys who produced Gettysburg including one on the Civil War battle of Shiloh and another on Napoleon's battles in Europe. From other authors there will be a platoon level World War II game and a simulation of the conflict in Afghanistan is also in the works.


SSI then, developed from a young man's fascination and enthusiasm for board games into a major $5 million turnover computer company that has just won the biggest licensing deal in the computer industry. Having the right product at the right time obviously had a lot to do with it in the early years but the real story of success is in continually producing software of the highest quality, well researched and well packaged and which does not date. Computer users will be playing wargames and fantasy adventures long after the initial fascination of arcade games dies away and that is what Joel Billings recognised way back in 1979.