Contracts Highlight Growing Role of Video Game Training

By Valerie Insinna

The Army and Navy are seeking out video game technology to engage young soldiers and sailors, and both services plan on awarding major contracts in 2013 for virtual, PC-based training.

But even though the military increasingly wants to get its hands on technologies that look and play like Call of Duty, industry executives say there are still barriers keeping the most innovative and entertaining games from being acquired.

Although graphics and game play in simulations have become more up to date, outdated technology is still prevalent in the industry. The military sometimes still uses software written in 2002, said Brian Waddle, worldwide vice president of sales and marketing for Havok, a gaming technology developer that expanded into military simulation after specializing in entertainment.

“The industry needs to find a way to get past the older code that’s sitting out there,” he said. “They [soldiers] look at these simulators, and they don’t take them seriously because they don’t look as good as what they’re playing in their living rooms.”

The simulation industry has been largely welcoming to game developers, but the military tends to lock onto a certain kind of technology and can be resistant to change, he said. Sometimes when a request for proposals goes out, “the RFP is designed for older technology to win, and that’s a shame.”

Currently, the Army is conducting a competition for the flagship of its Games for Training program, with an award of approximately $44.5 million over five years. It wants another first-person shooter to replace Bohemia Interactive’s Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2).

Officials at the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (STRI) said they are evaluating proposals for the competition, which were received in October, but declined to say more about the Games for Training program until a contract is awarded.

That will likely happen in March or April, said Bohemia Interactive President John Givens.

In the weeks following proposal submissions, the Army required companies to prove that they could create a specified terrain in 24 hours. Within that scenario, they then had to demonstrate a list of capabilities, such as showing a squad climbing up a hill and taking down a target, Givens said.

Havok had partnered with other companies to bid for the Games for Training recompete, but pulled out months before the proposal was due, Waddle said. “We felt that it favored Bohemia and it didn’t make sense for us to continue.”

Bohemia CEO Pete Morrison disputed the suggestion by countering that Bohemia also had to make improvements to VBS2 in order to meet requirements. “I don’t think there’s any ulterior motive here. It was a completely open competition.”

PEO STRI is looking for a game that has all of the capability of VBS2, but with better graphics and the ability to play across mobile and PC-based platforms, it stated in the solicitation.
It also is seeking the ability to integrate more players and move them across a larger landmass, such as an accurate virtual replica of Afghanistan, Morrison said. The idea is a first person, massively multiplayer online game like World of Warcraft, played on a huge scale.

This poses classic video game challenges to developers, Morrison added.

“Most computer games, they have little tiny playboxes, and they are really tailored to deliver a specific entertainment experience,” he said. “The military wants to simulate things like the entirety of Afghanistan, so that’s a huge challenge.”

Increasing networking capability is also difficult, as adding players to a game can create lag time, Morrison added.

Bohemia demonstrated that the updated version of VBS2 could support 40 to 50 players from around the world in a terrain as vast as Colorado at the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in Orlando, Fla. The version that Bohemia is offering for the contest can accommodate hundreds, Morrison said.

The Army also wants to improve the game’s artificial intelligence (AI), Morrison continued. For that, Bohemia has partnered with Xaitment, a German developer of AI middleware that is more customizable than Bohemia’s own software.

One strength of VBS2 is its adaptability, said Givens. It can be networked to the Army’s aviation combined arms tactical trainer (AVCATT), a helicopter flight simulator.  The software can also be run on the Dismounted Soldier Training System, a combat trainer where a soldier wearing sensors, a helmet-mounted display and carrying a replica weapon, navigates a virtual battlefield.

Game-based training conducted during 2012 in Fort Benning, Ga., incorporated a VBS2 modification that matched a soldier’s height, weight, and appearance to his video game avatar.  The avatar was also customized to reflect the soldier’s shooting accuracy and running speed, Givens said.

“If they were shooting 15 out of 40 targets, and they were a standard shooter, that’s how they shot inside the game,” he said. “What we found in recent tests … is that soldiers are more inclined to go out to the range and get a better score because they weren’t hitting the targets in that super-user mode like typical games do.”

More than 100 sites have fielded VBS2, Givens said. The program is also used by the Marine Corps, which awarded Bohemia a $10.3 million contract in October to further develop the game’s terrain by improving the appearance of two dimensional maps and offering support for physics-based building destruction.

While the Army has used VBS2 as a broad platform with many applications, the Navy is looking for game-like technologies that will train its sailors for specific purposes.

The service is scheduled in January to award three contracts for virtual training for the Littoral Combat Ship, with vendors expecting around $100 million for each contract. One of the program’s goals is to save money.

Two contracts will go toward curriculum for Lockheed Martin‘s Freedom variant (LCS-1) and Austal-General Dynamics’ Independence variant (LCS-2), each clocking in at around 4,500 training hours. A third set of courseware for anti-submarine, surface, and mine warfare would amount to approximately 2,250 hours of instruction, according to the Navy’s solicitation.

The lessons incorporate individual, self-paced courses and group training led by an instructor.
The LCS variants were built to operate with a small crew size, initially 40 core crewmembers before the Navy announced an expansion in 2012. Because the service is employing a “Train to Qualify” concept requiring crewmembers to be ready to execute orders immediately upon reporting for duty, most of the training for the ship will be done on shore.

“Everybody on that ship needs to learn how to do multiple jobs,” said John Burwell, director of business development for Dynamics Research Corp., which is bidding as a prime contractor on the Lockheed variant. “To train them to do this, they have this whole new training paradigm that’s based on these 3D models and going through and doing it all as gaming instead of death by PowerPoint.”

The LCS has been mired in controversy for cost overruns incurred because of changes to its designs midway through construction, and criticism that the relatively small, light ship is less survivable than others in the fleet. Navy officials hope that doing game-based training will ultimately save money and wear and tear on the ships.

As part of the competition, companies were required to provide an hour-long training curriculum to the Navy, as well as the development cost, said Ron Smits, DRC’s director of knowledge management.

The scenario had to show a full understanding of courseware development, including a pretest to assess ability, training to improve skills, and a post-test to gauge what was learned, Smits said. He declined to provide any more specifics on the curriculum DRC offered.

The Navy mandated small business participation, but instead of trying to meet the requirement and use small business as “filler,” DRC executives sought out a number of companies that have done game research or development, Smits said. The hope is to have a collective approach in creating the curriculum, with a more innovative, less expensive end product.

The virtual training curriculum will run on Crytek’s CryEngine 3, the engine used to create Crysis 2. This popular first-person shooter features a Force Recon Marine battling aliens in New York City.

Although CryEngine 3 was initially developed for entertainment gaming on personal computers and consoles such as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, it has since been licensed for military projects such as the U.S. Army’s Dismounted Soldier Training System and a virtual helicopter dock for the Australian Navy.

Alion Science and Technology Corp. is already using CryEngine 3 to develop the Virtual Maintenance Performance Aid (VMPA) for the Navy, which will be delivered in June. It will train readiness control officers on LCS-2 to do maintenance in an interactive virtual ship environment.

Development of the VMPA began as an Office of Naval Research Project in 2008. Funding and requirements were expanded over time, and it is now a program of record, said Scott Casey, senior software engineer for Alion.

VMPA employs a first-person viewpoint and allows the officer to become familiar with the control panels, equipment and layout of the LCS before he reports to the ship. It uses the same controls as computer gaming and can be run on any PC or laptop, so long as the graphics card meets specifications, he said.

“When I brought that original one on a laptop onto the actual ship, the commanding officer said, ‘Oh is this like Doom?’” Casey said.  “I said, ‘Yeah.’ She goes, ‘Can I try it?’”

Alion is working on creating multiplayer scenarios where individual crew members can fulfill tasks needed to complete missions, including moving the ship and responding to equipment malfunctions and enemy attacks.

A simulation for the LCS-1 using a different engine has already been delivered, and Alion has agreed to subcontract for multiple companies competing for the LCS curriculum, Casey added.

RealTime Immersive, Inc., which licenses CryEngine 3 in the United States, displayed a teaser trailer showing a virtual mockup of the LCS at I/ITSEC.

RealTime CEO John Brooks declined to comment on whether the company would be involved in design or support of the LCS curriculum, but highlighted CryEngine 3 capabilities that will be used in the design process.

A feature called the observation marker system can be used by the Navy to virtually bookmark where there are discrepancies between the LCS and the 3D model, providing a way to critique the contractor that created the courseware.

“Because you’re building in this big virtual space … you need to be able to mark areas and say, ‘The contractor needs to build this valve here,’ or ‘You need to change this logic here,’” he said.

Another capability, situational decision points, presents the player with a set of options that lead to different outcomes, testing the sailor’s decision-making skills and forcing him to make a choice within a certain time limit.

Photo Credit: Bohemia Interactive

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, ComputerBased Training, Videogames

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