The U.S. Army's Virtual Battlespace 2 (VBS2) shooter game is less than two years old, but the service is already laying plans to replace it, and that's a tricky task.
"The technology moves so fast that a company we've never heard of today could be the front-runner when we put a solicitation out," said Lt. Col. Michael Newell, who manages air and command tactical trainers at the Army's Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI). "Three years ago, before we awarded the VBS2 contract, if somebody said 'Bohemia,' the answer would have been 'Bohemia who?'"
That would be Australia-based Bohemia Interactive Simulations, which developed a game now deployed in 93 full and limited training suites, mainly at training centers and schoolhouses. But gaming technology and real-world training needs march on.
"In our gaming strategy, we don't want to be married to one application forever," said Sheldon Parks, gaming integrator for Training and Doctrine Command's Capability Manager for Gaming (TCM Gaming). "We want to utilize it as long as it's relevant and it meets our training needs. But we know that technology and our training requirements change from year to year, and we want to remain relevant to our users."
Parks said the funding for the VBS2 replacement is not yet locked in, but if it comes through, the plan calls for picking a game maker in fiscal 2012, awarding the contract in 2013 and deploying the new game in 2014.
The requirements will be developed by Parks' TCM Gaming, based at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.; acquisition will be handled by Newell's PEO STRI in Orlando, Fla.
Newell and Leslie Dubow, PM ACTT's Games for Training project director, said they can't know for sure what capabilities will be in VBS2's replacement. Four years is an eternity in the world of gaming. There will certainly be better graphics and processors by the time the contract requirements are released.
But what Newell is certain of is that if he puts out the requirements early, industry will respond.
"If I can tell industry a year out that here's what I'm asking, I'll bet there's a bunch of them that come because they see that it helps them leverage their commercial side and gives them visibility in serving the military," he said.
PEO STRI did publish a general notice to industry last February. Though sparse on detail, it stated that "the new FPS-based game must include, but is not limited to the capabilities of the current FPS game, VBS2. Some of these capabilities include terrain paging, a cultural and language training capability, a terrain database plug-in that will facilitate incorporation of SE Core databases, use of multi-threading and multicore technology, advanced artificial Intelligence interaction and hardware optimization."
And in fact, PEO STRI expects the process of acquiring the next first-person shooter to proceed at a more deliberate pace than the acquisition of VBS2, which was fielded more quickly than anticipated because the Army and the Joint IED Defeat Organization accelerated its funding.
Truer To Life
Newell said the new shooter should be the star simulation of the Army's Games for Training program, which includes VBS2, a combat medic game and language trainers.
"We're going to take all those capabilities and put them in what we call a flagship product," he said. "VBS2 is a great first-person shooter. It's really good at ground-based [training]. It's got some air capability. But if you can enhance those things, if you can add language and cognitive into it, then I only have a single product to maintain."
There are features in the Tactical Combat Casualty Care game, for example, that need to be in the new shooter game.
"Right now, if a guy gets hit in VBS2, they just keep going," Newell said. "That doesn't happen in real life. The squad stops and takes care of the guy."
However, one size won't fit all.
"The reality is that we don't expect to get more than 90 or 95 percent of that into a brand-new product, just because there are always going to be niche products," he said.
The Army is upgrading the video cards and microprocessors in computers at all Battle Command Training Centers (BCTCs).
"We are making every piece of hardware in the battle command centers gaming-capable," Parks said. "That's not true right now. A lot of the hardware was purchased for simulations like JCATS or FBCB2. They didn't have to be so high end. Now, gaming is driving the specifications."
However, even the current hardware upgrades will probably be insufficient for the demands of a game in 2014.
And what is it that the Battle Command Training Centers want from the next shooter game? Two things, said Josh Hutchinson, chief of collective training at the BCTC at Fort Bragg, N.C. Topping the list is a terrain editor that lets users easily add terrain, the lack of which in VBS2 is a "show-stopper," according to Hutchinson.
The future is integrated training, where units use sims like VBS2 to practice on virtual representations of their home station training ranges before heading out to the physical ranges. That allows soldiers to get the most out of limited range time. The rub is that someone has to go through the laborious effort of creating virtual home-station terrain for VBS2.
"Right now, home stations are left to develop their own terrain or requesting terrain be developed," Hutchinson said.
Troops are also demanding that their simulators include virtual terrain of the battlefields that they will fight on.
"We have terrain for VBS2 for very small portions of Iraq," Hutchinson said. "So if I'm going to do a training event where the [area of operations] is outside of those areas, well, I can't use VBS2 as part of an integrated environment for that training event."
Even though the Fort Bragg BCTC has only been using VBS2 for about a year, the game's performance is already being strained by mods and add-ons needed for greater realism.
"Some of the modifications are becoming a bit of a burden on the core gaming engine of VBS2," said Hutchinson, who wants to see features like avatar hand-and-arm signals included as a core function in VBS2's successor.
As for the future, Parks believes that the concept of serious games as we know it will be obsolete because game technology will be the default technology of all simulations.
"Gaming engines, because they're so powerful, eventually we're going to be able to leverage them for other simulations," he said. "In some ways, there is already a game engine driving a lot of our simulations. My prediction is that in five or 10 years, most of our simulations will have embedded gaming. It will either be a gaming engine running then, or gaming will be a component of them."