Jim Ward: SSI, Dungeons & Dragons and the Computer Industry

The time is about 1987. I had played Ultima and thought a computer game license could be great for TSR; besides I wanted to play a D&D computer game. I was surfing the net on a Commodore 64 and that was interesting and that effort gave me a little insight into the computer game industry. I went to upper management and pitched them the idea of searching for a computer game license. They didn't think much of the concept. None of them knew anything about computer games or had interest in such things, but they said I could write and contact companies and see what type of response TSR and AD&D would generate.

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I sent out letters to lots of companies and every one of them answered back. All of them had heard of D&D and knew it was all the rage among the exact same market as hand held and computer games. They were companies like Electronic Arts, Origin Systems, the Ultima creator, SSI, and Sierra Entertainment. I was able to slim down the choices to Electronic Arts and SSI and TSR invited them to come to the offices and present what they thought their company could do for TSR.

At the time Electronic Arts had huge distribution with their sports games. The SSI people really impressed me with their depth of TSR products. I scheduled them for alternate Mondays.

I picked up Joe Yabera(sp) at the airport in Milwaukee and drove him to TSR. He was one of Electronic Arts product managers. No, he didn't play D&D. No, he wasn't a fan of fantasy. However, his company was willing to offer TSR an unusually large advance check on the one game a year they would be doing and they wanted a five year license. He talked a good game and all of the upper managers were very impressed when he was done.

After Mr. Yabera left, I found myself feeling very sorry for the SSI people. While I wasn't impressed with Mr. Yabera's knowledge of the game, we were all impressed by the check offer. We spent the week talking about EA and the possibilities of a game they could develop.

Next Monday came around and I offered to pick the SSI people at the airport, but the SSI group said no so that was all right with me. Joel Billings, Chuck Kroegel, George MacDonald, Dan Cermak, and Victor Penman came to the offices really loaded for bear. They brought tons of computer equipment and we set them up in the large conference room.

Their presentation was awesomely impressive. They had already made lots of dungeon screen shots on computers for us to see. They wanted to set the game in the Forgotten Realms universe and seemed to know a lot about that campaign world. We saw images of monsters moving on the computer. They talked very knowledgeably about character creation. We all were blown away by their enthusiasm and handling of details.

Joel Billings went in with Mike Cook to talk a business deal. I had the pleasure of talking with the other folks. I liked all of them immediately. Over time I developed a special friendship of respect for Victor Penman and Chuck Kroegel. While the big boys were talking the people who would actually do the work and I talked for several hours. I could tell they were very eager to take the challenge of working on an AD&D game. Joel ended up offering to give TSR 25% of the SSI company instead of an advance. Mike told him that didn't interest TSR. Joel did offer to do more games in a year and pay advances on each of those games. They won the deal and did amazing things for TSR.

That started the creation of the Gold Box games. POOL OF RADIANCE was their first game and it was delightful. There was a great deal of back and fourth with them trying to do things that were not kosher for AD&D. Things like spell casting and healing. I maintained that those systems had to be done according to the rules of AD&D and they maintained that gamers would not like those features in the game. Every time we reached an impasse I received a call from Chuck Kroegel. His position at SSI was just like mine at TSR. He would call me (I was responsible for all computer game approvals at TSR) and state the problem his designers were having. I would quote him chapter and verse in the AD&D rule books. He and I would then “arm wrestle” a solution to the problem that was acceptable to both groups. As I look back at those good times I realize now I should have been a little stricter with Chuck. The man was always so reasonable and his depth of knowledge of AD&D and computer game design always allowed us to come up with answers that the computer game consumer wouldn't see while they played the game.

I play tested all of the games and this caused me some problems. I didn't want to spend the time to battle through all of the encounters. I ask them to create a “god party”. This group would never lose hit points; were high level characters; and I could automatically defeat the bad guys if I was so inclined. This allowed me to see all of the encounters quickly. I could see the creatures and check them for their look as based on the Monster Manual.

Everything was going great and the games were a huge success. Then the president of TSR decided she needed lots more money from the computer games license. Against my advice TSR dropped SSI and replaced them. The new company made all sorts of promises they didn't deliver. The new company promised to design even more games than SSI and they didn't come close. In short the revenue the new company generated was far less than what SSI delivered; what a surprise.
 
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Jim Ward

Comments

EthanSental

Explorer
Surfing the web in 87...maybe the old BBS billboards :). Granted I may be way behind the time.

I actually bought many of the various SSI games from gog.com in the last year to have fun with again.....thanks for sharing another bit of gaming gold history.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
Thanks for sharing! The SSI games are the only D&D computer games I played that I felt actually had the feel of being D&D. I dislike the modern real-time gaming style, preferring the turn based tactics instead. I did hear that a version of the Temple of Elemental Evil was made using the 3E mechanics, but by then I'd moved away from computer RPGs.
 

Zardnaar

Hero
Nothing has changed with EA they only got worse.

They just throw money at a license and mess it up. Star Wars cough cough.

They could make fun original games back then though and they weren't zoned on the Megadrive/Genesis. Desert/Jungle Strike and General Chaos!!!!

Eye of the Beholder was the bomb 91 or 92. Beat EotB2 in 95 having played it earlier.

Also played some Dragonlance game nothing special from memory.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
I owned and played through every Gold Box game that came out at the time, including that awful Hillsfar one. It was a glorious time to be young and own a Commodore 64!

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As technology advanced, the games would improve with better sound and graphics. But the content would become increasingly shorter as resources were diverted to making better eye candy with bells and whistles. Despite the simple graphics, 8-bit sound effects, and text-based nature of the engine, the gold box games packed a TON of adventuring goodness.

 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
The software of the videogames get old really fast and bad.

I imagine the future of the industry as a videogame open for mods and DLCs with new item, monsters or skins (hair, clothes, tattoos..), with a created or editor of quest/adventures. To this videogame PDFs would be added to can play the TTRPG version, and the books would be like the collector edition. And our "DLCs" could be used later in the remastered/updated/remade of the videogame.
 

Jer

Adventurer
Joel ended up offering to give TSR 25% of the SSI company instead of an advance. Mike told him that didn't interest TSR.
It's interesting to consider the alternate universe where TSR owns part of a computer game company during the 90s. SSI got sold around a bit IIRC so maybe it wouldn't have made a difference...
 

Hathorym

Explorer
There has yet to be a game that really captured the feeling of D&D at the time. While the Neverwinter(s) and BG games are certainly awesome, they don't have that table top turn based feeling that the SSI games had. The only game that has come close, in my opinion, is the demo of Solasta. It feels like D&D 5e to me. And now that their kickstarter funded, I cannot wait until the finished project.
 

Jacob Lewis

The One with the Force
There has yet to be a game that really captured the feeling of D&D at the time. While the Neverwinter(s) and BG games are certainly awesome, they don't have that table top turn based feeling that the SSI games had. The only game that has come close, in my opinion, is the demo of Solasta. It feels like D&D 5e to me. And now that their kickstarter funded, I cannot wait until the finished project.
There is one overlooked gem that many don't consider because it was only available for the ill-fated PSP (PlayStation Portable) handheld system. But it is specifically the only reason why I still own one and fire it up every now and again despite some of the tediousness and a few bugs. Worth it!

 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
These games hit at the right time for me. I was just graduating high school and always hungry for games for my Apple IIc. I enjoyed them all, but my favorite of the Gold Box was Gateway to the Savage Frontier. I also enjoyed War of the Lance, while technically not a "gold box", it was a fun war game to play. It should also not be forgotten that one of the first online game experiences was Neverwinter Nights on AOL, which used the Gold Box engine.
 

_Silverblade_

Villager
Pool of Radiance was my gateway into the world of D&D. Of all the RPGs I have had the joy to play over the years, this is the one that I remember most fondly. It made me appreciate the intricacies of a challenging turn-based combat system, of the synergy between the members of a balanced party, of exploring a world that felt like an actual world and boy, was I ready to try my hand at the real game as soon as I had the chance (that was a couple of years later).

Thanks for sharing this wonderful tale, Mr. Ward.

P.S: Gods, I was so annoyed with that Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor joke of a game years later.
 

_Silverblade_

Villager
There has yet to be a game that really captured the feeling of D&D at the time. While the Neverwinter(s) and BG games are certainly awesome, they don't have that table top turn based feeling that the SSI games had. The only game that has come close, in my opinion, is the demo of Solasta. It feels like D&D 5e to me. And now that their kickstarter funded, I cannot wait until the finished project.
Nooooooo how did I miss this?
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
I remember hanging out with friends back in the day - we would play some AD&D, go for a walk outside, then come back and huddle around a computer, playing Curse of the Azure Bonds. One person would be on the keyboard, the rest would back-seat drive, err, advise.

Also remember loading in floppy disk after floppy disk to play Pool of Radiance.
 
I remember hanging out with friends back in the day - we would play some AD&D, go for a walk outside, then come back and huddle around a computer, playing Curse of the Azure Bonds. One person would be on the keyboard, the rest would back-seat drive, err, advise.

Also remember loading in floppy disk after floppy disk to play Pool of Radiance.
And the load times. Good lord, the load times! But it was worth every moment waiting in order to play them. Pop in a disk, go get a snack while the game loads up, play for hours.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Victor Penman was also responsible for the AD&D Core Rules 2.0 and Expansion software, which is still the best campaign management software ever made, in my mind.
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I still use the CD ROM core rules to this day.


There is one overlooked gem that many don't consider because it was only available for the ill-fated PSP (PlayStation Portable) handheld system. But it is specifically the only reason why I still own one and fire it up every now and again despite some of the tediousness and a few bugs. Worth it!

I played this game a lot, but I didn’t get the same DnD feel. I’m guessing it has to do with what edition people played. I was still playing ADnD instead of 3e, so this game didnt feel like the game I played. For someone who played 3e, I imagine this game felt really good as a simulator of the rules.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
The SSI games were good for the time, even if they felt way too samey. Probably why they could crank them out. And I’m sure all of us remember resting for up to a week straight as the cleric cast, rememorized, and rested, and casted cure spells 😂. The side scrolling Dragonlance game sucked though.

To be honest though, I thought the Might and Magic games were better computer fantasy games. But I do think they did a good job emulating DND, and I enjoyed playing them.
 

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