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 Armys 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 isnt 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 Armys role in the recent crop of commercial military games such as Americas 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: Americas Army is focused on recruiting. Its 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. Its a project were 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, its 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 werent 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 its not really focused on shooting.
GS: How far along is the AWE game?
MM: In this massively multiplayer environment, were going to see alpha testing with users within the next two months. For alpha testing, were talking to the 101st Airborne out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky. So well 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: Itll 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 thats called AKO, which stands for Army Knowledge Online, and our soldiers all over the world have Internet access, so theyll 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 didnt 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 dont we use the platform?" and since we didnt have to worry about AI (artificial intelligence) so much since its a role-playing game...
GS: Meaning you wont have as many non-playable characters since youre 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 its a game environment, and in the another sense its a collaboration environment. We built downtown Baghdad in this environment. Its being well received, [but] its very different from the commercial environments that There has.
GS: So civilian gamers wont play AWE anytime in the near future? It wont be the next Full Spectrum Warrior?
MM: This is not a game for the general public. This is a game for inside military, and its 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 whats 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 Asherons Call, as well as others. When we didnt have broadband widely available, we couldnt create these huge, realistic worlds and have lots of people participate. Now were at the stage where we can actually do this and its 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 youve got your posse or your gang or the group you hang out with and thats it. In our case, when you have an Army thats 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: Ill give you the vision, OK? If I went back 3,000 years, weve 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: Youre 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; its making people think better.
GS: Through developing strategy skills?
MM: Its more than just strategy; its 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. Whats a soldiers experience in Iraq or Afghanistan? Whos 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. Americas Army says its 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 dont know yet. I dont 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 were paying them to modify an environment to satisfy our needs, as opposed to then having to go back [to the commercial market]. From Theres 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 youve 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 theyre 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 Americas Army? Wouldnt you have to simulate the true fear or discomfort a soldier would face and then test them?
MM: I dont think so. Not in a commercial game.
GS: Well, Americas Army is a commercial game and a recruiting tool. Dont you think young people might develop a false premise that there are actual transferable skills?
MM: Let me tell you something. Americas Army is not really to transfer skills. I dont think that was ever the intention, and I dont think they ever wanted to do that. What theyre trying to do is give you a taste. When you watch CSI, for example, its really fascinating because it takes you through the whole experience. They do the autopsies and its 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. Whats fascinating is that a lot of police departments across the US are kind of mad at CSI, because they think its starting to influence jurors.
GS: Any similarities with America's Army?
MM: Americas Army is kind of like this. I have never met a kid or an adult whos played Americas Army and said, "Gosh, Im fearless; Im indestructible." If you find them, please tell me. Id 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 Ataris Battlezone, so its sort of a beam thats been hanging in the air for a long time. The problem was, the technology really wasnt 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 weve got simulators here that cost $1 million apiece. We have the Close Combat Tactical Trainer, which is basically a networked tank simulator. Its expensive because it has high-end image generators and such, and its legacy goes back to the mid-'80s. Thats 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 were 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 were trying to deal with. One is a technology issue, and the other is a business model issue. Were 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 were 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, theres this new weapons system called Land Warrior that infantrymen wear. It looks like a Borg outfit. Its got the monocle, they see computer graphics on the monocle, and theyve 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 dont we turn it into a game, so the soldiers could sort of practice it. And theres nothing classified about it at this point. So, NovaLogic said theyd incorporate it in the game and said theyd 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 dont we hire a defense contractor to build a game? That was a big mistake, because defense contractors dont know how to play creative person. That angle we figured out right away. You dont 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 didnt want to teach people the wrong thing. The explosions arent always big, flaming balls. The bad guys arent always stupid. And also, most of these games were first-person shooting, and I dont think we need anymore first-person shooters out there. Americas Army is using the first-person shooter model. Its using the Unreal engine; its focus is sort of high action. But Americas Army is much more than that. We got involved in Americas 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. Its 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: Americas Army was done by the Army Recruiting Command and the Naval Postgraduate School (MOVES division). So that was really the Armys decision. I think the difference between that game, what were doing, and what the commercial games industry is doing in general is that these are purposeful games. Ive been to E3 where General Foods has a booth and theyre making games to sell cereal. Thats purposeful, but its generally pretty lame. Our interest really is, in the case of Americas Army, to give people an experience thats realistic and almost educational. I hate to use that word, because thats a dirty word around games, today.
GS: How do you respond to people who dont see the difference between Americas Army and another nonmilitary shooter thats also very well made?
MM: Well, that depends on whos 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, theres the process of getting you into understanding what its all about. Ill go back to the educational word. Think of all those kids who are bored in school because we cant make it interesting. In the case of Americas Army, the game is an exciting, interesting, informative way to learn what its like to be a solider. Theres 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 hadnt done before. If you can get people to experience that vicariously, they are more mentally prepared for a challenge, because theres always going to be a challenge. Americas Army is sort of a rehearsal for the Army. In Americas Army you live it. You mess up and get yelled at, but you can also do well and get rewarded, and thats 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 youre a squad leader and youre shooting, frankly, youre making a big mistake because youre 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 were testing with Full Spectrum Warrior goes back to the business model. When youre 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 were 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: Thats interesting. I would say in one sense, lets 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. Its very easy for some intellectual to sit down and write about something they obviously dont know anything about.
GS: Explain what you mean by intellectual. You have a Ph.D., right?
MM: [Laughs] Well, thats 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 generations medium. I think thats 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 wasnt 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, theyre going to have grown-up themes. Theyre going to have grown-up ideas. Were sort of at that crossroads where people are saying, "Video games are an intellectual medium." Theyre 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, youre an art critic for a medium that doesnt truly exist yet. The only reason its starting to get attention is because its making money. Video games are seen as a low art form. And the military is seen as a low art form...[Critics] didnt complain about Saving Private Ryan. Wouldnt you say that was teaching people that war is a good thing? That its patriotic and youre fighting for your cause, even in the midst of gore and horror? I havent heard anybody say Steven Spielberg is warping the minds of our kids. Theyre 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. Were close. Were still not there yet; its obvious. But theres 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. Weve known that for a long time. This is a new medium for that capability, and thats what were trying to do. My particular concern is ensuring that that young sergeant, whos going to go lead soldiers in combat, is not confronted with that situation for the first time while in combat. Thats the wrong time to be confronted with that. Thats the guy I worry about, not some critic. I dont give a damn. There are guys dying.
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