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

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Von Ether

Explorer
“Then the president of TSR decided she needed lots more money from the computer games license.”

Was there ever anything Lorraine Williams approached competently?

Depending on the timing, the question is, "Was it simple greed or was the house of cards already falling?"
 
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Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
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...
I have confidence in the TSR upper management of that time to have tried to milk a computer division dry (as they seemed to want to) and destroy it.
 
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Jer

Adventurer
I have confidence in the TSR upper management of that time to have tried to milk a computer division dry (as they seemed to want to) and destroy it.
Yeah - the story about how they treated Random House in the 90s does make it seem likely that things woudln't have ended well...
 

Parmandur

Legend
There might be more to the story, as SSI seems to have been making D&D games up to the point of being acquired and going defunct.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Adventurer
Do you remember when mobile changed the musical industry? And now the videogames. I dare to predict when the tablets with flexible and ultrathin screens were in the market, it will change the literary industry, and also the TTRPGs. This will be like A3 size (two pages). Some videogames will be used as a miniature tabletop in game-live (streamer) shows, or we will see fan-art machinima videos.

The future of the RPG videogames will be something like the last Capcom's title "Resident Evil: Resistance", an asymmetric game where a "Dungeon Master" adds traps and monsters, but with a quest/story/mission editor used by players to create their own modules/adventures.

And monsters or "atrezzo" you buy in the "expansions" will can be used the later updated editions.
 

kyuss

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.
well, the 'internet' did exist in 1987. ARPANET was running tcp/ip and the DNS system existed. But there were only like 30k hosts and they were limited (mostly) to universities and military installations. I doubt Jim Ward actually had access to this system. I imagine that he was surfing BBS' and, like, compuserve...
 

Sword of Spirit

Adventurer
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.
Hehe...it most likely got some of my party the first try. Coming from 1st and 2nd level spells, you just don't expect the area of effect to be that big. With that and the Mentzer Basic Set, I don't think I realized that D&D spells went higher than 3rd level until Curse of the Azure Bonds. I mean, how are you going to top a room clearing incendiary bomb, right?
 

Ricochet

Explorer
The Dark Sun games were tremendous. The Menzoberranzan game was a mess.
Eye of the Beholder was the best of the series, but was actually made by Westwood (though published by SSI).
 

Von Ether

Explorer
Yeah - the story about how they treated Random House in the 90s does make it seem likely that things woudln't have ended well...
For running a company that was based on mythology, she never did seem to learn that "Golden Goose" story.

I suspect that when she demanded a ridiculous amount for the sale of TSR (in what I assume was that her goal of an early retirement -- regardless of the actual worth of the company), that when WotC accepted the offer without batting an eyelash, her first response was, "Dang! I should have asked for even MORE!"

Or maybe once she got TSR out of debt, she didn't know how to switch gears? It takes a truly talented CEO to know when they should switch tactics for the next phase of the company or to bow out when they acknowledge they are out of their depth.

The reality of it , is that she probably should of sold the company much sooner, or if she was trying to do that then she couldn't find a buyer.
 
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I've always wanted to run a campaign based on the Pools series with a group unfamiliar with the source material. PoR and PoD would seemingly work pretty well with fairly minimal adjustments, but I can see players really getting annoyed with having character agency being taken from them periodically in CotAB, and, really, whole swathes of SotSB could be cut out with little detriment to the overall storyline. Anyone have suggestions on who to remedy those issues, especially how to not remove agency in CotAB, but still keep the story focused on the Azure Bonds?

(And of course, I really should snag the modules associated with the first two games from the DMs Guild)
 

EthanSental

Explorer
Perfect timing in that I just finished listening to PoR and now PoD on audible, having read them back in the day. Still fun books to read, thanks Jim! I used the pools from 2e in my 5e campaign last year...group had fun with that story arc.
 

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