Support: Building A Better FPS Game For Training

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December 16, 2010: For the last decade, the U.S. Army has been increasingly using video game technology (especially FPS, or First Person Shooters) to create training systems to teach combat troops how to be more successful on the battlefield. Two years ago, the latest version of this effort, VBS2 (Virtual Battlespace 2) entered service. There are 93 VBS2 systems installed at training centers and army schools. Work is under way to create the next version, which is to enter service in four years.

VBS3 will include whatever new commercial game tech that appears, and more mundane features that will make VBS3 easier to maintain. There are some new, strictly military, features. There will be the ability to let troops use foreign languages, and knowledge of the local culture, in realistic situations. This will require improvements in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) of the NPCs (Non-Player Characters controlled by software.) Commercial games use a lot of AI powered NPCs, but the military needs them more for extreme realism, not dramatic effect. So the Department of Defense is doing a lot of original research on AI (which may then be sold to commercial game developers). The increased military AI requirements means that VBS3 needs more computing power than even the most ambitious commercial game. Some of this goes towards rapidly creating and putting to use new scenarios. Thus VBS2 will be able to more easily import military databases (mainly for terrain.) For a long time, it took weeks, or months, to spin up new battle scenarios. The army wants to get that down to hours, or less.

The army is also expanding the use of this first person gaming technology to training non-combat troops. That's about 85 percent of personnel. That covers everything from medics to mechanics, interpreters, intelligence analysts and interrogators and, well, everyone. VBS3 will also deal more realistically with psychological issues, like the impact of an ambush, and combat in general, on NPCs and the abilities of the players themselves. Then there is the  ultimate goal of having these training game systems everywhere, so that troops can just switch to the training software, and use existing computers (or the gear they use for their job) and go through realistic training exercises. This is easy to do for tanks and other vehicles, but will need special equipment (PCs), or more computers imbedded into equipment, for everyone to be able to quickly switch to training simulation mode.

The U.S. Marine Corps, which in many respects pioneered the use of combat simulation, is keeping up with the blistering pace of army work in this area. Four years, ago, the marines bought game engine software (the Virtual Battlespace engine) in order to develop a realistic (by marine standards) computer games for training, planning and recruiting (prospective recruits will be allowed access).

The army began using simulation training game tech for recruiting a decade ago when it rolled out the online game "America's Army" (www.americasarmy.com/). Britain, Australia and New Zealand eventually went 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 $3.5 million a year to maintain. So far, nearly ten 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 that led to 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. More realism is a matter of life and death in these training simulations, as getting the details wrong can teach troops the wrong lesson and get them killed. 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.

 


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