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Panther Games interview

2007.02.21. 00:00 | szerző: Lacko | Interjú

Half a year ago we had reviewed Conquest of the Aegean, the third episode of the Airborne Assault series, which presents the airborne operations in the Mediterranean with the famous engine. This strategy games engine was built by a small Australian company called Panther Games. The engine incorporates a lot of features that none other strategy games doesn't, and with its high level of realism it's definitely in the top 10 of realistic simulations. We wondered who are the people behind these games, so we sent them some questions, and they were very kind to answer them (really fast indeed).

Panther Games interview
Dave O'Connor and Paul Scobell

PC Dome: Please introduce yourself and your company. How many people are working in Panther Games and what are their jobs? Where are you located?
Dave O'Connor: Hi I’m Dave “Arjuna” O’Connor, the President of Panther Games. We’re a small private company that’s been designing wargames for over twenty years now. Our staff numbers vary from project to project. At the moment there are two principals, Paul “Panther Paul” Scobell and myself. I manage the business/projects and focus primarily on the Artificial Intelligence (AI), though I’m learning some of the intricacies of User Interface (UI) programming as we speak. Paul’s prime focus is on UI and overall systems architecture. He’s the academically qualified programmer. I’m self-taught (though most of that credit should really goes to Paul). I’m based in Canberra, the capital of Australia. Paul is now based in Newcastle, north of Sydney.
Over the last twelve years we’ve had a number of full time staff. Principal among these have been our programmers - Stephen “Sos” French, Adam “Skirmish” Bryant and Dan “Punch” Punch – and Steve “Golf33” Long who managed research and data content.
We have about another 25 volunteer members of the Panther Prowlers – a diverse group of wargamers who contribute across a wide range of functions, from assisting in the game design, providing professional military advice, researching ORBATs, designing maps and scenarios, developing intro guides (text and movies), play-testing etc. We could not deliver the quality product we do without these guys. And they come from all corners of the globe.

PC Dome: There are a lot of similar wargames in the market. How did you reach the current level of the Airborne Assault engine with all these new features? (E.g. commanding hierarchy, continuous terrain, dynamic shape of units.)
Dave O'Connor: Paul and I started designing the Airborne Assault (AA) engine back in 1995. Our aim was to develop the best and most realistic operational level WW2 wargame we could. It had to be intuitive and fun to play, while at the same time realistically simulate all the key entities and processes that make up the complex mayhem of operational conflict. Both Paul and I were keen wargamers and we both had work experience within our Defence department. I also had eight years active experience in our Army Reserve. Prior to designing the AA engine I had designed the award winning board wargame Trial of Strength (Eastern Front strategic) and the award winning computer wargame Fire-Brigade (a traditional turn based operational wargame set on the East Front).
We both had pretty firm ideas on what type of game we wanted. Well at least on what we didn’t want. We wanted a high degree of fidelity both in terms of spatial data and time interval. >From my previous experience on designing traditional turn based wargames I knew that the course granularity of time was a major impediment to achieving realism, especially when it came to modeling the command process. Only with a small time interval could you simulate the effects of the Boyd cycle (OODA loop) and hence simulate operational initiative and surprise, two defining factors in operational warfare.
Being original research and development there were a number of false starts before we developed a satisfactory command system and I’d like a dollar for each time I have rewritten various other components. But that is the nature of things when you are blazing a trail that no one else has trod.

Panther Games interview

PC Dome: Where did the ideas come from?
Dave O'Connor: Well we do a lot of brain storming over the whiteboard. These are lively affairs – a sort of no holds barred discussion in which everyone gets to throw up ideas and then shoot others down. With so many people nowdays contributing from overseas, we use our private development forum for this purpose. We also encourage contributions from the public and we maintain a wishlist thread on our forum and a TaskTracker database to keep track of proposed tasks.
PC Dome: Weren't you too afraid to put so much new things in the game?
Dave O'Connor: Yes we have paid a price for being ahead of our time in terms of innovation. The wargame market is not only a tiny niche market but it is incredibly conservative. It’s been a long haul trying to win over the traditional turn based wargamers. Most have been burnt with the RTS click and twitch games, most of which are very unrealistic. Most wargamers don’t view these RTS games as wargames. Our system being an event driven system tends to get lumped in with the RTS games. That’s why we coined the term Pausable Continuous Time (PCT) to try and differentiate our product.
It’s been a long haul but following the release of Conquest of the Aegean (COTA), our third in the AA series, we are finally turning the corner. Almost everyday now a new convert posts on the COTA forum that they have just bought the game and love it and don’t know why they waited so long. One even couched it in terms of saying that he finally overcame his resistance, which gives you some idea of the very fixed and almost dogmatic attitudes held by many members of this market.
The fact that COTA is picking up so many awards (War-Historical Wargame of the Year 2006, Cyberstratege Lorier D’Or 2006) and especially from those where users get to vote is very encouraging. COTA doesn’t even get its own subForum on the Xtreme Gamer website and yet it has well over 50% of the popular vote for its Wargame of the Year poll. Of course more sales would always be welcome.

PC Dome: Why paratroopers and why World War II? The engine could manage non-airborne and non-WWII situation, couldn't it? Is it possible that you'd develop a non-WWII game in the future? Or do you consider that sticking to WWII is the best idea with all your experience you've gathered through the years?
Dave O'Connor: Well the series title, Airborne Assault, was derived from the first battle we decided on – Market Garden 44. At the time it sounded great. In hindsight we should have made it something more generic. For our next title, Battles From the Bulge (BFTB) we are considering changing the series title to Command Ops, which better reflects the nature and scope of the engine.
At the moment we have five Data Design Teams (DDTs). Four of these focus on WW2 battles (East Front, West Front, Mediterranean and Pacific) and one is on Modern warfare. Before we can really simulate modern warfare we need to include additional technologies, like the ability to simulate helicopters, modern munitions, radar etc. We have scoped this work and it is considerable. So we will be working our way towards that over time. We will be adding one new major feature to each title released.

Panther Games interview

PC Dome: How do you start creating a new episode of Airborne Assault? After deciding the time and location, do you collect the new features that all these things require? Or you're constantly developing new features into the engine and let the scenario designers search for the new theme?
Dave O'Connor: It’s a bit of chicken and egg. Like military plans, our development plans rarely survive contact with reality for too long. We’ve learnt to be flexible. For instance, for BFTB the new big feature was to be minefields. However, after receiving considerable feedback from users of COTA we decided to instead focus on features which would improve player immersion and involvement. Hence we will now be adding in a range of UI and AI features like incorporating estab data into the game. So when you click on an item in a units equipment list you will see a display containing a picture of that equipment along with a series of tab views with its relevant data like ranges and performance for weapons.
We’ll also be adding in a series of task options that will give the player more control over their forces, such as options to ignore basing of depots and arty, ambush to hold fire until the enemy is close, ignore stragglers to prevent a force from resting if one of its units gets too tired, allow attacks and bypassing by subordinate commanders etc. We will also be overhauling the forceGroups class to provide the user with options to display organic, player and current force structures in the OB Tab and with the command lines that link units on the map.

PC Dome: If it isn't a secret, could you talk about the structure of AI? What type of levels are there in the game's AI? What schemes and models are applicable by the AI?
Dave O'Connor: As to levels of AI, well this is a concept more appropriate to games that use scenario scripted AI. We don’t. All our AI is generic – ie it works regardless of the particular scenario/map/forces etc. For this you need to ensure that each unit is aware of its situation (terrain, friendly units and enemy units around it, what its mission is etc), that each unit can receive orders, assess its situation, develop plans, issue orders to subordinates, react to developments and reassess its plans.
The only difference in our system is that the onMapBoss (the senior unit on the map) receives its orders via the objectives or side tasks set by the scenario developer. These are just like the orders a unit receives from its superior during the game, with the exception that they may also have victory points assigned. The onMapBoss calls on special code to help it assess and cull the side objectives. But apart from that it is just like any other unit and any unit can become the onMapBoss.
Our AI is essentially an expert system based on a set of rules. Unlike more traditional expert systems it is based on a core command processing system which models the orders/planning/reaction and reassessment process. Rules/code are written to simulate the various planning and tactical doctrines which allow it to develop plans and react appropriately for each type of task it is performing.

Panther Games interview

PC Dome: Do you have military advisor(s) or you're working on the AI based on your own wargaming experience?
Dave O'Connor: Both. We have a number of current and former military personnel in our Panther Prowlers and DDTs, including from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, USA and UK. I’ve probably missed some there.

PC Dome: Nowadays a lot of wargames are used for real life military training. Do you have information about such use of the AA series? If a NATO Defense Department (or something similar) would contact you for making a training tool for them out of Airborne Assault, what would you answer?
Dave O'Connor: We were contracted by the Australian Defence Simulations Office (ADSO) in 2004 to prepare a scoping study for developing a modern version of our game engine for simulating modern joint operations in a littoral environment. Following on from that we extending the scope to incorporate requirements for the US Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC). The CGSC put forward a submission for funding but it was unsuccessful – something about a war in Iraq IIRC ;). ADSO are currently putting forward a submission to license COTA for DoD use and we are exploring options for developing the engine for military use with Northrop Grumman.
Yes we would welcome enquiries by other NATO Defence Departments (or similar) or from other Defence Industry companies.

Panther Games interview

PC Dome: What is the planned release date for BFTB?
Dave O'Connor: Matrix wants it ready for release at this year’s Origin’s convention in the USA, which means a late June release.

PC Dome: What is your opinion about the current mass production of WWII RTS games? A lot of publishers make money with these all-the-same RTS games... Where do you position the AA series in the strategic games?
Dave O'Connor: Anyone is entitled to develop whatever game they like. The mass of RTS titles with a military theme are fine by me. They fulfill a need for those who enjoy gathering resources and launching mass assaults. I think most discerning wargamers realize the difference and can value realism and true innovation over “glitz” and “me too-ism”.

Panther Games interview

PC Dome: Some decades ago there was a wargame for ZX Spectrum called Arnhem. Did you know it? Did you play with it?
Dave O'Connor: Yes I was aware of it but I never had a Spectrum, so I never played it. My first computer was a Mac.

PC Dome: Thank you for your answers! We wish good luck for the developers of the most revolutionary wargame!
Dave O'Connor: Thank you. ■

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