America’s Army gives the public a feel for what i t i s like to join its ranks.
On July 4, 2002, the United States Army introduced America’s Army, an online PC action game intended as an information vehicle to teach teens, through the use of virtual experiences, about soldiering as a career choice. The initial goal was simple: Provide the information within the entertaining and immersive environment of a high-production-value game, thereby reducing the Army’s initial search costs for new recruits. Four years later, the America’s Army franchise has far exceeded its original mission: A force in the entertainment realm, it is one of the top-rated PC action-game franchises played online.
More and more, companies and institutions are using computer gaming technology to train today’s young adults, who feel more comfortable in an interactive environment with a joystick and a keypad than in a passive scenario. While these serious games are achieving success in terms of training and education, they are by no means considered compelling entertainment—after all, it’s extremely unlikely that, given a choice, a person would play one of these titles for fun. Not so with America’s Army.
So, how did America’s Army successfully capture the attention of gamers? America’s Army contains high-tech weapons—an attractive feature in first-person shooters (FPS). And the newest release in the franchise—America’s Army: Special Forces (Overmatch)—features some of today’s most sophisticated real-world battle technology. Also, the title incorporates state-of-the-art game technology and compelling imagery for a realistic, immersive experience.
“We created the game to provide young adults with a virtual portal into the Army. We built it in such a way that they can explore key aspects of the Army, from basic training to simulated deployments in the War on Terrorism. In this way, we are able to leverage the popularity of games to provide young people with a firsthand look at what it is like to be a soldier,” says executive producer Phillip Bossant. “The public is able to learn more about the Army, right from the source, in an entertaining environment where more knowledge and clarification of Army values and ethos can be gained without forcing that information on the participant.”
Equipped for Battle
In development since 2004, Special Forces (Overmatch), a new expansion release for the military simulation game, will be available this Fall as a free public download, as are all the America’s Army games (there is also a commercial Xbox title called Rise of a Soldier). America’s Army: Special Forces, the second major installment of the franchise, builds on the original America’s Army: Operations title in terms of player progression, expanding play to let players gain an inside view inside the world of the Army’s elite Special Forces soldier. In the installment’s expansion pack Special Forces (Overmatch), missions will feature cooperative gameplay against advanced artificial intelligence in which players experience the overmatched capabilities that the Army’s special troops bring to the battlefield in terms of their ability to engage and defeat much larger hostile forces.
As Bossant notes, the US Army makes continuous advancements in equipment and technology, and a few of the more recent rollouts have included shoulder- and vehicle-mounted systems. Overmatch provides some of these real-world devices to players, including the Javelin portable missile system and the “up-armored” Humvee vehicle with the CROWS weapon system. “America’s Army is widely recognized as a highly immersive, high-quality visual experience,” says Bossant. “There is a lot of attention given to detail and authentic presentation of weaponry and equipment, even to replicated functionality.” This type of simulation in the game is accomplished by the development team programmers.
Before players can utilize these weapons—which are all built using Autodesk’s Maya—they must successfully complete a virtual training course. For example, the Javelin Training/Qualification Level is a single-player mission focused on teaching the player how to use the game version of the Javelin, a man-portable, shoulder-fired missile. In this game level, players are introduced to the Javelin, given instructions on how to use it, are tested on the information, and then are given information as to how the Javelin should be used in combat—that is, what are suitable targets and what are not.
To illustrate the accurate depiction of these and other weapons in the title, Bossant points to the in-game M4 SOPMOD (Special Operations Modification). “This weapon has accurate scale and uses the Picattiny Rail System for attaching a number of swappable equipment pieces,” he says. “These include three different scopes, the M203 grenade launcher, Harris Bipod, and muzzle suppressor. Weapon reloads, fix jams, and even brass ejections are added to the CG imagery to make for a high-fidelity virtual experience.”
Gameplay and Army Values
It is difficult to categorize Overmatch. With such attention to detail, particularly in terms of the weaponry, it can be considered a simulation game. Because it places players into a simulated experience of an actual soldier, it also can be considered a reality-based role-playing game. And, due to the title’s focus on teaching, it is often labeled a serious game. Still, many hard-core gamers would consider Overmatch an FPS. Yet, unlike most online FPS games, Overmatch is a compelling action game that rewards teamwork as the method of achieving in-game objectives.
“While offering an exciting and intense gaming experience, America’s Army still differs from many other titles by focusing the point-reward system on achieving goals, and not running around Rambo style,” says Bossant. Consistent with real-life Army values, ethics, and morals, players must adhere to rules of engagement or they will face consequences.
In another atypical aspect of gameplay, players do not “re-spawn” if they die in the game and must wait until a new round begins. Also, players must be cautious not to harm fellow teammates or civilians. Minor infractions include point and honor loss, but reckless behavior and indiscriminate weapon usage will land the person in a virtual Leavenworth prison cell where the player will not be able to rejoin the server for a short period of time.
America’s Army already has the greatest number of random elements in its mission levels, Bossant says, and its multiplayer team versus team missions feature random spawns, random objectives, dynamic objectives, movable objectives, items that can be carried, random civilian and informant spawns, and even random extractions. “Now we added character and vehicle AI to this mix, and we think players will get a deep and exciting virtual game experience that is never the same and will be fresh no matter how many times they play the same level maps,” he says.
America’s Army Special Forces (Overmatch) contains advanced artificial intelligence so that players can join with other players to fight against computer-controlled AI.
A completely new line of fictional enemy soldiers has been added to support the new AI feature in Overlook. As a result, players can join other live players to cooperatively fight against computer-controlled artificial intelligence. Also, vehicles are controlled by both the players and the opposing forces via enemy AI. The enemy fighters can range in skill level from poor to very effective and dangerous, and can include methods that are not part of the US Army repertoire. For example, an untrained terrorist might shoot from the hip, which is a common but highly inaccurate way to use a real weapon. But change that to a more controlled, tougher adversary, including enemy tanks and other vehicles, and a team effort becomes critical to successfully complete a mission, Bossant points out.
No one knows military simulation like the US Army, and the fact that the Army is the publisher and developer of the franchise ensures that the simulation is realistic and the gameplay adheres to its strict standards. In fact, the team maintained a high level of standard throughout all aspects of development, including game graphics. This enabled the developers to successfully compete for the attention of its intended target: game-savvy young adults.
Unlike some game developers, though, the Army was able to tap internal resources for leading-edge technology and materials. “We are not a company working for the Army, but the US Army development team, which affords us a significant amount of access to current active-duty soldiers, locations, and equipment,” says Bossant. “We then take that reference material, whether it is photographs, video, and, in some cases, personal hands-on experience, and bring it into our ‘games as art’ philosophy. We truly want to create exciting, compelling virtual experiences.”
When the franchise began, Michael Zyda, director of the MOVES Institute, assembled a team of master’s and doctoral students, all military officers, whose emergent research—including streamlined graphics algorithms and analysis of the psychological dynamics of immersion, was piped into the game. (The Modeling, Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute, or MOVES, is an internationally renowned center for modeling and simulation.)
In addition, the development team visited a number of Army posts where they acquired a firsthand experience of Army activities. They also took photographs for texture references, shot motion-capture video for animations, and recorded thousands of sound effects. For the foundation of the franchise, the team selected an outside source, Epic Games, using the state-of-the-art Unreal game engine, which includes the Karma physics engine (supporting Karma Ragdoll Simulation).
The development team accurately re-created weapons in the game both in terms of their appearance as well as their performance.
For Overlook, the team extended its well-honed skills, modeling the characters, objects, and scenery in Maya, and incorporating UV lighting and baked light onto the model before applying the textures. The artists painted the textures onto the models with Adobe’s Photoshop. “Our model accuracy set the new highest standard back in ’02 and still holds up today,” says Bossant.
The virtual soldiers in the game, which are physically representative of the “average” recruit, were modeled in Autodesk’s Maya. Each character exhibits eye and head tracking, as well as lip synchronization.
In keeping with the tradition of strong visuals in the franchise, the artists changed the US soldier character models in the game to reflect the current US Army uniform and equipment. In-game soldiers now wear the army combat uniform, use a camel back instead of canteens, wear a Mitch helmet and even have different types of body armor depending on whether the soldier is in infantry, Rangers, or Special Forces.
Careful attention was also given to how the weaponry was represented. When shooting, for example, the weapon sways slightly with the character’s breathing, recoils on discharge, and occasionally jams; bullets penetrate or ricochet depending on the make-up of the target, distance from the target, and so on.
Realistic physics inevitably influence players’ decision-making. For instance, because ricochets tend to travel along vertical surfaces, players learn to resist hugging walls if they want to stay healthy and combat-effective, and they don’t detonate a blinding and deafening flashbang at close range if they value their sight and hearing. “While some players may like to charge around shooting recklessly, America’s Army is designed for zooming in and aiming through sights, and rewards shooting from stable postures such as crouched and prone,” Bossant explains.
The Reality of Realism
According to Bossant, the biggest content creation challenge the team faced for Overmatch was finding the exact detailed reference material the artists needed for accurately portraying certain equipment or locations in high fidelity. “Sometimes it was as simple as trying to find out what the exact sound of a specific mechanism was or how some part functioned, even how a person would get into a specific vehicle,” he explains. “Other times it concerned detailed information about ballistics, damage zones, or audio for an uncommon or exclusive weapon or piece of equipment.”
The art team re-created a range of environmental conditions within the game to simulate real-world conditions.
While realism is an important aspect of the game, the development team is aware that there can be such a thing as too much reality. The group often captures and re-creates a variety of soldier movements, techniques, and equipment functionality that does not always make it in to the public version of the game. Obviously, the government only allows declassified information into the game; even so, sometimes that information is not necessary or conducive to the entertainment nature of the public version, but is valuable for the iteration used as a training tool by the actual soldiers.
Training for a New Generation
While Overmatch continued to push the state of the art in gaming, the Army is not resting on its laurels. The next-gen technology version of America’s Army, which is a brand-new version on a newer, much more advanced Unreal 3 game engine, will surpass all the achievements the group has made thus far in the franchise, Bossant promises.
“Many of our biggest accomplishments in pushing the boundaries of CG technology occurred earlier in the America’s Army life cycle,” says Bossant. “The results of that are still evident. Even today, it looks good for a title that, in game years, is considered old. Not many games can say that. But this makes us even more excited to tackle it from scratch again to create a far more powerful expression of a virtual environment and informative Army messaging.”
Karen Moltenbrey is chief editor of Computer Graphics World.
Overlook is unique in that it features the Real Heroes program, which portrays the lives and actions of actual soldiers who have been decorated for bravery in combat.
Players will be able to interact with the heroes through in-game video that recounts the circumstances and actions in which they were decorated in the Global War on Terrorism. In addition, these soldiers appear throughout the game as interactive characters in training missions related to what they do in real life, giving players more exposure to real soldiers and an opportunity to compare their virtual training with the accomplishments of real people. On the America’s Army and US Army Web sites (www.americasarmy.com and www.goarmy.com, respectively), players also can view extended videos, photo galleries, copies of medals and awards, and locate additional biographical information about these people.
Re-creating a virtual version of the Real Heroes was challenging on a number of fronts. First, the artists made custom head-model designs using Autodesk’s Maya, and then animated the faces so the in-game versions looked accurate. The crew started with a photo base for reference, and hand-modeled a relatively low, custom-poly head. As executive producer Phillip Bossant points out, the heads need to be more unique than the generic-head versions used for the player characters, but not to the extent that there is a wide disparity in quality between them and the other player models. Alas, the artists were not able to make custom eye and eyelid sizes and functions, and are currently limited to a generic mouth construction for generic global lip-syncing. (This will no longer be an issue when the team moves onto the next-generation engine and redesigns character models to accommodate a higher fidelity.) Lastly, the artists painted atop the photo textures, allowing them to achieve a result they refer to as “painted realism.”
“We can create a high-fidelity model with exact likenesses, but the solutions for our current game engine [Epic Games’ Unreal 2.5 engine] and its design requirements had to fit within predetermined specs,” Bossant explains. He notes that a task like this will be easier when the group incorporates the next-gen Unreal 3.0 solution into the forthcoming America
’s Army title.
Although some of the America
’s Army character faces came from actual soldiers, until now the characters were considered generic. “Previously, we didn’t try to re-create any particular soldier, but rather used them as reference,” Bossant says. In contrast, Overlook—with the inclusion of actual Real Heroes, including their names and stories—“puts a human face on the values, ethics, and efforts of the individuals in the US Army,” he adds. —Karen Moltenbrey