Putting the 'role' back in role-playing games since 2002.
Donate to Codex
Good Old Games
  • Welcome to rpgcodex.net, a site dedicated to discussing computer based role-playing games in a free and open fashion. We're less strict than other forums, but please refer to the rules.

    "This message is awaiting moderator approval": All new users must pass through our moderation queue before they will be able to post normally. Until your account has "passed" your posts will only be visible to yourself (and moderators) until they are approved. Give us a week to get around to approving / deleting / ignoring your mundane opinion on crap before hassling us about it. Once you have passed the moderation period (think of it as a test), you will be able to post normally, just like all the other retards.

Editorial The Digital Antiquarian on SSI, TSR and the Rise of the Gold Box Games

Infinitron

I post news
Staff Member
Joined
Jan 28, 2011
Messages
98,071
Codex Year of the Donut Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker Pathfinder: Wrath I'm very into cock and ball torture I helped put crap in Monomyth
Tags: Dungeons & Dragons; Gold Box; Joel Billings; Pool of Radiance; Strategic Simulations, Inc.; The Digital Antiquarian; TSR

As I anticipated, after writing about Ultima V and Wasteland last month, the Digital Antiquarian moved on to the third great RPG of 1988, SSI's Pool of Radiance. However, he chose to take a long route, producing a comprehensive four-part series of articles entitled "Opening the Gold Box" that also chronicles the pre-RPG history of SSI and the pre-CRPG history of TSR. Today he's published the third article in the series, that describes how the two companies met, and how a frankly second-rate RPG developer like SSI managed to outmaneuver titans like Electronic Arts and Origin to snag the desirable D&D license for themselves. And that despite the fact that SSI's CEO Joel Billings, a passionate wargaming grognard, didn't even like RPGs or D&D. I'll quote that part of the article:

Coming off a disappointing 1986, the first year in which SSI had failed to increase their earnings over the previous year, Joel Billings was greeted with some news that was rapidly sweeping the industry: that TSR was interested in making a Dungeons & Dragons computer game, and that they would soon be listening to pitches from interested parties. To say that Dungeons & Dragons was a desirable license hardly begins to state the case. This was the license in CRPGs, the name that inexplicably wasn’t there already, a yawning absence about to become a smothering presence at last. Everyone wanted it, and had wanted it for quite some time. That group included SSI as much as anyone; once again pushing aside any personal misgivings about getting into bed with the company that had shot his own favorite hobby in the head, Joel had been one of the many to contact TSR in earlier years, asking if they interested in a licensing deal. They hadn’t been then, but now they suddenly were. Encouraged by Murray and Brors and other rabid Dungeons & Dragons fans around the office, Joel decided to put on a “full-court press,” as he describes it, to spare no effort in trying to get the deal for his own little company. Sure, it looked like one David versus a whole lot of Goliaths, but what the hell, right?

The full list of Goliaths with which SSI was competing for the license has never been published, but in interviews Joel has mentioned Origin Systems (of Ultima fame) and Electronic Arts (of The Bard’s Tale fame) as having been among them. As for the other contenders, we do know that there were at least seven more of them. One need only understand the desirability of the license to assume that the seven (or more) must have been a veritable computer-game who’s who. “We were going head to head with the best in the industry,” remembers Chuck Kroegel, a programmer and project manager on SSI’s in-house development team.

SSI was duly granted their hearing, scheduled for April 8, 1987, at TSR’s Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, headquarters. With a scant handful of weeks to prepare, they scrambled desperately to throw together some technology demos; these felt unusually important to SSI’s pitch, given that they were hardly known as a producer of slick or graphically impressive games. Those with a modicum of artistic talent digitized some monster portraits out of the Monster Manual on a Commodore Amiga, coloring them and adding some spot animation. Meanwhile the programmers put together a scrolling three-dimensional dungeon maze, reminiscent of The Bard’s Tale but better (at least by SSI’s own reckoning), on a Commodore 64.

But it was always understood that these hasty demos were only a prerequisite for making a pitch, a way to show that SSI had the minimal competency do this stuff rather a real selling point. When SSI’s five-man team — consisting of Joel Billings, Keith Brors, Chuck Kroegel, the newly hired head of internal development Victor Penman, and Vice President of Sales Randy Broweleit — boarded their plane for Lake Geneva, they were determined to really sell TSR on a vision: a vision of not just a game or two but a whole new computerized wing of Dungeons & Dragons that might someday equal or eclipse the tabletop variant. The pitch document that accompanied their presentation has been preserved in the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. I want to quote its key paragraphs, the “Overview,” in full.

[...] In some ways, what this overview offers is a terrible vision. The Wizardry series had opted for a similar overly literal translation of Dungeons & Dragons‘s core-game/adventure-module structure, requiring anyone who wanted to play any of the later games in the series to first buy and play the first in order to have characters to import. The fallout from that decision was all too easy to spot in the merest glance at the CRPG market as of 1987: the Wizardry series had long since pissed away the position of dominance it had enjoyed after its first game to become an also-ran (much like SSI’s own CRPG efforts) to Ultima and The Bard’s Tale.

On the other hand, though, this overview is a vision, which apparently stood it in marked contrast to most other pitches, focused as they were on just getting a single Dungeons & Dragons game out there as quickly as possible so everyone could start to clean up. TSR innately understood SSI’s more holistic approach. With the early 1980s Dungeons & Dragons fad now long past, their business model relied less on selling huge quantities of any one release than in leveraging — some would say “exploiting” — their remaining base of hardcore players, each of whom was willing to spend lots of money on lots of new products.

Further, the TSR people and the SSI people immediately liked and understood one another; the importance of being on the same psychological wavelength as a potential business partner should never be underestimated. Born out of wargames, TSR seemed to have that culture and its values entwined in their very DNA, even after the ugly SPI episode and all the rest of the chaos of the past decade and change. Many of the people there knew exactly where scruffy little SSI was coming from, born and still grounded in the culture of the tabletop as they were. These same folks at TSR weren’t so sure about all those bigger, slicker firms. While Joel Billings may not have had a lot of personal use for Dungeons & Dragons, that certainly wasn’t true of many of his employees. Joel claims that the “bottom line” that sold TSR on SSI was “an R&D staff that knows AD&D games, plays AD&D games, and enjoys AD&D games.” They would feel “honored to be doing computer AD&D games. If you’re doing fantasy games, the AD&D game is the one to do.” Chuck Kroegel sums up SSI’s biggest advantage over their competitors in fewer words: “We wanted this project more than the other companies.” That genuine personal interest and passion, along with SSI’s idea that this would be a big, ambitious, multi-layered, perhaps era-defining collaboration — TSR had never been known for thinking small — were the important things. The details could be worked out later.
The article reveals that SSI developed Pool of Radiance in genuinely close partnership with TSR. The game's campaign was actually designed as a tabletop module by TSR personnel, which SSI then adapted to their engine. There's also a description of the peculiar relationship between SSI and EA, who had wanted D&D for themselves but ended up purchasing a stake in SSI instead, which helped fund the game's development. Finally, there's some information about SSI's pre-D&D RPGs such as Questron and Wizard's Crown, the latter of which served as the basis for the Gold Box engine. All in all, another must-read article from the Antiquarian. He'll be discussing Pool of Radiance itself next week.
 

Anthony Davis

Blizzard Entertainment
Developer
Joined
Sep 7, 2007
Messages
2,100
Location
California
Truly, some of the happiest days of gaming I ever had were playing the gold box games, along with Question 1 & 2, the Phantasie series, and Wizard's Crown.
 

MurkyShadow

Glittering gem of hatred
Patron
Joined
Mar 15, 2012
Messages
353
Location
ye olde europe
Codex 2012 Codex 2013 Codex 2014 PC RPG Website of the Year, 2015 Make the Codex Great Again! Grab the Codex by the pussy Insert Title Here RPG Wokedex Strap Yourselves In Codex+ Now Streaming! Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong BattleTech Steve gets a Kidney but I don't even get a tag. My team has the sexiest and deadliest waifus you can recruit. I helped put crap in Monomyth
Why have I still not played the Gold Box games?

You should. I have recently replayed Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds. And I was quiet surprised how
well the mechanics and graphics hold up. I played them originally on the C-64. And I felt right at home again.
I remember when I was replaying Master of Magic, I didn't recognize anything, graphics and system wise.
Completely different game and developer, still a timeless classic. But more like algebra. I'd be 'able' to get
back into it again. The Gold Box Games are astonishingly solid. Also, you won't have to draw your own maps.
Thanks to the Internet, you have the blood and sweat available that was poured into making them.
I'm glad for that too. I fondly remember drawing maps when I was in my teens. Today, when I'm playing
Underrail for example, I'm thinking, shit, ain't got no time and nerves for drawing maps.
 

As an Amazon Associate, rpgcodex.net earns from qualifying purchases.
Back
Top Bottom