Going “Hands On” at the US Army Virtual Reality Game Studio
Financial disclosure: the US Army paid my travel, room, and board for this trip.
A few months ago, I had a unique opportunity to tour the offices of the Army Games Studio, developers of “America’s Army,” and to see firsthand how the Army is using new technology – including AR and VR – in their outreach and recruiting programs.
This is exciting, because most game studios are pretty tight-lipped, much less one run by the government. To my knowledge, this is the first time the Army Game Studio has provided an inside view like this. The experience was fascinating, and I’m pleased to be able to share it with you. Here’s what happened:
The Army Game Studio
The Army Game Studio is located at the Redstone Armory in Huntsville, Alabama. The Armory was founded in the early 1940’s as part of the ramp up to World War II. Later, in the 1950’s, it served as a base of operations for controversial rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, whose work would eventually form the foundation of the Apollo program. The facility employs more than 35,000 people, including both soldiers and civilian contractors.
The Game Studio itself is located a little ways from the entrance to the facility, and fills a long brick building. It’s framed by hills, mist, and variations on the theme of pine. The Game Studio is the outreach branch of the Armory, and employs a number of game developers, programmers, and researchers who work on various digital experiences aimed at the public. The most famous of these experiences is the America’s Army franchise, a series of video games, which put the player into the role of American soldiers embroiled in a fictional middle-eastern conflict.
Huntsville is very much a military town, something that became clear within thirty seconds of landing at the airport, which was plastered with the logos of so many aerospace contractors that you’d think I was arriving from the Moon. The aerospace and defense industries are everywhere. The enormous Boeing plant sits a respectful distance away from the Arsenal, and the huge Saturn 5 replica that sits out front of the Huntsville Air and Space Museum was visible from my hotel window, and pretty much set the tone for the visit.
My guide for the trip was Angela Gassett, an employee of Weber Shandwick, which is a PR company that works with the Army. She and I met in the hotel lobby, and arrived at the Redstone Arsenal bright and early. It was beautiful and unseasonably warm out, so after we got our security badges, we stopped outside the Game Studio to capture some images of the exterior.
In the lobby, we ran across our first serious obstacle: the desk clerk, the least amused woman I have ever seen in my life. We were instructed to check our IDs and phones before entering. My camera caused some consternation, but fortunately, our contact on base, Stephanie Gibbs, was able to come down and help us clear it up. The level of security within the studio surprised me a little, but it would quickly became clear that that was far from the biggest source of tension produced by Army bureaucracy.
Our first stop was the office where the America’s Army games are primarily developed and tested. The room looked a lot like a university computer pod, if someone had decided to partially field-strip a jeep in the middle of it. The partially-constructed remains of various vehicle simulators sat, neglected, in the corners of the room, visibly obsolete.
The America’s Army games are an interesting mix of outreach tool, edutainment, and (some would say) propaganda. The games center around soldiers who have been deployed to defend the Republic of the Ostregals, a small nation embroiled in turmoil. The Republic of the Ostregals is a fictional country, since it would be impolite to develop games about occupying countries that actually exist. However, it’s pretty clear that the Republic is intended to stand in for middle-eastern war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.
The game has drawn criticism for its use as a recruiting aid, but the developers say that the role of the game is more complicated, serving more as an educational outreach tool than outright propaganda or recruiting. The people I talked to took care to emphasize that they felt that the game was supposed to open a dialog for more traditional outreach and recruiting methods, and not to attract enlistees by itself.
After my arrival, my escorts took me to meet Jay Olive, the executive producer of America’s Army. Jay was nervous about the camera, but relaxed pretty quickly, and eventually offered a lot of insight into the challenges posed by developing this kind of edutainment content, and the role that he felt that the game was supposed to serve.
I started by asking about the game – what’s the vision, what are they trying to achieve? Jay mentioned that, as the official game of the Army, the franchise is very realistic, and employs former soldiers as consultants to make sure of this. I asked him if he felt that there was a tension between the realism of the game and its fun value – after all, realism is a constraint that developers like Ubisoft don’t have to deal with. Jay nodded, and said that there were some sacrifices that needed to be made.
“[T]here may be some things that you want to do, like make a cool ray gun, but the Army doesn’t have cool ray guns yet, so we try to compromise and get some things that are coming down the pipe. You know, things that the Army is experimenting with and looking at using in the future, but, you know, we don’t go thirty years out into the future – so it’s not quite as adventurous as some other games get to be.”
Jay also mentioned that the game caters to a different crowd than most military shooters — more ‘ARMA’ than ‘Call of Duty,’ but that it’s seen a lot of adoption all over the world, and has generally been a big success since it launched in 2013. The developers are continuing to iterate on the platform as well – the latest edition of the game includes an upgrade to a new engine (Unreal 4), and comes with a new feature, namely a custom level editor.
Such editors are rapidly becoming a standard feature for modern games, allowing users to create their own missions and levels and share them online.
I asked him about the role that the game serves within the Army – if it’s an educational tool, what is it intended to teach? Jay told me that the game is intended to show players the mechanics of how the army fights, as well as communicate “army values,” which is a phrase that I wound up hearing a lot over the course of the day. In this case, it seemed to mean discipline, team play, and a friendly online environment.
I was interested in the balancing act between fun and realism that Jay described. So, after our interview, I took the chance to speak to Lt. Colonel Joe Crocitto, the Director of Strategy and Policy for the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command (one of the most impressive titles I’ve ever heard). Along with that job, Crocitto also works as a consultant on America’s Army, and helps to reign in the game when the fun elements of the gameplay began to detract from its realism.
Joe was friendly, confident, and addressed the camera without hesitation. He was wearing his uniform – the only person I met who was. After introducing himself, he described his job in a little more detail.
“Most of what I do here is consult on the Army’s Game, America’s Army, and provide feedback and a check on realism for how the game is played against how the Army actually operates in combat.”
I asked him for an example of a situation where realism and gameplay conflict, and Crocitto described watching players effortlessly sprint across the map before gunning someone down. He told the developers that this was unrealistic: soldiers carry upwards of 65 pounds of equipment, and a full run becomes exhausting quickly. It’s not possible to immediately go from sprinting to engaging a target. So, he worked with developers to implement a cooldown period after running, during which the player’s aim is less reliable, and they suffer other penalties.
This makes running something that the player has to consider tactically. That surprised me, because it sounds like a good gameplay mechanic. I’d assumed that the restriction of realism was strictly negative from a fun perspective, but talking to Joe, it sounded like the relationship went both ways: realism didn’t just destroy implausible game elements, it also suggested new ones.
I was curious how someone like Joe came to do that job for the Army, so I asked. Joe explained that he’d joined about two years previous, when he’d seen an internal memo looking for gamer soldiers. Joe had been playing America’s Army for about ten years, and figured he’d be a good fit. The rest, as they say, is history.
I asked Joe if he felt the game was valuable for recruiting. He said that it is, but the game isn’t the whole story.
“It’s a messaging tool that recruiters use to get people interested. Recruiters use it as an introduction to what they can expect to see if they go to basic training, or maybe what they’d see in small-unit tactics. […] I think what we’re really trying to do is to get people interested, open the dialog, and expose them to some realistic scenarios, some environments they could expect to see, when they enter the Army, or possibly encounter in combat. So, with that in mind, the tool is very effective – it opens the door, it opens the dialog, it says, “Hey, this is what it looks like, can we answer some questions, can we take away some of the mystery of being a soldier in the Army?”
After I talked to Joe, I had a chance to play an internal build of the Proving Grounds beta with some of the play testers, a collection of men in their twenties and thirties, who I couldn’t help but think of as “ragtag”.
I don’t know if America’s Army successfully cultivates team play and coordination among online players, but it definitely worked for the play testers, who slid into action like a well oiled machine. They rapidly barked updates and commands to each other as the match progressed. The gameplay, for those who haven’t tried the beta, resembles a slower-paced, more tactical version of Counterstrike. We fought in an office building with machine guns and grenades, and I was outmaneuvered and dispatched pretty efficiently.
I asked the playtesters if they had become unusually good at the game by playing it professionally, and was surprised by the answer: according to the play testers, they are consistently dominated by the best players online, because the version of the game they play every day is an experimental internal build with constantly changing variables, while the online players were able to train themselves explicitly for the real thing.
Motion Capture & Acquisitions
The layout of the studio is difficult to explain, since the building had clearly been repurposed from some other, more conventional military applications. Against the back wall was a large black cabinet containing a sound booth, where the dialog for the games was recorded. On the other wall, two double doors lead out of the computer area and onto a catwalk above a huge, open room which had clearly once been used as a hanger for large vehicles. Now, it contained a pricey-looking motion capture studio, where the animations for the games were recorded.
Apparently, the new motion capture equipment was saving the studio money, since the animation needed less clean-up work than the old motion capture equipment, making it less expensive to produce animation overall.
This lead to a larger conversation about acquisitions, and the difficulty that the Game Studio sometimes has procuring resources.
Military budget is limited, I was told, and it can be difficult to make the case that particular hardware and software is necessary, especially to a non-technical chain of command. I can only imagine that this gets worse when those requests are being weighed against tangible military assets. It’s much easier to explain why the US needs another tank or missile than it is to explain why a game studio needs new GPUs. I got the impression that the motion capture system was a rare victory on that front.
Even within the field of outreach, my escorts spoke briefly about the difficulty of convincing the fundamentally conservative Army bureaucracy that new technologies like video games and VR are worth exploring, even if it means allocating resources that would otherwise go to more proven techniques. There’s a fundamental tension, they said, between spending your budget on developing games, and spending it on research to prove that the games you’re developing actually work as outreach tools.
In response to this, they explained, the Game Studio makes an effort to keep costs down and make the most of the resources they do have, pooling content between projects. The sounds, models, and animations being developed for the America’s Army games is used by the VR and simulation projects, and vice versa.
The most interesting part of this discussion was watching the way my escorts talked amongst themselves. There’s a whole set of shared experiences that most people don’t have, and may not be achievable without someone actually shooting at you at some point. They had a lively conversation about the patches on Crocitto’s uniform, and the cultural changes within the Army since the Iraq war. We moved on not long after, but it was an interesting peek at how soldiers relate to one another.
After a break for lunch, I also had the chance to speak with Mike Barnett, the Executive Producer of the America’s Army comic books, who, I was warned, would talk my ear off. The comics, set in the universe of the videogames, serve to expand the canon of the games and provide some context. The Army has a regular booth at Comic-Con because of them.
Mike, a gregarious and talkative man, took the time to hide some Iron Man memorabilia from the camera before we started filming. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about comic books and their history, and seemed like the sort of person who genuinely enjoys his job. I asked him about the role the comic books play in comparison to the game. Mike responded that the comic books were an avenue to explore some topics that can’t easily be made the focus of a video game.
“[The] comic book gives us the opportunity to show other things that the game is not capable of showing, like other military occupational specialties besides infantry. We can show the support group that the Army has out there that they use to support the soldiers. We can show things like engineering, we can show a doctor, we can show a lawyer, we can show a veterinarian – just, like, a lot of things that people don’t even know exist.”
He also mentioned that the comic book can serve to provide some backstory to the universe of the game, and give some context for why the player is fighting. This, I suspect, helps to reduce the impression of the game as senseless violence. The comic has been in production since 2009, and just shipped its twelfth issue recently. Mike said that the issues take about three months apiece, due to the small size of the team – one writer, one inker, one colorist, and one letterer, plus Mike.
Mike was also eager to mention that the Army has a long history with comics, going back to the early military careers of some of the greats in the industry.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that Will Eisner and Stan Lee, you know, had military backgrounds, and they actually got their start doing publications and comic strips and stuff like that from their military days. Many of them have also worked on Army publications like the preventative maintenance magazine, that’s been out there since like the early 1950’s. It shows soldiers how to fix their equipment when it breaks, and it’s been in publication ever since then. A lot of these guys got their start doing this.”
Next, we broke away from America’s Army to take a look at some of the more futuristic work the Army is doing, using virtual and augmented reality. We walked to a new lab, which was built on top of the remains of their old motion capture studio, the cameras still hanging from the ceiling. This was where I met one of the most interesting people during the trip, Marsha Berry, the software manager for the Game Studio. Marsha, an energetic and visibly intelligent southern woman, declined to be interviewed on camera, citing an incident in which she watched an engineer panic during a video interview and babble to the reporter that the Army was creating the new world order.
The Army’s VR lab is intended to explore some of the new frontiers opening up in virtual and augmented reality technology . VR technology is on track to revolutionize the way we play games and watch movies . However, the Army is a lot more interested in the practical applications of the technology , for outreach and education.
Marsha showed me one of the Army’s current projects, a virtual reality installation consisting of a Men-In-Black style egg chair, outfitted with a Buttkicker for force feedback, surround-sound speakers, an Oculus Rift DK2, and a Leap Motion mounted on the table for hand tracking. I strapped myself in and the experience started.
The simulation started with me sitting in the passenger seat of a Jeep, barreling down a road in a tropical environment reminiscent of Crysis. The driver, a camo-wearing NPC who had clearly done several tours in Uncanny Valley, recited some dialog intended to set the scene a little. The details escape me, but it sounded urgent at the time.
As we approached a bridge, it was abruptly demolished by hostile forces. My chair shook, and I could feel the rumble in my bones. The jeep skidded to a halt at the edge of the shattered concrete, leaving me hanging out over the precipice, staring down into the crashing surf below. It was at this point that the purpose of the egg chair became clear: the DK2, unfortunately, has about a twenty-degree positional tracking blind spot when you turn directly away from the camera and the tracking dots stop being visible. The egg chair serves to restrain your movement enough to make it essentially impossible to lose tracking, even when craning your neck to see over the edge of a cliff.
At this point, the simulation grayed out, and I was asked to make an executive decision, using the leap motion to pick from one of two options. Over the course of the demo, I was teleported between three or four scenarios, being asked to make simple leadership choices. The whole experience lasted maybe five minutes.
The demo, which I later learned was built on top of Unreal 4, had quite a few graphical issues: the aliasing was a mess, and the framerate frequently dipped below the minimum 75 fps required by the DK2, a failure case that produces an upsetting double-vision effect. I came out of the demo feeling a little sick.
Marsha later informed me that the demo was still in development, and that the original plan had been to create the software for a 3D monitor. This plan had been scrapped after they’d tried the Oculus Rift DK2, which provided an experience so much better that it was impossible to justify using anything else.
The visual artifacts I noticed were, I suspect, the result of the increased performance demanded by the Oculus Rift compared to traditional 3D technology. Marsha expressed some consternation over the lack of a hard release date for the consumer Rift, but said that it looked like they’d simply have to wait.
In the same lab, the team also showed me their augmented reality work, which consisted of a series of mobile apps based on the Viewphoria engine, which allowed users to overlay various marker images with 3D content. The demos included an NFL tie-in, which displayed 3D models of players on top of background images attached to football stadiums, and allowed users to share pictures taken of themselves with the 3D models.
This was cool, but not fundamentally different from the mobile augmented reality apps that I’ve seen before. I was surprised by the degree to which the Army relies on off-the-shelf industry solutions for their research and content production.
This makes sense, of course — the Army is huge, but only a tiny fraction of that money goes to the Game Studio — nowhere near enough to compete with the research arms of every major game company. This is obvious, but flies in the face of the conspiracy-theorist perception that the Army is a hot-bed of high-tech research, many years ahead of civilian products.
The impression I actually got was of a much lower-key affair than I was expecting: a collection of talented, intelligent people making the most of limited resources and tight budgets. If any part of the military has access to frightening sci-fi technology, they aren’t sharing it with these guys.
After I finished talking to Mike, we headed to the last stop on the tour: a demo of some of the Army’s previous forays into immersive experiences, which were set up in a large room, clearly intended for visitors, which included a small trophy case of awards. We found ourselves stuck behind another tour of older, rounder, military-looking gentlemen, who were being shown the facility for reasons that I didn’t catch.
While we waited for them to clear out, I talked to Marsha Berry a little more about what it’s like to work for the Army. How does a programmer or a game developer end up here, instead of at a more traditional game development company?
Marsha’s reply was interesting. What she told me is that, while the bureaucracy can be frustrating, there are major advantages for employees. Notably, the Army Game Studio doesn’t engage in some of the exploitative practices commonly found in the rest of the video game industry: developers aren’t asked to put in unpaid overtime, and they don’t run a high risk of being fired every time a title is shipped. The Army Game Studio is much more of a consistent, secure job than a normal occupation in the video game industry, and government benefits packages are famously good.
This makes a lot of sense: most of the people I met there were what I’d consider to be my kind of people: awkward, friendly techies. However, they did skew a little older than is typical for software development: 30’s and 40’s, not 20’s and 30’s. It seems plausible that the greater job security provided by the Army attracted an older crowd, tired of bouncing around between unpredictable tech gigs.
Before we could get into that issue deeper, the room cleared out, and we were able to take a look around. There was a small booth with a DK1 across from the door, running some older piece of VR software, and there were various mechanical simulators placed around the room, each intended to emulate part of an aircraft cockpit or the dashboard of a truck.
The star attraction, however, was a large, hollow Humvee, set in the middle of the room, surrounded by plaster rocks and a panoramic screen. The turret on top of the Humvee was tracked by a computer, and kicked in my hand when I pulled the trigger, courtesy of an air compressor.
One of my escorts booted up the program, and the Humvee began to roll through a small, virtual town. The experience was clearly older, and the graphics were fairly crude. From behind cover and doorways, characters with machine guns popped up and shot at me. I wheeled the turret around to gun them down as they appeared.
It was a surprisingly uncomplicated run-and-gun experience, reminiscent of an arcade shooter. It wasn’t even close to the quality of experience provided by the Rift, but it was neat to have the physical controls and the immersion-building physicality of the Humvee. I murdered my way through dozens of anonymous foreigners, gun rattling beneath my fingers.
When the demo finished and the lights came back on, I climbed down from the Humvee, my fingers a little numb from the vibrations.
The physical simulators that I’d seen in various places interested me. Until the recent rise of high-performance HMDs, these were probably the most realistic VR experiences possible. Marsha mentioned one more recent simulator, used to train real soldiers to escape overturned Humvees. This was achieved by taking an actual Humvee, removing most of its guts, and mounting it on enormous hydraulic arms that could physically rotate the entire vehicle. The entire thing could be mounted on a truck and moved from base to base.
This is clearly a cool piece of technology, but what struck me about it is how expensive and dangerous that system must be – and single purposed. The egg-chair VR setup in the lab put me in a Humvee for their demo, but it could just as easily have put me in a helicopter or a tank: the technology is fundamentally safer, cheaper, smaller, and more robust than any of the conventional systems used for training soldiers. And, if you combined it with motion controls like the Razer Hydra or the optical controllers of the HTC Vive , a similar level of interactivity could be achieved.
The work being done at this facility, nominally for outreach, might turn out to be more useful internally, allowing soldiers to train for equipment and scenarios more cheaply and accurately.
The Army in the 21st Century
On the trip back home, I wound up stuck in an airport for about eight hours before finally boarding a plane that I swear was held together with tape.
I took advantage of the downtime to mull the experience over a little. The visit had defied my expectations, in more ways than one. What I had expected, on some deep-down pop-culture level, was high-tech research, military discipline, and rehearsed talking points. What I got instead was a lot more indie, and also a lot more genuine, than I’d expected.
The Army’s relationship with technology struck me as one of a struggle to adapt: there are clever people who have been working very hard to integrate cutting edge technology into the way the Army does things — and there’s a large bureaucracy that is profoundly resistant to change.
The existence of the Army Game Studio is a sign that change is possible: sometimes, new ideas do win out. However, the struggle is ongoing. I’m convinced, after seeing the work being done there, that the Army can benefit enormously from gaming and VR technology. I think it’s up in the air whether the Army is capable, on an organizational level, of really embracing that technology as those opportunities arise. Either way, it’ll be interesting to see where the Game Studio and America’s Army are in five years time.
America’s Army: Proving Grounds is currently available in beta through Steam. The full version is tentatively slated for release in the spring of this year.
What do you think the future holds for the role of gaming and VR in the military? Let us know in the comments!
Image Credits: The U.S. Army Via Flickr