John Tiller26 Jun 2003 0
A noted game designer and developer, John Tiller is well known to many wargamers. Working with TalonSoft, his turn-based Battleground series covered the World War II Ardennes, several Napoleonic campaigns, and most of the significant battles in the American Civil War, while the real time Age of Sail spawned many successors in the arena of 18th- 19th century naval warfare. Since becoming affiliated with HPS Simulations in the mid-90's, his repertoire has grown considerably. The Panzer Campaigns and Modern Campaigns series are turn-based, operational level games covering World War Two and the modern era. The turn-based Early American Battles, Napoleonic Battles, and Civil War Battles offer turn-based 18th and 19th century grand tactical warfare with an operational overlay, while the turn-based Squad Battles series covers the gamut of 20th century tactical combat. His newest series is the real time Naval Campaign series, currently providing 20th century tactical naval battles.
John recently took the time to answer a wide range of questions about gaming and his design philosophy.
The Wargamer: When did you get involved in wargaming? What were some of your favorite games and how did they shape your design philosophy?
John Tiller: I got involved in wargaming in my teens, with classical games such as Avalon Hill's D-Day and Panzerblitz games. Later I moved on to the SPI "monster" games such as Terrible Swift Sword and War In Europe. I think these games led me in a direction of designing games with a very wide scope but based on simple design features. Recently however, I think my game designs have moved beyond board game implementations and utilize the computer more. For example, although I played the Avalon Hill Jutland game years ago, my version is real-time, which is only possible on the computer. Likewise, although I was very impressed with Avalon Hill's Squad Leader, when I did the design of my Squad Battle games, I went to a single-phase turn rather than multiple phases and utilized the computer for opportunity fire, something that wasn't possible in the original board game.
WG: You initially made your mark with TalonSoft's Battleground series. What led to your partnering with HPS Simulations?
JT: The computer game industry was changing very rapidly in the late 1990's. Around 1995, when TalonSoft first started publishing games, it was possible for a small publisher to get distribution in the stores and be successful. Later however, things changed and it became increasingly hard to get games into stores in significant numbers unless they had a very wide appeal. This resulted in wargames getting pushed out of the stores by more mainstream games. So to continue to develop a wide variety of wargames, it was necessary for me to move to a publisher that was involved in Internet and direct sales. HPS had been publishing games at this level for several years and I found that I hit it off pretty well with the publisher, Scott Hamilton, and the main scenario designer, Greg "Sturm" Smith.
WG: What do you think were the most important concepts to carry over from your work on the Battleground series?
JT: The development of the Battleground series really took off in the summer of 1995. I was working intensely with Charlie Kibler on the design and features of Battleground Ardennes, the first game in the series. Things really started to click at that time, and Charlie and I started to develop the key components of the Battleground style. As we traded ideas back and forth, we converged on a style that would allow for a number of options, with each one being independent and selectable on a per-user basis. With this breakthrough, we were able to arrive at a design style that a wide number of people could enjoy since it didn't force any one approach on a user and allowed them to make their own choices. This flexibility was the main design aspect that I learned from the Battleground series.
WG: You've developed 26 games for HPS Simulations in roughly the last four years, which many consider a prolific pace. In the July 2003 PC Gamer, William Trotter characterizes "Squad Battles: The Korean War" as "...the best and the worst of the Squad Battle Games." and "...obviously rushed and slovenly..." Were those comments deserved and, if so, do you believe there are some improvements to the QA process that need to be made?
JT: I can say that The Korean War wasn't rushed. In fact, a significant amount of time passed between the time of the last scenario design and the mastering of the game due to getting secondary aspects of the game completed. One thing that I think is a misconception about my publishing rate is that since there are so many games being published, it might be concluded that each game only gets a small amount of development time. What is actually happening is that I have a large number of independent development teams, each working on a separate title in parallel. Right now, I have over 10 teams each working on a different game. Each team will spend a variable amount of time in development on that game, sometimes lasting over a year. As each team completes their development, the game is mastered and published. So although there is a high publication rate as a result, each game gets the full attention of a design team over a significant period of time. But what happens is that my personal time and involvement in each game is very limited. I am forced to spend only a small amount of time with each game and thus depend very heavily on my scenario designers to ensure that the game is done right. We call each game "A John Tiller Game" as a trademark, but that does not reflect my personal involvement in each game. To solve this issue of my time limitations would require that I hire a production coordinator who would have the time to spend on each game ensuring that the details of the game were all cleaned up prior to mastering. But the brutal truth of the situation is that I can't afford to hire a production coordinator. Or to put it another way, having to pay another person would force me out of business. I've found that the current state of the wargame industry doesn't support anything above a handful of people. So to stay economically viable, I am forced to publish a high number of games. While I believe the quality of the games has been extremely high, there are usually details that aren't optimal in the game as released. With updates, we try to rectify any problems encountered post-release.
Since the 1990's, game development and publication has transitioned to a new paradigm you might say. The old concepts about how games are developed and published are no longer economically viable and new approaches are required if our game industry is to continue, especially the wargame industry. During the transition to the new approaches, customers are going to find that their expectations are having to change. This is usually difficult and does not happen without some unhappiness. But without a change, there won't be new wargames being developed. I sometimes look at the old big cardboard boxes of my original TalonSoft games and they look pretty strange to me now. While we have lost the ability to devote larger development efforts to wargames, we have gained the ability to address the lessor known historical areas such as the Korean War. I think on balance, players would rather have a larger number of games covering a variety of areas than just a handful of games focused on a few areas.