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The Future of Submarine Games

 by: Neal Stevens

In the last six months, the demise of sims has been pronounced in abundance. Print mags and sim webzines have been telling you sims are being cancelled left and right Jane's A-10: Cancelled. Wolfpack II: Cancelled. Silent Steel II: MIA. M1Tank Platoon 3: Cancelled. Fighting Steel Deluxe: Cancelled. Jane's Attack Squadron: MIA. Thunder Over Europe: MIA. The list goes on.

We all know that this is a down cycle for sims and we believe there is hope that in a couple of years, things will turn around and sims will be hot stuff again. Hey, I remember in 1973 when the EPA and OPEC throttled the life out of the muscle car scene. I had a 1970 Cobra Torino that had 450 hp and ran the quarter in the high 13s. In less than three years every car out of Detroit was a smog controlled, gas economizing slug. They even started making them as ugly as they were slow! It was heartbreaking.

But over time, things change. Now you can get a high performance machine that handles and has luxuries like front/rear AC. My '99 Riviera has a supercharged V-6 that would make my old Torino proud.

So, keep the faith. Things will improve, even if no one knows when. Silent Hunter II and Destroyer Command are showing signs of life. Harpoon 4 is still under development. There are stirrings from the Sonalysts camp.

When a new subsim does hit the shore, try to remember, the developers and game producers are our friends. They make the kind of games we like because they like them too. Why would they labor over armor thickness tables, ship model physics, and torpedo trajectories for a niche market? I know a few developers and they all love the genre.

Try to keep your criticism balanced. Should you blast a sim you had trouble with or didn't enjoy with all the invective and animosity you would normally reserve for someone who stole your car or used your toothbrush? I was told by one producer that high-level executives frequently ask him about hard-core negative postings on newsgroups and forums. The industry sees us as demanding, unappreciative, and impossible to satisfy. It's much easier and more lucrative to crank out Deer Hunter and Barbie games and their users rarely flame the game company to a crisp.

I work with a CPA accountant who likes computer games and is pretty good at them. He can play a mean Age of Empires warrior. I tried to interest him in learning Jane's 688(I) for some multiplay. He took one look at the hefty manual and waved it off. He assumed he would need to learn all the material to play competitive. The blessing and the curse of a good sim is its complexity. You want to command a battle fleet or do TMA on a Los Angeles class submarine? You need to learn skills and study. And this restricts the popularity of the sim. Mass market games generally do not carry the steep learning curve a sim does. So while we hard core sim players are delighting in the minutia of seven different stations and all their controls, casual gamers are passing up the sim at a 20 to 1 ratio. Sims truly are a niche market.

Niche market games have limited budgets. This mean a small number of programmers and artists must concentrate on the basics. Don't expect to see everything you want and imagine in a sim. Oh yeah, I'm with you--I wish a subsim could have full motion crews and other fun stuff. But as one producer told me, "We don't have the money to design and integrate these features into the product. I wish we could, too."

We should be finding out the status of Silent Hunter II soon. Either Mattel Interactive is going to sign someone to complete it or it will be canned. I went through the "we are planning to do this" stage with the fabled Jane's Ice Pack add-on for 688(I), Crusader Studios' Akula: Red Hunter, Silent Steel 2, and the interoperability between Jane's Fleet Command and 688(I). I'm not passing judgment here, just stating that when the momentum dies, so does the objective. For whatever reasons, the product champions behind those sims were unable to secure the financing to start work. To get a better feel for the whole process, read my friend John Sponauer's analysis of the life and death of a sim, M1 Tank Platoon 2, from its early development as an upgrade all the way through its last couple of weeks.

Despite my previous experiences with other sim companies, I am optimistic that Carl Norman and Rick Martinez mean what they say and SSI will continue to raise the banner of the Digital Combat Series while the Jane's, NovaLogics, and Microproses around them fall like unfortunate tin soldiers. This is not to say SH2 is a done deal--that moment will come when you hold the box in your hand. We look to the next rumored subsim as our best hope for advanced underwater warfare. All we can do is stay positive, supportive, and if it's decent, buy four copies when it comes out.

About The Author

Neal Stevens is the editor of and contributing author of the coffee table book United States Submarines.

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