Beyond Steel Beasts: What’s Next?

Interview with Al Delaney and "Ssnake" of eSim. Steel Beasts was a long time coming. Now six months after release, it has garnered universal acclaim and numerous awards. How does it feel to have your breakout product behind you?

eSim: It was a great experience to see our product released and so well received by critics, but the work goes on! Now the focus has shifted from the pure development to product support, and marketing efforts. There are more mundane business issues to handle now, but we hope being back to coding again soon. Were there any moments of doubt, any anxiety during the pre-demo period? Did you ever worry the sim might not be received well?

eSim: From the technical aspects of the sim - no. We knew from the feedback of the beta team and from any tanker who had a glimpse of the program throughout every stage of the development that the core of the sim was rock solid. Nevertheless the best technical solution is not always the most successful in business terms, and it was uncertain whether a broader audience would see the strong points of Steel Beasts behind its aesthetic shortcomings. It turned out that many critics tended to discount these weaknesses in view of the strengths of SB. That was a real surprise. During the summer of 2000, Steel Beasts was highly anticipated by tanksim players. We noted the legendary efforts by Ssnake and SimHQ to answer every question and explain every design decision. How much do you contribute that kind of PR effort towards the success of Steel Beasts?

eSim: Quite a bit, we think. Steel Beasts is a complex product created for expert wargamers and sim enthusiasts. The feature list is huge, and from a marketing point of view, that actually can be more of a problem than a benefit. This complexity and demanding game play requires explanation. We have the classic dilemma of accuracy vs. understandability. With sufficient background knowledge it is easy to understand why we made certain design decisions, but even expert sim aviators often lack that technical background in a tank sim. Everybody can judge the quality of a screen shot, but it is the screen shots that do Steel Beasts’ graphics engine little justice, and they don’t tell you anything about the quality of game play. Will Shrapnel be able to land a distributing deal to get Steel Beasts on retailer’s shelves? Will we see Steel Beasts at Best Buy anytime soon?

eSim: Not in the foreseeable future, I’m afraid. Sales figures are the bottom-line yardstick for measuring success. We have yet to hear any numbers quoted. Has Steel Beasts sold as well as expected?

eSim: Sales have not been as good as we had hoped, although they do seem to be improving. We are not about to give up on our baby so easily, though, and we are convinced that an upgraded graphics engine will help tremendously in this regard. Sadly, the market simply demands better looks. Our plan has always been to concentrate on the game-play issues first, and then worry about eye candy. We were a little surprised at how important eye candy is with respect to sales, but it wasn’t totally unexpected. Can you supply a sales figure? 1000? 5000? 50,000? A ball park number?

eSim: We’re sorry, but we are not at liberty to discuss sales figures at this time. I hate to dodge this question, but you wouldn’t want us to get in legal trouble, would you? What kind of advertising and marketing has been done for Steel Beasts?

eSim: As far as we know, marketing has relied primarily on Internet-based promotion. We have also seen one ad in the Australian Army’s magazine. We plan on taking a more active role in this area soon, so we’ll be able to tell you more in a few months. You have just issued the second Steel Beasts patch. Will you now be turning your time and effort toward Steel Beasts II?

eSim: For the most part, yes, although we are discussing other possibilities for SB that may delay this slightly. In any event, we will continue to provide upgrades and patches for SB(1), so nobody should worry that SB will be neglected for SB2’s sake. Jim Dattilo at Computer Simulations Games quotes you as saying Steel Beasts II will „include an upgraded graphics engine as one of the main features." What are some of the other planned main features?

eSim: Although hardware acceleration’s immediate benefits are the possibility of higher screen resolutions and better frame rates, it will also allow us to offer two new and important tactical elements - visibility and weather effects – including night combat. The feature wish list for night combat is especially demanding, so we’ll have to see how far we can go here. As for other features, that will somewhat depend on how much time will be left before we’re forced to actually sell the new version. We don’t have a detailed strategic paper here – there are no money suits behind us demanding some justification to burn their money. We will see how far we can get, and where we can make a good compromise between simple business necessity and benefit for our customers. The new version should offer more than just a different method of rendering landscapes, though. Have you secured a publishing deal for Steel Beasts II?

eSim: We’re not even trying, as we’re quite content to do that ourselves. If we made a deal with a major publisher, the only way we could make a decent amount of money would be to sell a whole lot of copies. We have always viewed SB as a niche product, so although the possibility is there to sell a lot of copies, it’s not likely, since we would probably have to capture the entire tank sim market and then some. In addition, we would lose a lot of design freedom, become more disconnected from our customers, gain more stress, and probably be less happy. Has Steel Beasts enable eSim to add staff? Will Al remain the sole programmer (hard to argue with success) or will there be an "Apprentice Al"?

eSim: Actually, we’re working on creating a mini-Al  :) We may hire additional manpower on a freelance basis, but there’s still Al as the sole programmer of eSim Games, with Ssnake trying to handle everything else that might distract him from coding. ;) Assuming Steel Beasts II is completed by fall 2001, what’s next on the eSim drawing board? Are there other genres of sims—naval sims, subsims, helosims—that you are considering?

eSim: There’s several possible ways. We will focus on where our competence is - mechanized warfare. It is thinkable to develop a first person shooter module for Steel Beasts. Maybe we move up and down the time line. A "future combat system" add-on where we could portray possible tanks of the near future (up to 2020 maybe), or going backwards into the 70s and sixties with the series of Arab–Israeli desert wars that have raised so little attention in the sim department. Maybe we manage to pull some more deals with other armies, who knows?



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