Air Force’s Latest Video Game Targets Potential Recruits

By Michael Peck

The U.S. Air Force has launched a new video game that seeks to both entice new recruits and also highlight the service’s non-traditional missions, such as humanitarian relief and unmanned aircraft operations.

“USAF: Air Dominance,” which will be shown at NASCAR races and other events, puts prospective blue-suiters behind a joystick as they fly three missions: piloting an F-22 fighter that’s coming to the aid of a friendly F-4 under attack by hostile MiG-29s, controlling a Predator unmanned air vehicle on a photo-reconnaissance run and flying a C-17 transport plane dropping humanitarian cargo in a war-torn nation.

“First things people think about the Air Force are pilots and fighters,” said Sgt. Marv Daugherty, with the Air Force Recruiting Service. “That’s a very small minority of the Air Force. We want to show that there are other things out there, like UAVs and cargo planes.”

The game will inevitably be compared to the highly successful “America’s Army,” but the Air Force has chosen a different approach. While “America’s Army” can be downloaded on home computers, “USAF: Air Dominance” can only be played on specific computers in Air Force mobile recruiting centers.

The game will be installed on six kiosks inside a tractor-trailer that also serves as a mobile movie theater, said John Lee, a senior strategist at GSD&M, the advertising agency retained by the Air Force for its recruiting efforts. In addition, 28 recruiting squadrons will each have two kiosks on trailers.

“USAF: Air Dominance” is simpler to play than “America’s Army.” While the Army game intends to provide a realistic rendition of Army doctrine and tactics, the Air Force aimed more for an arcade game than an ultra-realistic flight simulator. The game is easy to grasp, and each mission only lasts a minute or so. It’s designed to briefly let spectators at NASCAR and other events play for a couple of minutes, and then direct them to the recruiters. “We were trying to have a three to five minute experience, so multiple people could experience it,” said Lee. “We can’t have hundreds of people playing the game for an unlimited amount of time.”

The game’s developers say that they could have made it far more realistic—but that wasn’t what the Air Force required. “We made it more arcade-ish at the request of the Air Force, to make it more fun and playable,” said Billy Cain, vice president of Critical Mass Interactive, the developer of the game. While the result is aircraft that don’t fly as realistically as the flight sims in the entertainment market, neither does the Air Force game have the brutal learning curve of simulators such as Microsoft Flight Simulator.

“If we were to make it a simulation,” Cain added, “It would not be playable by the man on the street. Somebody coming for three minutes of game play would find themselves falling out of the air or shot down.”

Those involved in the project bristle at comparisons to America’s Army. They point out that “USAF: Air Dominance” only cost $250,000 and took just three months to develop, compared to more than $8 million and several years to develop “America’s Army.” The rapid turnaround was possible because Critical Mass used an existing flight simulator engine. “America’s Army was a much, much larger game and had a much longer timeframe to do it,” Cain added. “These guys had millions of dollars to spend and years to create it. We basically got a document on one page that said, ‘you have three months to get it done.’”

For that reason, “USAF: Air Dominance” won’t be pushing the graphics envelope. It is designed to run on low-end computers in Air Force kiosks, which means the software has to function with minimal memory and old video cards. “The graphics in the game are state of the art, but most of the fancy graphic tricks have been turned off,” said Cain. “We could have everything from rain on the canopy to wind effects. With a faster machine, you would get better graphics, higher-resolution textures.”

However, even if the graphics aren’t rich, at least they’re accurate. “All of the aircraft have been created with painstaking detail so they are accurate to size and scale,” Cain said. The designers also compensated for the graphics by trying to make the back-story more interesting. During the humanitarian aid drop, for example, there are explosions on the ground as combatants battle it out. As the UAV flies toward its targets, vehicles pass below.

“The challenge with the UAV was to make it entertaining,” said Cain, an experienced developer whose company has worked on previous flight sims as well as the award-winning “Spongebob Squarepants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman.”

“You’re essentially going from Point A to Point B,” he said. “So we tried to make the terrain fun and have things happen in the background.”

Lee said the game is a test to see whether a flight simulator will be a big draw at Air Force recruitment events. “It’s very scaleable. We can add better graphics, more aircraft, and make it available online.” Daugherty said the game will eventually be on CDs that can be played on home computers.

“USAF: Air Dominance” replaces the Air Force’s previous kiosk game, which was a quiz game. “It was more educational,” said Lee. “But the target audience didn’t like it that much.”


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