Australian Pioneers: SSG’s American Strategy
Sydney based games designers and publishers Strategic Studies Group (SSG) founded their Australian studio in 1982. Whilst the games of Melbourne House and Beam Software’s could be understood to belong to the evolution of games from arcade to home computing — with the “Horace” games plainly showing off their legacy to arcade legends “Pac-man” and “Frogger” — SSG have their roots in a different place.[i] SSG belong to the world of strategy wargames, a popular hobby with its origins in military history and mathematics, and its home (at this time) in America.
It was the American games company Avalon Hill whose strategy board games popularised wargaming as a hobby in the 1960s and 70s. Games designer Greg Costikyan identifies Avalon Hill’s 1958 publication of Charles Roberts’ game “Tactics” as the first commercial board wargame responsible for defining the game mechanics and conventions for the genre. Its publication lead to the creation of hundreds of other military-based board games for the hobbyist market over the next fifteen years (Costikyan, 2005). Taking the military tradition of strategy games known to have existed for millennia, Avalon Hill used a formalised, mathematically precise, paper-based version of battle simulation to create a form of commercial entertainment (Smith, 2009).
As these games are built around arithmetic and stochastic algorithms, their migration to the computer was a natural one. The computer could deal with algorithms far in advance of what a human player was capable of, taking the burden of heavy calculations away from the player, allowing them to concentrate instead on tactics (Smith, 2009). The arrival of the microcomputer meant that these kinds of simulations were now in the hands of the hobbyist wargamer. Avalon Hill published their first computer game in 1980. They were beaten by new comers Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI) with their 1979 genre-defining game “Computer Bismark”.
In 1979, Roger Keating was a Sydney-based high school maths teacher. He was a keen chess player and wargamer. Enthusiastic about the new Apple II computer, he found himself writing a lot of software to address the lack available locally. He gave it away to members of the Sydney Apple Users Group where he was president. His commitment did not go unnoticed and he was appointed International Apple Corp (IAC) Director for Australia, an honorary title given to the user groups’ national spokesperson representing Australian Apple users to the America Company. Encouraged by one of his students, rather than giving away his most recent game “Conflict” (1979), he self-published. With no real idea what to do, he sent copies of it across to America to the magazines and companies that for him defined the world of strategy wargames. One of these was Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI) who contacted Keating offering to publish his game, if he agreed for it to be bundled with another game.
Not only did Keating say yes to SSI’s offer but — having just lost a long and infuriating battle with his school on the value of computers in education — he thought it might be time to take a break from teaching and try something else. He was heading to America for an IAC meeting so invited himself to SSI’s offices to learn about the industry. SSI was a good home for Keating as like SSI’s founder, Joel Billings, he shared a fascination for how artificial intelligence (AI) could transform strategy games. Keating spent three months at SSI working as freelancer and published, at this time, three games with SSI. Billings offered him a job. Keating describes his decision to return to Australia as “line ball” driven mostly by concerns about job security in America’s fledgling games industry.
Back in Australia Keating began to implement what he had learnt at SSI. He teamed up with military history enthusiast and fellow wargamer Ian Trout and they founded Strategic Studies Group (SSG), a name usefully evocative of the then industry leader, SSI. One of the things he had learnt at SSI was that there was more to the business of making games than simply making games, so SSG also organised themselves as publishers.
Their first game “Reach for the Stars” began as an adaptation of an existing board game, but it soon evolved its own identity. When it came out in 1983 to critical success and good Australian sales but only OK American sales, Keating and Trout realised that if they wanted to really make it as game designers they needed to make it in America. As they did not know any Australian game designers, America was already the focus of their creative network, through their associations with SSI and Apple (and their attendance at the Origins Conventions and Chris Crawford’s newly minted game developers conference). But it needed to also be the heartland of their audience. By the time their second game “Carriers of War” came out in 1984 SSG, had their man in America, John Gleeson, who was responsible for the distribution of their games. Gleesons’ role was pivotal and he had to deal with everything from on-going customs issues to an earthquake destroying their stock warehouse. SSG’s American identity — serviced by one good man and a postal address in Walnut Creek — was important for locating them in the home of strategic wargames and at the centre of a growing commercial software industry. Steve Fawkner recalls that Australian retailers often preferred to order “Warlords” (1989) through their regular American distributors rather than directly from SSG, providing the boxed games with an around the world trip.
Costikyan, G. (2005). Game Styles , Innovation , and New Audiences : An Historical View. In DiGRA 2005: “Changing Views: Worlds in Play, 2005 International Conference”. DiGRA. Retrieved from http://www.digra.org/wp-content/uploads/digital-library/06278.11155.pdf
Fawkner, Steve, Interview Play it Again, 7 August 2013
Keating, Roger, Interview Play it Again, 10 June 2013
Smith, R. (2009). The Long History of Gaming in Military Training. “Simulation & Gaming”, 41(1), 6–19.
[i] Beam Software’s celebrated text adventures such as “The Hobbit”(1982), “Sherlock”(1984) etc obviously have their origins in Will Crowther’s “Colossal Cave Adventure” (1976) for which there was no arcade equivalent and Scott Adams’ “Adventure” series for the home computer.