Tag Archives: Video Games

Wargame, Red Dragon: Developer Interview

Eugen Systems released an heir to World In Conflict with their Real Time Strategy “Wargame” series. Their most recent edition, Red Dragon, occurs in Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, and coastal Russian Far East. The reason we were intruiged is that this new version included naval battles.  Now, turns out the naval battles are by no means anything you’d expect for 80’s warships… think more WWII with helicopters, F-18’s, and CIWS… but some of your dear CIMSEC editors and members played and had a pretty good time. It’s hard to argue naval realism when in ground combat you get to pick from several hundred units from 17 countries. Hell, one of the single player campaigns is you defending Hong Kong when Thatcher decides to push continued British presence. Capital!

As the last part of CIMSEC’s Wargames week, we decided that amongst our discussion of exercises and gaming that hone nations for war and war-fighters for survival, we would ask some question to the folks who build games and exercises for fun. The Eugen System team was kind enough to have a chat with us:

Q: What games inspired your team?

A: Our main inspiration for the Wargame series are old strategy games many of us at the studio used to play while younger: the Close Combat & Steel Panther series. One is real-time, the other turn-based, and our goal was to do as good a simulation and “easy to handle, hard to master” as the former, with the latter’s technical database, wide array of nations, huge number of scenarios, …

Q: Unlike many RTS games, Wargame has hundreds of different units–all asymmetric and unique. Through modeling and developing these, has your team come to any conclusions?

A: Well, by modeling so many units, we are highlighting the trend and doctrine of every nation: France’s “speed over armor” attitude, resulting from its tradition of military interventions in Africa ; Britain’s emphasis on armor and range, due to its Cold War allocated battlefield, the North German Plains …

Some of those are well-known to us from the start, but for some less known armies, such doctrine are only revealed after some time, while they are starting to build in our armory.

Q: What did you learn from your last game, Air Land Battle (ALB), that you applied to Red Dragon?

A: ALB’s main influence on RD can be found in map design. There had been some criticisms in the previous installment about maps that were considered too small or too “bottlenecked”. In RD, we have made sure to address this by making bigger and more open maps. Added to that the fact that river or sea and mountain are no longer impassable terrain, and you will see that RD’s maps are much more maneuver-friendly.

We have also taken into consideration many of the UI request to make the armory easier to use, and help new players and non-military buffs more at ease browsing among 1400+ units.
Artillery and air-defense balance were also deeply reworked using ALB’s lessons.

Q: Outside of Naval Warfare, what is the greatest difference between ALB and Red Dragon?

A: Maps. As said above, the new amphibious ability for many vehicles and the fact that mountain are no longer purely impassable gives the game a new feeling. You can maneuver on large scale, always try to outflank your opponent. No bottleneck will make a part of the battlefield secure because you’ve left a defensive force there. RD’s battlefields are much more open that ALB’s were.

Q: After Red Dragon, does the team have the desire to develop an expansion that really fleshes out more urban warfare?

A: We’re not there yet …

Q: What other conflicts have your team considered?

A: Wold War 2 of course …

But WW2 was already covered by many other games, including our own RUSE when we started thinking about Wargame, so we decided to go for something more original, less exploited. Hence why we chose “Cold War gone hot”, which offered the opportunity for many plausible scenarios and provided us with tons of combat vehicles to model and use in-game.

As for other possible Cold War conflicts, after European Escalation, we had considered several battlefields for the next installment: the two most logical were the Northern Front (Scandinavia, which we ended up covering in ALB) and the Southern Front (Mediterranean). We chose the former because Sweden offered a unique roaster of indigenous vehicles, bringing alone more new vehicles than the whole Mediterranean countries together would.

Q: What is your biggest regret with the games?

A: To have left some nations aside, although they could have been included in our previous installment. To make a nation viable, we have to model some 60-80 units, so we can’t add that many nations at a time.

In EE, Dutch and Belgian units had to be left aside, and Finland in ALB. That is not without regret that we have left those nations aside …

Q: What’s your biggest pride with the games?

A: Our biggest pride is when former (or even active!) military servicemen, especially those whom had served during the Cold War, are telling us they are playing our games and are enjoying the realistic feel of it. Then, we allow ourselves to think Wargame lives to what we wanted it to be when we stated the series.

Q: What’s your favorite unit?

A: Personally speaking, I’m fond of wheeled vehicles. I favor speed over armor. Call it national bias, but I think my very favorite one has to be found among the light wheeled tanks/tank destroyers, like the AMX-10 RC, the BTR-70 Z halo or the ERC-90 Sagaie. Had I to choose one, the latter one might be my favorite, for it emphasizes everything I like: speed, stealth, decent firepower, … and looks cool!

Q: What is the most interesting thing you learned from studying the historical background to the game?

A: ABLE ARCHER exercises, in November 1983.

Cold War is often taught or learned at school through different crisis (Cuban Missile Crisis, European Missile Crisis …) and “proxy wars” (Vietnam, Afghanistan, …) but never had we ever heard of how close the year 1983, and especially ABLE ARCHER, had brought us on the verge of WW3. This was completely new to us, and became the nucleus of Wargame: European Escalation’s “alternative scenarios” concept.

 

The Fourth Generation of Video Games: Professional Training Rewards beyond ‘Killstreaks’?

Training Tool or Entertainment?
Training Tool or Entertainment?

The age of Fourth Generation Gaming is upon us.  With the launch of the PlayStation 4 this week and the Xbox One next week, the younger side of me emerges from its shell with interest.  As we step into this new age of gaming, one has to wonder if these new sophisticated gaming devices have the potential to contribute to professional military training and education in an age of fiscal austerity.  This article argues that specific video games provide users the opportunity to practice ground and naval warfare tactics in addition to leadership skills.

 

Going Beyond the Call of Duty

 

The Quiet Solace Prior to a Firefight
The Quiet Solace Prior to a Firefight

When one simultaneously thinks of the military and video games, notable first-person-shooters (FPS) such as Call of Duty and Battlefield come to mind.  As fun as these games may be, they unfortunately serve the military little purpose besides acting as a recruiting tool.  Yet, one title that focuses on land warfare (and dabbles in the maritime area) is the Arma series.  Based off of the Virtual Battlespace engine, Arma II and the recently released Arma III bring unparalleled realism to the gaming realm.  Accurate bullet ballistics, radio communications, wounding, and scale of the terrain are several features among many that create a multiplayer (players against players, not AI) platoon or company level large scale engagement.  In addition to these realistic features, the Arma series features a comprehensive and versatile, but yet easy to use mission editor allowing users to set-up almost any tactical engagement in mind (I personally created a mission entailing a situation in which USMC forces had to assault a captured oil rig with helicopters and small boats; this mission exposed the tactical difficulties of VBSS as my team did not anticipate searching every inch of the complex platform for OPFOR.)

 

Although the educational benefits of playing a FPS video game may appear to be nonexistent, the Arma series illustrates that tactical lessons at squad, platoon, and company levels can be learned.  Players can simulate a variety of engagements ranging from 300+ meters in mountainous terrain modeled after Afghanistan to larger conventional fights with armor and mechanized infantry (a typical Arma engagement video).  At the squad level, players practice moving as a unit in different environments (rural and urban) against different enemies (unconventional guerrillas, rag-tag Third World armies, and sophisticated Russian and Chinese militaries).  A different set of challenges confronts players commanding a platoon or company as they have to not only ensure that their units remain organized and move coherently, but also penetrate the fog of war to determine how to best apply their forces strategically, practicing combined arms operations (a skillset with potent consequences if forgotten).

 

Other games such as Combat Mission Shock Force and Flashpoints Campaign:  Red Storm also provide players with the opportunity to experience with small-unit tactics, but the dynamic pace of the Arma series challenges players in ways these other games lack.  Although the Arma series fails to embrace the maritime domain of war (with a few exceptions such as my team’s bungled oil rig assault), fortunately other games are available to provide players with this opportunity.

 

Bringing a CIC to Your Living Room

 

CIC:  Christ I’m Confused
CIC: Christ I’m Confused

Less than a handful of video games embrace the concept of naval warfare, but the few that do surpass their users’ expectations.  Many mimic the style of the notable Harpoon series by featuring an interface similar to a CIC rather than amazing visuals.  One recent title, Command:  Modern Air/Naval Operations, simulates naval tactics and operations by allowing players to command a variety of units ranging from a single destroyer tasked with ASW to all of the assets under the command of the 5th Fleet (even nuclear weapons are included, with dangerous consequences).  Players command their unit(s) through a CIC-type interface.  Accompanying the game is an enormous encyclopedia containing an endless amount of statistics for every ship, aircraft, and weapon automatically factored into gameplay.  Unfortunately, all of these variables make playing the game itself a hard experience with a difficult learning curve (grasping the controls while being pummeled by Russian Backfire bombers does not help).  Yet, this illustrates the complexity of how a carrier battle group functions.  Fortunately, some of these features can be delegated to the Al (such as engaging with the most optimal weapon).  For further information about Command, USNI published an excellent review.

 

Command’s ultimate benefit is its vast scale.  The ability to employ nearly any naval or air unit in any corner of the globe allows players to experiment with various situations and conflicts including counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, transiting the Strait of Hormuz while being harassed by dozens of Iranian missile boats, counternarcotic operations off the coast of South America, and repelling Chinese A2/AD forces in the Pacific.  Some units and methods work almost perfectly in some situations but fail in others.  Players experience both the tactical and operational challenges in these various scenarios.  Although the game lacks stunning visuals or sounds, it gives users a vast sandbox to practice a wide array of naval tactics.

 

Leadership:  Practice, Practice, and Practice Some More

 

Complete Chaos or Organized Command?
Complete Chaos or Organized Command?

The previous two games discussed both allow users to practice maritime and ground tactics.  These skills are incredibly important but by themselves do not make a great officer.  I argue that leadership is another key trait.  Although leadership (in my opinion—many others would disagree) is a natural trait that not everybody possesses, those that have this trait only improve their leadership abilities through experience; typically, the more someone leads, the better leader they become.  There are almost infinite amounts of ways to practice leadership, but one that stands out is a video game titled EVE: Online.

 

Thinking of EVE as a tool to practice leadership may appear to be out of this world (literally because of the science-fiction feel), but it is not.  EVE is a science-fiction space game in which players fly their ships around different star systems for combat, industrial, commercial, and exploration purposes.  In EVE, all players (approximately 500,000) are on the same server, making the game persistent, and player-driven (for example, corporations—or alliances—fight over sovereignty over key systems linking resource-rich areas with market hubs).  Few ‘rules’ exist in EVE (although corporations try to enforce certain laws) allowing players to conduct practically any activities they desire.  The economy is completely player based, making the most expensive ships in the game tradable for over $3000 USD (a lot of cash at stake for a ‘recreational’ video game).

 

Now, how does this game with spaceships simulate leadership experience?  Essentially, Fleet Commanders in EVE are always applying Col. Boyd’s famous “OODA” loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act); the most successful Fleet Commanders are masters of this process.  Combat in EVE is extremely complex with different types of ships (agile frigates, electronic warfare, logistics, stealth bombers, carriers, dreadnoughts, and many more) that each fulfills important roles; 3 battlecruisers with 3 logistics ships can easily take on 10 battlecruisers.  A Fleet Commander needs to account for all of these variables when in the midst of a 3000+ ship battle.  The Fleet Commander also ponders how he will get his 1000 ship fleet organized and to the staging area in a time efficient manner (Woody Allen once said that 80% of life is just showing up.  In EVE, many “battles” are decided before they commence as players will only risk losing their thousand dollar fleets in fights they can win.), counterintelligence issues from spies embedded in his fleet, and his ultimate objectives.  When targeting other ships (in combat, commanders tend to focus all of their firepower on only a couple of targets at a time), the Fleet Commander needs to analyze the changes in both the enemy and his fleet compositions while sounding confident over communications.

 

As earlier mentioned, EVE essentially provides players with a dynamic environment to constantly practice the OODA thought process.  Despite its unrealistic setting, EVE demonstrates how a player-driven video game with a complex—but yet simple—combat system can serve as a tool to for users to practice the strategic thinking.  In fact, some may argue that its completely fictional setting removes a commander’s obsession with certain assets and forces him to rely on the core aspects of leadership and critical thinking.

 

Integrating Video Games into Military Training?

 

This article is not arguing that the US military institutions should replace their training with video games like EVE (although this may be more reasonable in 2154).  Yet, with the conclusion of major military operations and inevitable decline in military training exercises in an age of fiscal austerity, officers will have fewer opportunities to learn from practicing their leadership abilities and experimenting with different tactics.  Thus, after illustrating several examples of video games providing educational lessons, this article argues that integrating video games with training may serve as part of a solution to this upcoming gap.

 

Bret is a student at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, but currently abroad in Amman, Jordan studying International Politics and Arabic.  The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Video Game AI and the Future UCAV Top Gun

My brother in flight school should be glad we played so much Ace Combat 4.
Alright, Roomba, now start sweeping for enemy units.

A Roomba is useful because it can sweep up regular messes without constant intervention, not because it can exit and enter its docking station independently. Although the Navy’s new X-47B Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) has, by landing on a carrier, executed an astounding feat even for humans, this ability only means our weapons have matured past their typical one-way trips. The real challenge will be getting a UCAV to defend units while sweeping up the enemy without remote guidance (i.e. autonomously). The answer is as close as the games running on your Xbox console.

 

 

Player One: Insert Coin

ace-combat-5-the-unsung-war-20041024114416859
Simulated fighters are UCAVs having an out-of body experience.

Considering the challenge of how an air-to-air UCAV might be programmed, recall that multiple generations of America’s youth have already fought untold legions of advanced UCAV’s. Developers have created artificial “intelligences” designed to combat a human opponent in operational and tactical scenarios with imperfect information; video games have paved the way for unmanned tactical computers.

A loose application of video game intelligence (VGI) would work because VGI is designed to operate in the constrained informational environment in which a real-life UCAV platform would operate. Good (i.e. fun) video game AI exists in the same fog of war constraints as their human opponents; the same radar, visual queues, and alerts are provided to the computer and human players. The tools to lift that veil for computer and human are the same. Often, difficulty levels in video games are not just based on the durability and damage of an enemy, but on the governors installed by programmers on a VGI to make competition fair with a human opponent. This is especially evident in Real Time Strategy (RTS), where the light-speed all-encompassing force management and resource calculations of a VGI can more often than not overwhelm the subtler, but slower, finesse of the human mind within the confines of the game. Those who wonder when humans will go to war using autonomous computers fail to see the virtual test-bed in which we already have, billions of times.

This Ain’t Galaga

No extra lives, and forget about memorizing the level's flight patterns.
No extra lives, and forget about memorizing the level’s flight patterns.

Those uninitiated must understand how VGI has progressed by leaps and bounds from the pre-programmed paths of games such as the early 1980’s arcade shooter Galaga; computer opponents hunt, take cover, maneuver evasively, and change tactics based on opportunities or a sudden states of peril. The 2000’s Half-Life and HALO game series were especially lauded for their revolutions in AI – creating opponents that seemed rational, adapting to a player’s tactics. For the particular case of UCAV air-to-air engagements, since the number of flight combat simulators is innumerable, from Fighter Pilot on the Commodore 64 in 1984 to the Ace Combat series. Computers have been executing pursuit curves, displacement rolls, and defensive spirals against their human opponents since before I was born.

However, despite its utility, VGI is still augmented with many “illusions” of intelligence, mere pre-planned responses (PPR); the real prize is a true problem-solving VGI to drive a UCAV. That requires special programming and far more processing power. In a real UCAV, these VGI would be installed into a suite far more advanced than a single Pentium i7 or an Xbox. To initiate a learning and adapting problem-solving tactical computer, the DARPA SyNAPSE program offers new possibilities, especially when short-term analog reasoning is coordinated with messier evolutionary algorithms. Eventually, as different programs learn and succeed, they can be downloaded and replace the lesser adaptations on other UCAVs.

I’ve Got the Need, The Need For Speed

Unlike Maverick, drones will never have to go through motorcycle safety training.
Unlike Maverick, drones will never have to go through motorcycle safety training.

When pilots assert that they are more intuitive than computer programs, they are right; this is, however, like saying the amateur huntsman with an AR-15 is lesser trained than an Austrian Arabesquer. The advantage is not in the quality of tactical thought, but in the problem solving rate-of-fire and speed of physical action. A VGI executing air-to-air tactics in a UCAV can execute the OODA loop encompassing the whole of inputs much faster than the human mind, where humans may be faster or more intuitive in solving particular, focused problems due to creativity and intuition. Even with the new advanced HUD system in their helmets, a human being cannot integrate input from all sensors at an instant in time (let alone control other drones). Human pilots are also limited in their physical ability to maneuver. G-suits exist because our 4th and 5th generation fighters have abilities far in excess of what the human body is capable. This artificially lowers aircraft tactical performance to prevent the death or severe damage of the pilot inside.

Pinball Wizard: I Can’t See!

VGI doesn’t have a problem with the how, it’s the who that will be the greatest challenge when the lessons of VGI are integrated into a UCAV. In a video-game, the VGI is blessed with instant recognition; its enemy is automatically identified when units are revealed, their typology is provided instantly to both human and VGI. A UCAV unable to differentiate between different radar contacts or identify units via its sensors is at a disadvantage to its human comrades or enemies. Humans still dominate the field of integrating immediate quality analysis with ISR within the skull’s OODA loop. Even during the landing sequence, the UCAV cheated in a way by being fed certain amounts of positional data from the carrier.

We’ve passed the tutorial level of unmanned warfare; we’ve created the unmanned platforms capable of navigating the skies and a vast array of programs designed to drive tactical problems against human opponents. Before we pat ourselves on the back, we need to effectively integrate those capabilities into an independent platform.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.