Tag Archives: Army Game Studio

Game studio helps keep Army outreach, education high-tech

By CLIFFORD KYLE JONES
NCO Journal

America’s Army is a high-tech organization. “America’s Army,” the video game, is testament to this fact.

The Army Game Studio at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, continually works to develop and enhance its educational, outreach and training tools, including the popular combat simulator game for computer platforms  that first launched in 2002. The studio may be best known for the free game, but it has developed a wide range of tools to help deliver the Army’s message and help Soldiers achieve their missions.

“America’s Army” is regularly updated with new missions and maps and has been wildly popular with gamers since its launch. During loading screens, it plays Army marketing videos, and the studio reports that 2 million views of those messages are seen each month.

“That’s more than we can find anywhere else” in the Army, said Marsha Berry, the Army Game Studio’s software manager. “‘America’s Army’ is really helping to share the Army’s message through those videos and through just playing the game and learning about Army values, rules of engagement, Army technology.”

Jeff Sallas, software engineer test lead and support, demonstrates augmented reality technology at the Army Game Studio at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. Augmented reality places images and effects on physical items such as brochures when they are viewed through an application. [Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal]
Jeff Sallas, software engineer test lead and support, demonstrates augmented reality technology at the Army Game Studio at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. Augmented reality places images and effects on physical items such as brochures when they are viewed through an application. [Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal]
AR_MainIn the latest version, called “Proving Grounds,” players take on the role of an 11B infantryman in a long-range combined-arms reconnaissance unit that embarks on special operations missions behind enemy lines. Players can engage in small unit tactical maneuvers and training that echoes true-to-life Army scenarios.

Real-world simulations are a staple of many of the Army Game Studios products. In the center of the studio at Redstone Arsenal, a full-scale, fully “armed” HMMWV  simulator sits on a moving platform in front of 180 degrees of large screens that allow visitors and programmers to “travel” through various scenarios and missions. The high-tech console is an outgrowth of “America’s Army,” and it shows off the studio’s programming skills and training capabilities.

“The point of this lab is to highlight our capabilities, to show some of our products, so that when customers come through, they can see the technology, get hands on with the technology,” Berry said. “And maybe it will help them come up with a solution for what they’re looking for.”

The Army Game Studio’s customers are representatives from the Army. Berry says the Army and Congress are very careful how they spend taxpayer money and want to ensure that any investment in technology provides a significant return on the investment. The Army has funded training projects to help keep Soldiers safe, such as several full-size MRAP simulators that give Soldiers experience maneuvering the top-heavy vehicles to avoid real-world crashes and rollovers.

The simulator, called the Transportable, Reconfigurable Integrated Crew Trainer, or TRICT, “is a really good example of all of our different capabilities merged into one product,” said Frank Blackwell, director of the Army Game Studio.

Originally requested by Special Operations Command, the devices required work from both the hardware and the software development teams. The Army had training devices, “like a skeleton” of the vehicle, that helped train Soldiers how to get out of a vehicle after a rollover, Blackwell said.

“It’s valuable training, but it wasn’t exactly like the vehicles they were using,” he said. “SOCOM wanted a more accurate representation of the exact vehicle.”

The studio modeled two versions of the MRAP, the RG33 and the M-ATV, set them on a motion platform, and simulated several large environments using the gaming engine from “America’s Army,” including settings in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Soldiers could actually drive around in those areas,” Blackwell said, “training virtually in a real place.”

The windows in the TRICTs are LCD screens, so Soldiers are completely immersed during the training.

“Through the windshield, you’re actually driving through the game,” he said. “Then all the bumps and going up hills and everything translates to the motion platform.”

The scenario is controlled at an instructor station, and the scenarios change each time.

“Instead of just a weapon trainer sitting by itself, a trainer that just teaches you egress, a trainer that only teaches you [Blue Force Tracking], it integrates all those trainings into one scenario,” Berry said. “It makes it more immersive. It makes it more realistic. It makes it more efficient.”

Building on previous successes and technology is a key component of the lab’s work.

“That’s one of the things that we do really well at Army Game Studio,” Berry said. “Everything we develop goes into a depository that we can reuse and repurpose, so it makes development quicker, easier and cheaper for the customer, because once we develop it once, it’s in our library and we can just grab it and use it in other applications.”

The "America's Army" video game is one of the Army Game Studio's most popular products. (Courtesy of Army Game Studio)
The “America’s Army” video game is one of the Army Game Studio’s most popular products. (Courtesy of Army Game Studio)

That iterative improvement and development is a thread that runs throughout the lab’s products. One of its first projects was the Javelin Basic Skills Trainer, which was developed almost 20 years ago. The software used in that product engendered one of the studio’s latest applications, “Go Army Edge Football ,” which helps coaches and players at all levels with training and play development.

“A component of the Javelin Basic Skills Trainer is you would create exercises — there may be 100 or more different exercises,” Blackwell said. “An exercise is a terrain, so a part of the world, and there would be target paths and different types of target paths. So part of that software that we built into it was an exercise editor. Not only would we field it with a set, but wherever it was deployed, they could even create their own exercises. You could have a pretty much unlimited set of exercises you could train against.”

That software, Blackwell realized, could be applied to sports training, allowing coaches to set up formations themselves to incorporate into their training. The Javelin training included enemies, which had parallels to on-the-field opponents.

The “Go Army Edge Football” application has only been in widespread use a relatively short time, but it has already had a large impact on outreach and recruiting and has generated related products involving soccer, and even marching bands.

Like many of the studio’s latest projects, it also has a virtual reality component, so formations and scenarios can be seen in 3D through an Oculus Rift or other virtual reality device. The Army Game Studio is working on other ways to use virtual reality to enhance training and what’s known as augmented reality to boost outreach efforts.

Augmented reality uses technology to enhance or supplement information in the physical environment. For instance, a recruiting brochure aimed at science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students includes a popup robot when viewed through a mobile phone.

“Right now we’re focused on video games and informational apps, but we’re starting to get a little more into the educational communities and STEM applications,” Berry said. “We’re always looking for ideas about how we can do that to benefit the Army.”

The Army Game Studio has the capacity, but Soldiers’ ideas are always welcome, she said. The studio can be contacted directly, or Soldiers can work through their commands to present ideas.

“Our customer is always looking for really great ideas,” Berry said. And it’s the Soldiers and the Army who benefit.

Football app helps recruiters reach student-athletes

By CLIFFORD KYLE JONES
NCO Journal

Recruiters have a new tool to reach high-school athletes, courtesy of Army Game Studio.

The “Go Army Edge Football” application gives football coaches and players a valuable, high-tech means to improve on-field performance and maximize training time. The application gives Army recruiters a valuable inside track with high-school athletics programs to foster relationships and deliver the Army’s message.

What would become the free application was originally suggested by the Army Game Studio’s director, Frank Blackwell, and was based on the software used in one of the development lab’s first projects, the Javelin Basic Skills Trainer. That weapons training product included simulation software and enemy tracking that was easily converted into sports scenarios, Blackwell said.

Marsha Berry, the studio’s software manager, said, “It was hard for us to sell it to the Army, because the Army has to have ROI, return on investment. [Products] have to have a reason and a justification. Anything, especially in the sports arena, these days, has to be justified quite a bit up on [Capitol] Hill .

“We try to keep that in mind when we’re building our outreach products, because if it doesn’t give the Army a good return on investment, then we can’t fund it, …” she said. “This is targeted for recruiters to use it to get into schools, get into areas that they may or may not be in already. It’s basically a digital playbook, except we’ve applied some 3D animations to the playbook.”

Blackwell built the idea for the app from the Javelin training system — before there was a formal Army Game Studio — but it took several years and some fortunate relationships to get the app to its current state.

“We ended up becoming the Army Game Studio, and we had the capability but we still didn’t have the wherewithal or the funding,” he said. “It was through a cooperative resource and development agreement with the Army football team at West Point, and they funded a trainer to teach the quarterback to run the triple option (offense). …

“All the academies were running the triple option at that time, and they were running about 62 percent on their progressions,” he said. “After running on the software we developed, they were running about 90 percent. And, Army went to a bowl game during that time, the first bowl victory I think in 25 years. That was no Army money, just booster club money. At that point we had enough of an asset to really show what you could do with this technology.”

Army beat Southern Methodist University 16-14 in the 2010 Armed Forces Bowl.

Army Game Studio designer Tony Donatellie demonstrates some of the tools available in "Go Army Edge Football." (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones)
Army Game Studio designer Tony Donatellie demonstrates some of the tools available in “Go Army Edge Football.” The screen shows a play from a player’s perspective. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones)

To further develop the app, the Army Game Studio received input from the NFL. Blackwell said the Army had a connection with the National Football League through a former Army player, Anthony Noto, who was a star linebacker while at West Point and who would become the NFL’s chief financial officer. Noto is now the chief financial officer for Twitter. Four years ago, the Army Game Studio started working with the New England Patriots, and now, it partners with the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts use the app with multiple position groups, Blackwell said.

Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre used the app while he was the offensive coordinator for the Oak Grove High School Warriors in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Oak Grove was one of the studio’s educational partners, Blackwell said.

Army Game Studio designer Tony Donatellie helped develop the application and continues to work to improve it. It’s designed to be flexible enough to fit the needs of any coach at any level — high school, college or pro — but easy enough to use as soon as you download it.

“We actually ship the app with a pro-style offense, a spread offense and a wing T offense already in the app for them as example playbooks,” he said. “That way, any coach, if he doesn’t want to draw, that’s fine. He can just load the app, find a drill and just run it.

“We kind of capture the high school coaches’ attention, get them in the door. Then once they see this stuff, they start saying, ‘Well, in my defense, this defensive end is two steps in, so let me go change that,’ ” Donatellie continued. “We slowly bring them in so they have a starting point, instead of giving them a blank slate and saying, ‘Go nuts.’ That doesn’t really work.”

Once they’re comfortable with the app, though, coaches can draw offensive or defensive plays just like they would on a white board, except they’re using their finger or their mouse. And instead of X’s and O’s, they’re using images of players whose uniforms can be customized. When the coach hits “Play,” all the players move.

“Now whatever play I want to draw, I can see it happen on a virtual field, like it’s a video game,” Donatellie said.

The app also offers a variety of camera angles as routes are run, including the view normally used when reviewing film and views from each player’s helmet.

“For any play I want to draw in the app, I can see it from any players’ perspective,” Donatellie said. “Now the coach is able to be there with the player, see the same things, talk about the same things, side by side.”

Army Game Studio designer Tony Donatellie demonstrates some of the tools available in "Go Army Edge Football." (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones)
Army Game Studio designer Tony Donatellie demonstrates some of the tools available in “Go Army Edge Football.” (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones)

Access to a team’s plays is available from the cloud, so plays can be drawn up and shown to players before practice, Donatellie said. They might review the formations Sunday night, for instance, so they’re ready for practice Monday, he said. The view from the app can also be projected on a screen, so coaches and players can review things together during practice.

“Once you get a load of plays in there, you can start using those to make drills,” he said. “Drills are a guided mode, like a flash card system you can use, so now you can start quizzing your players on the plays.”

Donatellie said the app has helped teams spend less time on the practice field for formation recognition, so they can spend their time on the field doing other types of training.

The Indianapolis Colts “said they don’t even do formation training on the field anymore,” he said.

The app offers coaches robust technology for free that many programs and schools couldn’t afford otherwise, but it also delivers the Army’s message.

“Every time something loads, we show them a little Army commercial,” Donatellie said. “We have the U.S. Army star, and all this [links] to goarmy.com. We have a Twitter account, a Facebook, Instagram. We run on all devices and we communicate on all mediums, so we’re trying to reach as many coaches and football players as possible.”

Any time a player older than 17 expresses an in-app interest in the Army, a recruiter is notified.

Before this fall’s football season started, more than 4,000 teams had been created in the app, and it has already provided recruiters access to some student-athletes who were previously off-limits. Some schools had policies that didn’t allow traditional visits by recruiters, but because of interest in the app, recruiters have been able to develop a relationship with coaches and players.

“The Army loves football players because they already understand working as a team, overcoming adversity, working out, working to a plan,” Donatellie said. “Those are all very Army-like virtues.”

Donatellie said that even as the football app rolls out to more teams and more Army recruiters are trained on how to use it to conduct their outreach efforts, the Army Game Studio is working on repurposing the engine to reach even more students.

The studio has a version for soccer in beta testing and is working on a version for marching bands. The soccer app required some changes, Berry said, because unlike starting and stopping plays in football, soccer consists of a series of possessions.

“Then band is completely different,” she said. “Each one brings some new challenges, and it’s kind of fun to solve those problems.”

Some of those lessons have helped improve the football application. Having to track opponents on the screen during soccer possessions led the studio to develop a “ghosting” visual.

“And once we saw that in soccer, we all stood up and said we have to have that in football!” Donatellie said.

Berry said as the app becomes more widely used and promoted, interest has swelled.

“Coaches are calling recruiters,” she said. And, Army recruiting events that include demonstrations of the app are drawing large crowds to previously lightly visited booths.

The Army Game Studio regularly reaches out to recruiters to hear their success stories and how they have used the app to reach potential Soldiers. The studio is collecting best-use scenarios and building awareness among recruiters and coaches, but the app also shows what the Army is capable of, Berry said.

“It shows the Army is high-tech,” she said. “It shows the type of technology the Army uses every day with training devices like these.”

Army Game Studio provides variety of outreach, training products

By CLIFFORD KYLE JONES
NCO Journal

The Army Game Studio’s products extend into a variety of media to help boost the Army’s message and help Soldiers perform their missions. Some other highlights:

‘Career Navigator’

This free application, available for Android and iPhone iOS operating systems, takes information from GoArmy.com and makes it available on recruiters’ and other users’ mobile phones. It includes information on the Army’s more than 150 military occupational specialties and links to any videos the Army has produced about an MOS.

“Everyone uses their phones these days, so we try to put the basic information that you would find on GoArmy.com inside an app. Recruiters can download all the information so they can use it when they’re not connected to the Internet,” said Marsha Berry, deputy program director for Army Game Studio. “Kids can download it and search using their cell phones, because that’s how they get information.”

Jeff Sallas, Army Game Studio software engineer test lead and support, shows screens from the 'Go Army Career Navigator' application. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)_
Jeff Sallas, Army Game Studio software engineer test lead and support, shows screens from the ‘Go Army Career Navigator’ application. (Photo by Clifford Kyle Jones / NCO Journal)_

Are potential recruits interested in officer career paths? Are they looking for engineering-related positions? The app provides a variety of filters, so users can easily sort and find the information most relevant for them. It also lists the requirements for each MOS, such as Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and training scores.

When a potential recruit decides he or she is ready to talk to a recruiter, the app uses a phone’s Global Positioning System to show a user where the closest Army recruiter is and the recruiter’s contact information.

The app also includes information for parents of potential recruits.

“It’s one of our more popular apps,” Berry said. “Recruiters are using this to play MOS videos straight from their cell phones so they don’t have to have their laptop everywhere they go. Users are finding out more information so that when they do go to a recruiter, they know a little bit more and they are a little bit better equipped to ask the right questions.”

‘America’s Army’ comics

Perhaps the studio’s best known product is the video game “America’s Army,” a first-person shooter for computer platforms that first launched in 2002. The studio has built on that game’s success with a tied-in comic book, also called “America’s Army.” The comic just marked its 15th issue and is available for download through an app called “Comics.”

Berry said the comic provides some of the backstory for the video game and develops some of the characters. Each issue focuses on an area relevant to today’s Army. One, for instance, tells the story of a young man making the decision to join the Army. Another highlights a particular MOS and shows some of the technology the Army uses.

“One of our primary missions is to communicate how high-tech the Army is,” Berry said. “It’s correcting a common misconception.”

Local application

The Army Game Studio recently partnered with engineers at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center and an advanced leadership class to design a mobile app for the local Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, community to stay informed on official information.

The studio developed code for the Redstone Explorer app, which provides critical alerts, links to Team Redstone social media feeds, information about resources on Redstone, and maps pointing out gates and gate traffic, as well as where recreation and other services are located. The app allows for push notifications, allowing Team Redstone officials to communicate breaking news with users.

“Because of our expertise, the customer brings us their vision and we help bring it to life,” Berry said.

The concept was developed by team members of the Aviation and Missile Command’s 2016 Advanced Leadership Investment for Tomorrow Class. When it came time for class members to decide on a project to benefit Redstone, they settled on the idea of an app quickly.

“It’s an app made by Redstone for Redstone,” said Markeeva Morgan, a NASA engineer and LIFT member. “We want to be able to communicate with the community and with Team Redstone employees, in the most time critical and time sensitive way we can. We all have extremely important missions, and we’re all very busy, so if we can help shave minutes off the day on ingress and egress, that’s very critical.”

“The LIFT program wanted this to be executed by the end of 2016,” Berry said. “After discussing high level requirements, we collectively determined it was a ‘Go’. Because we have an extensive asset and code base library, we were able to use existing code formulas to keep the program on schedule.”

— U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command contributed to this report