Wargame Design Studio Interview – John Tiller Software Legacy and Future

About two months ago, Wargame Design Studio– the folk working hard to bring the older John Tiller Software up to snuff- concluded the acquisition of all the assets of JTS, including its entire game catalog, source code, and the John Tiller and John Tiller Software name. This was announced on the 19th of November. Alongside this unexpected news, WDS also released Forgotten Campaigns, a new game that includes 115 scenarios and a master map with some impressive 293.550 hexes. The company has been working hard to launch a myriad of improvements to already existing titles. I was lucky enough to score an interview with WDS’s David Freer. Here’s their story and, what WDS is planning for the future, and which games David Freer would take to an isolated island, if such came to be.

How did Wargame Design Studio come to be? What’s your story? 

Wargame Design Studio (WDS) was formed just over five years ago in 2016. The genesis for the team was after a discussion with John Tiller and the future of the Panzer Battles series. John was finding he had less and less time to focus on the consumer business due to his government contract commitments. He agreed that WDS could have full control of the source code, with him providing support if required. Subsequently, we took over the Civil War Battles series. The major inclusion at this time was Berto our programmer who had worked with John’s code on the revamped Campaign series (originally at Talonsoft now at Matrix/Slitherine). Berto added a substantial number of features in both usability enhancements such as toolbars and hotkeys but also bug fixes and gameplay enhancements. The experience of working with these series and then the graphical enhancements and scenario integrations with the Panzer Campaigns Gold releases were all a good foundation for the output you are now seeing from WDS.

My personal story is like so many of our customers, a background of traditional war board games and then a move into computer games when they became more broadly available. I was fortunate enough to know Ian Trout and Roger Keating who ran Strategic Studies Group (SSG) in Australia and did some scenario design work and a lot of playtesting across a range of their titles. Real-life (school and work) intervened, and it wasn’t until 2010 that I approached John Tiller with a proposal to convert a mod I was working on for his Panzer Campaigns Kharkov ’42 into a full-blown game. The mod became Panzer Campaigns Kharkov ’43. Three subsequent titles followed, Panzer Campaigns – Moscow ’42 and two Panzer Battles titles, Kursk and Normandy. Panzer Battles – North Africa 1941 was subsequently released after the creation of WDS in 2018. The focus of WDS moved beyond just creating new titles to enhancing the existing catalog and that has become a major component of our day-to-day work. I need to go back and do a proper count but there would be at least thirty people actively contributing to WDS today.

From what I read, you’ve been working with JTS before, was that what motivated you to acquire the company’s assets? 

There is such immense potential in the John Tiller games series. John has built a fantastic catalog but has probably not put as many resources into areas like graphics, user interfaces, or overall marketing. Not enough people know about these games! Rarely can you buy a catalog with almost one hundred titles, knowing that every game just needs a little polish to shine. We also felt that we were starting to get the resources required to upgrade the games to the level that we wanted them to be and that everything was coming together in terms of timing. Personally, I have worked in consumer software for two decades so have a strong appreciation for what can be done.

How do you feel about owning an IP so beloved by wargamers all around the world as the JTS?

We are excited, but honestly, that IP is loved because of John Tiller. We are building on his legacy and want to ensure we capture the approach he has utilized. One example of maintaining John’s approach is our upgrade policy. We do not charge for patches, and we try and include free content where able. An example of free content is what was done with the Panzer Campaign Gold updates. We could have justified launching ‘Panzer Campaigns 2’ for all the added content and graphical enhancements but thought it more important to delight the customer base. John’s first game, Panzer Campaigns – Smolensk ’41 is as ‘up to date as our most recent release and there are two decades elapsed since.

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So far, you’ve done an explosive announcement, by upgrading a lot of existing titles, for how long have you been working on this?

That is a hard question to quantify as some of the upgrades have been worked on for over a year while others have come together in the two months since we bought the catalog. A lot of people have worked extremely hard to get to the November 19th launch. With one hundred games, there is a big volume of game patches, new builds, graphical updates, and a plethora of other inputs. Converting the changes.txt file to proper changelogs in PDF form is a small example of over a man week of work. We have also had to build a web store and site as well as the infrastructure behind it in parallel to the actual work on titles. We wanted to end up with a one-stop site, rather than the old dual-site and store. The website you can visit at https://wargameds.com/ did not start construction till October 2021. There has been a lot of project and time management in the background!

And why have you felt the need to upgrade the old titles with a ton of new stuff? Some developers will be content with just doing quality of life updates, but you guys added new units and maps, is that some early Christmas gift by the Wargaming-Claus?

We have touched on this in the previous answers, but we believe that the real strength of these titles, the research, and the accessibility of the game system deserves to shine. A number of questions have arisen about whether all the John Tiller Software teams have come across to WDS? The answer is yes. These teams never really finish a project and always want an enhancement or additional content for their ‘baby.’ This usually arises from additional research on subsequent products or the inclusion of new features in the code. The teams are usually keen to go back and include any new features if they will improve a previous game or individual scenarios. This work gives us the opportunity to update and upgrade titles as we go forward.

Also, have you ever met John Tiller? If so, can you let us know how he was? 

I have only met John Tiller virtually via FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, etc. John can best be described as passionate, yet humble. He had a clear vision of what could be achieved with each of his game engines and was very supportive of the developers who actually built the final games.

What can we expect from the Wargame Design Studio going forward? 

The launch of WDS was important for underlying the values and approach that we want to take. We have a huge catalog of titles and we want to ensure there are no ‘forgotten children.’ We have as much focus on upgrading the existing titles as we do to release new work. This both benefits existing owners, but also opens the chance for new players to join the community and to not be turned off by ‘dated’ graphics for example. With more contributors in the team, we have been able to tackle items as diverse as code, graphics, documentation, and overall standardization. We also plan to focus on increased communication to keep all up to date on what we are working on.

What projects are you working on right now? Can you give us a small tease of something in the up-and-coming future?

A. We are working on a very solid pipeline. The pipeline primarily consists of new games, but increasingly includes revisions to existing series and titles. Squad Battles was not covered in the most recent updates and there is a plan to revisit those both from a code and a graphical perspective. For all twelve series we have, there is development work in all and there are even discussions on using existing series in periods they were not originally intended for. We are hopeful to move many of the usability improvements that were in Panzer Battles, Civil War Battles, and recently Napoleonic’s across to series such as Panzer Campaigns and others. We are also looking at areas that are the backbone of all titles, like the game artificial intelligence (AI) which could always use improvement considering that many players play against the computer.

Would you consider bringing your games to Steam? And why?

Currently, we don’t believe we have truly taken advantage of our direct-to-the-market channel. Previously, John Tiller Software had very little engagement on the web. There was no regular marketing or communication with customers, and we think there is an opportunity to be more proactive with our customer base. There may be a right time to work through partners if we believe they serve a market our games are relevant in. Our current offerings are niche and using the wrong channel to market could hurt your brand more than it helps. We are also on a journey to improve and modernize the product and we would not want too broad an exposure before we felt the products were ready.

Can more tactically incline aficionados like me expect another entry in the panzer battles series? And what about 3D maps for those, would they be considered?

Yes, we announced that the next title in the series was Panzer Battles – Moscow here: https://wargameds.com/blogs/news/2020-end-of-year-update There was also an after-action report from one of the playtesters here: https://wargameds.com/blogs/news/panzer-battles-moscow-the-first-after-action-report The biggest challenge with the Panzer Battles series is that most of the design and project management has sat with me. With the large changes at Wargame Design Studio over the last year, you can imagine which project has been most heavily impacted. I am hopeful that as the dust clears, I can get some more time to drive this title forward. It is quite different from the prior Panzer Battle releases.

As far as 3D maps for this series, no. In fact, we need to look at how much 3D graphics/maps are being used in series like Panzer Campaigns or even Squad Battles. There are a lot of resources needed to make 3D look reasonable and we have only achieved what we hoped for within the pre-20th century series, such as the Napoleonic’s or Civil War Battles. If the 3D map doesn’t add significantly to the experience or conversely is rarely used, then we need to look at whether its inclusion is worthwhile.

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If you had to take 5 WDS games to a deserted island, which would you take?

Oh that’s a hard one! I would probably take two of the games I had personally created but rarely played a new series I had never played, and two unreleased games.

With that criterion, the first two games would be:

  1. Panzer Battles North Africa due to the sheer range of interesting scenarios. Additionally, our ‘Crusader king’ Rick Bancroft has just started building some multi-day Crusader battles using the new replacement system implemented with the latest build, and I would love to play that.
  2. My second, self-created game would be Panzer Campaigns – Moscow ’42. With the multiple campaigns covering the 1941/42 Winter offensive and the hypothetical Fall Kreml in June of 1942, you get something like the equivalent of six or seven Panzer Campaigns – Bulge ’44. There is that much additional content and a diverse range of scenarios.  I really think there is a lot of gameplay bang for your buck here.

For a series I had never played, I would probably have a look at:

  • The First Blitzkrieg in the Strategic War series. This is a very manageable scale, and a large scenario can easily be played in an evening.

For the unreleased games, I would be taking the following two titles to complete creating them. These games would be:

  • Panzer Battles Moscow, which I would have little excuse for not finishing, particularly as I had Panzer Campaigns Moscow ’42 with me!
  • One of the games from the Panzer Campaigns series that is currently under construction. There is quite a pipeline of new titles building up and I would have to pick one from a quite diverse range. No clues on what I would take…

I think these five titles would keep me very busy!

Thanks so much, David.

And folks, this is all we got for you today. As you can see, Wargame Design Studios is taking good care of the John Tiller Software library. Make sure you check out their new website and pick something up during this Christmas season.

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