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

Surfing the web in 87...maybe the old BBS billboards :). Granted I may be way behind the time.
I thought the same thing at first but there were things like CompuServe and The Source that were net-ish at thew time. You could send email, etc. - but a lot of times it was limited to people on the same network. Lot of time spent on BBSs back then.
 

oreofox

Explorer
I played 2 of the 3 "of Krynn" gold box games back in the mid-late 90s when we got our first home PC with 2 MB of RAM. I can't remember what the one is named, but one I played was Champions of Krynn, and the one I didn't get to play was the Dark Queen of Krynn. I have all 3 of them on my gog wishlist, and hope to one day be able to get them.

These games were one of the first computer games I played that wasn't an educational game on an Apple IIe school computer lab machine. The War of the Lance novels were still fresh in my mind when I grabbed some gold box SSI games.
 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
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.
I'll just say ditto to everything here.
 

Hathorym

Explorer
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 would have loved to have tried that. Where's the PC Port already!?
 

Zardnaar

Hero
What happened to SSI? I think the last games I played from them were Panzer General and People's General iirc.
 

Parmandur

Legend
What happened to SSI? I think the last games I played from them were Panzer General and People's General iirc.
They got acquired in the mid-90's, and then the guys who acquired them got acquired, etc.

Think Ubisoft owns their stuff now.
 

3catcircus

Explorer
Wow. Brings back memories. Me and over of my friends had been chugging through Curse of the Azure Bonds on my C=64 and team into a game -crippling bug. We had to send away a flip with the saved game to SSI for them to patch. They returned the disc after I had to leave for Navy boot camp while my friend fired up my computer to finish the game... Good times. Good times...
 

WayneLigon

Adventurer
I loved Pool of Radiance. For the first time you could SEE a lightning bolt bounce around a room and eliminate people that probably thought they were safe. You could watch monsters poof away as a fireball engulfs them.

Then, one day, I used both CON-raising items on a dwarf with an 18 Con, and used the thing to pass time rapidly. Suddenly the screen seemed to go nuts, until we realized that the Dwarf now had a CON that allowed him to regenerate. We were serious impressed by the deep attention to the smallest detail.
 

gyor

Hero
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.

I love that old box art, I miss it. People talk up Baldur's Gate 1&2 but the truest examples of D&D were always the turn based games, Baldur's Gate had better graphics, but it was RTwP, very un D&D, still a fun game.
 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
I loved Pool of Radiance. For the first time you could SEE a lightning bolt bounce around a room and eliminate people that probably thought they were safe. You could watch monsters poof away as a fireball engulfs them.
My formative experience with the fireball spell in D&D was casting it in the kobold caves north of Phlan and having it cover the screen with an explosion slaying up to 37 kobolds at once.

When I first saw someone in 3e cast a fireball at a single opponent I was weirded out. I still feel a sense of dissatisfaction whenever I see a fireball cast at less than 5 or so targets. That's just wrong.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
My formative experience with the fireball spell in D&D was casting it in the kobold caves north of Phlan and having it cover the screen with an explosion slaying up to 37 kobolds at once.
We felt the apprehension as it expanded and expanded and expanded toward us as well as taking out lots of kobolds. It stopped right in front of us - maybe with the buffer of one space. We breathed a collective sigh of relief.
 

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