Grigsby is one of the founding fathers of strategy war games for the PC.
He’s been designing computer games since 1979, the last 14 years
of which have been in conjunction with publisher Strategic Simulations
Inc. (SSI). He’s worked on 23 games to date (all published by SSI),
including Pacific War, USAAF, Panzer Strike, and Kampf Group. Gary’s
latest game, which he co-developed with Keith Brors, is Steel Panthers.
Steel Panthers is a World War II, turn-based strategy game, in which you
control combat at the squad level. It’s been one of SSI's most popular
games since it was released last September, and it has sold approximately
85,000 units to date.
Grigsby is an independent contractor living in Encinitas, CA, and did
most of his programming at home. He and Brors (formerly an SSI employee,
now an independent programmer) began development of Steel Panthers in
May of 1994. Although Steel Panthers shares some similarities with other
SSI war games such as Panzer General and Allied General, Grigsby had nothing
to do with either.
"As far as the game engine is concerned, any similarities between Steel
Panthers and Allied General and Panzer General are purely coincidental,"
Grigsby said. "Keith didn’t even do any real work on Panzer General
before we had the design of Steel Panthers done, so there was really no
influence there either. SSI was prodding us [to make it similar to Panzer
General]. If anyone feels there’s a similarity between the two games,
it’s likely because of their similar artwork. But the mechanics underlying
Steel Panthers is completely different."
Give the Player Options
One of Steel Panthers’ strengths is the flexibility it offers when
choosing in selecting battles. You choose either the European or the Pacific
theaters, and within the chosen theater you select either an individual
scenario (a specific tactical engagement) or a campaign (such as "Battle
of the Bulge") made up of scenarios which you must win in order to claim
the campaign victory. The choice of which nationality to play and which
weapons to purchase are also left largely up to the player. Although so
many choices can be daunting to a new player ("Jeez – if I pick the
PZ-II over the PZ-III, will it significantly alter the outcome of this
battle?"), Grigsby and Brors went to great lengths to help players make
informed decisions: they included an encyclopedia within the game that
describes the individual tanks and aircraft.
The Steel Panthers rule book states that each nation has specific abilities
and battle tactics, which was implemented in an interesting way. "The
abilities are tied to a nationality and a time," said Grigsby. "So, in
July of 1941, you’ll find Russian leadership poor [due to the effect
of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of Russia which began
on June 22nd]. When assigning these traits, I relied on a historical database
which I’ve been working on for at least 10 years. I also worked for
the department of the army for a couple of years and the department of
defense for five years, though I didn’t get much of my knowledge
from those jobs. Most of my background comes from playing war games for
about 10 years, before I ever bought a computer."
Grigsby, through his many years of designing war games for the PC and
playing miniatures-based war games, has compiled a massive database of
weapons and armor that forms the backbone of the game. The game itself
comprises over 200 tanks, 120 types of weapons (artillery, mines, and
so on), and more than a dozen different kinds of infantry squads. Each
object has unique characteristics associated with it, such as armor, type
of weaponry, weapon range, shots per turn, movement per turn, and so on.
This information was also drawn from Grigsby’s database. So where
did Grigsby get the information to populate his database?
"Rule books from various miniatures-based tank games," Grigsby admitted.
"In a book, someone will say something like, ‘the Panther was a great
tank.’ But in a miniatures rule book, you'll see the Panther and
a long string of numbers – ratings for various capabilities. And
that's the kind of data you need if you're going to develop a game. If
all you've got is someone saying "it's a great tank," it's not going to
help too much."
"I use five or six sets of rule books from miniatures-based games. The
games that I rely on for my numbers are Yag Panzer, Panzer War, Command
Decision, and GI Commander, each of which has their own strengths. I can
compare numbers from game to game, and determine which rule books are
flaky, and which follow the same lie with regard to weapons and armor
capabilities. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell where the inaccuracies
are – somebody probably just made some numbers up for a weapon in
their rule book and everyone else used those numbers in theirs...and now
it's gospel," laughed Grigsby.
With a game that has to live up to historical expectations, we thought
that either the attention to historical accuracy or implementing a good
artificial intelligence engine into the game would have been Grigsby’s
biggest challenge. We were surprised to hear otherwise.
"The hardest part for me was incorporating the game’s large volume
of graphics," Grigsby confessed. "I had never even come close to dealing
with that amount of graphics before. And we had to do it twice: the first
time the graphics weren’t good enough and we scrapped them and got
a whole new set built. I also had to hunt down sources for all of the
pictures of guns, tanks, and what-not, and I had to incorporate those
as well. I spent about 60% of my time just incorporating graphics into
the game. A lot of time was wasted because we didn’t know what we
were doing or we did it twice because things didn’t work right the
first time." Incidentally, the black and white video footage that precedes
various campaigns, as well as detailed diagrams of World War II weaponry
used throughout the game were taken from the U.S. National Archives and
used with its permission.
The Steel Panthers AI
The game demonstrates that it can handle itself against human opponents.
Inquiring about the AI used in the game, Grigsby replied, "AI is a bunch
of kludges used to make something that’s really stupid look not quite
so stupid. We found as smart a way as we possibly could to get a computer
opponent on defense to set up and protect an objective area, while being
a little random in the process so it’s not totally predictable. Once
you've got that part accomplished, you just have the computer sit still
and blow up anything that comes its way."
Way points, which are intermediate geographic locations en route to a
primary objective, are part of the AI built into Steel Panthers. "When
the computer is attacking, it tries to use way points, although if it
adheres strictly way points, then it starts doing really stupid things,"
Grigsby said. "It would just run armored vehicles by you, exposing their
flanks to your anti-tanks guns. It must be smart enough to turn and realize
that these anti-tank guns are a threat. Under some circumstances it should
turn, advance on the anti-tank guns, deal with them, and then resume to
the next way point. The game's AI uses a way-point system similar to that
implemented for players, just in a highly modified fashion."
Gary Grigsby’s been developing these games for over a decade. So
what can someone this accomplished learn from his latest project?
"The big lesson I've learned is how important it is to make things attractive
and user friendly," he confessed. "A lot of my games in the past weren't
attractive or user friendly, and they appealed to a smaller audience of
dedicated war gamers. Trying to intelligently mix realistic war games
with attractive-looking graphics always a challenge. I'm going to get
more involved with graphics in future projects. In fact, I'm doing the
artwork for the next game."
The March '96 issue of Computer Gaming World
pegged Steel Panthers
at number two in its monthly "Readers’ Top 10" list, and most consumer
game magazines have lavished praise upon the game. Grigsby isn’t
surprised at the game’s popularity, though.
"When we started development, I figured that a tactical armor game with
good graphics would have great potential. When Keith and I began to compare
Steel Panthers to Panzer General, we thought, ‘Well, maybe this could
sell as well as Panzer General.’ And we still think that. However,
with some of the bad karma that surrounded the project, it didn't feel
at the time like the whole thing was a big success. I was in a mood to
celebrate when it was all over. But now we’re cashing royalty checks,
and I'm feeling better about things."