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SSI Games: History of an Epic Game Company
Strategic Simulations Incorporated, commonly abbreviated as SSI, was involved in the design and/or publishing of over a hundred video games in its career. Founded in the 1980's at the dawn of the PC gaming era, SSI survived, albeit under control of a parent company after the mid 1990's, all the way until 2001. During its career SSI published highly influential and fondly remembered turn-based games like the Panzer General series and its spin offs - Pacific General, Allied General, Fantasy General, and Star General. But it later began publishing titles like the Earth 2150 series, which was developed by a Polish video game company and made it to market through SSI's efforts. Through its RTS and TBS selections SSI made its name known worldwide and it remains one of the best loved companies in the gaming industry, even though it is no longer with us.
SSI began in the 1980's and purchased the license for the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons series, which broke it into the role-playing world where it remained for much of that decade. But it was in the 1990's with the publishing of Panzer General that SSI made waves in the gaming community. This turn based strategy game took the unusual path of following the German side throughout the Second World War. The number of Panzer General games are there for TBS enthusiasts to enjoy now, nearly 20 years after the first Panzer General game was published, is a testament to SSI's long term impact on the PC gaming community.
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SSI and Panzer General
The original Panzer General was, and remains, a masterpiece of the turn based strategy genre. It features outstanding landscapes, a huge database of historically accurate World War II military equipment, and deep gameplay that can challenge even gamers who have been through a campaign or scenario multiple times. On top of all that Panzer General boasted a simple user interface that made the game as easy to play as most any game out there. Sending the German armies across Europe between 1939 and 1945 was as simple as clicking on a unit and ordering it to move across a map delineated by hexagons. Attack and defense values governed combat, and certain tweaks to each unit type's capabilities meant that tanks alone could not win the day on most maps.
SSI computer games and Panzer General laid the foundation for a whole series of fun, well received titles in the turn-based strategy genre. Allied General took the basic mechanics of Panzer General and followed the Allied campaigns to defeat Germany in the Second World War. Pacific General took combat, as one would expect, to the Pacific Theater and focused on battles between Japan and the United States. And the Second World War was not the only focus of the General games. Fantasy General and Star General took the gameplay into fantasy and science fiction realms respectively, and together these games continued SSI's innovation in the turn based strategy genre.
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SSI and the Changing Environment for PC Games
The slow death suffered by many of the early innovators in PC Gaming during the late 1990's was not immediately apparent because of the proliferation of some of the most epic games of all time during these years. Starcraft, Total Annihilation, Homeworld - numerous high quality titles covering almost any conceivable aspect of strategy graced the market. But under the surface, the industry was collapsing.
The costs of game development were increasing as the technology required to keep games on the cutting edge visually necessitated more and more hours dedicated to graphic design and 3D modeling. Cheaper alternatives including farming coding work out in developing economies were pursued, but often at the cost of in-game storytelling and innovation in gameplay. Consumer demand played a part as well. Starcraft fed an appetite for games with lots of action at high speed, which all but doomed the turn based genre and strongly affected the real time genre as well. Games that emphasized multi-hour campaign missions were subordinated slowly but surely with those that pushed half hour multiplayer matches.
The game publishers and developers like Cavedog, Westwood Studios, and SSI began to be acquired by media companies and forced to release games on a more regular schedule, at times without putting the care into gameplay innovation and story development that had previously been a hallmark of strategy games. And there was increased competition as well from the growing sophistication of consoles like the Nintendo and Playstation which absorbed the time and money of many gamers, who began to choose console games over PC games in greater numbers.
All in all, the decline of SSI began long before it was finally retired as a brand by one acquirer, Ubisoft, in 2001. Panzer General sequels kept being published and Panzer General II is held by many lovers of the PG series as being the best of the bunch. But slowly but surely, the rate of publishing declined and SSI became less relevant.
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SSI Games and Earth 2150
Turn based SSI computer games and Panzer General in particular were superseded by real time titles by 2000, but SSI had one final hurrah to bestow upon the world - and a hurrah it was. Earth 2150 was never well known, but was one of the most innovative RTS titles to come out of any studio. It exemplified SSI's commitment to publishing quality games even as the industry entered its decline.
Earth 2150 was developed by a Polish design group who made it one of the first fully 3D titles with an adjustable camera, one of the first and best to allow units to gain experience and carry over from mission to mission, and one of the very few to fully and truly diversify the in-game factions. In truth only Warcraft III and Starcraft can truly compete with Earth 2150 in this regard. Earth 2150 featured three races locked in a six month struggle to consume the last of Earth's dwindling natural resources to fund an evacuation to Mars before Earth's decaying solar orbit led the planet so close to the sun that it became uninhabitable. One faction was a future version of the United States that used unmanned robots to do all of its work and most of its thinking. Another was a throwback to the Khanates of Central Asia that used 20th century tanks and helicopters in conjunction with lasers and nuclear bombs. The third was a matriarchal corporation that had colonized the Moon and utilized hovering vehicles and energy weapons to do battle over the rapidly dying Earth.
In their last gasp, many companies have done far worse than Earth 2150. With customizable units, an engaging storyline and unique game mechanics it remains one of the more innovative games of recent memory.
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The End of SSI and Future Prospects for Strategy Games
The loss of SSI, one of many closures to affect the post-console, post dial-up internet age, is still felt in the game market today. Games like Panzer General are no longer produced, and aficionados are stuck modding and customizing the original games to the extent they can be altered. Earth 2150 gave way to the less engaging Earth 2160 series, which despite the name was set in Mars and included that ever-cliched element of aliens as a fourth faction.
Blizzard Studios is now pretty much the only player in the game when it comes to real time strategy. Some titles have made it through under other publishers - Blitzkrieg is a good example, and Supreme Commander was decent, though nowhere near as enjoyable as its spiritual predecessor Total Annihilation. Perhaps the open source world will let game designers with coding skills and vision release their labors of love to interested gamers. And independent, non-profit games like Fate of the World have in part revived turn based strategy games as a tool to promote awareness of complex environmental issues.
SSI now belongs to history, but its games are still played and even purchased on the few websites that cater to retro gamers and nostalgic types. For anyone who would like to play games that may not be visually stunning or fast-paced, but who still enjoy the experience of a deep and thought provoking strategy challenge, SSI games are worth a look.
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Sources and Image Credits
The Earth 2150 User Manual
All images screenshots made by Andrew Tanner