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The Flare Path: Faustian Packed

Steel Beasts and steely software sellers

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How does this sound? I describe my last Steel Beasts Pro Personal Edition battle then show you the emails that three publishers sent me following last week’s “old wargames are too expensive” rant. In return you give me ten minutes’ worth of a substance more precious gram for gram than saffron, platinum, or petrified rainbow. Deal?

Ah, the old walking away gambit. You win! Fine, I’ll also throw in a picture puzzle so fiendish no individual can solve it unaided.

eSim’s compendious contemporary tank sim Steel Beasts Pro has been wearing a ‘4.0’ after its name since August 9th. The $40 upgrade (the full sim will set you back $125) introduces a plethora of improvements including smoother terrain undulations, 3D crewmen, better weather effects and pyrotechnics, and an RTS-style overhead order mode. It expands an already sprawling estate of angry houses with twenty-six new apoplectic abodes.

(New crewable vehicles in 4.0)

Tanks: Leopard 2A6, M60A3(TTS), Sho’t Kal, T-55A m.1970, T-72B1 m.1985, T-72B1 m.2012

PCs: AMV XA-360, BMP-2, BTR-60PB, BTR-70, M113A2G, Marder 1A3, Pandur 1, Pandur 1 (RWS), RG-31E 4×4 MRAP, VEC-M1

Trucks: Dingo 2A2, Pinzgauer 710M

Artillery: M113G4-DK/FO, Piranha-IIIC TACP

Others: M113 G3/OPMV, M113 G3/Repair, M113 G4-DK/OPMV, SPz 2 Luchs A2, Wisent AEV

I’ve spent several evenings this week getting to know the M60A3(TTS) – a thermal sight-equipped version of that Cold War stalwart, the Patton MBT. Many hours have been spent ‘lasing and blazing’ on the range (Your proficiency in this practise space determines the skill of your gunner when you’re driving or tank commanding during scenario play).

When the time came to move on to more dynamic and hostile environments I was a little disappointed to find that each of the new vehicles doesn’t come with its own clutch of singleplayer challenges, but a quick trip to the community scenario repository and a brief session with the friendly embedded mission editor soon rectified the situation.

My baptism of fire starts quietly in a still, snow-shrouded hamlet girdled by pine woods and frozen farmland.

Between my Pattons (x4), Marder IFVs (x2) and Pandur APCs (x2) and an objective a few miles to the SE is an unknown number of randomly generated Warsaw Pact enemies. Keen not to be bushwhacked by these Red rascals, I begin by sending out a scouting screen of IFVs and APCs.

It’s not long before the leading Marder in the western scout group is trundling backwards with gouged armour and shaken crew (BMP-2 near farm P24!) and the Pattons are heading south to engage two vehicles observed by the Pandurs in hamlet P20.

One of the P20 pair – a suspicious hatchback very reminiscent of a Skoda Favorit I once owned – perishes predictably swiftly. The other, a lone T-72A survives a sabot round to the flank, before succumbing, in a shower of sparks, to a beautiful turret-ring killshot.

So far, so good.

Teleporting via the map from the atmospheric interior of an M60A3 turret to the somewhat cruder driving seat of the unscathed Marder, I proceed to WASD my way into a wooded spot in LoS of the BMP-2.

One of the joys of singleplayer SB Pro PE is the control freedom. You can spend an entire scrap controlling things from low-flying helo height à la Combat Mission or Wargame. You can play using nothing but the map view, or, if you prefer, you can restrict yourself to one vehicle, or a single station in a particular vehicle. Personally I like to flit about, using all the facilities available. One of my AFVs moving into a promising position? Time to select it and dab F6 (gunner) or F7 (commander).

The Rheinmetall autocannon burst that nails the BMP-2 is unleashed by an AI gunner, but moments later I’m back in the lead M60A3 when my TC spots another stationary Soviet IFV through the trees and helpfully rotates the turret in the direction of the foe. My first emission collides with a conifer trunk. The second threads the shelter belt provoking a cool but approbatory ‘Target!” from the AI presence just behind me.

Another one down.

Things start going wrong for Task Force Tardy (see on) soon after I order the Marders to move forward into the fields north of P24. While the Pattons edge towards the objective along the central highway, eliminating exposed infantry and the odd distant MT-LB as they go, away to their right the Marders find themselves under close-range RPG fire from a burning barn and an innocuous-looking shack.

Before I realise the seriousness of the situation one of the German IFVs is kaput and the other is sitting immobilised in open ground. I flap like a wet hen until a wire-guided Spigot AT missile fired from somewhere in the south-west simplifies things.

In the four minutes following the Marder murders, the M60A3s exact a terrible revenge. Drawing level with P24, my MBTs spot multiple enemy AFVs and infantry clusters to the west of the objective and set about savaging them.

I’m so busy personally contributing to a kill tally that quickly reaches double figures, I don’t immediately realise that one of the missiles that flashed across my sight at the height of the exchange has claimed a victim.

The Patton on my right is now a lifeless hulk.

A little nervous about the stretch of wood-hemmed road that leads to the next hamlet (P30) I decide to go it alone in a single M60A3 from here on. I’m about to emerge from the ambush-friendly block of forestry when something grey and angular protruding above the ridge ahead prompts some hasty braking and lasing. A sabot round streaks towards a doomed vehicle that – with the help of SBPPE’s event-highlighting post-game battle recordings – I later identify as a Shilka SPAAG.

Rather than hare down the highway to P30 and the objective beyond it, my M60A3 now veers left onto a track that climbs steadily to a small group of houses with, I hope, commanding views of my goal. I’m following this track, my turret at three-o’clock ready for action, when the exotic fellow pictured above decides to announce his presence in the traditional manner. When frantic horizon inspection fails to reveal the exact location of the shell-slinger (a T-55 mine roller) I pop smoke, pause and consider my options.

It’s at about this point that I glance at the mapside clock and realise I’m running horribly short of time. The allotted hour is almost up and I’m dithering in a smoke cloud on a tactically insignificant hillside. This really won’t do! None of my other units have a hope of reaching the objective, but if I stick to the high ground and head south, while the remains of my force deliver a diversionary feint along the line of the main road, victory might still be possible.

Unfortunately, this blighter ^ clearly doesn’t understand how Flare Path AARs work.

From the way Red Rambo here with his impressive collection of RPGs and amazing talent for impersonating inconsequential debris, puts a fatal PG-7L into the backside of my lonewolfing M60A3 moments before it speeds to a memorable eleventh hour triumph, I’m guessing he doesn’t realise FP battle tales never ever end in embarrassing defeat.

* * * * *

 

Last week’s FP was born of frustration. The unwillingness in some quarters to price-slash old wargames and sims, and sell through popular vending systems like Steam and GOG, means many elderly titles are left to gather dust in relatively obscure virtual boutiques when they could be out earning and entertaining thousands. From where I’m sitting (a deckchair on the sundeck of RMS Boracic) the current prices and profiles of series like Squad Battles and Decisive Battles feel distinctly unhelpful. Keen to understand the thinking behind £30+ tariffs for decade-old war and flight fare, I asked all the parties featured in my ‘Slash or Spurn’ piece whether they’d be willing to explain their positions. John Tiller Software, Slitherine Group and Shrapnel Games accepted the invitation.

 

Rich Hamilton, John Tiller Software

“Well, for me it boils down to the fact that these are still actively supported titles. Using your Proud and the Few example, we have supported that title through 4 subsequent Microsoft OS releases (with the leap to Win 7 completely breaking all games that were designed to run under the \Program Files directories, per MS development standards and a complete abandonment by MS of the .hlp file format), multiple major video driver vendor issues (NVidia anyone?) and a slew of enhancements rolled out for free after later titles in the series introduced these new items. When a person buys this title today all of the features are rolled up into it the initial download. And as of writing this we still support it and will be ready with an update in the event MS or another vendor out there breaks it again through no fault of the customers. I don’t think anyone else is doing that… at least not for the length of time that we do.

As far as low price point introductions we have the apps for multiple platforms – there’s a free intro app for each of the 4 series represented & then multiple low priced games for the 3 major series. A good way for people to get exposure to us without a large investment. And if they like them they can always dive in to the full bodied PC versions.

We also have free demos for the PC versions of Panzer Campaigns, Squad Battles & Napoleonic Battles which can be found here.”

 

Marco Minoli, Slitherine Group:

The price of Battles in Italy was halved in response to the piece. Sadly, at £17 I fear it will still struggle to turn curiosity into custom.

“We spend a lot of our time reading data and analysing trends. We are obsessed by product life-cycle and the examination of numbers is one of our core, daily activities. We build a market knowledge that goes far beyond anecdotal assumptions and gut feeling suppositions, because we know that the wargames market is different from the mainstream videogames market, so we need to understand its rules and act accordingly.

First of all, these games target a niche audience. This means that a minuscule portion of gamers have interest in these products. They are either experienced fans who will buy this type of game at launch price or interested players who will wait for the promotional sale to add a game to their libraries.

The real challenge is how to attract new customers and price here is not the only key element in play. Actually, it’s the least important.

Think about wargaming as a hobby: any hobby out there has an expensive entry barrier in price, because the number of potential customers out there will never be a big enough audience to sustain low prices in the long term.

Second, these games have a very inelastic demand curve. This means that sales volume is not affected greatly by fluctuations in price. So when you reduce price you increase sales, but not by enough to make up for the revenue you have lost from people who would have paid full price. The more hard-core a game is the less elastic its price. As a game gets more mainstream and its production values rise the price elasticity increases significantly, but it also tends to have a lower shelf life. This is one of the main reasons why we try and do frequent sale activities recently, rather than permanently slash prices; so that we can extend the shelf life and still manage to keep the catalogue fresh and current. Of course the wider the potential audience is for a game, the bigger the discounts we are going to try.”

 

Timothy Brooks, Shrapnel Games

“One of the comments to your article (by Shiloh) got it right: These are niche offerings and selling them for next to nothing will not increase sales enough to make up for the reduced price point.

Your article makes what we feel is an incorrect argument, that because a game is old, the price should be reduced. Is the game less fun or interesting because it is old? The fact that it has been around for several years and can still sell at the original price point, shows the strength and timelessness of the game design.

You must remember, these are not mainstream games and will never sell as such. We have in the past experimented with Steam. The number of games sold on our site exceeded the number of our games sold on Steam by 10 to 20 times during the same time period. This is because we promote our games while Steam promotes Steam. Only when Steam has a bundle is any real promotion done for their games (the games in the bundle). And those bundles can sell well. But you can’t maintain a sales path off an occasional bundle.

Also, some of our games go through regular updates. Camo Workshop’s winSPMBT: Main Battle Tank and winSPWW2 comes to mind. These games are updated every year. The developers could not do this if the game was regularly sold at $15.00.

Now, having said that, we do, quite often, offer sales on our games. By getting our newsletter or just following our website, many people get our games at a discount. This is perfect for those looking for an occasional deal.”

During my email exchange with Timothy Brooks, I brought up the thorny subject of All American: The 82nd Airborne in Normandy. Staggeringly late yet still available to pre-order, there’s been no news of this 101 follow-up for years. Asking why the game hadn’t been removed from the Shrapnel store and efforts made to compensate pre-orderers, I was told:

“The game is still in development, although no date is set for release. We have let those who pre-ordered know that they can get a refund, if they want one. ”

And, in a later response:

“People who preordered the game know how they can get in touch with us. I have asked the team to look at the web page to see if there is any changes that need to be made.”

* * * * *

This way to the foxer

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