September 6, 2006:
Following the lead of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps is buying game engine software (the Virtual Battlespace engine) in order to develop a realistic (by marine standards) computer game for training, planning and recruiting (prospective recruits will be allowed access). The army began this sort of thing six years ago when it rolled out the online game "America's Army" (www.americasarmy.com/). Britain, Australia and New Zealand have recently gone in the same direction as the marines. To the despair of parents everywhere, it appears that video games do serve a useful purpose.
"America's Army" was originally developed as a recruiting and public relations tool. It cost over eight million dollars to create. 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 seven 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 to those developing commercial games. 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 additional training systems. 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.
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.
The marines went with a different engine because, well, even with lots of updates, the America's Army software is showing its age. The software selected by the marines has already been used successfully by the military in Australia and New Zealand. It's now the army that is playing catch-up, especially in terms of the graphics systems used in America's Army.
The marines have long been innovators in the use of tactical training and wargames. Back in the 90s, they adapted one of the first FPS (First Person perspective Shooters), "Doom" to marine use. Now they have a much more realistic game engine to use, and one that can be easily networked. Many marines take their laptop computers to combat zones, and that takes care of a lot of hardware problems.