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Monday, March 14, 2005

America's Army -- Behind the Scenes

The following anonymous real-life adventure is written by a respected developer deeply involved in the making of America's Army, a PC-based shooter designed as a recruitment tool.  I've asked for permission to repost it here (it originally appeared in a restricted list about six months ago), as I think it's an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the ups and downs projects can go through, and the too common silly politics involved.

~~~~~~~~~~

I was involved with the America's Army project through most of the
game's development.  During the peak of production we had somewhere
around 27 or 28 people on the team.  About a year ago, the Army
decided to make serious and fundamental changes to the team.  As a
result, they have steadily hemorrhaged talent and people have left in
droves.  The entire programming and design staff is decimated, and the
art team is now a shell of what it used to be.

The Army doesn't really know anything about making video games.  Why
would they? It's not what they do.  When I came on board the project,
it wasn't in the best shape.  At that time, the Army was desperate to
get a game out.  People's military careers were on the line.
Originally there were two game projects in the works (the other was an
FMV piece of tripe that died a sad and whimpering death before ever
seeing the light of day). The development of the game was a huge risk
for the Army, and if it failed heads were going to roll. Because of
this, the Army was much more hands off (although they were still
pretty difficult to work with even then), and pretty much just held
their breath and hoped we'd pull something out.  We barely were able
to make the July 4th deadline they set for us.   The team that was put
together, although pretty green, put in a phenomenal number of hours
to get the job done.  The game wasn't perfect, but we felt like we
pulled off a miracle under some pretty bad conditions.

Once the game hit its peak of success, the Army began to rewrite
history. It was around the time we hit the number three spot on the
Gamespy stats page that they started complaining about how we weren't
meeting their expectations.  We began to read news stories
interviewing Army personnel who talked about how they had built the
game.  The Navy started to get pissed at the Army because there was
never any mention that the game was actually built within a Naval
think-tank.  A lot of political fights over the project broke out not
only between the Army and the Navy, but within different divisions of
the Army itself.  When the project was just a fly-by-night rogue
mission, no one paid much attention to it.  Once the Army figured out
that the game was the single most successful marketing campaign they'd
ever launched (at 1/3rd of 1% of their annual advertising budget), we
suddenly came under a very big microscope.  Personally, I saw the end
coming months in advance.  It was pretty inevitable what would
eventually happen.

So, one morning about a year ago, the Army shows up in force at the
Naval Postgraduate School.  They arrive in full dress uniform and
bring generals and lawyers with them. They go to the school's Provost
and make accusations of mismanagement by the school. They make claims
that the game is a failure and that the school has not lived up to its
contract. Tempers flare and the Navy and the Army both agree that they
should get the hell out of NPS.  The Army takes their ball and goes
home, and several of the team members are not invited to come along.
I think the first resignation came within a month of this event, and
the exodus has not stopped to this day.  They've probably lost
somewhere around 20 people since they took the game "internal", and
they'll surely lose more before all is said and done.

At this point, I'm not sure if they're going to be able to ever
recapture what they had.  The Army is basically clueless when it comes
to making games and they don't know how to treat people, especially
game developers.  They had an A-level team, but I honestly don't see
them building another one (particularly since they weren't the ones
who built the first one).  It'll be interesting to watch what happens
though.  Essentially, there was a magic couple of years there where
two totally alien cultures came together to do something cool.  It's
sad to see it all crumble so quickly, but again, I pretty much saw it
coming all along.  Some things, by nature, just can't last.

In the end, I'm happy for the experience.  It was extremely valuable
to me, and was a wonderful opportunity.  It was unique and different,
and a chance to take a shot at something that no one really had any
expectations of.  It was also a chance at creating a small snippet of
history.  The game is far from perfect, but I'm still proud of it
simply because of how much was stacked against it.  I worked with some
wonderful people, many of which I hope will have long and successful
careers.

Anyway, that's the short version of this story.  The whole story could
fill a book.  Today, the game is limping along, but has not recovered
from the ordeal.  Last I heard, the Army and the Navy were both being
audited by the Department of Justice.  No idea how that's turning out.
There's a lot more to be told, but I don't know if it will ever be
made public.  Working on the game was a wacky adventure, and not the
type of thing most game developers will ever experience.  The job of a
game developer is pretty strange as it is, but making a game for the
Army was a down right surreal experience.

Monday, March 14, 2005 at 12:25 PM | Permalink

Comments

It would be nice to hear some of the political silliness. It always makes for a good laugh looking back, and a bit of teeth knashing in the present.

Posted by: Kory Yingling | March 15, 2005 10:22 AM

Folks,
You built the #1 shooter out there. As a member of an AAO Clan, I say HOOAH to you all and your efforts.

So now the QUESTION

Why do you not reassemble he team and build your own first-person shooter based on HISTORY or something like that? You folks sure could give BattleField some lessons. Theres money to be made and alot of it!!!

Up for the Challenge?

Again HOOAH
DAWG

Posted by: Mad Dawg | March 15, 2005 04:58 PM

Anyone who has served in the Army (or any branch for that matter) can see the truth in that article. Sounds so familar, Im ex-Army Ranger and I loved serving my country and being part of the Army and miss it everyday. Most ppl look at Military soldiers and for the most part think "hey those guys have a tough job" in reality is it way harder than most ppl think. Just for having to put up with the Political crap that floats around the US Military. You put up with hardship, being away from family and at times dirty tough combat situations where you lay your life on the line. On top of that you get to deal with some dumbass (ie: officer) who is flying by the seat of his pants and playing his political part to try to rise in rank. So next time you meet a vet or active duty soldier from any branch "tell em thanks "and realize they just dont play cowboys and indians, they have to go thru more than just physical strain to serve the country they love. There is a saying "There is your way, the right way and the Army way". And thats not a joke its completely true.

Now dont get me wrong, Im not jaded. I loved it and miss it to this very day. I served under dumbass officers that made things harder for everyone. And I served under great officers that truly had a grasp of what there part in the grand scheme of things where. And they made it all worth it. The real soldiers though always have the strips (remember that) those are the guys that get it done everyday. Its the strips that make it all come together. (For the non-Mil) stripes = enlisted. Privates, PFC's, Specialists, Corporals and all the levels of Sgt's.

So when I read that what the guy/dev says rings true in my ears, doesnt surprise me a bit.

Posted by: Guns4Hire | March 15, 2005 05:22 PM

Cheers for your efforts, AA was a great game before 2.0

Posted by: Mohsen | March 15, 2005 06:38 PM

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