Strategic Simulation's first game -- Computer Bismark, published in 1980.
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) has the envious distinction of garnering both the most GOTCHA nominations and GOTCHA wins. To be fair to other publishers, this is because SSI's main focus was wargames, which were a niche market that many publishers chose to avoid. However, SSI was the undisputed king of computer wargames and was extremely successful as a videogame publisher. As the company grew, so did its areas of expertise, adding RPGs and simulations to its massive portfolio of titles.
In July of 1979 Joel Billings started writing a game called Computer Bismarck. He decided there was a market for the game and founded a development company he called Strategic Simulations. Billings hoped to publish Bismarck through the board-wargaming giant Avalon Hill, but an exploratory call to AH showed that Tom Shaw had no interest in Bismarck. His next call was to Automated Simulations (Epyx), but that too led nowhere. If was obvious to Billings that if Bismarck was going to be published, SSI would have to do it alone. That August he convinced John Lyon and Ed Williger to help him with game development. Although they started working in August, they weren't officially employees of SSI until November.
Computer Bismarck was released for the Apple II in January of 1980 and for the TRS-80 later that year. SSI forsook the typical zip-loc packaging of a first-time publisher and shipped with the highest quality box and materials available. In fact, the box was oversized (about 8.5" x 11") and patterned after the famous Avalon Hill bookshelf board games. Although the boxes were atypical computer game packaging at the time, they had no problem getting into stores. In fact, the SSI business plan called for 90% mail order sales, but once they mailed to the Apple warranty list in February of 1980 (20,000 people were on the list), SSI had stores asking to buy the game. By March of 1980 they were running 90% store sales and only 10% mail order. The professional look of the packaging and materials definitely helped get Bismarck and SSI's other games into stores, and SSI retained the larger box style until 1984. Some games, like 1983's Questron, were originally packed in the larger box, but in later runs repackaged in a new, more conventional 6" x 9" box.
Other people involved with SSI in 1979 were Susan Billings (Joel's sister) who was hired in December 1979 to help with the administrative/logistical side of the business, and David Cook (head of Amdahl home computer club). He never became an employee, but SSI borrowed his computer for a while.
In 1982, SSI started a new line of games it called "RapidFire." The name implies action games, but this isn't usually the case. RapidFire games are not SSI's traditional wargames, but they still run the gamut from strategy to action. RapidFire games were generally written by outside developers; therefore they were more diverse in both genre and quality. The initial four games were Cytron Masters (written by Dan and Bill Bunten, later of Ozark Softscape and M.U.L.E. fame), Galactic Gladiators, The Cosmic Balance, and S.E.U.I.S. The January 1983 issue of SpaceGamer magazine says the RapidFire line "...deserves any award it can be nominated for. It is the best line of computer games I've ever seen, and the programs rate high on an individual basis also." Of course, in 1982 there wasn't any award to be nominated for, which is why we now have GOTCHA. RapidFire only lasted a couple of years, adding titles such as Fortress, Combat Leader and The Cosmic Balance II in 1983.
An SSI RapidFire ad from the January 1983 issue of SpaceGamer magazine.
SSI simply dominated the computer wargame market in the 1980's and 1990's. Its chief competition in the early 80's was Avalon Hill, the company that SSI originally hoped would publish its games. However, AH games were far less popular than their SSI counterparts. Click here for a complete discography of SSI games published between 1980 and 1987.
Besides wargames, SSI also published several successful RPGs: The Phantasie series, Questron series, Wizard's Crown series, and Gemstone Warrior series to name a few. However, it wasn't until 1988 that SSI became a powerful player in the RPG market. In 1987, SSI signed an agreement with TSR (the publishers of Dungeons and Dragons paper-based role playing games) to be the sole producer of D&D computer role-playing games. In 1988, SSI released Pool of Radiance. Its combination of D&D rules and lore combined with tactical combat proved to be a smash hit. The same (or similar) RPG engine was used to produce approximately 10 other SSI D&D games. The D&D name was also used successfully in other non-RPG computer games like Dragonstrike (a dragon riding simulation) and War of the Lance (a fantasy wargame). In 1990, SSI also created the first in the highly successful first-person D&D RPGs -- Eye of the Beholder. In retrospect, the D&D license was one of the best business decisions SSI (or any Golden Age game publisher) ever made.
With the combination of the D&D license and their continuing excellence in wargames, SSI survived and excelled beyond the Golden Age (1979 - 1992) of computer gaming. However, in the mid-1990's, SSI was bought by the Learning Company (much like Broderbund), which was later bought by toy giant Mattel. In 2000, Mattel sold its games and educational software divisions to a buyout firm called Gores Technology Group, which renamed the games division to "GAME Studios" in January of 2001. GAME Studios was then sold to Ubi Soft in March of 2001. SSI is still a strong brand name today, but it now exists in name alone as part of a much larger corporation.
-- This summary was based on e-mail interviews with Joel Billings and Chuck Kroegel (of SSI and Tactical Design Group). GOTCHA would like to sincerely thank both gentlemen for their willingness to help preserve this slice of video gaming history.
GOTCHA NomineesDeath Knights of Krynn -- SSI, © 1991
Games in the GOTCHA Museum
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