February 23, 2006:
The online game "America's Army" (www.americasarmy.com/) has turned into a workshop for creating useful combat simulations. Not just for the army, but for other services, countries, and paramilitary operators like the Secret Service. Originally developed as a recruiting and public relations tool, the game cost over eight million dollars to create, six years ago. By late 2002, it had 929,000 registered players, 563,000 of whom stayed around long enough to finish the basic training exercise. The game costs $2.5 million a year to maintain. So far, over six million people have downloaded the front end (player) software. At peak times, over 5,000 players are online with the game simultaneously. Recruiters are satisfied with the number of prospects coming in because of the game. But an unexpected bonus has been the number of other uses the game has been put to.
The game, like many games today, was based on one of the "game engines" that are for sale. A "game engine" is the software for an earlier, successful, game, with all the specific graphics and play elements removed. When you buy a game engine, you add your own graphics and specific game and play elements, and have a new game. America's Army used the Unreal game engine, and is now providing clones of the America's Army software for new "games" to train troops and law enforcement personnel. This approach has long been urged on the military, and America's Army is the example of how well this works. Using the highly realistic combat operations depicted in the game, special versions are used to create specific games for all sorts of combat situations. The public will never see most of these, especially the classified ones.
Most importantly, everyone in the military knows this resource is available. The people running America's Army are military, and talk the language when they are approached to help create a new training tool for a military or government organization. Using the America's Army software, and a "tool box" that has been created to quickly modify the software, you can quickly create a custom version of America's Army. To do this from scratch, would cost over a million dollars, take over a year, and might not work. With the America's Army resources, it takes a few months, and often costs under $100,000. In this way, weapons (and equipment) simulators have been quickly created, and put to use. Because America's Army is web based, the troops can start to use it quickly, from wherever they can find a web connection. That means in the combat zone these days.
Old school types in the military modeling and simulation field complain that America's Army is not accurate enough, or "validated" sufficiently, to be useful. But the users (the troops) disagree. The soldiers and marines who use training versions of America's Army report that what they learned in the game, was useful in combat. That's hard to argue with. For decades, the purists in the simulation establishment had used demands for more resources (money, "validation" and time) to impede the development and use of "quick and dirty" simulations like America's Army. But it was only a matter of time that "quick and dirty" got a chance to prove its worth, and the time has arrived.