With all the strategy and precision of a Panzer tank division in one of the company's battle-simulation games, Avalon Hill Game Co. is blitzing the computer-game market.
The 25-year-old company, long a leader in the field of "bookshelf" strategy and sports board games, is finding new success on the electronic battlefield, selling games that can be played on home computers. The company's computer games consist of software on cassettes or disks that can be used to program a home computer to play the games. Most also include boards, markers and other paraphernalia needed to play the complicated games.
But, like a general forced to adapt his tactics to modern war machines, Avalon Hill has needed new strategies to succeed in the electronic game arena. Coming up with successful electronic games, it turns out, is about as different from designing board games as the cruise missile is different from the bow and arrow.
Avalon Hill's move into computer games, which began in 1980, couldn't have been more timely. Like other makers of board games, Avalon Hill has watched sales in its traditional lines dive in the past couple of years as the electronic revolution has swept the game industry.
"There's only so much discretionary spending around today, and people who used to spend it on a board game are now putting it into a video game," says Thomas Shaw, Avalon Hill's executive vice president.
But while many manufacturers got burned by underestimating the success of electronic games, Avalon Hill has been able to counter the drop in board game sales with success in computer games.
"I'm not going to say we've never had it so good," Shaw says, "but we've never had it so good." Sales in the fiscal year that ended last April were about $8.1 million; Shaw estimates that sales in the current fiscal year will be about $8.5 million.
Much of that is coming from the three-year-old line of 40 electronic games, which carry names like "Planet Miner," "B-1 Nuclear Bomber," "Tanktics" and "Empire of the Overmind."
Shaw says Avalon Hill decided to make its move into the computer field in 1980 because the company, eyeing the success of the early, rudimentary computer games such as "Pong," felt there would soon be a market for much more complicated games. "We just felt this was a coming thing," he says. "We're a company that tries to diversify." It soon found that makers of computer hardware were scrambling to find makers of software for games.
Like the company's board games, Avalon Hill's computer games are, for the most part, complex simulations based on real or imagined situations. The Avalon Hill catalog entry for a game called "Midway Campaign" boasts, "Your computer controls a huge force of Japanese ships whose objective is to invade and capture Midway Island. In the actual engagement, the Japanese made several tactical errors which cost them the battle. Your computer probably won't make the same mistakes!"
That, says Shaw, is the secret of good computer games: pitting the player against the computer. "That's the great appeal--the solitaire feature and the great challenge," he says. "The more difficult the challenge, the greater the chance of commercial success. . . . If you beat the machine too soon, then 'goodbye game.' "
That philosophy differs from the secret to Avalon Hill's most successful board games, however. They rely on head-to-head play between two skilled players, "where I'm outplaying you," Shaw says, as opposed to solitaire action (although most of the board games can be played as solitaire). As a result, direct conversions of Avalon Hill's most successful board games into computer games have not been very successful, he says.
Shaw tries to avoid the pop-psychology aspects of the different game philosophies, but he does know the difference means that the company must maintain separate design teams and market the computer games in different ways. "It has literally required creating a new company," he says. The computer games technically are marketed by an Avalon Hill subsidiary called Microcomputer Games.
Avalon Hill keeps its five in-house computer-game designers in a building several miles away from the cluttered, modest brick building on a side street in downtown Baltimore that houses the company's board-game wizards. The company also purchases some computer-game designs from certain freelance creators. "When you become known as a software manufacturer, there's no shortage of computer designers who come to you," Shaw says.
But Shaw, who believes that game designing "is not a learned trait--it's inherent, a natural gift," says a good computer programmer does not usually a successful game designer make. Instead, the company is trying to develop computer designers by starting with game-lovers--or "gamers," as the company calls them. "What we're trying to develop are gamers who can learn how to program."
Just what those gamers do is hard to describe, according to Shaw. The process of designing a new board or computer game usually takes months, as an idea is wrung out and perfected through hours of play-testing and group consultation. And coming up with the ideas, and the basic format of a game, requires a certain amount of creative spark, he says.
"I don't think it's easy to say how the games are designed. How are books written? How are songs written?" Shaw says. "There are very few designers who've ever had more than one or two winners." Again making the musical analogy, he adds: "It's the rare songwriter who can come up with hit after hit after hit."
But Avalon Hill, as a corporate entity at least, has come up with those hits, including perennial bookshelf favorites like "Tactics II," "Diplomacy," "Rail Baron" and "Facts In Five." The company also markets the popular Sports Illustrated line of sports games, and a line of less-complex "leisure" games with somewhat more action than the company's other offerings.
The company has cemented its success in computer games with a feature nobody else in the industry seems to have thought of. While others were tailoring their computer games to one or two of the emerging computer systems, Avalon Hill was selling its games on cassettes that could program several of the most popular computers--all on the same cassette. Consumers didn't have to search around for a store with the proper software, and retailers didn't have to stock several variations of the same game.
Those retailers are not always the same ones that carried Avalon Hill's board games--another change wrought in the company by the move to computer games. The company's board games are generally carried by hobby shops, bookstores and top-quality toy stores. Its computer games, however, are marketed through hi-fi stores, computer stores and more general toy stores.
Still, Shaw does not see computer games eventually displacing board games entirely. "I think the traditional board games are going to sink to a certain level and then stay there," he says. "There will always be a market for games like Scrabble and Monopoly." Shaw believes Avalon Hill has a firm market for its many historical games. "That type appeals to a serious hobby buff--a serious historian," he says.
Yet while Avalon Hill has a backlog of a couple of dozen board games planned for release in the next couple of years--it introduced 10 board games and eight computer games at the national Toy Fair and Hobby Show a few weeks ago--it is slowing its development of board games, according to Shaw. It has stopped considering game ideas submitted by outside designers, although that is something it didn't do much anyway. Most outside ideas, Shaw says, turn out to be crude variations on Monopoly that offer little challenge.
Avalon Hill is not placing all its chips on computer and board games. It's making a belated move into fantasy/role-playing games with a planned group of games based on the James Bond characters. It also has ventured into publishing with a small paperback full of brain-twisting situations entitled "Dilemmas" and with magazines for its devoted cult of military- and sports-game players. The magazines--"The General" and "All-Star Replay"--provide the devotees of the games with rules tips, advanced versions of the games, occasional bonus game cards and pieces, and advance word on when new editions of games, strategies and sports-team game cards are going to hit the market. All of these features help players to add to the complexity of their games.
Avalon Hill's games differ from your average copy of "Candy Land" and "Chutes and Ladders" in more than their complexity. They're also comparatively pricey--about $20 apiece.
That's something Shaw is a little defensive about. "The public has always had the idea that a game is a cheap, frivolous thing that you pay $3.50 for," he says. "It's been a tough, uphill battle to convince people to pay $20 for something that's entertainment."
But the price doesn't seem to bother Avalon Hill's fans, many of whom own several of the company's games. "The hobbyist is willing to pay this $16 or $20," Shaw says. "By the pound, our games are cheaper than steak--and they last a lot longer."