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TMO at E3 - TMO Interviews America's Army Director

by , 1:50 PM EDT, May 23rd, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- At this year's E3 expo, The Mac Observer staff writer Chris Barylick was able to sit down with Major Chris Chambers, Deputy Director of the Army Game Project, and one of the directors for the America's Army video game.

America's Army is the United States Army's official first-person shooter video game written and developed by in-house. Based on the Unreal Tournament 2003 engine, the game is free to download and play for the Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems, and the Army uses it as one of its recruiting tools.

Here's what Major Chambers had to say about the current version of the game, what changes are being made and what's on the horizon for the Army's free first person shooter.

TMO: So, what's been happening with E3 lately?
Major Chambers: A lot of things have been happening. The biggest news is the release of America's Army on console, which may not be of great interest to you, but allows for expansion to new platforms and has been in development for the past couple of years. It's based on what you see in the PC game but with a totally different aesthetic.

We've also got a couple great releases coming out on the PC side. We're releasing America's Army: Overmatch sometime soon, probably late summer, early fall. That's a whole lot of new gameplay including randomized spawn points, variable objectives and new objects on the map so it's different every time you play it. And "Overmatch" adds artificial intelligence and vehicular combat with things like the javelin missile being used in different aspects of the gameplay for America's Army coming out later this year.

TMO: America's Army 2.4, is that the same as "Overmatch"?
Major Chambers: Version 2.4 is called Q Course. That was just released on Monday, May 16th.

TMO: When will America's Army 2.4 come out for the Mac?
Major Chambers: Well, there's always going to be a delay, because this is a PC-marketed product and given the PC penetration, we work on the Macintosh version after the PC version and there's always a week, two weeks until the Mac version comes out. The bottom line is that we have one person [Ryan Gordon] porting for Linux and Mac and there's only so much you can put on his plate.

TMO: Overmatch is moving to the Unreal 3 engine; what improvements will it bring to the game?
Major Chambers: We're doing evaluations across the engine right now. It's going to be a great because, from our perspective, it has a very high artistic quality. The polygon count and the level of artistry is going to be fantastic. That's important to us because of the authenticity that America's Army has been famous for. But also, we're going to see things like larger map sizes. The technology in the engine is fundamentally different because the engine calls up pieces of the map as needed, so that allows us to go from the maps we have now, which are one to two kilometers in size to something much greater.

TMO: How has the Unreal Tournament 2003 engine aged and what would you like to see improved?
Major Chambers: We found it to be a really robust engine and they've done two major code updates on Unreal and we've done two major code updates and finalized the last code update so the engine is still one of the industry's best engines for our purposes.

I think the main advantage of using the Unreal 3 engine is the map size and what we can do in terms of graphics. That's really what's drawn us to it. The other thing is that we have such a great long term relationship with Epic [who owns the Unreal franchise] that we want it to continue. We feel really comfortable in the relationship. We've done lots of co-engineering on the engine so the game runs well. It's a business relationship we want to continue for quite a while.

TMO: What does America's Army: Overmatch offer as opposed to America's Army: Special Forces?
Major Chambers: What the name "Overmatch" implies is a small a small highly trained, highly skilled U.S. force, Special Forces, takes on much numerically larger forces, whether they're armored or dismounted.

We see this over and over again in real world operations, but in our gameplay so far, we haven't been able to depict it because in the multiplayer format, we're basically arranging roughly equal team on team scenarios. "Overmatch" will bring together large enemy forces controlled by artificial intelligence rather than multiplayer on both sides.

TMO: When will the Mac and Linux versions of America's Army: Overmatch be released?
Major Chambers: We're targeting the end of summer/beginning of fall for the PC release.

TMO: How have these games helped with recruiting?
Major Chambers: What this means is that we make connections with Americans who might not have had a connection with the Army. We use the video game to make that connection. We know we've got a great game but the game is also great in terms of the story it tells about the soldiers that are in the Army and why they do things the way they do.

How we structure what we do in terms of mission accomplishment and taking care of teammates has been a primary basis for what they do as opposed to games not like ours where the individual has an immense amount of power and is nearly invincible, our game is based on expressing the values of our organization.

So what that means is we're making great connections. We've got 5.3 million registered users, we've got a ton of events that we sponsor via a grass roots marketing campaign as well as being part of E3, which is kind of out of the norm for us. We normally sponsor events around the country to make one on one connections with mostly young people and that's been hugely successful.

It's an effective high tech computing tool because our players are anonymous and we never connect up their real name, whether or not they come in the Army or don't come in the Army. We don't know because we respect the right to privacy and we don't know how many of our players wound up within the Army.

We were very aware of this issue in the early days. It would have been death to the game and the acceptance of the game by America if any spam or anything that came out of the relationship that the player had with America's Army was controversial. We are outside of recruiting. I work for the Pentagon directly, I don't work for the recruitment center, which is in Fort Knox. So that's the firewall, the barrier between us and recruiting command ensures our player base that they won't be spammed or cold-called and all that.

TMO: What is the Army's input into all of this?
Major Chambers: I'm a deputy director for the project, I manage it for the Army. I'm a retired Army officer, I started this project when I stopped active duty. The project is managed above me by Colonel Wardynski, the project director who runs other projects as well, but this is my project most of the time.

So the Army's involvement with it is total. This is an Army project through and through. We didn't go out and find a development team and slap America's Army on some product. We built this from scratch. We have civilian developers for the most part and what we do with them is we have soldiers interact with them very, very studiously. Soldiers are in the studios helping them design assets and missions and give them photographic reference as to locations.

They also take the developers out two to three times a year on some exercise where they're with the Army, they shoot some weapons, they ride in vehicles, they eat in mess halls, they get up early. We give them the whole Army experience so that they understand what they're depicting and have a sense of the game that you wouldn't get unless you were part of the Army.

TMO: What do you make of how America's Army went from being unsupported on the Mac to supported on the Mac around version 2.1?
Major Chambers: The Mac version has always been an important target for us, but just because of the size of the market, it has always been secondary in terms of America's Army for the PC. With the 2.1 version, there were some difficulties that we had to fix for the release that delayed the 2.3 version for the Mac.

TMO: What's your take on the GameSpy issue in which the company raised their licensing rate to be able to access the network for their multiplayer browser?
Major Chambers: Well, we have a great relationship with GameSpy and we recognize their market power in the industry. Some of their rates went up, but we always got normal rates for our game. I'm not sure if this was something special for America's Army, but their rates have remained steady for us.

TMO: What do you believe Apple can do to improve its gaming market?
Major Chambers: One tactic Apple needs to use is take existing great titles and porting them onto the platform. One of the things they could do to really ensure their penetration into this market is to maybe fund some of the porting cost for these games.

The port is not a huge expense, especially when you already have the PC game, but it's an expense that a lot of companies are reluctant to take on until the Mac market grows. A good indicator might be for Apple to do it themselves.

That's why you see hiccups with our game in the Mac porting. It's a very small percentage of the market and we'd like to see it grow. Obviously there's a lot of great games out on the Mac and we'd like to continue to support it, but it'd be nice to see others in the industry help support it as well.

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