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Interview with Gary Grigsby, Developer of SSI's Steel Panthers

Vintage interview with the programmer of Steel Panthers, one of the premier game designers in the military strategy game genre, and make of one of 1995's hottest games.

Alex Dunne, Blogger

June 19, 1997

8 Min Read

Gary 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’s Database

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."

Lessons Learned

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."

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About the Author(s)

Alex Dunne


Alex Dunne is the executive producer of Gamasutra.

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