Military Gaming: Hollywood Meets the Pentagon

Christopher Harz explores the wide array of uses for gaming in military training.

Gaming helps soldiers get battlefield training from the safely behind a video screen. © Forterra Systems Inc.

Gaming helps soldiers get battlefield training from the safely behind a video screen. © Forterra Systems Inc.

The U.S. Military has always been a hotbed of animation the first modern graphics boards were developed for military simulators, and the first 3D programmers and animators created models and movements for enemy aircraft to train our pilots. The three military services spend billions every year on animation-related services and products (termed M&S, for modeling and simulation) for thousands of 2D and 3D environments, for training, weapons design and policy studies. So why is there such an interest by the military in entertainment-style games? Why was the Army a chief sponsor of the Serious Games Conference last year, and why were people in uniform such a constant presence at the recent Game Developers Conference? Why is the Army seeking partnerships with videogame companies, while one of its training games, Americas Army, is about to come out on PlayStation 2 and the Xbox?

Background: Military Simulators

To understand the military interest in entertainment-style games, a few words on the nature of military simulators are necessary. An early simulator such as an F5 aircraft trainer consisted of a very detailed cabin almost an exact replica of the aircraft and a large dome or screen with enemy targets moving across. The user, generally a pilot candidate, was normally alone, learning to get comfortable with myriad controls while watching out for, and engaging, targets. These simulators were very expensive at 30 or $40 million a piece, they often cost more than the actual aircraft. In addition to the big aircraft simulators, the military also developed smaller simulators, called PTTs (Part Task Trainers), which were built with parts of an actual weapon system and taught a specific function, such as loading a 155mm artillery shell into a howitzer, or firing the main gun of a tank. All of these simulators were essentially isolated there was no networking, little communication with the outside, and most of all, no backstory any and all elements of a Hollywood-style story, with character development, a plot and person-to-person contacts and social interaction, were missing, as was any concept that using simulators should be motivating or fun. Although thousands of people worked on simulations for the military, they were unaware of their entertainment industry brethren; they used different 3D toolsets such as MultiGen (see www.multigen.com) instead of common Hollywood animation toolsets for gaming and special effects such as Maya or 3ds max, and went to their own industry graphics show, the IITSEC (Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation & Education Conference , see www.iitsec.org) instead of the GDC or E3.

The military was happy with its simulators for some decades, until two things happened that radically changed the picture. The first was the development of SIMNET (SIMulation NETwork). Developed for DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), this was the first time that manned simulators were networked together, first by the dozens, then by the thousands, using the Internet, which DARPA had also created. SIMNET also pioneered many new concepts, such as the use of distributed computers (each simulator created its own 3D action, instead of waiting for a centralized computer to render and transmit such sequences) and the use of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) equipment suddenly simulators could be made far more cheaply, using Radio Shack CB radios for $50 instead of actual military radios for $50,000, for instance (which in turn allowed many more simulators to be built). AI (Artificial Intelligence) was also a major part of SIMNET, to steer SAFORs (Semi-Automated FORces), so that one player could control many vehicles and troops, obviating the need to have every simulator in an action be physically manned. With the networking of many warfighters around the globe, playing both friendly and enemy forces, social interaction suddenly became common, and the need for comprehensive backstories to describe what everybody was doing was born.

Military-produced simulations often lacked the stories that consumer games like Battlefield 1942 possess. © Electronic Arts.

Military-produced simulations often lacked the stories that consumer games like Battlefield 1942 possess. © Electronic Arts.

Unfortunately, whereas the military was good at creating highly detailed simulators and realistic terrain (actual terrain, representing a particular area in Iraq, for instance, down to the actual streets and houses), it was really poor at generating creative stories, the essence of good games. This became even more critical as warfighting in the real world shifted from masses of tanks duking it out on huge empty fields to fights by small units of dismounted infantry in urban terrain, in circumstances that were complex, where friends and enemies could be uncertain not unlike the plot lines of Hollywood stories.

The second thing that happened was the explosion of the commercial gaming industry. The military suddenly noticed that it had been outdistanced in many aspects of gaming and simulation for instance, $300 graphics boards from NVIDIA could outperform equivalent military boardsets costing tens of thousands of dollars. Backstories that could take the military months to create for one of its war games could be generated by game companies within a fraction of that time. In addition, the same young troopers that loathed reading thick boring military manuals were found to be extremely adept at gaming technology. A report by Congress National Research Council in 1997 confirmed that the Defense Departments simulators had fallen behind the commercial games industry. The military started going to gaming conventions, and started initiatives to try to leverage products from the rapid evolvement of the entertainment videogame industry.

For training, the military has even counted on highly detailed consumer game like EAs Battlefield 1942. © Electronic Arts.

For training, the military has even counted on highly detailed consumer game like EAs Battlefield 1942. © Electronic Arts.

Types of Military Games

The military games referred to in this article are games that are actually used by the military (or related agencies). There are many commercial software packages called military games on the market, but these tend to be for entertainment use, and are typically electronic versions of 2D board games. A game used by the military needs to have certain qualities to be useful, including realism, a training mission, some way to measure training effectiveness, and the inclusion of military tactics and doctrine. Army doctrine forbids deliberately inflicting casualties on civilians, for instance, whereas this is just fine in many commercial games.

Occasionally, the military will use an existing commercial game exactly as it is, but this is relatively rare. Commercial games tend to be unrealistic, and do not have real-world environments, such as an actual suburb of Baghdad. Fantasy-laden games are frowned upon in the military because they can lead to the ultimate designation of badness negative training. Negative training occurs when a player learns to do the opposite of what he should be learning, such as jumping 10 feet into the air to escape attack (which is possible with some videogames) instead of using cover and concealment (the all-important C&C of military jargon).

Military games are generally either custom made for the military, modified from an existing game (the military term for such a modded game is MOTS, or Modified Off The Shelf) or (rarely) are straight COTS commercial games that were found to be realistic enough to be used by warfighters, such as NovaLogics tank game, Armored Fist (www.novaworld.com), or the Electronic Arts military history game, Battlefield 1942 (www.ea.com). There are many types of military games for gunnery training, recruiting, PR, leadership training for different sized units and medical units, for instance. Many of them have nothing to do with fighting, but are just as critical to military ops such as training of Army helicopter or tank mechanics. GBL (Game Based Learning) for mechanics can be challenging (how do you mix mechanical repair with gaming elements, and make it motivating and fun?), yet without ace mechanics an Army grinds to a halt (for instance, the Israeli Army would have run out of tanks in the middle of the Yom Kippur War without its battalions of trained mechanics, according to the general who was in charge of armor at the time).

Full Spectrum Warrior helps build tactical strengths. © The ICT and Quicksilver.

Full Spectrum Warrior helps build tactical strengths. © The ICT and Quicksilver.

Current Military Games: A Sampler

Close Combat Marines is a modification of the Close Combat game created by Atomic Games (now Destineer Studios: www.destineerstudios.com), and is used by the Marine Corps in its Infantry Cognitive Skills Labs.

Full Spectrum Command was created by the Institute for Creative Technologies at USC (ICT for short; see www.ict.usc.edu) and Quicksilver Software (www.quicksilver.com) for the Infantry Captains Career Course at Fort Benning, GA. Players create tactics and command a Company of light infantry from multiple perspectives, especially in urban terrain. The game has been adapted for the Singapore Armed Forces, and is being looked at by other branches of the U.S. military.

Full Spectrum Warrior was also produced by the ICT and Quicksilver, in conjunction with Pandemic Studios (www.fullspectrumwarrior.com), for PEO STRI, the Armys training systems acquisition center in Orlando, FL. Full Spectrum Warrior is designed to be a game where tactics is key a player will lose if he tries to Rambo his way through the game. This is a squad level game the player controls two groups of four warriors in an urban combat setting. Throughout the city, players will run into insurgents armed with automatic weapons and RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades), often behind cover. To win, the player must learn to out-maneuver the enemy, catching them off-guard. This game has been successful in both the military and commercial markets, and is available in PC, Xbox and PlayStation versions.

Guard Force was created by Rival Interactive/Cornerstone Industry (www.cornerstoneindustry.com) for the Army National Guard (see www.1800goguard.com/game/game.html), Guard Force is a realtime strategy game focused on the Guards combat and non-combat missions, which range from fighting terrorists to humanitarian missions after natural disasters.

Joint Force Employment was also created by Cornerstone, for the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Joint Force Employment is a CTX (Combined Training Exercise) game designed to teach the staffs of high-level combat commanders how to deploy joint forces effectively. It is available to the general public as the commercial game Real War, from Simon and Schuster.

Produced by MÄK Technologies (www.mak.com), Spearhead II is a real-time, tactical trainer designed for tank company or platoon commanders, wherein players develop battle plans and execute those plans in realtime. The primary focus of Spearhead II is to facilitate tank combat battle planning and visualization. MAK, which was formed by managers of the original SIMNET team, also created MAGTF-XXI (for Marine Corps Air Ground Task Forces) and Battle Commander 2010.

This simulation from ECS shows a soldier how to handle an amputee. © ECS Inc.

This simulation from ECS shows a soldier how to handle an amputee. © ECS Inc.

Tactical Combat Casualty Care is a game developed by Engineering and Computer Simulations Inc. (www.ecsorl.com) for The U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School at Ft. Sam Houston, to help students get the skills and practice necessary to help trauma victims in a battlefield situation. A number of other medical games are being developed in Forterras 3D pervasive virtual world (www.forterrainc.com), including a new SBIR-funded effort called Medical Simulation Training for First Response, being produced in partnership with SUMMIT (Stanford University Medical Media and Information Technologies), and supported by the Armys TATRC (Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center).

MSG2 is a game to train Navy Mobile Security Groups in security and counter-terror operations. It is produced by BreakAway Ltd. (www.breakawayltd.com), which also created the Virtual Convoy Trainer game, as well as commercial games such as Cooligans.

Americas Army has moved beyond a training game into the commercial world as well. © U.S. Army.

Americas Army has moved beyond a training game into the commercial world as well. © U.S. Army.

VBS1 (Virtual Battlefield Simulation; see www.virtualbattlefieldsystems.com) is a mod by Coalescent Technologies of the COTS game Operation Flashpoint, originally created by Bohemia Interactive. VBS1 is used by the Marine Corps in its Infantry Cognitive Skills Labs.

Created by Will Interactive (www.willinteractive.com), Saving Sergeant Pabletti is a game that trains leadership, ethics and inter-cultural communication. The player wins by making the proper values-based decisions for soldiers, changing who they are and how they perform. Over 80,000 soldiers a year train on this game, made by the company who also created the Gator Six, Battery Command game. This game is not 3D CGI, but instead uses fast branching through video clips to show the player the consequences of his/her actions.

A real star of military games is Americas Army (see www.americasarmy.com), which started out as an advergame, to publicize the US Army, but has become so wildly popular (more than 4 million registered players!) that it is now being used for actual military training, ranging from basic training of new recruits to warrior training using advanced weapons such as combat robots and the new XM25 rifle, which is still in development (game feedback will likely influence the rifles final design). Surprisingly, Americas Army has found many international military and civilian fans, and cadres of gamers exist in many countries, holding regular meetings and competitions. The Americas Army team continues to add play levels and missions to keep its membership engaged; it is preparing a major upgrade to the online version of the game, which is also coming out this Summer on Xbox and PlayStation 2.

Forterra Systems has created simulations for U.S. Homeland Security. © Forterra Systems Inc.

Forterra Systems has created simulations for U.S. Homeland Security. © Forterra Systems Inc.

Opportunities in Military Gaming

There are many opportunities in military games and the field is growing. Whereas a significant portion of military gaming and simulation is controlled by giant aerospace companies such as Boeing (which has more than 3,000 people working on this type of modeling and simulation), many games are produced by small companies or teams. A brand new area, but one that is sure to expand rapidly, is games for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and similar organizations. Games for homeland security are usually very different from classical military simulators, and large companies are not well established in this area. Many classic military games are very complex, and can take weeks to learn. On the other hand, homeland defenders such as police and fire fighters, which operate in concert with National Guard and other military units, have little patience for such complicated game interfaces they need something more akin to Casual Game play action, which can be learned in minutes instead of weeks, and which can be employed by users with almost no gaming background a police or FBI station is probably not a good place to go looking for hard-core gamers.

This is a very large potential business area, given the total audience of some 4 million First Defenders in the U.S., with millions more in similar positions and with similar threats in other countries. Unfortunately, the market is fragmented many homeland defense groups would like to have their own customized versions of a game (with 3D maps of their own city, for instance), and funding can be spotty. A major change that occurred recently is that the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) now allows First Defenders to use federal security-related funding to purchase training games, which should open up this market very quickly.

One remarkable new opportunity waiting to be exploited is a new translator between the standard military 3D simulation format, Open Flight (from MultiGen-Paradigm) and the popular entertainment animation toolset, 3ds max, called Flight Studio, by Bluerock Technologies. OpenFlight artists now have an efficient pipeline into Discreets 3ds max software with Flight Studio, said Brian Blau, the ceo of Bluerock. Flight Studio can be bought from Turbo Squid (www.turbosquid.com), as can thousands of royalty-free 3D models and animations created in OpenFlight. Animators have tried to move 3D model and environment files between military and entertainment applications for years, without success. The creation of this Rosetta Stone between the two communities can enable the tapping into the vast files created for the military at a cost of billions of dollars, which include models of military vehicles and actual earth terrain in fidelity undreamt of by entertainment gamers, and into entertainment gaming vaults that contain storylines, precise human movements and detailed characters that the military so sorely lacks.

Contracting With the Government: Paychecks, Patience and Jargon

One of the real advantages of creating military games is that you can get the game paid for up front instead of having to wait for sales to happen before back-end commercial gaming revenues trickle in. If you want to get into the military gaming business with government funding, you can partner with a company or university that already has military contracts and thus has the paperwork trail established. If you want to go on your own, decide on what agency you want to work for Army, Navy, DARPA, DHS and so on and then go on the Internet and watch for what kind of RFPs (Requests for Proposal, also called solicitations) that agency is issuing. There are generally three kinds that small companies can realistically bid for (many others are buried in weapons contracts, and almost automatically go to large companies such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin). These are SBIRs, STTRs and BOAs.

SBIRs (Small Business Innovative Research projects) are programs for small businesses that are issued in stages, each with a different level of maximum funding. A Stage I SBIR awarded for a game idea would give you around $100,000 (the exact amount varies by agency) to write up your proposed game in detail, perhaps generating some samples for demonstrations. If your sponsor likes your Stage I output, you can get Stage II funding, which typically gives you around $500K to come up with real product; $750,000 is usually the maximum. If you go on to Stage III, you can get additional funding to come up with something that is productized to submit to a wider market; at this stage you must have a commercial partner, perhaps a game publishing company. The great thing about SBIRs is that you keep all commercial rights to the game; your sponsor gets to use the game for its purposes, but these are usually very limited, and dont affect your selling your new game to the general public or other parts of the government. A new player in the SBIR game is HSARPA, the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (see www.hsarpasbir.com).

BreakAway Ltd. creates military simulations like Code Orange (left) and consumer games like Cooligans (right).

BreakAway Ltd. creates military simulations like Code Orange (left) and consumer games like Cooligans (right).

STTRs (Small Business Technology Transfer Program) are similar to SBIRs, but require that you team with a non-profit organization such as a university. For more details on SBIRs and STTRs, see: www.sba.gov/sbir/indexsbir-sttr.html. Universities often have great political connections with the military and other federal agencies, so check your local colleges to see whether any of them have ongoing contracts with the government that involve gaming. If you happen to live near the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, you wont have to look far for this the university has very close ties to, and many contracts with, the Army and Navy simulation and gaming centers, which happen to be located within walking distance of UCF.

BOAs (Broad Agency Announcements) are open contracts issued by organizations such as DARPA or DHS that state a general need and then invite good ideas to be submitted to meet that need. Budgets can range from around $100,000 to a million or so; the applicability of the idea is generally more important than the actual amount of the budget, and there is generally not a lot of hard negotiating if the agency likes your gaming idea. BOAs can stay open for one or more years, and will be found on the specific government agencys website.

While were at it, there are a couple of other military terms you should know. CONOPS, the Concept of Operations, in this context is what your game is supposed to teach, and how trainees are supposed to use it. A CTX is a Combined Training Exercise, meaning that your game is to be played by both U.S. and Allied forces. The Battlespace refers to the virtual area the game takes place in, the forces involved, and any simulated support units, such as Artillery or Air. The Blue Forces are the friendlies (i.e., the U.S.), and the Red Force is the enemy; the Green Force consists of neutrals or civilians. MOUT (Mao-T), or Military Operations in Urban Terrain, refers to operations in cities, often with paramilitary forces involved. The SME, or Subject Matter Expert, is the military expert who knows how to do what your game is trying to teach consider him/her your new best friend. Warrior is the insider term for what civilians call a soldier or sailor. A MIPR (Military Interdepartmental Purchase Request, pronounce it so it rhymes with kipper) is an agreement by which one government agency transfers money to another. This term is also used as a verb a Black (secret) organization such as the CIA or a Special Ops group could MIPR funds to some more mundane agency if they like your game (you will almost never get a contract directly from such a group).

Summary

At a time when getting into Xbox-level games is becoming more and more difficult for game creators, due to insanely high production costs and the reticence by publishers to risk $10 million or so on a new idea (as opposed to the tried-but-true producing for branded properties such as blockbuster movies or sequels for existing games), creating games for the military and other branches of government is an exciting and growing opportunity. As always, it pays to do your homework, including trying out existing military games and attending trade gatherings such as the GDC and Serious Games Conference. With perseverance and a little luck, in no time you should be able to create your first MOTS for CTX MOUT CONOPS, funded by a BOA that you got MIPR-ed from Black OPS. Good luck, and in the middle of satisfying fussy program managers and training objectives, dont forget the first commandment of gaming: its got to be fun, or no one will want to play it.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced video games for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

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