In 1993, Bruce Sterling went to the National Army Training Center in the Mojave Desert write the cover story for the very first issue of Wired Magazine. The topic was the military’s use of new virtual reality technology to train American soldiers — and their commanders, down the chain — to fight full, integrated conventional warfare without firing live ammunition. “Seamless simulation,” as military planners called it, was “not a notion of blue skies,” Sterling wrote. “It’s clearly within reach.” His predictions came to fruition as the US military turned to more realistic and comprehensive simulators to perfect increasingly complex network-centric warfare.
The simulators in Bruce Sterling’s article were gigantic devices, huge and heavy. But as technology advanced and the military grew its own secure intranetsthe next step was to make it easier to use and deploy networked training.
Tank simulator at Fort BenningFort Benning / Dept of Defense
Like Loss but for a full spectrum war
Around the same time, in 1999, Czech software developer Bohemia Interactive began production of a military video game titled Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis. It was complex and oddly niche as such games unfolded, not an obvious hit. But its demo disc was distributed with game magazines – a mastodon (for the time) 60 MB file on CD-ROM which became an instant hit among PC gamers. And the first week of September 2001, it was the best-selling PC game in the United Statestopping a bunch of Sims and Diablo titles, as well as Madden NFL 2002 and the ubiquitous Microsoft Flight Simulator 2000.
The heavy demo was a masterclass in military friction. You started out as a lowly NATO soldier tasked with attacking and repelling an entrenched Soviet invasion force on a fictional island in Eastern Europe. After taking a first village, a counter-attack by T-72 tanks and BMP forces you into a chaotic retreat. Isolated, you head to an extraction point where a Blackhawk helicopter is waiting to evacuate stragglers. Sneaking through the terrain and dodging deadly Soviet foot patrols, you make your way to the rendezvous, only to be shot down by a ZSU-23 shortly after takeoff.
Operation Flashpoint – official trailer (2001)Codemasters
The full version of the video game got even scarier, with intricate battles between infantry, armor, tanks, and helicopters in a dynamic environment. If you wanted to leave the mission to try and flank the enemy, you absolutely could… but chances were that not working with your AI teammates would most likely doom the squad you were commanding. enemies in Operation Flashpoint were unforgiving in their accuracy and timeliness. You would die. Quickly. Again and again. Unlike arcade shoot-’em-ups, OFThe guns were extremely accurate at realistic ranges. On more than one occasion I would clear a town or capture an objective, only to be knocked out by a rifleman 500 yards away.
Sales are falling? Call in the Marines!
Unfortunately, Bohemia blew a bunch of money doing a Xbox version from the Flashpoint operation that it never recovered on the market. The intricacies of the game (and Xbox’s controller layout) were just too great to be turned into a casual gaming rig.
Bohemia was on the verge of going bankrupt, but the US Marines broke in.
The VBS1BI Studio launch trailer
Bohemia launched in 2001 a separate production studio in Australia “with a mandate to develop ‘serious games’ based on the Operation Flashpoint game engine, for use as simulation platforms outside of the commercial market entertainment sector”, as Bohemia executive Peter Morrison put it on time. Uncle Sam’s wayward children became one of the first key customers; the Marine Corps picked up a program that would become known as Virtual Battlefield Simulation 1.
The original version of VBS1 was much less fun than the freewheeling civilian race of Operation Flashpoint, perhaps weighed down by bureaucratic demands. But the militarized version of VBS1 was a different beast. Its purpose was to teach team dynamics in evolving tactical situations. It was (relatively) cheap, easy to use and effective. Bohemia then launched new military simulators, creatively titled VBS2 and VBS3and began a relationship that continues today: the company in 2017 signed $12.8 million, five-year contract to maintain and upgrade VBS3 for the Ministry of Defence.
Virtual Battle Space 3 Trailer (VBS3)BI Studios
The military games complex takes off
Bohemia Interactive has finally lost the rights to the name “Operation Flashpoint” after a falling out with game publisher Codemasters and was forced to rename the civilian version of his game ArmA. “What matters is the game, not the name,” insisted Bohemia. ArmA has taken Operation Flashpoint and made it better. The resulting series ushered in a new era of realism for civilian enthusiasts and DoD personnel bored with powerful gaming computers.
Combined Operations ArmA 3 in action.Bohemia Interactive
ArmA 2, beloved by hardcore military gear enthusiasts, eventually led to a fan-modified version of the game, the hyper-realistic survival simulation, Z-Day. This multiplayer game has sold over 3 million units with a standalone version. In Z-Dayyour objective was to find food, equipment and weapons, while avoiding zombies and dealing with other human players – who could be your best friends or lock you in a cage for entertainment.
So not only did the US military pick up a failed Xbox game title to boost its war game; through his patronage, he also helped create one of the most unique zombie survival video games ever made. It just goes to show that, like zombies, hopes of salvation through military contracts never die, not even for video game developers.
A committed think tank presented by Task & Purpose