Spot On: The US Army's There-based simulation

Dr. Michael Macedonia, the Army's military-sim point man, gives us exclusive background on the first-ever massively multiplayer training game, as well as exclusive screens.

Dr. Michael Macedonia is your classic warrior-scholar. On one hand, he has an accomplished military record. A West Point graduate, Macedonia served as an infantry officer in a number of command and staff positions in the US, in Germany, and in the Middle East. Besides being a veteran of the first Gulf War, he was also inside the Pentagon on September 11, when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building, killing 125 people.

On the other hand, Macedonia is an accomplished academic. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science and a master's degree in telecommunications. Besides authoring numerous articles, he has served as a project manager for automated electronic warfare systems development and has managed research, development, and acquisition for communication training systems, voice recognition, and communication analysis software and hardware.

Currently, Macedonia calls Orlando, Florida, home. As chief scientist and technology officer of the US Army’s Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI), he oversees the development of virtual war zones where the only casualties are the egos of soldiers who are taken out by the game's AI. Macedonia was one of the key personnel behind Full Spectrum Command, the Pandemic-developed Army training simulation that spawned the upcoming THQ-published Full Spectrum Warrior.

Today, he's at it again, leading the team working on a new military training sim built on the There engine. Called AWE, for Asymmetric Warfare Environment, the massively multiplayer simulation will be used by military personnel to train troops in urban situations before they are airlifted to a battle zone.

While it has been common knowledge that There was up to something with the military, little news of the project has surfaced--until today. Here's what we know: Built on the There engine, AWE is on target for a release in alpha form this coming June. Of course, the game isn’t being sent to the usual array of game retailers. Only members of the Army's 101st Airborne division will be allowed to play AWE at first. Thereafter, soldiers will be selected by special invitation of their supervising officers.

Macedonia gave GameSpot the inside story on AWE and addressed the Army’s role in the recent crop of commercial military games such as America’s Army, what these games mean for the industry, and the public perception of game culture and the future of warfare.

GameSpot: What is the difference between a game like America's Army or Kuma\War and what PEO STRI is doing?

Dr. Michael Macedonia: America’s Army is focused on recruiting. It’s really a marketing tool in a lot of ways--marketing and education, I should say. We develop true simulations, such as Full Spectrum Warrior and also Full Spectrum Command, [the latter a game] which has not been released to the public. And we also have a new game in development, a massively multiplayer [game] called AWE, which stands for Asymmetric Warfare Environment. It’s a project we’re doing with There Inc.

GS: And the primary reason behind the creation of these games is what?

MM: The reason we started funding the development of these games through the Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT) was that we wanted to teach soldiers. That was our audience--not civilians or kids in high school, but soldiers at different levels of experience and different levels of jobs, management. Full Spectrum Command is focused on officers who run companies and company commanders. They generally have 130 people working for them. Full Spectrum Warrior, the commercial game, is focused on sergeants who might have nine people working for them. These games are not first-person shooters. In the case of Full Spectrum Warrior, it’s a squad-level game on the Xbox and PC.

GS: Why squad-based only?

MM: We went [with squad-based play] because we had a couple of objectives in mind. One, we wanted a pedagogically correct game, so that we weren’t teaching people the wrong thing. Number two, we wanted to teach people how to think, not necessarily how to shoot. In none of these games do you shoot. Well, you can role-play and shoot, but it’s not really focused on shooting.

GS: How far along is the AWE game?

MM: In this massively multiplayer environment, we’re going to see alpha testing with users within the next two months. For alpha testing, we’re talking to the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. So we’ll get it with real soldiers and expand it over the next course of the year.

GS: Will the game be international or just based in the US?

MM: It’ll be international, but only on the Army network. The Army runs the largest private Web portal in the world. Two-thirds of our Army is outside of the US We have a Web portal that’s called AKO, which stands for Army Knowledge Online, and our soldiers all over the world have Internet access, so they’ll be able to play the game on the Army network.

GS: Will this game ever go commercial?

MM: No. Massively multiplayer games cost a lot of money to develop--about $20 million, and we didn’t have that money. There Inc. had developed this environment that was very, very flexible with venture capital money. So, in this case, we thought, "Why don’t we use the platform?" and since we didn’t have to worry about AI (artificial intelligence) so much since it’s a role-playing game...

GS: Meaning you won’t have as many non-playable characters since you’re only dealing with real people...

MM: Exactly. So we were free to worry about other issues, like how to get military people together from all over the world to play this. In one sense it’s a game environment, and in the another sense it’s a collaboration environment. We built downtown Baghdad in this environment. It’s being well received, [but] it’s very different from the commercial environments that There has.

GS: So civilian gamers won’t play AWE anytime in the near future? It won’t be the next Full Spectrum Warrior?

MM: This is not a game for the general public. This is a game for inside military, and it’s more than a game, per se. Massively multiplayer games go all the way back to MOOs, MUDs, and text MUDs of the late '70s, early '80s. So there are a lot of roots back there. But I think the real power [in AWE] is that we can bring a lot of people together to collaborate.

GS: Why do you feel it is such a compelling game environment?

MM: I think what’s fascinating is that we now have a medium that combines both the graphic content as well as exploits broadband, because broadband has been sort of the Holy Grail of EverQuest and Asheron’s Call, as well as others. When we didn’t have broadband widely available, we couldn’t create these huge, realistic worlds and have lots of people participate. Now we’re at the stage where we can actually do this and it’s a much more powerful environment than to, say, go do a quest. You play a MOO or a MUD, and after you do a quest, you sort of walk around and you’ve got your posse or your gang or the group you hang out with and that’s it. In our case, when you have an Army that’s 24/7, literally, around the world, in this fantastic environment where we can bring people together, bring ideas, share experiences...they can create experiences for other people to go through. They can do more than recite these experiences.

GS: What was the inspiration for AWE?

MM: I’ll give you the vision, OK? If I went back 3,000 years, we’ve got guys like Homer, finally writing down for the first time the history of the Greeks and the wars against Troy through the story of Ulysses. It was at that moment in time that we went from a verbal culture to a written culture...[Homer] wrote it down and it became literature. Really, what Homer was trying to do was more than entertainment. He was relaying history; he was teaching. And now we have this medium, the game, where we can take people through those experiences much like [Homer] was telling people of the experiences of soldiers in that war. We can do that today in the military and share those stories and save lives because of it.

GS: You’re really touting this as more than just a game.

MM: Well, we call our games tactical decision aids. Our thing is not making people shoot better; it’s making people think better.

GS: Through developing strategy skills?

MM: It’s more than just strategy; it’s being mentally prepared. Being mentally prepared for what is really an awful, terrible experience.

GS: Using your wits, not just your guns...

MM: Well, you have to. What’s a soldier’s experience in Iraq or Afghanistan? Who’s the enemy? How do I get these people to not [necessarily] like me, but to relate to me? How can I keep a riot from starting when the food runs out?

GS: These are elements of gameplay in AWE?

MM: Of course. America’s Army says it’s a first-person shooter. Our games have moved way beyond that.

GS: You're clear about the present tense, but could you ever see AWE becoming a commercial product?

MM: I really don’t know yet. I don’t know. That has not been on our minds. We started off on the premise of this business model that private investors funded a game (There Inc.), and we’re paying them to modify an environment to satisfy our needs, as opposed to then having to go back [to the commercial market]. From There’s perspective, they are able to take advantage of some of the technologies that we are underwriting for this, but not the content.

GS: And this is the first military massively multiplayer game for PEO STRI?

MM: First in the history of mankind.

GS: To turn to war-gaming theory, which you’ve written on extensively, in your article "Games, Simulations, and the Military Education Dilemma," you wrote about “The Victory Disease”--meaning the military is confronted with an arrogance or false sense of confidence associated with winning a few battles, leading them to think they can just keep doing what they’re doing and continue to win. How do commercial military game developers avoid creating an environment ripe for the victory disease in 19-year-olds who think they could be real military stars because they are really, really good at Full Spectrum Warrior or America’s Army? Wouldn’t you have to simulate the true fear or discomfort a soldier would face and then test them?

MM: I don’t think so. Not in a commercial game.

GS: Well, America’s Army is a commercial game and a recruiting tool. Don’t you think young people might develop a false premise that there are actual transferable skills?

MM: Let me tell you something. America’s Army is not really to transfer skills. I don’t think that was ever the intention, and I don’t think they ever wanted to do that. What they’re trying to do is give you a taste. When you watch CSI, for example, it’s really fascinating because it takes you through the whole experience. They do the autopsies and it’s really gross. Makes me feel like doing something really violent when I see those autopsies [laughs]. [So] even though you watch the show all the time, does this mean you could actually go in and be a crime scene investigator? I go through that vicarious experience every Thursday at 8:00 while watching the show. What’s fascinating is that a lot of police departments across the US are kind of mad at CSI, because they think it’s starting to influence jurors.

GS: Any similarities with America's Army?

MM: America’s Army is kind of like this. I have never met a kid or an adult who’s played America’s Army and said, "Gosh, I’m fearless; I’m indestructible." If you find them, please tell me. I’d like to know.

GS: Is the recent crop of military-influenced and developed games a by-product of the current war in Iraq, or is there more to it?

MM: Why are these games popping up all of a sudden? I think the bottom line here is that there are two phenomena going on. Actually, there are several going on. This is a long story in the making. The Marines messed around with Doom, and actually the first first-person shooter was Atari’s Battlezone, so it’s sort of a beam that’s been hanging in the air for a long time. The problem was, the technology really wasn’t ‘up there’ in terms of realism. Marine Doom was a joke, and though I have people to this day tell me it was really, really serious, it was an important contribution. It was an important contribution because it got people thinking about the idea, but in terms of the technology behind it, they just made the demons into bad guys.

GS: When did PEO STRI first start thinking about commercial games as training tools?

MM: About five years ago, when I came to PEO STRI, we started thinking about it, because we’ve got simulators here that cost $1 million apiece. We have the Close Combat Tactical Trainer, which is basically a networked tank simulator. It’s expensive because it has high-end image generators and such, and its legacy goes back to the mid-'80s. That’s when they started designing these things. What happened is that STRICOM (US Army Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Control)--well, we used to be STRICOM, and now we’re PEO STRI--realized that the technology was accelerating so much, particularly on the commercial game side, that sooner or later we were going to be able to exploit it for training purposes. Frankly, we realized that sooner was better than later, so we started building things in order to test the waters. Our first inclination was to go to commercial game companies and have them modify existing games. Like NovaLogic. We asked them to modify their Delta Force games to become Land Warrior. And Land Warrior ended up being a commercial game.

GS: How did that happen?

MM: Well, there are two issues we’re trying to deal with. One is a technology issue, and the other is a business model issue. We’re helping in terms of technology with regard to the Institute of Creative Technologies (ICT) [Ed. Note: ICT is a military-funded R&D division of the University of Southern California that works with commercial game and film companies to create lifelike virtual environments and experiences for military simulations], because we’re seeing that you can do more artificial intelligence, even on platforms like consoles, as opposed to what you were able to do five years ago when the focus was better graphics, better graphics, and better graphics. We realized that games have to have great graphics, great interfaces, but also great AI and broadband capability. But in our first foray, we were trying to figure out how to take commercial games and modify them to fit our training needs. So we go to NovaLogic and we said, hey, there’s this new weapons system called Land Warrior that infantrymen wear. It looks like a Borg outfit. It’s got the monocle, they see computer graphics on the monocle, and they’ve got a special radio, GPS, different types of weapons. What happened was, the soldiers were having a hard time learning how to use this thing. So we said, why don’t we turn it into a game, so the soldiers could sort of practice it. And there’s nothing classified about it at this point. So, NovaLogic said they’d incorporate it in the game and said they’d put a US Army seal of approval or something like that on it. And actually it was a very, very successful game.

GS: Did other divisions of the military adapt from commercial games for training?

MM: The Marines Corp. sort of did the same thing. They went to Bohemia Interactive and basically modified Operation Flashpoint so that Marines could role-play in the game. Another effort we made was, why don’t we hire a defense contractor to build a game? That was a big mistake, because defense contractors don’t know how to play creative person. That angle we figured out right away. You don’t go to a big defense contractor to build a video game [laughs].

GS: So how did you decide to get away from adapting existing games and into making your own?

MM: Overall, what we wanted to do was to incorporate what we call pedagogical values; we didn’t want to teach people the wrong thing. The explosions aren’t always big, flaming balls. The bad guys aren’t always stupid. And also, most of these games were first-person shooting, and I don’t think we need anymore first-person shooters out there. America’s Army is using the first-person shooter model. It’s using the Unreal engine; its focus is sort of high action. But America’s Army is much more than that. We got involved in America’s Army in the beginning, and the issue at that time was, they really wanted to have players experience a day in the life of a solider. You go to boot camp and you learn what boot camp is like. It’s really focused on the recruiting aspects of the Army. You have to learn the seven values of the Army, for example.

GS: Did the military implement that thinking, or did the game designers have that vision?

MM: America’s Army was done by the Army Recruiting Command and the Naval Postgraduate School (MOVES division). So that was really the Army’s decision. I think the difference between that game, what we’re doing, and what the commercial games industry is doing in general is that these are purposeful games. I’ve been to E3 where General Foods has a booth and they’re making games to sell cereal. That’s purposeful, but it’s generally pretty lame. Our interest really is, in the case of America’s Army, to give people an experience that’s realistic and almost educational. I hate to use that word, because that’s a dirty word around games, today.

GS: How do you respond to people who don’t see the difference between America’s Army and another nonmilitary shooter that’s also very well made?

MM: Well, that depends on who’s saying it. Because on one level, Amercia's Army is simply fun. They purposely wanted it to be fun and exciting, because guess what? A lot of what you do in the Army is fun and exciting. I was in the Army and I loved being a soldier. Also, there’s the process of getting you into understanding what it’s all about. I’ll go back to the educational word. Think of all those kids who are bored in school because we can’t make it interesting. In the case of America’s Army, the game is an exciting, interesting, informative way to learn what it’s like to be a solider. There’s a lot of psychology that goes into this, and it applies not only to the Army. Say I was going to join a Wall Street firm, or go to college, or whatever...something I hadn’t done before. If you can get people to experience that vicariously, they are more mentally prepared for a challenge, because there’s always going to be a challenge. America’s Army is sort of a rehearsal for the Army. In America’s Army you live it. You mess up and get yelled at, but you can also do well and get rewarded, and that’s a lesson about life.

GS: Why do you think the game community responded as it did to Full Spectrum Warrior?

MM: The reason the game community was so fascinated with FSW was because it was a real-time strategy game. If you’re a squad leader and you’re shooting, frankly, you’re making a big mistake because you’re supposed to be leading. And you do have the vicarious experience. We wanted to go to the game community to develop because of our past experience with government contractors. Game developers understand how to put the artistic aspect into the game.

GS: Are you saying because they know how to build a creative challenge into a game?

MM: Exactly. And our folks at ICT bring that creative challenge. The thing about creative people is that they understand psychology implicitly, so they can create a storyline or an image that is 10 times more effective.

GS: Full Spectrum Warrior will be an Xbox and a PC game. What do consoles bring to the table?

MM: This aspect of what we’re testing with Full Spectrum Warrior goes back to the business model. When you’re dealing with consoles, Microsoft has got to get its $10 for every game. We wanted to go with consoles because we wanted a stable platform. We had invested so much money in FSW, we wanted a platform where that game would work three years from now. And we were also interested in use of the gamepad with the interface. So the business model was important. We let Pandemic market the game through a distributor, THQ. It was part of the agreement. In fact, Pandemic put some of its own money into the R&D because of it. And we’re quite happy. The commercial version has all the fireballs and loud effects I know are popular in the commercial game world.

GS: What do you think is the best outcome of this trend toward military-developed commercial games?

MM: That’s interesting. I would say in one sense, let’s go back to World War II. A lot of folks think that the post-year wars were influenced a lot by writers, directors, and cinematographers who participated in wars. [WWII] basically caused a renaissance in American cinema. We live in dangerous, dangerous times. We really are in a global war. I was in the Pentagon on 9-11. I was in corridor 5 when the plane came in. From my perspective, this is a very personal thing. It’s very easy for some intellectual to sit down and write about something they obviously don’t know anything about.

GS: Explain what you mean by intellectual. You have a Ph.D., right?

MM: [Laughs] Well, that’s a different kind of intellectual. A good intellectual. Not a...French intellectual [Laughs]. [As with post WWII films to an older generation] video games are this generation’s medium. I think that’s very much underappreciated. I think that too often, they get put in the context of some lower form of entertainment, just like cinema in the '30s was seen as a low-class thing. Intellectuals went to the opera…

GS: Well, the opera wasn’t originally a high-class or intellectual thing, either.

MM: Exactly. As with all forms of popular media, the intellectuals eventually take over. I think people really misunderstand. If video games are going to grow up, they’re going to have grown-up themes. They’re going to have grown-up ideas. We’re sort of at that crossroads where people are saying, "Video games are an intellectual medium." They’re a medium for thought as well as action. And the power of the video game is the power to experience something, not in a passive way, but actually to take on a persona and experience something the author has created and wants you to experience. To give you the illusion of freedom and the illusion of choice. To get you into the shoes of someone else. I think every video game is a role-playing game. But essentially, you’re an art critic for a medium that doesn’t truly exist yet. The only reason it’s starting to get attention is because it’s making money. Video games are seen as a low art form. And the military is seen as a low art form...[Critics] didn’t complain about Saving Private Ryan. Wouldn’t you say that was teaching people that war is a good thing? That it’s patriotic and you’re fighting for your cause, even in the midst of gore and horror? I haven’t heard anybody say Steven Spielberg is warping the minds of our kids. They’re going after what they consider the low-class medium.

GS: How far along are we?

MM: Game developers hire screenwriters to put back story into games. We’re close. We’re still not there yet; it’s obvious. But there’s another element to that. We can make purposeful games. I think we can create art in video games. I think we can also use them to educate. We’ve known that for a long time. This is a new medium for that capability, and that’s what we’re trying to do. My particular concern is ensuring that that young sergeant, who’s going to go lead soldiers in combat, is not confronted with that situation for the first time while in combat. That’s the wrong time to be confronted with that. That’s the guy I worry about, not some critic. I don’t give a damn. There are guys dying.

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