Nothing has provided more gamers with a intrepid sense of war and bloody carnage then the First Person Shooter. Generations of gamers can, scarily enough, name and identify weapons by model, modification and in some cases, manufacturer. M-16? Assault Rifle of choice for the US Army. AK-47? Infidel remover for terrorists and freedom fighters the world over.
With the epic evolution of realism that has merged into mainstream gaming, weapons are now more then a mush of pixels in the bottom middle of the screen. Everything from Iron Sights to Silencers are now recreated in minute detail. They jam too, as well as misfire, slam your avatar’s shoulder with immense recoil and ricochet shrapnel across the room you’ve decided to unload a personal arsenal in.
As games merge closer with the battlefields they emulate, I decided to take a look behind the scenes and find out exactly how your RPG-7 gets from the range to your monitor.
It’s arguably known that one of the most popular representations of battle comes from the Americas Army series. First released in 2002, Version 1.0 was nicknamed “Recon“, designed to be the first in a series of PC games to give potential recruits a taste of Army action. Rather then simply dropping players in an arbitrary battle from the get go, hopeful soldiers are forced to complete tutorials that gauge their abilities and introduce them to relatively complex weaponry and tactics.
It’s easy to see the impressive amount of detail that has gone into the latest incarnation of the game, Americas Army 3, which utilises the latest version of the Unreal Engine. A better UI, ranking system that bears similarities to COD4, and the ability to import profiles from the previous games. The training portions are fascinating, being taught the correct way to fire weapons and then being tested on them is a challenging and fun chance to excel.
It’s also a great chance to take a close look at the particular pieces of kit that you’re given to use. All of the equipment, vehicles and weapons in AA are taken directly from the materiel departments of the US Army. The weapons, from the way they fire, the sound they make and the actions your avatar use to reload and prep sights are all exactly the same as any soldier would be trained to use them.
And that’s because the same guys who model, texture and program them hold and fire them on live fire ranges, Chief Engineer of the AA program, Michael Barnett, tells me. “We operate the vehicles and fire the weapons on army ranges.“, he notes, “I have personally fired many small arms weapons and shot the M2 .50 cal machine gun, Mark19 40mm grenade launcher and the TOW ITAS anti-tank missile.” No lab coats and ballistic monitoring programs for these designers it seems.
In addition to providing the nitty gritty on how to make everything as realistic for the player as possible, Michael is the technical lead for all projects relating to the AA platform, which includes government training, simulation applications and other elements of real soldier-VR contact. Impressiveness aside, Michael helps create virtual battlefields that the real fighters learn in before they head over to the dusty battlegrounds of Iraq and Afganistan.
Impressive. But I wanted details. How does a weapon go from your hands on a range at Ft. Benning to an imposing force of power in the hands of your average Gamer?
Michael was more then happy to elaborate. And, being an engineer, he got technical. Very technical.
“The 3D modelling of weapons and other systems for which we build trainers is done using very high resolution CAD models that are decimated for real time use. The internal mechanical workings, textures, materials, and sounds are all produced from data collection of the actual systems to make the most authentic experience possible.
Physical measurements not documented are made with 3D laser scanners, weapon sounds are recorded using high end equipment on the actual ranges, and avatar animations for movement are captured using a Viacom mocap system by actual Special Forces soldiers so every detail is captured.
In creating a simulation of any Army equipment or weapon system, we begin with a TM,(technical manual) and an OMM, (operations and maintenance manual) which describes the basic mechanical workings of the system and details all human interactions with the system from proper operations to maintenance.
Because the documentation lags behind development of the actual state, we next get (our) hands on the actual tactical system or weapon in the field to press every button, turn every switch and put the system in every possible state. From this we create a System specification outlining the states and state transitions. We use this as a master document for our software design giving us a level of detail not possible from any other means of data collection.
As we operate the actual tactical systems, taking them through every probably operational state, we naturally become resident experts on the system going so far as to model even any system software bugs that we may find about the tactical system so that our trainer is exactly what a soldier would experience using the real system.“
So, basically, its a detailed and intense process. Weapon firing specifics like accuracy, jam rate and recoil are all taken from official Army ballistic tables, which in themselves are taken from both range, lab and battlefield firing. Jam rates in the game are specifically manipulated to occur more often to provide a user with the experience, rather then a directly proportional representation of how often a rifle would actually jam.
The same goes when calculating damage. AA, like most titles, features a class system which involves a medic. But unlike most titles, damage taken in AA is area specific. If you take a shot in the heart, you die. A bullet in the leg, you limp, and possibly bleed out. I asked Michael how he took hitboxes into account.
“For the game, a players avatar is divided into over 16 parts, and injuries are recorded for which part is hit and the physical 3D location on that part. The AA3 game uses a simple calculation for the injured section based on round or striking material.
Other Govt applications will use the physical location per part along with more extensive data on the type of injury in order to train medical personnel. Medical data approved by the Army’s school is used for the more detailed training and simulated effects.“
Some of the more indepth projects that Michael works on involve much more specific problems. A media application might involve realistic wounds and time scenarios, where battlefield medicine needs to be done in real time, utilising a plethora of bandages, equipment and drugs. Wouldn’t that make “pressing “e” to heal” a hell of a lot more redundant?
There are reems of data behind everything you do in a modern FPS. Every bullet you fire, and depending on where you are, where you aim and what weapon you are using, is calculated in real time to the ends of the earth. Does it burn out before hitting its target? Does the wind, barometric pressure or atmospheric temperature affect its trajectory? Does it slice through a wall and into your enemy’s head, or simply impact a wall and stay stuck forever.
Everything from recoil, a players stance and steadyness are important to an accurate shot. Real soldiers are modeled in different positions while firing different weapons, and tables are developed, which include simulated injury, slight movements and breathing, to create the most realistic environment possible. Holding your breath to take a sniper shot isn’t just a gimmick – you’ll find every soldier sucks in a breath after lining up a target between the sights.
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is taken for granted. The US considers America’s Army more of a training, or recruitment tool than a “game”, requiring it to be of the same standard that any other official document or training manual world. As a result, the project has a high priority in regards to funding, thus representing the dedication to the community by the devs and the extraordinary amount of patches and upgrades the title has received since inception.
So the next time you drop into a server, having completed your ranger and advanced marksmanship training, have a think about all of the science that has gone into your virtual experience. Every shot counts.