Hasbro Interactive Speaks

An Interview with Bill Levay

By Simon Szykman

What follows is an e-mail interview with Bill Levay, the man at Hasbro Interactive in charge of the development of the computer version of Diplomacy. I first had a chance e-mail meeting with Bill back in February. I asked if he’d be willing to give an interview for The Diplomatic Pouch, and he said he would. Excited, I thought I would have a chance to break some news about Hasbro Interactive's Diplomacy before it started to filter out from other sources.

As it turned out, Bill was willing but not able to talk because of a timing issue. Hasbro had agreed to give Computer Gaming World magazine an exclusive on the story, which was slated to come out in their June issue. So, he couldn’t go on the record about the game until after that, and here we are with the first issue of the Zine since then. Since that time, both Bill and a member from the Meyer/Glass Interactive (the company that is actually developing the game) have shown their "faces" on rec.games.diplomacy. So, while this is less of a breaking story than we had hoped (we'll have to work on scooping Computer Gaming World next time!), the positive side is that the questions in the interview are much more detailed than what would have been asked before, since more information was already out there.

Without futher ado, here’s the interview.

Simon Szykman: Well, Bill, why don't you tell our readers a bit about who you are, your current position at Hasbro Interactive (HI).

Bill Levay: My title at Hasbro is Senior Producer and my responsibility in general is to work with outside developers to create computer games, and specifically to work on computer translation of the Avalon Hill boardgames.

SS: And before this, you were the last employee of The Avalon Hill Game Company. What was your role there?

BL: I have been playing Avalon Hill boardgames since 1968 and in 1995 I fulfilled a lifelong dream by getting a job in the R&D department at The Avalon Hill Game Company. My position there was Director of Software Development. Unfortunately Avalon Hill as a company was not suited to compete in the interactive entertainment business of the mid 1990s. Speaking of being the last employee, I have to say that I never would have dreamed in 1968 that I of all people would have been the one to turn out the lights for the last time.

SS: You mentioned that the computer version of Diplomacy is scheduled to go gold on 10/25... later than originally planned, to take into account feedback you had received from people you were in touch with. Can we assume that this date is pretty firm? I would think that Hasbro would want the game on the shelves in time for the holidays.

BL: Yes, the date is quite firm. We added two months to the development schedule to include, among other things, a robust internal PbeM system as well as the ability to act as front end for the internet judges. We also added a map/position editor, whose request originally came from Edi Birsan, to allow you to set up situations or be able to move a game currently being played elsewhere to the computer.

SS: Can you give us an idea of what the retail price for the game might be?

BL: I'm not exactly sure, but it should be around the $30 - $35 mark.

SS: The game is being produced by Hasbro Interactive (and specifically you at HI). The developer is Meyer/Glass Interactive (MGI), who brought Axis and Allies to the PC. How involved are you in the development? Are you providing high-level requirements, or detailed functional/interface specifications?

BL: First, I have to say that although MGI is doing the development, it is not being done by the same studio that developed Axis & Allies. A&A was created in Hunt Valley, MD, while Dip comes from the Windy City. I have been very involved with the development of the game, as I want it to be as perfect as it can be. I also did research to make sure that the AI programmer had as many strategy articles made available to him as possible. I also sent in articles to make sure the adjudicator performed as advertised.

SS: About the game itself... there was an article in Computer Gaming World last month, as well as a couple of messages posted more recently to rec.games.diplomacy by you and Todd Hurley (of MGI). For people who haven't been following along, here's a recap of the various modes of play. The game will support single-player play against AI computer opponents, real-time networked play with multiple players (and AIs filling in for missing players), and play-by-email (PBEM) play. Networked play will be available vie IPX for LAN play, TCP/IP for Internet play, and Microsoft Zone. Is that correct?

BL: The above is true, however, there's also a hot seat mode as well. In this mode the game acts just like a boardgame for FtF play, with the additional benefit that it provides a built in timer for each phase as well as an adjudicator to automatically determine the result of the players' orders.

SS: There's one mode of play that wasn't addressed in any messages from you or Todd: face-to-face play. In other words, one other use for a graphical front end is to allow players who are playing FTF to use a computer for adjudication instead of doing it manually. The difference is that with the other modes of play (solo play, networked multi-player, or PBEM), in each case each player submits one set of orders. On the other hand, as a GM I would want to have a way of quickly entering a full set of orders for all units in the game. In other words, is the game set up to be used not only by players, but as a tool for GMs?

BL: Please see the previous answer.

SS: As far as PBEM play goes, PBEM is supported in two ways. First, seven players can communicate directly by setting up one server and six clients. Second, the game will be able to serve as a graphical front end for the Internet Diplomacy judges, with input and output in the appropriate formats, correct?

BL: Absolutely true. By the way, the first method uses binary files, not text, so that the player with the host computer can't cheat and read everyone else's orders first!!!

SS: The clear implication here is that Hasbro sees a business model in which they coexist with the Internet judges, rather than trying to shut them down (a topic of much speculation can now be put to rest). While you are not connected with more general policy and decision-making processes, do you have a feel for whether Hasbro intends on making any changes to the status quo regarding Diplomacy-related content on the web? A big concern in the Internet community has been the possibility of Hasbro forcing the removal of maps from web sites, which are currently available on the Internet with Avalon Hill's blessing. Do you know whether Hasbro plans on honoring that agreement, or would be willing to make a similar commitment?

BL: I'm afraid that I'm not qualified to comment on this one. Part of the reason is that I can't say with certainty what the Hasbro Games Group division (Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley/Avalon Hill boardgames) will do, and the other part is that I work within R&D, and that kind of decision would come from marketing and legal. I do know that we support web sites based on Hasbro games.

SS: Can you say anything about the implementation strategy for Diplomacy play among distributed players? At one end, some companies of multi- player games have taken the approach of simply letting friends set up point-to-point communications, while at the opposite extreme, other companies have set up their own servers where players can go to play against strangers, maintain player lists and rankings, and so on. I assume that some of these decisions have been made prior to the start of development since a given approach will have to be incorporated at at the development level.

BL: Yes I can. We will be supporting both methods. Multiplayer IPX will allow games to be run on Local Area Networks (LANs) such as you would find in many offices. TCP/IP will allow you to hook up point to point over the internet with six other people. The combination of IPX and TCP/IP is used for people who wish to play on Microsoft's Game Zone. The Zone is a free service which provides separate lobbies for each game as well as game rooms within the separate lobbies. To play a game on the Zone you would use your web browser to go there and enter the Diplomacy lobby. At that point you would be able to chat with anyone there and either start a Diplomacy game room or join one that is waiting on enough people to start up. Once the game starts, it automatically fires up the Diplomacy software application, and you can start playing.

SS: You have indicated elsewhere that there won't be a Macintosh version of the game. Is there any point in having people write in to show demand for a Mac version, or is this decision firm?

BL: Well, as it happens I've been a "Mac"ist since 1984. I have several Macs at home, and is the only computer I use outside the office. I have championed Mac games at Hasbro since arriving. Unfortunately I, again, am not qualified to talk about what Hasbro may eventually do. I would welcome a write-in campaign.

SS: Will the computer version of Diplomacy also support Colonial Diplomacy and/or Machiavelli, Avalon Hill's other Diplomacy variant games?

BL: The code for computer Diplomacy will support Colonial with almost no effort. Machiavelli would be just a bit more. As far as whether we do these versions depends a lot on how Diplomacy does in the first place.

SS: Will the interface be flexible and customizable enough to handle simple variations on the game, such as setting up a map with more or fewer than seven players, or allowing a GM to set up a game with units that start in different initial positions?

BL: Yes, that's where the map/position editor comes into it.

SS: Diplomacy, Colonial Diplomacy and Machiavelli were designed and commercialized by Avalon Hill. As you know, hundreds of other variants have been designed over the years, some of which have become quite popular. Of these variants, some use standard rules with new maps, and others include new or modified rules. With the Judges, defining a new map is very easily accomplished by creating a new file in a specified syntax to define the new province names, abbreviations and adjacencies. Will the computer version of the game allow people to define new variant maps and handle the adjudication of variant games? Such built-in expandability would go a long way to broadening the appeal of the game.

BL: The answer is yes and no. The code was designed with that flexibility, but the means for accomplishing it will remain with MGI.

SS: If the answer to the previous question was yes, the next logical question is whether or not the computer version will allow people to modify adjudication rules in order to incorporate rule modifications (not just new maps with standard rules) into a variant. Naturally, this is not quite as simple to do as supporting creation of new maps.

BL: The answer is the same as above. The code is quite flexible, but the ability is being retained.

SS: There are some convoy paradoxes (albeit, uncommon ones) that can arise in adjudication of orders if the current rulebook is strictly followed. Previous attempts at revising the rules have eliminated some paradoxes but unfortunately substituted others in their place. How are issues such as convoy paradoxes being addressed in the computer version of Diplomacy?

BL: We took a long look at these, and talked to several people in the Diplomacy community. Also, I have asked some of these people to create test cases for the software. I believe that we have removed as much ambiguity as possible. Of course we'll actually know for sure when it gets into people's hands!

SS: A bit has been said about the mechanics of the game, but I'm putting together bits and pieces from different places so please correct me if I'm wrong. The game is set up with chat rooms for negotiations. You can walk into an empty room, or into a room you are invited into. If you are in a room, you can invite in somebody who is outside. You can negotiate by typing text, or by using an iconic interface that contains a set of pre-defined propositions. Since AI opponents can't understand English, you have to use that interface to communicate with the AI players. The game actually has multi-lingual support for multiple (currently 7) languages, so that this interface is also useful for communicating with non-English-speaking players. Is that right?

BL: Yes that is all true. Instead of spending a lot of time and money on a parser, which would work for only one language anyway, and which would still constrain what you say, we decided to construct sentences with mouse clicks. You would choose one or more leaders to send the message to. You would choose an action and then you would click on one or more map areas for a specific location or one or more flags for a general location. The actions are as follows: attack, no attack, ally with, don't ally with, move to, hold, support a move, support a hold, convoy, bounce, neutral zone, and rumor. The bounce icon is a way of letting the AI know that Russian F Sev - BLA and Turk F Ank - BLA is not a hostile move, but is expected. The hostile move may be if it didn't happen. The rumor icon is a way of passing information as opposed to making a proposal. The iconic interface does indeed make it easy for people who don't speak the same language to play the game. It also allows someone who is new at the game to figure out what to say until they're more comfortable using their own words to make proposals. Plus it allows the AI to play if they need to assist in a multi-player (but not full) game.

SS: How about a teaser? Is there anything that hasn't been asked about here or elsewhere that you want to let us in on to whet everyone's appetites and get people excited about the game?

BL: Well, we intend to show a video of Allan Calhamer speaking about Diplomacy during the end credits, much like we did with Larry Harris during the Axis & Allies credits.

Bill, I'd like to thank you personally and also on behalf of our readers, for taking the time to answer these questions. I know that many people are anxiously waiting to see what Hasbro will put out, so I'll let you get back to work.

Simon Szykman

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