|Steel Beasts Pro: Personal Edition|
Listening to the voice of Steel Beasts,
In early March 2006 I was able to ask the technical director of eSim, Nils "Ssnake" Hinrichsen, some interviewing questions on the development and the future of Steel Beasts.
Skybird: Hi Ssnake, and thanks for taking the time. As a beginning, how came the members of the development team together and why decided you to work together and create Steel Beasts?
Ssnake: We learned to know each other over the internet. I still have to meet every single team member in person; should I ever manage to fly to Texas I may be able to place the last checkmarks on the list. J
We’re working together because we’re interested in the same subject matter. A virtual company may suffer from some drawbacks like the fact that you can’t simply walk into your colleague’s office, look over his shoulder and show him something or ask a stupid question. We’re more of a team of lone wolves, as oxymoronic as that may sound. But there’s one big advantage – a virtual company like eSim Games can pick talents from a much larger pool than a highly localized company of similar size could. We’re small, but we can still attract extremely talented people like Raino Sommer or Ed Williams despite the fact that they’re living on different continents, time zones and many thousand miles apart from each other.
Skybird: How long did it take to finish the development of the Personal Edition of SBP?
Ssnake: When did we start?
When we started working on Steel Beasts? Then it’s eleven years now.
When we finished the work on Steel Beasts Gold? Four years.
When we decided that there would be something like the Personal Edition? That was three years ago.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date at which we were starting to develop SB Pro PE simply because we just had to decide what the differences between it and the classroom version were supposed to be. The actual beta test for SB Pro PE started about two years ago.
Skybird: When and why did you make the decision to come up with a "civilian" version of Sb Pro that until then only was produced for the military?
Ssnake: SB Pro PE still isn’t what we’d consider "civilian" product. It’s just that we don’t stop consumers from buying it. ;)
We figured that there would be a demand among our army customers for a distant learning tool as well as some sort of "personal software equipment" for the soldiers that they could use for "homework", especially the students at military academies. At the same time it seemed to be a good way to release some of the pent-up expectation of our most loyal fans who were waiting for SB2. We realized that military contracts would absorb most of our development capacity for a considerable time, and that we couldn’t release a competitive game under these circumstances. Yet it seemed unfair to deprive a loyal community from the benefits of the new engine. If we wanted to remain committed to the entertainment market, something had to be done, and the Personal Edition seemed to be a good way of addressing both markets’ demands.
Skybird: Could you describe the way of interaction with your military customers? What is their attitude towards your "little game"?
Ssnake: I have yet to meet a single soldier personally who isn’t excited about the possibilities of our software after ten minutes of demonstration. But there’s always a group of traditionalists who dismiss PC based simulations as "playthings". But I think that the benefits of a low-cost solution like ours are so manifest that our advocates within these armies manage to convince their higher-ups to make decisions in favor of our product, especially since the associated financial risk is limited.
Skybird: What thinks the military is SBP making a valuable tool for them? What aspect do they love so much that they pay money for it?
Ssnake: First of all, it’s cheap. Let’s face it: What we do, in principle, is to replicate the capabilities of simulators of established defense contractors, except that we’re bypassing the hardware element (the cabins with replications of control panels and sights etc.) and relying on consumer hardware (standard PCs). Steel Beasts Pro is a "me too" product that competes through extremely aggressive pricing.
Yet, like in so many other examples that marketing theory can produce, such an aggressive pricing can lead to the development of entirely new forms of application, and therefore create its own market. Some armies already apply basic accounting methods to determine how costly certain training methods are. Using a platoon level combat simulator can cost about $4,000.- per hour if maintenance for the simulator and personnel costs are taken into account, and the investment volume of typically several million dollars per installation usually prohibits the procurement of them for every single line battalion. Instead, you concentrate them in simulator centers, usually located at the branch schools or army combat schools.
Now, this means that every soldier is either exposed to such simulator sessions only once in his life during his stay at the school, or that all line units nationwide must be rotated through one of those centers. The consequence is that the associated costs increase even more since troops must travel and be accommodated, and that soldiers generally do not get as many exposures to the lessons that a simulator can teach as would be required to realize the full training potential of these multimillion dollar installations.
It would be much smarter if one could train the basics of maneuver with a simulation that is so cheap that you could use it anytime, anywhere. Once that the soldiers know the ins and outs of these basics they can go to the high fidelity simulators to train things that they cannot with the cheap simulation, and the overall training result will be so much better.
Skybird: How much does it cost a military customer to buy your non-PE software, if you are allowed to tell us?
Ssnake: A standard classroom license for 10 PCs is $18,000.- (the equivalent of five hours in the high fidelity simulator, or fifteen rounds of 120mm main gun training ammunition).
Skybird: I assume you have asked other tank armies, that are not your customers, as well to try it. What were their arguments to reject to use it in training?
Ssnake: They rarely tell you what the reason is, and then it’s always the question whether they tell you the real reason. But in any case one should be prepared for decision-making processes that take several years before they finally decide to buy the software. Some of our "lost customers" may actually still be thinking whether or not to use it.
Skybird: Talking on the PE-version now. What aspects in the package are you especially proud of, what do you think are the details that the team managed to create especially well?
Ssnake: The 3D interiors, once that all major vehicles will come with them, are beautiful, and may actually be the final reason why some people decide to buy it. The fact that we managed to replicate not just one or two vehicles, but a broad range with above-average fidelity. The fact that we managed to offer a broad variety of tactical options, a beautiful 3D environment, and still pay attention to detail.
Skybird: What were the most difficult features to implement, and why?
Ssnake: "Difficult features" – well, I don’t know what was the biggest intellectual challenge for Al Delaney. But I can name two things that cost him or Raino Sommer a lot of sweat if not brains.
The transition from DirectX 7 to 8.1 cost us a lot of time since large parts of the code had to be rewritten to replace simple 2D drawing operations. Moving on to DirectX 9 was much easier. As far as artwork is concerned, the decision to implement 3D interiors was probably insane. Sure, they look awesome, but the amount of work that was poured into them is disproportionate to the amount of time the people will spend to look at all that glory. Yet, there is some benefit in them as these virtual interiors help to reduce the amount of time that soldiers need to spend on learning to work with out software, so they can concentrate more on what the simulation is supposed to illustrate.
Skybird: You probably also think that some things maybe did not work out as good as intended. What features implemented are you not so much happy with, if there are any details you would consider to be a bit weak, compared to the rest of the simulation?
Ssnake: There are many things left to be desired, undoubtedly. But what we have is the best that we could come up with, given time, budget, and the conditions under which we’re working. To that extent I like to concentrate on the positive.
I mean, it’s bloody obvious that shadows would make the screenshots look much better (but then again, how much do you miss them really if most of the time is spent looking through a scope, scanning for targets that are a mile or more away?)
Having weather effects and night combat would be nice, maybe even gorgeous eye candy, but managing the battle is difficult enough already – how much more so if it were dark?
The biggest benefit overall that we might gain from a single feature addition would be a simulation of the vehicle suspensions. I hope that we’ll find the time to work on that, but it’s not trivial since we need to find a compromise between realistic behavior and efficient simplification of a system with 14 coupled springs, inertia of three subsystems, and several mass points that can shift their positions. If done analytically this would fill five to ten pages of differential equations, and it’s nonsensical to attempt doing things that way (at least without a PhysX chip, maybe).
Skybird: Any intention to correct them in a future update?
Skybird: Concerning updates and support, what is your policy in this regard?
Steel Beasts Professional is supposed to enjoy a long product life span. To that extent we want to offer upgrades to it for as long as there are customers who are interested in it. The Personal Edition is a variant of SB Pro, and will receive just as much attention from us. In fact, we just need to compile the project with different flags set to incorporate all changes for each version.
SB Pro PE will therefore receive upgrades as long as there is a market for it. Of course, in the long run we cannot offer these upgrades for free, but we won’t charge for them during 2006 and some time into 2007. We haven’t made a decision about the price of future upgrades yet, but we intend to keep them moderate.
Skybird: Have you already any plans what to do in future updates? Will there be a day-night-cycle with changing light conditions, and weather conditions?
Ssnake: Yes, we’d very much like to implement that, but I simply don’t know when we’ll find the time to do it. The summer will bring a playable Swedish infantry fighting vehicle with some truly unique elements; I’m sure that many people will love that CV9040!
Beyond that I don’t want to speculate much since much will depend on the outcome of ongoing negotiations with various army customers.
Skybird: Could you describe us what you already can say about Steel Beasts 2, if there is any? How will SB Pro compare to it?
Ssnake: I think that the biggest difference will be content. We will also attempt to streamline the user interface, to add some convenience features, and other elements to help making Steel Beasts approachable and easy to learn.
The reason to split Steel Beasts into the Professional product series and the game versions (the absence of a "Professional" name tag indicates a game version) is that sometimes the design goals for entertainment and good training cannot be met in good compromise. So, wherever we felt that we sacrificed entertainment value in the past in favor of realism and training value we’re going to address these points to make the result more fun and less complicated. I would very much like to avoid calling that "dumbing down". It is a natural consequence of shifting the focus towards better entertainment. Even with all attempts to streamline the user interface and make the software easier to learn, Steel Beasts will still appeal to a minority of consumers since it will always be more complicated than your run of the mill first person shooter. But that doesn’t mean that we should go to extremes and make things complicated just for the sake of adding yet another option.
I have my doubts if someone without prior knowledge of the original Steel Beasts, or prior army training (say, and an armor or IFV crewman) would even find the time to properly familiarize with SB Pro. It has become a powerful application, yet with so many features that it must inevitably appear intimidating to some extent. Intimidation is not good entertainment. We need to address this; otherwise we could just as well abandon the game market entirely. We don’t want that.
Skybird: How is your relation to the community?
Ssnake: I’m here to help and provide guidance as much as possible, and to keep everybody informed about the progress and direction of development. I cannot really be a member of it to the extent that I’d join ongoing multiplayer games as much as I’d love to, simply due to the fact that our company is small and I need to perform many other roles – often enough the travelling salesman. Last but not least running one’s own company invokes some administrative annoyances like monthly tax declarations etc.
Skybird: What are your general future plans as a developer? Could you imagine ever to start a software in complete different ground? Or to get SB embedded in an electronic battlefield environment, like it was planned by other publishers in the past?
Ssnake: I think that our prime expertise is, and will remain to be, armoured fighting vehicles. From that point, it is likely that we will continue to do what we do best, and explore what I’d call "adjacent markets". Wherever you start in combined arms – at some point you need to integrate other elements at least to some point.
It looks like the future might actually enable us simulation and wargame developers to create a distributed environment. The technology, at least in principle, is there – but warrants substantial development effort to get the details right. And getting details right is vital!
We still need to figure out a promising business model that creates a good incentive for independent developers to collaborate on a joint environment, and then you need to agree on the content which might be even more difficult. Finally there is the discrepancy in the scope of each simulation – Steel Beasts focuses on the platoon, company, maybe battalion level whereas a bomber jet simulation, even if it focused on Close Air Support missions, would rather be a divisional level asset.
The challenge is to combine all these divergent requirements for gameplay to make it work without the tedious "general staff" level planning to create missions that appeal to both the player at company scale as well as the division. More often than not the interaction between these worlds would be rather indirect insofar as the jet pilot would rather be tasked to fly sorties of Battlefield Air Interdiction (which warrants that a SEAD and fighter sweep sortie must be conducted first, or in conjunction with it). If the jet pilots fail, the guys on the ground would only later be tasked with impossible odds while face severe inferiority in numbers. Or you’d suffer from fuel and ammo shortages. To that extent there is a danger that the interaction between the distributed elements of a joint battlefield is rather indirect, and with a time delay, that won’t let the players really experience what’s going on at the large scale, and how they fit into the big picture. Likewise there is the danger that if the war is being effectively conducted by one element, the other elements would either face boring missions or impossibly difficult ones.
The electronic battlefield has not arrived yet not because there’s no demand for it, but because the technological prerequisites have arrived only now, and because many questions are entirely open as far as game design, balance, and content are concerned.
Provided that we get to solve all these issues it might be the best thing since sliced bread, but we’re not there yet, and the road is long and steep and full of nasty, slippery stones.
Skybird: Do you actually have any time left to play the simulation yourself? Do you like any other games or sims out there?
Ssnake: Very little. This is somewhat ironic. I joined Al Delaney so he could write the game that I always wanted to have, and now that I got it I’m too busy to play it – at least just for the sake of having fun with it. My consolation is that what we have has resonated a chord among many others, and that they’re enjoying the fruits of our labor immensely. That is a good motivation to keep going. J
Skybird: A personal question of mine: why that double-S in your callsign? A typo? Are you a fan of Metal Gear Solid? Or Snake Plissken?
Ssnake: Snake Plissken, actually. It’s been ten years now since I picked it, and I always had a soft spot for John Carpenter movies. Well, I guess I just wanted to mimic the warning sound of a rattlesnake when I picked it, and somehow once that you pick a "callsign" you tend to stick with it.
Skybird: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, and best wishes for Steel Beast’s future!
7th March 2006
Ssnake is the German voice to be heard in Steel Beasts Pro PE. He has been a tanker in the German Bundeswehr before joining Al Delany and becoming the technical director of eSim.
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