Home of Wargamers 2015 - Our questions to the Slitherine Group leaders19 Jun 2015 0
French language wargaming site HistoriaGames have conducted an interview with The Big Three of the Slitherine Group and have very kindly agreed that we can carry an English version of the interview here on Wargamer.com. So many thanks to Michel Ouimet at HistoriaGames for that and we hope our readers will find this illuminating.
It is not every day we can shed light on the growth of the “world’s leading producer and publisher of digital wargames and strategy games”. As Home of Wargamers 2015 invites all gamers to do, we seized the opportunity to discuss subjects-we-never-dared-to-ask-about with the big boss himself, JD McNeil, Chairman of the Slitherine Group, and two of his key lieutenants: Iain McNeil, Development Director, and Marco Minoli, Marketing Director. Listen carefully to how they answer our tricky questions…
Our three speakers: Iain and JD McNeil (left) and Marco Minoli (right), accompanied by the journalist Owen Faraday, at the Home of Wargamer 2014
Setting the scene
HG: As time goes by, the Slitherine Group is getting more and more tentacles. How many bosses are running the business and how do they manage to not constantly squabble amongst themselves?
JDM: There are 5 Main Board directors and over 30 staff scattered across 9 countries. Each of the Directors has a very specific skill set and is responsible for different aspects of our business. We have a weekly Board meeting via Skype and a full face to face here at head office (in Epsom, Greater London) 5 times a year. Do we squabble, well what do you think? We prefer to call it an expression of strongly held views. We are so frantically busy that we don’t have time to pussy foot around. My time is generally taken up with legal, contractual and the financial aspects of running the business and in truth I have little to contribute in making the games. Someone has to deal with all of the dross.
HG: How did the recent acquisition of Shenandoah Studio (in September 2014) modify the internal structure of the Group?
JDM: Our discussion regarding Shenandoah started well before the deal was actually signed. We had admired their work from the outset and always felt that there was a synergy between them and us. Personally I have the highest regard and respect for Nick Karp and Eric Lee Smith, they had done a great job. Our intention from the outset was to pair up Shenandoah with one of our external development partners who in our view were a perfect fit and after some detailed negotiations a full merger was agreed and the Studio is now based in Romania, being run by two of our smartest ex-developer partners. I say ex as they are now fully integrated into the Group and are managed by Iain, our Development Director.
Time of changes
HG: The Slitherine Group is well positioned to see how the wargaming industry is actually changing. With tablets challenging PCs, online distributors’ fierce competition and ageing hard-core wargamers, where is the wargaming market heading?
JDM: From the outset we fully embraced the arrival of the new tablet platforms and viewed this as a great opportunity. Both our Battle Academy and Panzer Corps series did fantastically well and of course we continued with our usual pricing policy. The Omens were great. However we have seen the absolute flood gates being opened here with around 500 releases a day on iOS and in the main at ridiculous prices or free to play. The problem is that our games take a considerable time to build and bring to market, but fortunately we have a specific target audience that we always try to satisfy and that will not change. However that new buzz word “discoverability” springs to mind and in a sea of flotsam, even we have to work harder to rise to the surface J. So our early enthusiasm has been somewhat tempered and whilst we will still release titles for the iOS tablet our main focus will most certainly remain PC.
HG: How do those changes increase the attractiveness of strategy video games for casual gamers? How do they impact your game development and marketing orientations?
IAIN: Casual gamers are a very hard market to target. We’ve tried in the past to create simple strategy games for the wider market but these have never really worked. We’re now focussing on the core strategy gamer. We know there are millions of them out there and we’re still only hitting the tip of the iceberg and there is lots of room for growth in our niche. Currently we plan to raise the bar on all our games to sell to a large number of strategy gamers but have no plans to target casual gamers.
HG: Are there some voices calling for the renewal of historical wargame traditional mechanisms (terrain depiction, unit abilities, activation mode, combat resolution, strategic options, etc.)? What are they calling for?
IAIN: Wargamers are a very vocal bunch! They all have their own favourite period, scale, complexity level, turn system etc. etc. You can make a game that targets a very small part of the audience but they’ll absolutely love it. Alternatively you can target a wider market and have less specific features and create a game that has wider appeal but is not such “insta buy”. It’s always tricky to get this balance right and something we are continually reviewing.
HG: What are the emerging/growing market segments that should not be neglected under any circumstances in the next five years? How will you reach these gamer pockets?
MARCO: You really have to make a distinction between gaming platforms, distribution channels and market segments. All these three clusters have a room for growth with the strategy gaming market, especially considering that there is big growth for turn-based games in general out there. We are very proud that we have contributed so much to the growth of the sector of the past few years and now that the arena is bigger it is important that we keep our mission of being market innovators in game content, platforms, pricing models and distribution channels.
HG: Will any part of the PBEM++ multiplayer service be amended or is it one of the few things that will be left undisturbed in the coming years?
IAIN: The PBEM++ system is continually evolving. We deployed PBEM++2 last year and since its release we’ve added support for iOS, Android and Steam. In the next few weeks we’re rolling out the integrated tournament system which bolts in to it. We’re also looking at ways to make the system easier to integrate for developers. We have a full time team dedicated to the PBEM system and more ideas than we have time to implement, so this system is going to evolve and improve for the foreseeable future.
Tigers on the Hunt, highly anticipated by wargamers
Getting into the mind of the developers
HG: Up to now, the HoW 2015 blog has been focusing on wargame graphics, ergonomics, complexity, historical themes, pricing and promotional channels. Are these the main subjects that will be addressed during the June 23–25 event?
MARCO: The event itself is about the future of wargaming. So anything that involves this macro-subject is likely to featured and covered. We have over thirty developers there, so the amount of subjects is going to be directly connected to that number and to the will of all these partners to look at the future with a critical view.
HG: Left to their own devices, would wargame developers simply replicate their past achievements or are they naturally minded to overcome barriers in order to revitalize the wargame genre?
MARCO: There is no doubt a big revitalization of the genre. We are looking at improving games, making them better looking, and enhancing gameplay and so it goes. All with the help of some of the best wargames developers in the world. That is the best thing we could ever dream for to be honest.
HG: How does Slitherine manage to harmonize the developer’s passion and creativity with the need to make games that sell well?
IAIN: This is always a tricky one. Sometimes the developer has a great idea that is commercially viable and this makes the job a lot simpler. However often there is either a gap in the idea or a fundamental flaw in an assumption they have made and we have to explain to them the realities of the market and advise them how to change the design to make the game more commercial. This can be about setting, art style, features – basically anything. Ultimately the developer gets the final call and all we can do is advise but we can be quite dogged when we know we are right!
HG: How do the developers build the historical content of their games? Do they do it on their own (as amateur historians) or do they get help from external specialists?
IAIN: Many of the developers are also amateur historians. They usually have a very specific area of interest and often know their particular area better than a professional historian who has to cover the wider subject. If there are any gaps then developer researches things and sometimes turns to the community for help but rarely if ever do we need external help.
Scourge of War: Waterloo, a strategy game dedicated to Napoleon in 2015
2015-2016 production agenda
HG: What percentage of your current development efforts is put on:
- a) expansions of popular series [Panzer Corps, Battle Academy, Warhammer 40K…]?
- b) creation of new easy-to-play wargames?; and
- c) playable wargames with strong historical content?
IAIN: We really have 4 categories. These are New Platforms, Expansions, Strategy Games and Wargames. Before the end of the year we have :
- 6 games for New Platforms, which include iOS, Mac, Android and we also count Steam as a new platform;
- 7 expansions;
- 11 strategy games; by this we mean games which have a wider appeal than the hard core wargames and ranges from Close Combat to Shenandoah’s Battle of the Bulge;
- 7 wargames; by this we mean games like Decisive Campaigns, War in the East or Flashpoint Campaigns.
HG: After Conflict of Heroes, Warhammer 40K and the upcoming Heroes of Normandie, do you plan to convert other board games into video games?
MARCO: There is a big overlap in audience between these two market segments, but it is also true that only few boardgames make a good fit into a video wargame. Most of the times, you have to bend the rules of the digital version or make slight adjustments that displease the core boardgame owners. It is such a hard balance that picking the right boardgame to transfer into digital is almost the most complex job. So, ideally yes, we would love to do more and we are looking into opportunities. At the moment we have two huge games coming out, one is Heroes of Normandie and the other one is Stratego. The latter though is not a straight adaptation of the game, but a twist into the wargaming world that uses the same core elements and transforms them into something very peculiar.
HG: Scourge of War: Waterloo has been released just in time to celebrate the 200th battle anniversary. Are there other Napoleonic wargames to be added to the Slitherine Group catalogue?
MARCO: We have three Napoleonic games coming this year. Scourge of War: Waterloo is out and already mentioned as a genre-definer amongst wargamers. We also have the next huge AGEod’s game coming as Wars of Napoleon and the aforementioned Stratego game, which title is Stratego Battles: Napoleon.
HG: Tigers on the Hunt looks like a JTS Squad Battles game dressed in LnL Heroes of Stalingrad clothes. Can you tell us more about the game and its target audience?
MARCO: Tigers on the Hunt is one of the most in-depth hard core wargames we have ever released. So target audience is our loyal fans, looking for a true challenge, with boardgame style rules. We will reveal more about this game later, but Peter Fisla, the creator of the game, has been working on it for a long time to make it one of the most complex and well thought wargames every created. [HG note: The initial intention of Fisla is to create a computer version of Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit, which is very promising…]
HG: From a marketing point of view, can wargames cover other periods than WWII? Is it realistic to imagine, let’s say, a Middle Age or Antiquity game based on the Battle Academy engine?
MARCO: The Battle Academy engine already went to the Thirty Years War and to a fantasy setting. We have wargames based on Napoleonic times, American Civil War, Russian Revolution, Ancient Rome…you name it! There are bestselling periods, of course, but in the main, we try to cover all interests and make games that replicate combat models and historical setting in the best possible way. It is not always an easy bet to make a game about, say, Spanish Civil War, but we try to address all types of audiences!
Heroes of Normandie
We thank you a lot for your valuable time, gentlemen. We expect more to come during the HoW15 livestream on June 23, 16:00 CEST.
You’ll find a French version of this interview here on histogames.com.