Twenty-three years ago, newly formed games studio, Bohemia Interactive Studios (BIS), unveiled a small tech demo showcasing a new game engine, named 'Real Virtuality.' This demo would go on to play a considerable role in the development of Virtual Battle Space (VBS), today's virtual training software of choice for over fifty militaries around the world.
It may come as a surprise to some, but today's military training sims have their past well and truly planted in the gaming world, from the utilisation of Commercial off the Shelf (COTs) 'gaming-grade' hardware, right through to the software and tools used to train military personnel on strategy, decision making and team leadership. We've even seen a rise recently in the use of gaming and esports in MOD recruitment drives.
It's a fascinating cross-over, so to find out more on the history and future of military training simulations, we caught up with Ted Turnbull, from the University of Portsmouth, and CPO Neil Sutton, of Technology and Enhanced Learning & Simulation at the Royal Navy.
In 2001, Bohemia Interactive released Operation Flashpoint (OFP), a tactical military first-person shooter, where you played the part of a soldier caught up in a NATO-Soviet war, set on one real-world and two fictional islands. OFP was one of the first titles that allowed players to explore a vast and realistic virtual environment, where you were free to use whatever means necessary to defeat your virtual foes.
The flexibility and extensibility of the game's engine, 'Real Virtuality 1,' wouldn't go unnoticed for long, and a few short months later Bohemia Interactive's Australian branch was formed, with a mission to develop 'serious games' for use outside of the entertainment sector.
"It was probably around 2002, maybe 2003, when Pete Morrison brought Flashpoint into training in the Australian Army. When he left the Army, he set up the military side of it, which is the Virtual Battle Space (VBS)" said Neil.
Before the launch of VBS1 in 2004, there was actually already a popular training application being used by the US Army - DARWARS Ambush! developed by US company BBN Technologies. The sim was built upon Operation Flashpoint and could technically be considered a 'mod'. DARWARS provided a training environment for soldiers to practice tactics used against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was an excellent example of how a 'game' could be used for serious training.
VBS1 was deemed a success, despite some serious limitations. However, it wasn't until major funding was provided by the Australian Defence Force that VBS became an established success as a 'serious' training tool.
"They got hold of the right people, in the right place, at the right time, and they agreed with them. Then it became the de facto thing that everyone was using."
Ted Turnbull - Senior Lecturer, Computer Games Technologies and Enterprise, University of Portsmouth.
With a mass of user feedback and a huge list of requirements, VBS2 development commenced in December 2006, this time built upon the follow up to Operation Flashpoint, ARMA: Armed Assault. With an updated game engine, improved graphics, physics, multiplayer functionality, scripting capabilities, and new units and vehicles, VBS2 would go on to cement itself as the tool of choice for training.
Part of this success was thanks to the ease with which users could customise VBS2 to fit any scenario, and it also made it incredibly easy for developers to work with.
"Blitz, the games studio where I was working at the time, had an arm called TrueSim which was set up to do "serious" games, what is now referred to as Synthetic Environments, and we were using all sorts of different tools. We had our own in-house engine, but we also used VBS. At the time there was a much more diverse landscape in terms of engines, but pretty much all of them would cost tens of thousands of pounds, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds, to use. Bohemia, rather sensibly, made their licensing model very, very attractive. At the time, if you wanted to license Unreal Engine, for example, you had to fork out half a million to have access to it as a commercial developer. Whereas VBS was actually significantly cheaper than that which meant that the barrier to entry was a lot lower," said Ted.
While Bohemia Interactive Simulations (BISim) focused on the development of VBS2, their sister company BIS continued the development of their 'Real Virtuality' gaming engine, leading to the launch of ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead in 2009. By now, you can probably guess what follows - VBS3 was launched shortly after. The updated engine introduced some huge improvements, including multi-core support, which enabled a much-improved graphical performance and simulation.
Since then, VBS3 has gone on to become the industry standard when it comes to Synthetic Environment development tools, and there's yet another reason for that - ease of use and implementation. The last thing developers for the MOD need is software which is time-consuming or unnecessarily complex; many of the scenarios they create for simulations are similar in nature, where you might see a combination of individual units on the ground, vehicular or armoured support, and a variety of weapons which behave in fundamentally similar ways. VBS2 and VBS3 made it easy to create a multitude of these scenarios - with the ability to quickly alter datasets, values and AI behaviours at the forefront. As Neil pointed out, to its credit, "it is quite simple - it's just drag and drop software that anyone can learn in the space of a week."
Eleven years of continuous patching and modding later, however, and development flaws started to appear.
Ted drew attention to this, noting that, "there are template configuration files, which are bespoke for each type of object, and you then have to put information into it which will make it act sensibly. The thing is, if you want to do something it [the engine] currently doesn't do, like for example a quad-copter, that proves to be remarkably difficult. So a good example of this; I want to have, let's say... exploding rats - there's no template for exploding rats in VBS, unsurprisingly. So, all of a sudden, what I end up doing is going, "ok, I'm going to get a donkey template because there is one of those, and I'm going to scale it down and then I'm going to have another thing which, it itself doesn't explode, but it carries around a thing which does explode," and these things are parented together. So you end up having to do stuff in a really, hacky, clunky kind of way to make it work. Now, from the user's point of view, they wouldn't know, one would hope. But under the hood, it ends up with all of these crazy exceptions just to make it work. Eventually, it starts to break down."
There is no doubt that at present, VBS is the standard for virtual training and for generating synthetic environments. Plus, with the upcoming release of VBS4, it appears as though that isn't likely to change soon. It's an area that until recently, BISim prominently had all to themselves. But there is serious competition in the wings, one of which has an even stronger background in gaming than Bohemia.
"Titan (TitanIM) and various other competitors targeting the military market have missed a trick, I think, and I reckon that eventually, Epic will hoover up everything. They even have a dedicated team that's looking at military simulations now," said Ted.
Neil agreed, adding, "I think that long term that's probably how it's going to end up going. So what you'll end up seeing is some Bohemia or Titan type or whoever, with some sort of middleware package that bolts into a more standard game engine that provides the back-end information, which is then integrated with various military systems."
So, a company almost universally known for the free-to-play Battle Royale hit, Fortnite, a 12+ rated, colourful and over-the-top survival-shooter, could be the ones to push the industry forward, and help innovate in the training and simulation industry.
"Epic have all that delicious Fortnite money sloshing around. They have an advantage that even if they gave away their software for free to every military in the world, they would still make insane amounts of money. And also, from a military standpoint, if you use an engine that every game developer knows, it's very easy for you to get developers," said Ted.
Whatever happens, it's clear from the last 20 years or so that the training and simulation industry has very much followed the path set out by the gaming industry. We are now at a point where game engines can simulate the entire world, from space, all the way down to individual trees and even the blades of grass.
What's more, with interest being shown by Epic, and the capabilities that the Unreal Engine 5 is promising to deliver, plus with headway being made with machine learning and VR/XR technology, it's certainly an exciting time. And, as a result, serious training is only going to become ever more realistic, immersive and effective.
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