TRAINING AND SIMULATION
Army Creates Video Game to Prototype New Weapons
Under pressure to save money while speeding up the acquisition of cutting-edge technologies, the Army is turning to online gaming to help develop and test new capabilities.
A newly created video game called Operation Overmatch is part of the service’s effort to engage in what it calls “early synthetic prototyping” of future weapon systems and platforms.
“This has the potential not only to guide future science and technology research, but inform the way we fight,” said Maj. Gen. Robert “Bo” Dyess, acting director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center at Training and Doctrine Command.
Soldiers already spend much of their free time playing games such as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, he noted during a presentation at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.
The service decided to tap into that interest and “develop something that they would utilize, both to give us insights on how they utilize weapons but also what they need in capabilities … so that we can help the Army be more agile and more rapid in our development of weapon systems,” he said.
Operation Overmatch is a collaborative effort between ARCIC and the Army Research Development and Engineering Command. It is a multiplayer/multi-team game developed by the Army Game Studio that allows soldiers to battle each other in the virtual realm with technologies that haven’t actually been built yet.
“Each one of the opposing sides will … get to choose which vehicles they want, what type of weapon systems they want, what type of environment they want — urban, mountains, lots of trees,” Dyess said. “Then they’ll fight with their systems” and provide feedback.
Beta testing kicked off in October. More than 500 soldiers have already signed up to participate, but the service hopes many more will choose to play the game.
“We want to get a ton of soldiers trying a ton of different things,” said Lt. Col. Brian Vogt, simulations operations officer and the project lead for Operation Overmatch at ARCIC.
“Then we’re going to do the data analysis,” he told National Defense. “If it’s a good, enduring idea it gets handed off to the S&T folks that are going to make capabilities.”
Insights have already been gleaned, Dyess said. “We’ve already gotten some feedback in alpha testing that is very interesting to pass along to both our acquisition professionals as well as the people who do requirements generation.”
Manned-unmanned teaming at the platoon level is a major area of interest, he noted. The Army has already used the game to model ground vehicles that can launch drones, as well as large unmanned ground vehicles that can be used as robotic wingmen.
Early testing yielded interesting employment ideas as well as recommendations for improving unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities such as using waypoints, countermeasures, jammers, counter-jammers and UAV radar systems, he said.
“You can view this as kind of a sandbox” where weapon systems, vehicles, communications gear, night-vision capabilities and other technologies can go through early synthetic prototyping, he said.
“I fully envision this being utilized to help think about the next-generation combat vehicle or long-range precision fires,” he said, referring to the Army’s top two acquisition priorities.
Many types of technologies are expected to be explored, including robotics and robotic swarming, precision munitions, jammers and counter-jammers, advanced optics and other systems that officials haven’t even thought of yet, he added.
Army acquisition budgets have been strained in recent years. The service has also taken heat for spending billions of research-and-development dollars on programs that were supposed to deliver next-generation capabilities, but were later canceled before they came to fruition. The Future Combat Systems family of vehicles and associated technologies is the most prominent example.
Operation Overmatch is expected to help the Army save money and avoid wasting precious R&D funds on unworkable technology. The game “enables us to fail inexpensively,” Vogt said.
Dyess said: “The great thing about this is we’re not building an actual model here. We’re not actually putting dollars to build something on the ground.”
The game could also help contractors save money, Vogt noted.
“It enables smaller companies who have ideas,” he said. “Instead of going through the expense of building a physical prototype, they can work with us in getting a virtual prototype in at a fraction of the cost — and then be able to get feedback from soldiers of what they like, what they don’t like about it [and] how they employ it.”
Scientists and engineers are encouraged to test their ideas, he said. “If it doesn’t work you can take it out. If they want to explore it and demonstrate utility or modify it and prototype with it, that’s fantastic,” he added.
However, synthetic prototypes will be screened before they are allowed into the game, he noted.
“If industry comes to us and says, ‘I’ve got this widget, this capability I want to explore in the game environment,’ we are still going to have our engineers look at the model and its capabilities to see if it’s plausible,” Vogt said. “We don’t want Star Wars stuff. … We want things that are feasible.”
Officials at ARCIC are still trying to figure out the best way to engage with industry on the project, he noted.
Lessons learned from the experiments could be passed on to interested companies, said Michael Barnett, chief engineer at the Army Game Studio.
“If it’s something that soldiers are needing based on their feedback and based on thousands of hours of gameplay, then that would be a capability that would get promoted to industry to say, ‘These are the types of problems that we are needing to solve and here’s the capability that we need,’” he said in an interview.
To create Operation Overmatch, the Army tapped into the commercial gaming industry. The game engine that runs the software was developed by Epic Games, a Cary, North Carolina-based company.
Commercial technology is advancing faster than the Army can keep up with, Barnett said. “If we tried to fund our own game engine, then industry leaves us behind very, very quickly because it’s a $28 billion-a-year industry … [and] we would always be behind the curve.”
Instead, the Army is “riding this huge wave of technology” and licensing the game engine from Epic, he said. That saves the service money by avoiding development costs, he added.
“The current game engine that Epic puts out was under development for many, many years, and I’m sure that that equated to quite a price tag,” he said. “That’s something that we no longer have to do because we can actually license it.”
Although the engine was built by a commercial firm, the actual game was created by the Army Game Studio, which is based at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. It is part of RDECOM’s software engineering directorate.
The studio is set up much like a commercial game studio, Barnett said. It faces similar challenges, he noted. Creating virtual megacities is an example.
Army leaders envision future battles playing out in large urban areas. Designing a game that can replicate that is no easy feat, he said.
“The sheer volume of entities that you have to push around inside of a virtual environment — that’s the challenge,” Barnett said. Commercial industry has overcome those hurdles while developing games like Grand Theft Auto, he noted.
“They have very, very large cities. They have traffic. They have people. And so we look for … commercially available solutions to be able to solve those problems for us so that we don’t have to dedicate a whole lot of funding in doing them ourselves,” he added.
To play, soldiers have to register at www.operationovermatch.com. They must then download Steam, a commercial distribution system designed by Valve, a Bellevue, Washington-based company, to their laptop or desktop. After creating an account, they can download the game and dive in immediately.
Playing is straightforward for millennials and others who grew up in the age of video games and computer games, Barnett said. A mouse and keyboard are all that’s needed, but participants can also use a handheld controller.
“Intuitively, if they’ve played a PC game or if they’ve played a controller game like Xbox, they will be able to sit down and pick up the controls … without having to do any kind of tutorial,” he said.
However, a tutorial will still be provided to explain all the facets of the game, he noted.
The service needs a large number of soldiers to participate to collect enough data and feedback for the project to succeed. That’s why the Army Game Studio tried to make the game as entertaining as possible.
“If we give them something that’s very fun to play and that’s natural to what they’re already doing … they’re inspired to go and sit down and actually play it,” Barnett said.
Officials hope that the opportunity to help develop new capabilities will be an added incentive for soldiers to join the virtual battle.
“They know that, ‘Hey, what I do here and what I do with my team can actually change … the way that the Army works and fights,’” Barnett said.