The Army Battlezone Q & A

Q: What is Army Battlezone?
A: Army Battlezone (a.k.a Bradley Trainer) is a modified version of Atari Inc.'s Battlezone arcade game. Instead of driving a futuristic tank fighting other futuristic tanks, the player was cast as the gunner in an Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) against real-life opponents.

Bradley Fighting Vehicle

Q: What is the Infantry Fighting Vehicle?
A: The Infantry Fighting Vehicle is a cavalry/scout vehicle, that carries a pair of scouts, additional radios, ammunition, TOW (Tube-launched Optically-guided Weapon) missile rounds, and Dragon or Javelin anti-tank missiles. It was eventually renamed the M3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicle, a.k.a. the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Q: Why was Army Battlezone made?
A: The United States Army, always interested in saving money, was looking at using computer simulators for military training. Someone in the Pentagon heard about the Battlezone arcade game, which prompted the question of whether or not arcade games could be adapted to the task. The TOW missiles used by the Fighting Vehicle cost $7,000 each, and gunners had a tendency to keep the crosshairs on the bright missile exhaust instead of on the target. If a $3,500 video game could save even one TOW missile, it would have paid for itself. Thus Army Battlezone was born.

Q: Who commissioned Atari to make Army Battlezone?
A: Atari was contacted for the project by a military "think-tank" organization formed by the Army, composed of retired Army officers. All of Atari's involvement with Army Battlezone was through this intermediary company.

Q: Why didn't the Army contact Atari directly?
A: Using an intermediary made things easier for everyone. The Army would not have to go through the usual procurement procedure, Atari would not have to be investigated for security risks, and Warner Communications would not have to be treated as a defense contractor (which requires the release of financial records to the government, as well as lower profit margins). Instead, the Army's intermediaries could simply hire Atari to make video games, and Atari could treat it as usual.

Q: How was Army Battlezone used?
A: Officially, only two prototypes were ever actually made, and a few machines shipped (see below). The few that were delivered ended up being installed in public places on military bases, such as recreation centers and commissaries. There, soldiers on break could play the game, compete for high scores, and improve their skills in the process.

Q: Who worked on Army Battlezone?
A: The Atari employees who worked on Army Battlezone were--

  • Rick Moncrief (project leader)
    Rick was the manager of the Special Projects Group which, after several name changes, became the Applied Research Group. This group went on to produce Star Wars, Hard Drivin', Race Drivin', and Race Drivin' Panorama.

  • Ed Rotberg and Jed Margolin (engineers)
    Ed and Jed were the only team members from the original arcade Battlezone game.

  • Erik Durfey (technician)
    Erik worked for Rick Moncrief.

  • Hans Hansen (graphics programmer)
    Hans converted pictures of real-life military vehicles to vector representations.

  • Otto De Runtz (mechanical engineer).
    Otto converted the real-life IFV gunner controls given to Atari into a simplified arcade version. The gunner yoke was eventually downsized and redesigned by Otto, then used by Atari in other arcade games, such as Star Wars.

  • Army Battlezone controls and yolk

Q: Were there any problems in the Army Battlezone project?
A: The main problem was a political one. At the time, a large part of Atari's engineering staff had strong anti-war feelings; they believed that Atari should have no involvement with the military in any form.

To be fair, other Atari employees were in favor of the project. A common argument was that, if Army Battlezone could help improve the Army's capabilities in some way (especially by reducing the danger of fratricide), then it was a good thing and deserved full support.

Ed Rothberg has publically admitted that he was angry and frustrated during the time he worked on Army Battlezone.

Q: How long did the Army Battlezone project take to complete?
A: Army Battlezone took about 10 months from initial proposal to final closure. Actual reprogramming of the game by Ed Rothberg took about three months.

Q: What are the differences between Battlezone and Army Battlezone?
A: There were changes in the controls and the game. The Battlezone controls were replaced with a simplified version of the IFV real-life gunnery controls. A gunnery yoke allowed the user to aim in the X and Y axis. A potentiometer allowed the player to dial in the target range, while a series of switches allowed the player to choose different weapons and change views (normal or magnified). There were no driving controls.

Q: How was Army Battlezone played?

In the game, the player was cast as the gunner in an IFV. While the computer drove the tank, the player had to identify enemy targets and destroy all enemies. Available weapons were a 7.62mm machine gun, a cannon with HE (high explosive) or AP (armor-piercing) shells, and a TOW missile (Tube-launched Optically-guided Weapon).

If the cannon was used, the player had to aim it with a simulated optical range finder. This required him to guess the size of the target, align it with an on-screen gauge, and read out the distance. There was a dial to set to compensate for the distance. The idea was to hit the target with the first shot; using multiple shots wasted ammunition, and alerted the target.

If the TOW missile was used, the player had to steer it to the target with a set of on-screen crosshairs. The trick with the TOW missile was to keep the crosshairs on the target; the temptation was to put the crosshairs on the bright missile exhaust.

A major point of the game was to teach the player to destroy enemy targets with their first shot. Missing an enemy would bring immediate retaliation; using multiple shots to find the target was not a workable strategy.

Destroying a friendly target immediately ended the game.

Army Battlezone cabinet
Army Battlezone cabinet

Q: When was Army Battlezone released?
A: The closest thing Army Battlezone had to a formal release was at a military conference in 1981. The nearly-finished prototype was supposedly well received, though details are not available. That was around when the project ended.

Q: So Army Battlezone was never released?
A: Apparently not. At best, only a handful of machines were made and shipped to the military. Two prototypes are known to exist, though their owners have been kept anonymous; one owner is one of the Army Battlezone team members.

On the other hand, Army Battlezone may have been unofficially released by the Army. In the book Computer Image Generation, edited by Bruce J. Schachter, John Wiley & Sons, 1983, the preface on page xii reads:

The Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has completed an extensive study of arcade game technology and its application to military instruction {LUDV81}. Under contract to TRADOC's training support center, Atari has modified their popular 'Battle Zone' game into 'Army Battle Zone' in which the controls and weapons of the M2 infantry fighting vehicle are replicated. Army experts who have worked with the game find it to be a useful tactical trainer; a more sophisticated version is in the works.

{LUDV81} is a reference to an article in Army Magazine: E. C. Ludvigsen, "Combat in a Box," Army, 31(8), pp. 14-21 (August 1981).

Unconfirmed rumors live on to this day that 5,000-8,000 Army Battlezone units were ultimately produced. If true, it is unlikely that those machines were produced at Atari's factories; people would have been involved with the PC Design group to make the modifications to the board and getting the project into production. Someone would also have noticed the games coming off the assembly line. Another possibility is that Atari management could have licensed the game to another company, or subcontracted the assembly work. This approach would also have the benefit of not further inflaming the anti-Army Battlezone employees at Atari.

Q: Why is it difficult to get definitive answers about Army Battlezone?
A: Hard to say. Part of it is the relatively secret nature of the U.S. Army. Part of it is due to the secretive nature of Atari's upper management. Part of it is due to the frustrations of some of the engineers close to the project. And part of it is just fading memories. When folks still had fresh memories about Army Battlezone, they were not allowed to talk about it. When they were allowed to talk about it, their memories were no longer fresh.

Maybe someday a declassified Pentagon report will give all the details. Until then...