Focus Group status report
by Pitt Crandlemire
As many of you know from postings to r.g.d., Hasbro recently began a focus group study of its AH Diplomacy software program. I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate. While the software is still under development and all participants were asked to maintain confidentiality with regard to the software and the focus group process, I thought that the members of the hobby community might appreciate some information as to the current status of the program. I ran the idea by Bill Levay, the Project Leader, and he concurred. Given the reasonable security and development concerns that Hasbro might have, I offered to let Bill vet this message before posting but he demurred. He asked only that I not discuss specifics of the focus group discussion, in order to protect the privacy and confidentiality of that process and the participants. The contents of this message are my own and represent only my personal opinions and observations. Moreover, I think it is important to point out that this is a product still very much under development. At best, my comments should be viewed as a preview of the work in progress rather than a review of the final product.
The game provides a number of playing options: – single player vs. AI – multi-player “hot-seat” using one PC – multi-player via the Internet (The Gaming Zone) – multi-player via the Internet (direct IP connection) – 2-player direct connect via modem.
Multi-player games can be up to 7 players. Hasbro’s plan to use The Gaming Zone is intended to give players a single “gathering point” to find other players. The direct IP connection allows players to bypass the Zone, however, if desired. The “hot seat” feature, allows players to use the game in lieu of a board for F2F games.
Maps: Four different styles of maps are available. One neat feature associated with each map is an “overlay” option for displaying which power owns which provinces. When selected, the overlay option shades each province with the color of the controlling power. This will be particularly useful for newbies.
Negotiation: Negotiation occurs in a couple of ways. First, with the AI, you negotiate by clicking on icons which indicate what you want the AI to do, e.g. ALLY with me, ATTACK PARIS, etc. The AI considers your request/offer and tells you what it will do. It also makes similar requests/offers to you. Second, with another human player, you negotiate in a chat room fashion. There is one public room where all players can see and hear what is said and multiple private rooms where you can go to speak privately to one or more players. While in the private rooms, you can still hear what’s being said in the public room (sort of like keeping an ear to the door).
Order Entry: Entering orders is easy and intuitive. All of your units are displayed on the map. When you click on one a pop-up window displays the possible orders. When you click on an order, all legal provinces for that order are highlighted (e.g. if you clicked on Army Wales, then clicked on Move, Liverpool, London, and Yorkshire would be highlighted). You click on the province you want and the order is entered. A text display at the bottom of the screen lists all your units and is updated as you issue orders. Orders for Convoys and Supports are slightly more complex but not much.
Graphic & Textual Order Resolution: Once all orders are entered and the phase begins to process, a scrolling text window displays the orders and resolution. At the same time, the map display shows a graphic representation of the orders and their resolution, similar to the way units are moved during resolution in face-to-face games. This will, I think, also be very helpful to newbies and it’s enjoyable to watch.
Graphics and movies: Though not part of game play, the period graphics, text, and tone, as well as the introductory and intra-game video clips are very attractive. They add noticeably to the look and feel of the game. Within the game, the main screen displays diplomats from all powers who gesture, make faces, and, generally, interact with the players and each other. Not crucial to game play but a nice touch.
Editor: A fully functional game editor is included. With it, you can set up any board situation you like, trying “what-if” scenarios or setting up games from other sources. You can use the editor simply to move pieces around as you would on a board or you can use it to set up a game in any manner you like and then play it from that point. A *very* useful feature and indicative of the full-featured approach Hasbro is taking toward the game.
Judge support: Though not yet implemented, Hasbro has indicated that the final version will work with the Internet judges. That is, it will accept judge output, allow you to display the game and enter moves, and then output orders. It’s not clear at the moment whether order output will be direct to email or to a text file that you will cut and paste into your email to the judge. FYI, Edi Birsan pushed very hard for this feature and was instrumental in getting it included. Kudos to Edi for pushing it and Bill for adding it.
Variants: The game will support a wide variety of “unit/rules” variants which work on the standard map, e.g. 1898. This feature was not implemented during the focus group test but the menu is already built-in and implementation is assured for the final release.
Tutorial: As we all know, the best way to learn Diplomacy is to play with someone who already knows how to play. However, if this game is successful in the marketplace, it will reach many players who will be experiencing Diplomacy for the first time. I think that is a very, very good thing, as it can only help the hobby grow. To that end, I volunteered to help write the tutorial and I’m currently in the process of doing so. I won’t be doing any coding, of course, but I’m hoping that the final result will be an interactive introduction to game mechanics and strategy that will be simple and complete. If you have any suggestions or ideas along these lines, please let me know. I’ll be glad to share my compensation with you (part of nothing is still nothing…;-)
Current plans call for an expected ship date of late 4th quarter ’99. The general consensus in the focus group I attended (experienced Diplomacy players) was generally quite positive. We all recognized that the software was still in development and understood that there were still bugs to be worked out and features to be implemented. Not all of the features above worked all the time or always exactly as described. Additionally, there were a number of cosmetic interface issues which needed to be improved. Of course, the purpose of the focus group was to help Hasbro identify those issues. There are still some significant obstacles to overcome, developing and improving the AI chief among them. It’s not surprising to me that this task is still ongoing. Frankly, I have doubts about *anyone’s* ability to code an AI that can play competitively against an experienced player. To me, Diplomacy does not seem to be the kind of game that lends itself to that type of process. I think Hasbro will do well simply to code an AI that can play adequately against beginning level players, making reasonable moves, not being too repetitive, and not making obvious mistakes. They’re still working on that, however, and I know they’re committed to the best result possible.
There were requests for some additional features which I won’t delineate here because I’m not sure if Hasbro can (or wishes) to implement them prior to the planned ship date. Suffice it to say that I’m convinced that they want the best for the game both as a revenue generating product *and* as a tool to support and develop the hobby. As planned right now, I see the Diplomacy software as being designed to meet 3 basic needs. One, single-player play – mostly there but dependent on a functional AI. Two, true real-time multi-player play via the net – virtually done now, just requiring some bug fixes and interface re-design. Three, a judge front-end – not yet implemented but under development and not likely to be very difficult to achieve.
All in all, I’m impressed by the potential of what I’ve seen and, more importantly, by the attitude with which Hasbro, particularly Bill Levay, is approaching the project. Here’s hoping they continue in that fashion and are able to realize the full potential of the product.
reprinted from rec.games.diplomacy