Q&A: Virtual Heroes training real heroes

PSPs teaching Hilton hoteliers? Silent Hill artists training Special Forces with RPGs? Grand Theft Auto designers helping police and paramedics? It's all in a day's work for CEO Jerry Heneghan's cutting-edge company.

Next time you check into a Hilton hotel, you may see one of the employees attentively playing a PlayStation Portable. However, there's a good chance that the staffer isn't just sneaking some God of War: Chains of Olympus on company time. The hotel giant has signed on to a new program, HGI Ultimate Team Play, to use a custom-designed PSP game to teach its employees about the finer points of the hospitality trade.

The company behind the PSP-as-hotelier-tutor--the first nongame application for Sony's portable--is Virtual Heroes. Like many developers of "serious games," the North Carolina-based company uses technology developed by the game industry for business and government projects. Besides its deal with Hilton, the company also has partnered with the US Military to provided new content for America's Army and a variety of other projects. These include using role-playing game-like simulations to train US Special Forces on how to deal with civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other Virtual Heroes projects include a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security and the George Washington University Medical Center to develop an emergency-response trainer. Called Zero Hour: America's Medic (click for video demonstration), the game puts players in the shoes of a paramedic helping treat casualties in the aftermath of a disaster or terrorist attack.

Besides its obvious benefit to society, the game--which will be available to the public later this year as a $15 download--is notable because it was developed by former employees of Rockstar Games, makers of the Grand Theft Auto series. Now employed by Virtual Heroes, some of the same minds who helped craft the best-selling franchise's virtual mayhem are helping the US government prepare for a real man-made disaster.

While Zero Hour's origins are ironic, Virtual Heroes is dead serious about its mission to use game technology for practical--and vital--real-world applications. The lens focusing that mission is the company's CEO, Jerry Heneghan. A graduate of West Point and former Apache helicopter pilot, the US Army veteran cut his game teeth at Red Storm Entertainment, developer of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six and its sequels. He cofounded Virtual Heroes in 2004, and has helped it expand into the medical, education, and defense sectors. GameSpot spoke with the executive about his company, and whether a serious game could ever translate into a serious commercial hit.

GameSpot: It's very interesting how Virtual Heroes is straddling the game world and that of science and government.

Jerry Heneghan: We do three things under the rubric of advanced learning technologies, which is a term coined by the National Science Foundation. We create simulations for learning that are fairly straightforward. We provide serious games to teach things like critical decision-making and adaptive thinking and leadership. We also work in virtual worlds, things that are larger scale, to support folks in the government, health care, and commercial segments. Most of our revenue actually comes from health care, believe it or not. Second to that is Federal Systems, mostly defense-related. And we're doing work for corporations like Hilton Hotels and others across multiple platforms including the PSP.

GS: OK, let's delve into each of those sectors a little bit. According to your site, you worked on America's Army, which is probably the most familiar name to most of our audience.

JH: I was the executive producer of America's Army for a while. We still work on the game and we do a lot of training derivatives of that game.

GS: Are you doing anything else with the Army?

JH: We're building a product right now that will be used for therapy for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital to reintegrate them back into society. We do things for ordnance disposal with robotics. We're also working with the Special Forces...

GS: I don't suppose you can talk about that...or can you?

JH: Sure. We're creating something we call the Adaptive Thinking and Leadership Trainer down at Fort Bragg to train people to do nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. That's not just for SF but also for civil affairs soldiers and psychological warfare people too.

GS: So is that basically a kind of virtual role-playing game, with dialogue options and branching storylines?

JH: You're exactly right. It's a role-playing game wrapped into a first-person engine, and we're using Unreal Technology for this. Our company has created a pretty sweet conversation engine and a comprehensive after-action review system which incorporates the use of biometrics. So not only do we have people go through experiential learning in the game, we actually measure mental and physical response vectors as they're going through it.

A lot of times at Fort Bragg, what they will do is have the soldiers go through [the training] in kind of a crawl/walk/run continuum so they can get the bugs out of their response. Then the next day, they'll go into a live range with Arabic-speaking actors to train.

GS: So are there Arabic-speaking characters in the game? Who programs the scenarios so that they're as realistic as possible? Do you have a staff of writers who get input from the government?

JH: Yes. We get subject matter experts shopped to us to do work on this. We have cultural gestures in the game, and we talk to [the soldiers] about the differences between Pashto in Afghanistan and Arabic in Iraq.

GS: Are you using your training games to teach counterinsurgency techniques? If so, are you getting expert advice on that as well?

JH: Well I can say we've worked with the JFK Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg for a number of years, so we get access to their master trainers. They've integrated our software into their curriculum. We have this thing called SimWars, which was the original name of our company. When we do things for defense companies, we call them SimWars applications or SimWars products. Those are custom-version applications set on Unreal Engine 2.5 or 3.0, depending what they want to do. We have this thing call the Virtual Heroes Advanced Learning Technology platform that sits on top of Unreal, and then we build these modules episodically on top of it.

GS: Now are these games strictly on PCs or have you expanded to consoles as well?

JH: Well the ubiquitous platform in the military is the laptop, so we primarily target PCs. With some of our corporate customers, we are developing content on the PlayStation Portable. We have done some console work in the past, but suffice it to say most of our work is on the PC and PSP right now. As far as I know, we have the only license to put nonentertainment products on the PSP. It's interesting because we're using the UMD disc and the memory stick to provide content for our customers, the biggest currently being Hilton Hotels Corporation.

GS: Now tell me about that. How, specifically, will Hilton use the PSP to train its employees? What will they be learning from it?

JH: Well, you've got the different brands within Hilton, so we're starting with the Hilton Garden Inn and it will then scale up to the Waldorf Astoria and the other nine brands within that hotel portfolio. The application will teach all the major things: housekeeping, food and beverage, front desk, concierge, and security. We want to make it educational, but we also wanted to make something fun. We wanted to make something that could stand alone as a fun game.

We've already delivered a prototype that is being soft-launched across the Hilton Garden Inn, but the PSP game comes out in January 2009. Hilton is already buying PSPs for their employees and for their properties. They will link the game to their Satisfaction and Loyalty Tracking (SALT) index, which is being tracked by an outside vendor, to see if there's a correlation between the game and the data back end on employees understanding what the appropriate behaviors are to make people come back for another visit. David Corvella is our program manager. He's former Israeli Army, a really interesting personality, incredibly driven, an incredible gamer, and he's been the champion of that project within the organization.

GS: Now you mentioned that while your products are instructional tools and training simulations, you also want your games to be fun. Are you able to convince writers, programmers, and designers to abandon their work in mainstream games and come work for you?

JH: Well, just to give you an example, we've got Silent Hill's Takayoshi Sato, who's got his own following. He got to the point where at EALA, he just wanted to roll up his sleeves and start doing things again. And when I talked to him at GDC a couple years ago, and he said he'd really like to come work for us, I asked him to explain why. He said, "Look, I'm at a point in my career where they don't actually let me produce anything, and I'm going nuts." Now, Sato's part of a small team of about maybe 15-20 artists where he's really having a dramatic impact on the visual quality on what we're doing. We think that's one of our competitive advantages.

Ironically, most of our game design staff came from [Grand Theft Auto developer-publisher] Rockstar Games. One guy came, and somebody else came, and we've been talking with Jamie King, one of the founders of Rockstar. I mean, when I talk to these guys, they say, "Look, we want to do something different, we want to do something that has social relevance. And it seems like you guys are really taking some risks at Virtual Heroes, you're doing things that are socially relevant and things that haven't been done before."

Our developers looked at things like Grand Theft Auto and, to another extent, Assassin's Creed, with this open-world architecture. We asked ourselves, "How can we use an approach like that for a serious game?" So the approach we're taking with our company, unlike some of our competitors, is that we're trying to take the sexiest elements and top talent from the mainstream game industry and given them an opportunity to do something that not only has to be fun, engaging, and immersive, but also links to learning objectives with measurable performance outcomes. And that's really hard, and our folks know that. They say, "Wow, I didn't have to worry about this stuff when I was at Sony or EA."

Now one ex-Rockstar guy working for us just finished up a project for the Department of Homeland Security Learning Management System. It's called Zero Hour: America's Medic and will be released through George Washington University Medical Center. Available this fall, it will be a $15 download targeted to first responders in the US but available to anyone who's willing to plunk their credit card down. One of the other Rockstar guys is working on an unannounced, very, very exciting project for [Watchmen publisher] Warner Bros. [Interactive Entertainment] that will hopefully get announced later this fall, and it's probably the most exciting thing we've done to this point.

GS: What are you working with them on?

JH: It's unannounced.

GS: So you're doing traditional game development as well?

JH: We're working for a commercial company that is actually interested in a serious games project.

GS: Speaking of commerce, you guys are also developing simulations for the health care industry, right?

JH: Yes. We're trying to bring a product to market that's called HumanSim--

GS: I saw that mentioned on your site. Is that a surgery sim, like Trauma Center for the DS and Wii?

JH: Basically what we're doing is creating digital virtual humans with a physiology engine with a pharmaco-kinetic drug model. They're biomechanically correct. The gist of that is, unlike when people are building hospitals in Second Life and everyone's rejoicing because it's an architectural walk-through, we're creating highly instrumented and engaging environments. You apply a bandage and stick a needle in a patient, the patient will react, from a physiological perspective, in an authentic way in terms of body size, etc. That's pretty powerful, and nobody's tried to do that before. We also allow instructors to control the physiology dynamically or let the physiology engine run autonomously, which is interesting. It can throw curveballs at medical students.

GS: And where will this technology show up in the health industry?

JH: Well we're starting with the low-hanging fruit of first responders. What it comes down to is we think we can save lives by reducing what they call "sentinel events." We can make people more efficient, we can make people communicate more effectively with individual modules and team-based modules, where people experience things collaboratively.

We've already worked for a company that does heart surgery, and we're currently looking at opportunities in the surgical field. We'll be announcing some partners this fall to get HumanSim to market in a way that's very exciting, that we think will reach a lot of people very quickly.

We also did a project with Duke Medical Center, and they are currently testing a derivative of this called 3DiTeams. The nursing school and the medical school have a government-funded project to evaluate the efficacy of the software we produced for them. We are currently negotiating with several other medical schools to do the same for them.

GS: Well do you ever foresee any of your projects crossing over to become mainstream entertainment products, as America's Army did, to a certain extent?

JH: Well I think that they will. Right now, we're not working in a hit-driven industry. We think we've done some successful things, but we think our best work is being done right now. But we have to know what our customer wants before we ship it. The biggest thing for us is that we've been doing a lot of project-related work and we're transitioning to a product-focused company.

The duality of Virtual Heroes always has been that we start by training real people--astronauts, soldiers, medical professionals, whomever. We want to provide real experiences for them that help them save lives, increase efficiencies, and get a return on investment, those types of things.

That said, we also want to entertain and inspire youth in a way so they want to have those careers as well. We're especially targeting kids that come from undeveloped areas of the country and of the world, for that matter. If they play these games, we're hoping they might say to themselves, "I could be a doctor, or an engineer, or an astronaut," because a lot of them might not be exposed to that opportunity in everyday life. The exciting part of this technology is that we're not talking down to kids. We're making something they will enjoy and their parents will understand as well.

One example is the first-aid scenarios in America's Army, which we worked on. The army criticized us for making them too realistic, but they helped a kid right here in North Carolina save someone's life.

So to answer your question, right now we're focused on training people, but people are coming up to us and saying, "Wow, that's interesting. What if we made an entertainment game out of that?" I think that's the next evolution of what we're doing. We have all the sophistication and real science underneath the game, the sexy graphics, and everything else. However, we might need an edgy twist or some comedic flair to make a commercial product.

Our first product to be commercially sold, however, will be Zero Hour: America's Medic. It will give us a revenue share, so that's very exciting for us.

GS: Again, I find it fascinating and more than a little ironic that ex-Grand Theft Auto developers are making games that treat people how to deal with the aftereffects of chaos, rather than cause them.

JH: Well, we have another project, a Virtual Peace project with the University of North Carolina and Duke. We're taking lessons learned from America's Army and our work with the US Special Forces at Fort Bragg and we're turning it around to create a role-playing game for people from NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) like Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent. It will teach them to come into the aftermath of a natural or man-made disaster and work peacefully and cooperatively to efficiently provide the basic services and necessities to people. I mean, it's complete pandemonium in the aftermath of a disaster, and one of the most frustrating things is that people who are there trying to help are sometimes conflicting with each other. And that's not very efficient.

I guess our real social mission here is we're trying to save lives, provide relief, and help after disasters. And in a very real way, our developers are very excited about that.

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Discussion

55 comments
Scotty-32
Scotty-32

datbush: how stupid no game can compensate for real life training and tried and true methods. id rather be treated by honest hard working paramedic then some idiot who sat in a corner playing trauma center. and i hope they dont start training soldiers by having them play counter strike all day no game can emulate real life. -------------------------------------------- How is it different to pilots practising in a Flight Simulator* before going in a real plane? Or would you prefer people to jump in a plane - no experience and fly? Simulators are great way to practice without doing anything that may put theirs or other peoples lifes in danger, and as the article said, then move on to real training (eg a Solider goes to a real rifle range / Pilot goes in a real plane and so on) (* Granted its more high tech than playin on an Xbox, ie in a simulated cockpit) Also, isn't America's Army free for the PC?

Jazz_Fan
Jazz_Fan

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Jazz_Fan
Jazz_Fan

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Jazz_Fan
Jazz_Fan

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

matty_sen
matty_sen

im a hard core gamer and have been since i was like 3, but instead of making video games more real life. Ironicly i think, they should make real life more video games lol

mp5xm8
mp5xm8

Cool! But in the next maybe 10-20 years video games will become so realistic that we may forget our real lives... Well just a little conspiracy theory for you. But ill post some stuff about this on my blog if your interested in my opinion (Probably Nobody)

brian_13un
brian_13un

What is this gamer preparedness test :)

thorsen-ink
thorsen-ink

shamarke Posted Oct 6, 2008 2:22 pm PT to much to read! _________ Yeah god forbid we provide you with all the information. I mean honestly why come to a gaming news Web site if you can't be bothered to invoke the most rudimentary skill of civilization possible? If you don't like reading, there's always G4.

Kowpow
Kowpow

Eh, like this can replace the real education.

johnnyv2003
johnnyv2003

wow, I think people are taking this article a bit too seriously. I don't think that training simulations are ever going to completely prepare someone for the real life applications that they are about. But what's wrong with virtual simulation? I mean what's wrong with preparing troops for decisions they'll come across in the Middle East? And for people who are using virtual training to get ready for emergency medical response, how could virtual training hurt? It's not like they're going to take kids who are right out of virtual training and send them out in an ambulance. And it's not like soldiers are going to be sent out into the fields without some other form of training. People who have commented negatively here, need to lighten up.

demi_veritaz
demi_veritaz

Mix of propaganda and great ideas. Won't be widespread for quite some time, if at all.

Lamesy
Lamesy

What did I learn from this article? That the desperate US military continues to shamelessly market itself to impressionable young male demographics. (Watch G4TV for two consecutive commercial breaks. Point proven.) They really count on undereducated males to believe the assertion that enlistment is some kind of "graduation" from FPS University. On top of that audacity, they want people to pay for propaganda games? Whatever Gamespot, ads are supposed to be that box on the right. Not the body of your "article." I guess anything can be ad space when people pull the right strings.

BloodySloth
BloodySloth

Futil1ty: America's Army was, in essences, a "serious game," and it's not exactly an interactive movie. Keep in mind that no one has ever said that this is going to be a replacement for actually, real-life training. It's a supplement if anything. There's a whole lot of overreacting/exaggerating going on in these comments.

Lisandro_v22
Lisandro_v22

I'm sure for the guys at hotels this will mean that when they have nothing to do instead of read the newspaper they'll have to play a game of themselves working u know a waiter when there are no customers will be playing a flash-like game choosing different colored drinks

Maxor127
Maxor127

That rpg idea actually sounds pretty cool. Reminds me of the original Police Quest SWAT now that I think about it.

Futil1ty
Futil1ty

Datbush...I don't think it's quite as bad as you think it is, but I still kinda agree with you. Seriously, they're not playing the games we know and love; these are "serious games", which basically just means it's like an interactive movie.

Futil1ty
Futil1ty

Datbush...I don't think it's quite as bad as you think it is, but I still kinda agree with you. Seriously, they're not playing the games we know and love; these are "serious games", which basically just means it's like an interactive movie.

datbush
datbush

how stupid no game can compensate for real life training and tried and true methods. id rather be treated by honest hard working paramedic then some idiot who sat in a corner playing trauma center. and i hope they dont start training soldiers by having them play counter strike all day no game can emulate real life.

datbush
datbush

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

lew_0911
lew_0911

I hope the programmers/designers really work hard to create a product that is really worth the trouble of hiring them (and promoting this idea) in the first place, seeing that this project is not so mainstream as, say, the next shooter and RPG.

lew_0911
lew_0911

I hope the programmers/designers really work hard to create a product that is really worth the trouble of hiring them (and promoting this idea) in the first place, seeing that this project is not so mainstream as, say, the next shooter and RPG.

Amir29
Amir29

OK!!! It's time for Paramedic traing GTA STYLE!! Here's what you do... Come up to road kill looking pedestrian. Ask him first, "Are you OK?" If he doesn't respond, pat his limb body a few times. When he gets up, make him walk to the back of the ambulance on his own. Now we know this gets boring, so feel free at anytime to get in the Ambulance and run over more pedestrians. Now police officers!!! What do you do in a high speed pusuit while a guy is on the opposite side of the freeway? THAT'S RIGHT GUYS!!! Ram the divider until he gets away!!! :P

diangelogrey
diangelogrey

These things sound really interesting. They may even be used at some stage to help people with learning difficulties in a way that lets them practise what they are trying to learn. Definatly sounds like a awesome way to teach people. Hopefully they dont just give up on this mission and go into general game development.

faceman420
faceman420

I checked out the vid for the medic game, but it seems like it'd be kinda boring. Also, I didn't understand why ppl had to be stripped naked jus to talk to them. I hope this isn't what really happens in a catastrophe.. =/

Pfilosophy
Pfilosophy

Used to work at a hotel with PSP training. Marriotts actually force you to sign forms and undergo your "PSP training modules." God, I hate hotels.

necronaux
necronaux

Hey, if actors and novelists obtain real lif traing / experiences to enhance their performances / writing, why not video game creators? This is good news.

Ghetto_ninja
Ghetto_ninja

It's great to see out of work programmers can still find ways to make money. I didn't know the answer to all our diaster relief could be a video game!

aafreund91
aafreund91

I think they should of only made it a Military training simulation. The could of made two different versions. It seems like Ubisoft ran out of Government funding and made the graphics look like crap. I personally cant see how somebody can train on this game.

tonicmole
tonicmole

"i dont want a stupid ass that was trained by a PSP to tend to me after a freakin explosion."-KrzyJoe I have to agree with Joe on this one. I'm not cool with some guy who sets around play'n his PSP all day doing an impromptu anal exam on me after an earthquake. His hands would probably be all sweaty and cold.

sci_fi_boy
sci_fi_boy

I'm sorry, Assassin's Creed is open world? What game was he playing?

Faller88
Faller88

Mmmmh the word ""Hero"" gets thrown around allot these days.........Anyway, nice to see the PSP bringing SomeThing to society as a whole.

dark_gender
dark_gender

Medicine and gaming...looks great!!!:)

Andreezy
Andreezy

why would you wanna train off a book like some cave man, when you can do it on a PSP!

Vote_For_McCain
Vote_For_McCain

It's good to see that people still care about others in this world. That is with the exception of KrzyJoe. Shame on you.

Vote_For_McCain
Vote_For_McCain

It's good to see people still care about other in this world. That is with the exception on KrzyJoe. Shame on you.

Pete5506
Pete5506

I think its good that gaming is going for more things then just for fun

Rogue_Of_Hearts
Rogue_Of_Hearts

I think it's a great idea. It is not intended to be a full substitute for actual training and I doubt that anyone "trained" by these training games alone is capable of replicating the actions they may have "learned" from the game, but I believe it has it's entertainment value, specifically for those who have a thirst for knowledge otherwise known as curiosity. "I guess our real social mission here is we're trying to save lives, provide relief, and help after disasters." That's just a poke for attention. Training people to actually save lives will take more than just a few hundred hours invested in a game, even if it does help. also, it can help people learn about some concepts that you would think obvious like checking for the patient's pulse and rate of breathing. maybe you don't want a stupid ass that was trained by a PSP to tend to you after an explosion, but if you were in that situation and professional help was still 10 minutes away, maybe that stupidass trained by a PSP is all you've got. And I'm not really sure that guy having played SOCOM is going to help you much either. I think it's great that we have something new where the hero isn't some guy shooting people left and right or hacking and slashing his way through a mass of monsters and being rewarded with EXP and uber loot (because that's much more rewarding than saving lives!). Fun Game, I think so. Stand-alone training tool, definitely not. Supplemental training tool? Well we'll just have to see about that.

KrzyJoe
KrzyJoe

i dont want a stupid ass that was trained by a PSP to tend to me after a freakin explosion.

raze-boi
raze-boi

Games aren't as bad as some people think they are!

Wej_accept_it
Wej_accept_it

Gotta agree with CrapmaPants, but it is good to see the gaming industry evolving in new directions

CrapmaPants
CrapmaPants

Sounds pretty unnecessary to me. Is it so hard for people to just read a book these days? Or are the people who actually have to demonstrate the training that lazy?

josef8
josef8

haha DS is for kids

terror_ninja
terror_ninja

...training on a PSP is totally demeaning the PSP down to DS level

ZhugeMarc
ZhugeMarc

I'd be interested to play the military and medical ones.

MysticDynamite
MysticDynamite

These are some interesting ideas; the Trauma Center series did a good job at the "interactive medic" game, even if the games were overblown with the whole supervirus thing. And I can probably see how the Red Cross RPG could work out as well.

quickchord
quickchord

@newb16 To setup an infrastructure would be far more expensive then netting a bunch of PSPs

newb16
newb16

Ok so let me get this strait,these companys are wasteing there time turning a handheld videogame console into a handheld Videogame training console? Why not use the computer just like every other company who does simulation training? Computers are smarter, faster,and they use more space.