LOS ANGELES--Since its launch in 2002 (on July 4, no less), America's Army, a tactical multiplayer first-person shooter built on the Unreal engine, has been downloaded more than five million times and is often played simultaneously by as many as 6,000 gamers who meet online to train, team build, and sleuth out and eliminate the enemy.
Viewed by some as nothing more than propaganda, the game is, by design, intended to increase the Army's level of outreach and enhance its recruitment efforts.
This year at E3, one of the game's chief architects, Colonel Casey Wardynski, an economics professor at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, will be on hand to demonstrate to the industry and media the next update in the America's Army universe of games, Overmatch.
We spoke with Colonel Wardynski, (whose full title is Director of the US Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis) to see how taxpayers' $2.5 million a year--the cost of supporting the game--is being spent.
GameSpot: Can you quickly bring us up to speed on the title…and also a quick recap of where the game stands in terms of it being tapped by other agencies of the US military? And what's the next step for the US Army and your group, in terms of using the America's Army platform?
Casey Wardynski: The game initially, and primarily still is, the public application that everybody knows; the one that's played on the Internet. The objective was, essentially, to put the Army into pop culture as a touchstone for kids to learn about the Army, beginning in their teen years, and put it in with other things they're thinking of doing.
[Recently,] we started getting interest from other entities inside of government in terms of using it for training. So the game is actually used for like a classroom now. It allows you to take your experiences somewhere where it's either very dangerous to go, or expensive to go, or there's no resources to get you there--which could be somewhere in the Middle East, or it could be somewhere in Alaska.
GS: Besides the Army, which government agencies are using the America's Army engine and game for training?
CW: The first was the Secret Service. They wanted to use it for training presidential detail and doing some work in places they might run operations but just couldn't train in. Now they can do it virtually.
Then, we immediately saw applications across a whole range of other things of a similar scale--where there wasn't millions of dollars to go do this stuff, but there were hundreds of thousands of dollars to go do this stuff.
The idea we essentially settled on is that there's really two America's Armies. There's the public version and there's the government version.
They're really two different products, but 90 percent common in terms of all their assets--trees, buildings, networking code, functionality for weapons and chat and all that stuff. Where they differentiate is that the public game focuses on exploration--it's got balance. One team can't always win. The fun is very important to it. The design of gameplay is nested in a way that's logical. That's unique to the public version.
GS: And when the internal agencies get their hands on it…?
CW: On the government side, balanced gameplay is not important. Fun is less important. What's important is the ability to capture interactions and throw curveballs, and a place for an instructor to control the flow of events.
GS: Speaking of costs, what is the ongoing cost of the game?
CW: We invest probably about $2.5 million dollars a year in it.
GS: Where's the payoff for those recurring costs?
CW: For example, right now down in Huntsville, Alabama, at Redstone Arsenal, in [what took] about two weeks' time, the guys down there took all the same assets and tools and built a thing called CROWS, or Common Remote Operator Weapons System. It will be fielded in Iraq this summer.
There was no training system for what they needed, so they used America's Army as the embedded training system. As a result, CROWS was created within two weeks. Normally that would take a year. And along [with] that, they built some new stuff, and that will be available now to go back into the public version of the game.
GS: CROWS looks like what?
CW: Basically, CROWS is America's Army with bad guys that pop up in buildings or windows or on street corners. You have to sort out noncombatants from combatants.
GS: How is the "game" implemented?
CW: When we add it into the Hummer next winter, it won't just have a machine gun on top, it'll have a CROWS on top.
GS: And in the field?
CW: Let's say these guys were somewhere in the Middle East, in Iraq, and they're at Camp Victory. They're going to train tonight and they're going to go out tomorrow and do real-world stuff. So tonight they hook up their tactical computer to the Hummer and pipe this stuff into their system and train. Tomorrow they unplug it, drive out and go do their business. It's called an appended training system. It's appended to the vehicle. There's another [system] that will be an embedded training system, where the training is embedded directly into the weapons system.
GS: To be used in other scenarios besides combat?
CW: Nuclear biological chemical detection.
GS: And that's implemented how?
CW: They would run scenarios where they're driving around a vehicle that's sampling terrain to see if it's contaminated. Users could do that virtually just as well as they can do it in the real world. America's Army will be running on their computer, and it will actually be the computer doing the sampling.
When they're training, they're using America's Army, and when they're doing it in the real world, they just turn America's Army off and use the equipment in a real-mode setting.
GS: In what way have events from the Iraq theater of operations influenced or guided upcoming content?
CW: Well, for the government side it's driving almost all of it.
Right now we're working on an application for…well, before soldiers deploy to Iraq they're supposed to have training in convoy operations, because a lot of the ambushing that's going on is [directed at] convoys.
Many of our installations don't support doing real training, because like a machine gun would maybe shoot two kilometers, if you're in a convoy, the arc of that area of engagement could be a full circle, so you'd need a huge amount of terrain to run your training. Many installations just don't have that kind of terrain. So we're building a way to do that with America's Army.
That's purely driven by the war.
GS: Is that operational now?
CW: That will be operational within about three months--it's in a demo mode right now.
When Overmatch launches in September, the Striker will have 19 zones of damage, the Hummer will have 19 zones of damage. It can roll over. You can get caught underneath it. It'll be a fully functional vehicle--all that kind of stuff which normally you'd never see in a commercial game, because it's way too expensive. We did all that because the government needs that, and now the government owns it so it can flow it right back into the public game.
GS: And now you folks are in the licensing business…
CW: Ubisoft's Rise of a Soldier is the only official US Army game in the world. We approve their PR, their marketing, and their game content, which is a very different model.
GS: How serious are you about oversight on the project?
We approve everything that goes on and we have extensive subject matter review. Green Berets are providing expert advice on all that goes on there. And we've seen it; it's going to be very nice.
GS: Are you going to make a lot of money off that project?
CW: (Laughs) Well, if there's any money made, it's by the US Government, unfortunately. Well, not unfortunately for the government, but if there was a revenue stream, the funds that ensue from that flow back to the US Government to support US Government operations.
GS: Why do you think America's Army has been so popular?
CW: Probably for a variety of reasons. It's a pretty good game. And it also allows us to bring alive things that you wouldn't normally see in a first-person game. It sets up structures in the game to encourage teamwork and to encourage norms of behavior. A lot of games of this genre fall prey to, what do you call it...team killers.
Sort of abhorrent behaviors, because every character is kind of a Rambo and in it for himself. In America's Army, if you play that way, you really don't enjoy much success. That wouldn't have been something the game industry would have loved to do, but it works really well for us.
GS: In what other ways do you share assets with the other arms of the armed services?
CW: The Navy is interested in a few things. The Air Force is very interested in some stuff. Some major commands are very interested. The deal we have with them is we have to cover the costs of meeting their needs and then whatever is made has to be shared.
GS: What do you think that America's Army does for the game industry?
I would say the major investment we are making, and we are proud of the payoff to gaming, is that the government did something that might not have happened in the industry for quite some time--and that's the database behind America's Army. We're still trying to figure out a name for it. Kids are very interested in the statistics that come out of these games. And the availability of statistics is pretty limited right now.
With our database, essentially anything that happens in-game will be able to be captured and linked across either the game chat, the game experience itself, America's Army forums, into tournament, team play, and also make the management of knowing what your stats are--what your buddy stats are, standing, all that kind of thing--very transparent.
So let's say you have got to do a tournament today and the results of that tournament were played out on a sanctioned server. The server will automatically report all the stats back to the database and post them to a Web site so they're immediately available.
For instance, I'm in the forums and I'm reading some postings by a guy--all I can tell is he's an expert on playing America's Army and I can click on his user ID and pull up his stats and see if this guy is any good in this game--what has he done and where has he been. People can look at my stats as well, so if I form a team, it will be very obvious if I'm a great medic, or if I'm not such a great grenadier.
GS: What is your agenda at E3?
CW: E3 is a bunch of things for us. The two focus areas are, the licensed product, Rise of a Soldier, and Overmatch. Last year we talked about Overmatch and what it was going to be, and this year Overmatch will be at E3. It will actually be a big departure from America's Army in the past.
GS: What do you mean by that?
CW: America's Army has always been team-on-team, and force-on-force engagement. In Overmatch you will see the first application of AI in America's Army.
We have licensed AI that was originally built for the Air Force and embedded in America's Army to run the bad guys. That allows us to do what is called Overmatch, which is, no longer do we need balanced teams.
So we have got a team that is relatively small, which is the Americans, and a team which is relatively large, which is…I think it's a Republican Guard Force.
The Overmatch structure is basically this: how does a small force deal with a large force. That is played out in the game.
The innovation is the first real application of vehicles and the first real application of missile systems. So the Javelin missile will be there; the Hummer GMV, which is the Special Forces' version of Hummer, enemy armor vehicles--all with multizone damage models. [We use] military-grade AI.
That will be the major rollout from our side. It will have a whole new user interface, a whole new set of features that the 2.5 engine facilitates, and it will also bring to bear this new database behind it, which does a much better job of stringing together events over time.
GS: Can you give me an example?
CW: So, right now in America's Army, let's say you go to the rifle range and you pass as a marksman or an expert. There is actually no big impact on your effectiveness in the game. With the new database and Overmatch...let's say you score as an expert in the rifle range in the game's basic training. Your accuracy, then, will be higher under more conditions than it would be if you scored marksman. And let's say you did the obstacle course faster. Your ability to run longer, faster, further, again would be higher than a guy who didn't do very well in the obstacle course.
So the connections between outcomes of training--training which was once just a gateway event--will open the gate to let you do something new. Training will actually impact performance in the game.
GS: What's the current goal of America's Army in terms of it remaining a recruitment tool?
CW: I'm a big believer in the volunteer Army, so my hope is America's Army does its part to make sure that recruiting does work and we continue to get kids interested in being soldiers, and that we continue to have people to volunteer to do this for a living.
GS: Do you still come across the question that asks if there is a disconnect between the entertainment value of America's Army and the sometimes, maybe often times, grim reality of the real-world battlefield?
CW: We ask ourselves tough questions all the time, and that's always been one of the top questions.
Most of what goes on in America's Army is: you're either in a training situation where you are trained to be a soldier and see what that's like, or you're in simulated combat. You can't escape the central point, which is armies are built to employ force.
GS: If you are with the US Army, I'm thinking you must have a bottomless pit of money to spend on these projects. Is that so?
CW: The Army is probably allocating a billion dollars a year for simulations, or maybe $500 million--it's somewhere in that area. It's spread across everything from rubber rifles to strategic command and control simulations for theater-level war.
People think America's Army [and think], "Gee, the army can sink an unlimited amount of money into this thing." But my budget is actually fairly tight. It's maybe even smaller than a normal game budget.
GS: Interestingly, you're a trained economist, correct?
CW: That's what the paperwork says.
GS: At West Point, what are you primarily teaching?
CW: It turns out I am not much of a teacher anymore. The last class I taught was probably about 10 years ago.
GS: Do I need to call security, Casey? So when you are not promoting the game, what are you doing?
CW: I'm a research PhD. I run an analytic cell here at West Point and most of our analysis is on labor economics, and, for example, incentive structures.
We have the largest manpower data warehouse for the Army. It's things like pay and personnel records and all that stuff for actual people who are in the Army--we do a lot of research on how much to pay soldiers. Right now we're doing a big study on how to incentivize officers to stay in the army longer, and that kind of thing.
GS: The game fits in where?
CW: The NCOs run that data warehouse. Then, on the other side, we've got the database behind America's Army. And that's actually hosted somewhere down in Washington. The data that's on there is the sort of data that you are familiar with, which is game-related--an association between a user ID and actions in the game, but not to an individual.
GS: Do you track players' movements by name? By individual?
CW: We don't have [for example]: Casey Wardynski is playing the game, and his user ID is X, and he's done X, Y, and Z.
So where we are right now is that everything players do in a game is recorded, because that allows the persona to be persistent and grow. But it's recorded under their game name.
So the fact that (I think my game name is LTCW), that was Casey Wardynski, you would never find in our database. That's all done by design to protect privacy, because we want the game to be a very soft touch. We want people to be able to do pretty much whatever the heck they want to do in there, in the way of experimentation.
GS: Would you say that America's Army glamorizes or trivializes warfare?
CW: I think it's a major advance, simply because it clearly puts across the idea that the Army is an armed force and it's armed for these reasons, and this is how it's to be used, and these are its primary functions.
If you are a soldier, these are the kinds of things you would do and there is risk, and in the game, you know, you can be killed, you can be wounded.
Also, you should remember that the game is not the only thing out there either. The game is part of a whole set of information. If you want see a lot more drama about being wounded, there is plenty of places to go for that too.
GS: Thanks Casey. We appreciate your time.