U.S. Army Turns to Videogames for Training

Geek Culture

Using Game Software to Train for Serious Situations

The SIMS group has grown since that first simulation. From humble beginnings, Covey, Williams and the rest of the team moved their operation to the Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2) platform, based on the Armed Assault PC games. It’s a nice match for JTCOIC because VBS2 ships with 6,000 pre-rendered objects, including many vehicles, weapons and characters, plus operators can create and add new objects. “[Since moving to VBS2] we’ve added about 100 vehicles and 300 to 400 other objects,” says Williams. They’ve created everything from a pack of cigarettes to a Patriot missile battery.

“When the men and women in the field identify a new combat tactic the enemy is using, we take all data from that event and run it through a variety of toolsets — through constructive-based simulations if you need a physics-based result — and then pipe it through the game software,” says Covey. Because the Marines, NATO, the Army and all major allies have purchased VBS2, SIMS can produce a single product and distribute unclassified products to all its allied partners.

Plus, for a growing audience of 500 to 600 trainers worldwide, the SIMS team add roughly as many object and programming requests to their queue as they turn out each week. “Our customers are used to having to fill out forms and dealing with a process that’s pretty bureaucratic,” says Williams, “but we try to make things as easy as possible for them. All we need is an e-mail request and we get to work.”

Of course, not everything the SIMS team does can be done with a quick turnaround. Some videos and simulations can take much longer, depending on their complexity. One of the biggest hurdles can be the terrain. “There are various databases where terrain models can be found,” says Covey. Some terrain can be created quickly or adapted from existing maps. Other geography has to be created from scratch, which can take time.

One of the few downsides of the operation is that the models and animation look dated. While there are certainly alternative solutions that look better, provide more realism and come closer to meeting today’s expectations for life-like models, animations and particle effects, every other option adds days (or months) to the process and, with those time increases, dollars to the bottom line. Machinima offers a fast turnaround and cost efficiency, as well.

Workflow for the group is indeed fast. The SIMS team has taken a page out of Hollywood’s playbook. They begin by creating a storyboard of what happened downrange or what a trainer wants to create. Based on those needs, they pull objects from the VBS2 library or create them for this project. Some new vehicles are drawn from scratch. They assemble other objects, like buildings, from a Lego-like assortment of pre-drawn windows, roofs and walls — a system that allows the team to quickly create new environments to fit a wide variety of situations. In most cases, the team does the voice-over work, as well, allowing the process to be streamlined even further.

The tools they use are largely what you’d find in any game-development office: 3ds Max, Maya and Photoshop are used for the heavy lifting. A VBS2 add-on called Oxygen is used to port between Maya and VBS2. Like most of what SIMS does, this is a well-thought out decision. If the Army decides to move to a platform other than VBS2, models developed in 3ds Max or Maya should be able to port to a new platform with minimal pain.

VBS2, while not the prettiest solution, offers some very realistic physics. The SIMS team prefers to work from CAD drawings, but in certain instances they have to make do with photographs, technical drawings and manuals.

One such vehicle led to some programming challenges. “We were building the OH-58 Delta from scratch,” says Covey. “We couldn’t get that thing to fly worth a darn. Every single time it would take off and crash, take off and crash. So our lead programmer began adjusting where the mass was located on the vehicle. He ended up putting almost the entire mass of the OH-58 Delta in the rotor tips and it flew like a champ. We didn’t think it was physically accurate, but it worked.

“We sent it down to the aviation center at Fort Rucker with the caveat — it will fly, the optics work, the missile systems work, but we put all the mass in the rotor tips because we couldn’t get it to fly. They wrote back: “That’s where the mass is.” I’d like to say we were smart, but we got lucky on that one.”

Covey and his team have also used the game engine to create training simulations for vehicles. While Covey is quick to admit he isn’t trying to create anything as in-depth as a flight simulator, they can replicate basic controls for other vehicles. The Husky mounted detection system is a vehicle that Army engineers use to seek out anti-vehicle landmines and other explosive hazards.

The operation of the vehicle takes a little getting used to and, rather than let a new user learn on (and beat up) a very expensive piece of equipment, the SIMS team created a simulation showing the controls via the GUI in the game. This way, users have a fair amount of familiarity before sitting behind the controls of this valuable machinery.

Another example of what the SIMS group can do is weapons training. “The XM25 is not an official piece of Army equipment,” says Covey. “And before ARCIC (the Army Capability Integration Center) purchased them, they wanted a way to evaluate them and train soldiers on the weapon system.” So SIMS studied what the XM25 did and created a virtual training center. “My guys got down to the drag coefficient on each individual piece of shrapnel, allowing our damage model to take all this into account,” said Covey.

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