MILITARY

Internal Documents Show How the US Army Makes a Video Game

Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by Motherboard lay out the development of 'Operation Overmatch.'
31 March 2020, 11:34am
operation-overmatch-concept-art
Image: U.S. Army

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

"Cloaked in nighttime, the battlefield is dark and quiet," the document reads. "To the east, using thermals, the player spots a single stationary enemy at extreme range, apparently unaware of the player for the moment."

This isn't a Tom Clancy novel, but the real pitch the Army Game Studio (AGS), part of the U.S. Army, wrote to conceptualize its video game where real soldiers play in a Battlefield-style combat arena. The game, called Operation Overmatch and launched in 2017, sees players control tanks and other vehicles through scenarios in which they either have to destroy enemies or safely transport supplies. The game is available now but you need to be employed by the Department of Defense to sign up to play.

Are you playing Operation Overmatch? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on jfcox@jabber.ccc.de, or email joseph.cox@vice.com.

The game isn't just to provide a fun distraction for members of the Army. Player decisions, movements, and tactics are collected and analyzed in the hope they can provide insights on how the Army should plan in real-life.

Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by Motherboard via a public records request provide new detail into how the Army developed this game, even including pieces of concept art for new maps players can battle it out in. The process resembles very much that of normal game development, with creators looking to make the game as replaybale as possible, and figuring out when they can launch certain features, but with the twist of drowning in very Department of Defense-style powerpoint presentations and military lingo.

A section of the internal documents obtained by Motherboard. Image: U.S. Army

The documents lay out the Army's initial idea, through its preparation for a beta, right up to projections for upcoming features. Some of the slides list improvements the developers made during alpha testing of the game. These include fixing issues like "Dead players can no longer talk to live players," "More destructible props created and added to the environment," "When flying a UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle], if the home vehicle is attacked, the player is correctly notified."

Other bug fixes include "Players no longer see objective progress when they are dead" and "Plays can no longer switch to a weapon which has no ammunition."

A section of the internal documents obtained by Motherboard. Image: U.S. Army

They also discuss future potential features, such as introducing "rationale provided by AI agents to improve Soldier decisions 80% of the time." One of the overarching goals is to "Provide Human-Agent Teams that have the capability to perform as well as Soldier teams but with additional capabilities," such as faster decision making and reduced risk to soldiers.

For fiscal year 2021, the U.S. Army plans to build new terrain for co-op levels, and the following financial year, "Develop expansion packages for aviation, logistics, maritime operations." The news section of the Operation Overmatch website has not been updated since November 2018, however.

A section of the internal documents obtained by Motherboard. Image: U.S. Army

Even though the slides are discussing a video game, there is no doubt a product of the DoD. One slide is titled "Pilot Development Objectives;" times are provided in the 24 hour clock format. "Testing occurs Tuesdays and Thursday at 1130-1230, 1900-2000," one slide adds.

A section of the internal documents obtained by Motherboard. Image: U.S. Army

But even with all the DoD flowcharts and infographics, sections do still remind people they're reading slides about a video game.

"USER/GAMER," one diagram reads.

You can see all of the obtained Operation Overmatch documents here.

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