More than spacemen, gangsters, and sword-and-shield-wielding heroes, video games love soldiers. But rarely do they attempt to accurately represent the soldier's work.
Call of Duty and Battlefield, increasingly so over the past five years, depict the military by way of science fiction. The job of a soldier, according to these games, is to kill hundreds of people—or sometimes robots—and single-handedly save the world. Equipped with millions of dollars' worth of weapons and gadgets, hungry for a fight and practically invulnerable, video game soldiers, as of today, are as fantastical as anyone in Mass Effect or the Elder Scrolls. They are, despite games insisting upon fidelity with regards to visuals and recreations of ballistics, utterly unbelievable.
"FSW demanded that soldiers, in-game, moved, behaved, and reacted as they might in real life. Enemies were sporadic. Single bullets could be fatal."
But they weren't always this way. On the contrary, soldiers, as they appeared in 2004's Full Spectrum Warrior, was unerringly real. A research and development project originally commissioned by the US Army, FSW demanded that soldiers, in-game, moved, behaved, and reacted as they might in real life. Enemies were sporadic. Single bullets could be fatal. Rather than big guns, battles were won using intelligent tactics and good positioning.
"There was one general, I forget his name, who'd just seen the movie Predator," explains William Stahl, FSW's creative director. "The Predator had a shoulder-mounted camera that tracked movement along with its head, and when the general had seen it, he'd had an epiphany: 'The military never thinks up anything like this. Why not?' He decided the US Army was too much of an old dog, so it should recruit people from civilian sectors like technology and entertainment and see how they would solve military problems. The result was a think tank called ICT, or the Institute for Creative Technologies.
"Simulations at the time were expensive," continues Stahl. "The interfaces were pitiful, and they involved a lot of specialized equipment. Plus, at the end of the day, nothing the army was producing was as visually impressive as a game on the Xbox. So ICT recommended taking money the military would spend on a simulation and turning it over to a game studio."
This was 1999 and Stahl, who had just come off Pandemic's Battlezone II: Combat Commander, was the first person assigned to the project. The commercial version of FSW would come much later—for the first three years, Pandemic was working exclusively for the army.
"It started off as purely an R&D project," Stahl explains. "It was to determine one thing: Can a game company make an aid that would actually help with military training?"
Stahl was joined by roughly 20 more staffers at Pandemic, as well as soldiers and military advisors who oversaw the project and routinely provided feedback. Trips were arranged to the US Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia, so FSW's designers and animators could observe genuine maneuvers. Throughout development, four active-duty sergeants also regularly visited the studio to consult on major and minor additions to the game.
"The soldiers testing would just look at me and ask, 'How do I get around that guy?' I'd reply, 'Don't you want to shoot him?' 'No. He's not my mission.'" – William Stahl
However, on both the managerial and creative sides, working for the army proved much different to making games for the commercial market. Stahl and his level designers had to throw out basically everything they knew about building a military shooter.
"When we were designing missions in a regular game," Stahl explains, "if we wanted a player to move in a certain direction, we'd put an adversary there—[because] the player wants to track enemies down. The military, however, does the exact opposite. If I was trying to get soldiers to move in a direction, and I'd put an enemy there, the soldiers testing would just look at me and ask, 'How do I get around that guy?' I'd reply, 'Don't you want to shoot him?' 'No. He's not my mission. My mission is to get from this spot to that spot, and I want my guys to get there safely as possible. I will go a mile out of the way if I need to.'
"The army wanted to make sure everything in the game was a lesson applicable to real life. Running and shooting, for example, like you do in a game has no real-world equivalent—you can't do that in the real world. Plus, the military wanted the game to be told from the perspective of a squad leader, but in reality, if the squad leader is firing his gun, it means he messed up. He should never be firing his gun. So we knew we couldn't make a shooter. It had to be a strategy game. Instead of doing it from a God's eye view, we had to bring the camera right down to the ground, to the squad leader's eye-line level. And if I wanted soldiers to head in a direction, I had to put enemies in the opposite direction."
Working for the army presented other challenges. Originally a joint project with Sony, Pandemic had to abandon the PlayStation 2 version of FSW when it learned, well into production, that US military bases were not allowed to house anything not American made. That meant carrying the entire game over to Microsoft's Xbox. Partway through development, textures, skins, and level designs had to be redesigned, also. At its conception, FSW was set in Eastern European towns and villages, not dissimilar to Sarajevo or Pristina. However, after 9/11 and the US military's decision to invade Iraq, the game had to be overhauled and given a Middle East aesthetic.
"They knew that's where their people were going to be," explains Stahl. "People wanted to know what it was going to be like."
Article continues after the video below
From early in development, Stahl and the Pandemic team had realized FSW's commercial potential.
"We spent a lot of our personal time making sure it went beyond what the military required in terms of tech," says Stahl. "The military didn't require pixel perfect graphics or shaders, but we would do that anyway, because at the end of the day our goal was to show this to a publisher."
And after 2002's E3, when Full Spectrum Warrior was first unveiled, offers started to roll in. EA wanted to finance the game; so did Microsoft. As part of a four-title deal, Pandemic eventually signed with THQ—along with the original, the California-based publisher agreed to fund a sequel to Full Spectrum Warrior and two games from Pandemic's other burgeoning series, Destroy All Humans!
To make it ready for public consumption, FSW's team swelled from 20 to 50. One of the studio's new hires was level designer Kristine Golus. She helped to turn Full Spectrum Warrior from a military simulation to a puzzle game.
"FSW was based around the 'Military Operations in Urban Terrain,' or MOUT approach to combat," Golus explains. "But after the Battle of Fallujah, the army determined combat in the streets was far too risky. To minimize casualties, MOUT combat became about moving indoors—blowing through walls and staying away from windows and other dangerous points of combat where soldiers are at a disadvantage. So technically, FSW is teaching out-of-date combat tactics.
"That isn't to say levels were created without any thought. It's not obvious when you're playing it, but if you were to take a snapshot of FSW and look at it from top down, you'd realize it's a linear, puzzle game. You have to identify enemies and determine how to move without taking any injuries. You have a mission. And you need to complete it with as few casualties as possible."
Nevertheless, it was difficult for Pandemic to find the balance, between shooter, puzzler, and strategy game. FSW had to be a lot of things, for a lot of people. During its development, "authentic" games were vogue. Rainbow Six 3, Operation Flashpoint, and Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 were either highly anticipated or already selling well. At the same time, thanks to Call of Duty, high production values, action and spectacle were creeping further into shooters. Perhaps more than anybody realized at the time, CoD had changed the war genre. Pandemic, like dozens of its contemporaries—and successors, to this day—would have to keep up.
"There was an early version of FSW where enemies would just run in and respawn, and players could just run in, and as soon as they died the squad-mates would get replaced," says Stahl. "It was pretty damn fun. Sometimes I wish we had done it that way. There were plenty of meetings where my designers walked out frustrated because my answer, to everything, was simply, 'They wouldn't do that in the military.' But we had to stay faithful.
"One problem was that, based on the way the original AI was set up, players could bum rush the enemies and kill them at point-blank range," continues Golus. "It looked pretty awful and caused us to implement something we called LDR, or Looking Dumb Range. This was to refer to the range, between player and enemy, at which the game started to look so dumb that it broke immersion. Needless to say, if you get too close to an enemy in the finished version LDR will kick in, he'll suddenly develop 100 percent accuracy, and he'll mow down your troops pretty quickly."
By early 2004, both the military and commercial versions of Full Spectrum Warrior were complete. There was, however, one small obstacle left to surmount before the game could be in either soldiers' or the public's hands.
"The army only needed 2,000 disks," Stahl explains. "But Microsoft wasn't going to print 2,000 disks—the minimum order is something like 50,000. At the same time, we couldn't just give them cracked disks. That was illegal. So the army had to actually go through THQ to get it printed. It was meant to be a standalone game, but it ended up piggybacking inside the retail version!"
'Full Spectrum Warrior,' E3 2004 trailer
Video game reviewers enjoyed Full Spectrum Warrior. Launching in June 2004, the same year as fantastical action games like Doom 3, Killzone, Half-Life 2, Far Cry , and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, FSW stood out as a more sober type of shooter. Two years later, as promised, THQ published a sequel, Ten Hammers.
Reports soon surfaced, however, that the military was dissatisfied. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Riley, an instructor at Fort Benning's infantry-training school, complained the training version of FSW was "not accurate enough." "People got caught up in they hype," said Riley. "We were looking for a home run. We got a single—and it was a broken bat single."
Other army officials, though, as well as Pandemic, defended the game. Stahl, too, believes it was a success.
"I agree with the colonel," he says. "FSW got into the press, it won some awards, too many chefs got into the kitchen, and it ended up ballooning. It was never going to be completely accurate. But then, that's not what we set out to do. It was purely a research project. It wasn't even meant to be seen by an actual squad leader. The fact it got released like it did, to consumers and the military, is testament to the Pandemic team."
Golus left Pandemic in 2004 to work elsewhere in the gaming industry. Stahl followed in 2006, to found his own graphic design company, Martian and Sons. Three years later, after releasing Mercenaries 2, The Lord of the Rings: Conquest , and The Saboteur, Pandemic itself shut down. THQ, publisher on Full Spectrum Warrior, closed in 2013.
Full Spectrum Warrior itself, however, is used by the US Army to this day. Rather than as a combat-training aid, a heavily modified version of the game is used as a tool to help determine, in troops returning from war, the presence and severity of post-traumatic stress disorder. The game that depicted military life more faithfully, and tried to illustrate and explain it for the public, is now helping soldiers to better understand themselves.
"Tom Clancy teaches kids to go to war," Stahl concludes, "and Full Spectrum Warrior teaches them to get out of there. But it doesn't teach them not to be a soldier. Being a soldier, I think, is a noble profession."
Follow Ed Smith on Twitter.