eSim Games and Steel Beasts Q&A, Part 2

Shannon Drake | 8 Feb 2007 16:00
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imageIn Part 1 of our Q&A, we touched on the basics and talked all about eSim Games and how they make their pro-level tank sim, Steel Beasts. In this installment, we'll discuss the ethical issues eSim faces, their sales pitch, and where they stand in the "game" versus "simulation" debate.

The Escapist: How do you wind up selling to a nation's military or another organization? Do they come to you? What's the sales pitch sound like? I'm a potential client from the Army of Durham and we're looking to enhance our armored training. What can you do for me?

Nils: Usually they are approaching us, although as the "Army Representative of Durham" you may have met us at last year's ITEC exhibition in London where we literally set up a classroom with students - Steel Beasts veterans, actually, who volunteered to play in public - which might have grabbed your attention. We'd show you a 10 to 15 minute live exercise so you could observe the students doing their thing, you could see the interaction in a virtual crew between commander, gunner and driver. Later on, we would show you the after action review, playing back the mission's progress event by event. We would look at what the gunner of any vehicle was seeing when he used the laser range finder, or pulled the trigger. We could find out whether the gunner made an aiming error, and what error that was, we would discuss with the vehicle commander whether he prioritized the target properly or if there wasn't some other threat that would have deserved his attention. We'd show them how their chosen positions looked like from the enemy's perspective.

Then we'd go to the tabular report. It's in HTML, so you can import it into Excel. You get a complete breakdown of events, aggregated statistical data about your own losses and the enemy's, ammunition count (down to the single bullet) and performance statistics of every human participant in the action.

We'd explain to you that if you write your own Excel macros, you could extract relevant information from these tabular reports to write them into your own training database. Maybe you find out that students who perform well in a certain mission will also pass a relevant test in training, which would make Steel Beasts a good prediction tool to identify those students that need extra training.

You might ask if you could somehow get a digital version of your local training area in the Republic of Durham, and our answer would be yes, and we'd show in two or three minutes how easy it is to do that.

You would then ask if we could modify the scenario that we just demonstrated, that you'd like to have different vehicles or a different course of action, either for Blue or Red, and we'd open the mission in the built-in editor and do it, then run a new iteration.

Our key message is: It's powerful, it's easy to use and it's incredibly flexible with respect to training audience, training goals and where you put it in your curriculum to augment traditional methods. And you're not taking a big financial risk anyway, so what have you got to lose?

imageThe Escapist: How customizable is the software? I saw there is a large fan community, but how specific could you get for a client? For example, could you customize it to different armies, doctrines, etc. The Army of Durham wants to be prepared to face, say, the United States. Can you/would you get that detailed? Say our threats change, and the People's Republic of Joe and their Soviet vintage army poses a new threat to us. Can you adapt to that?

Nils: To a large degree, it's a matter of mission design, and the mission editor is an integrated tool. So, it's up to you to develop the kind of scenarios that you feel are relevant for your training. We will support your instructors, [and] if need be, we give software training in English or German language.

If you need new equipment, we will customize our software to it. Last year Sweden wanted to have the CV90/40, a heavily-armed IFV. Well, we implemented it within nine months. It took us the same time to develop the virtual Leopard 1A5 for Denmark in 2003, or the Leo 2A5DK in 2005, and we'll work on two Spanish vehicles this year, among other things. So, yeah, we can accommodate you if you can support us in a reasonable way. If you want to do this all by your own - no, the software doesn't allow you to put in a model of your top-secret new tank. We might open up this part one day, but so far all of our customers, after briefly considering the amount of work to maintain such a model base and the vast parameter collections associated with it, decided it was better to leave it up to us.

The Escapist: If I play Steel Beasts, how at home would I (the layman user) be in, say, a tank gunner's position? Is it like a driving game, where I'd, say, sort of know what everything did, or could I actually do a decent job of operating a tank?

Nils: Like I mentioned before, Steel Beasts doesn't replace established methods of training. It supplements them. It may fill a gap in your training curriculum, but it cannot and doesn't attempt to be your "one size fits all" type of educational panacea.

You can learn where this or that button is in a Leopard 2A5, but you couldn't train "muscle memory" - the ability to find the right switches without having to look at the control panel, which is a must for a good gunner.

Certain parts of the training may require the presence and feedback of an experienced instructor. Also it may be possible to teach yourself a lot exclusively with the help of SB Pro PE, but it's probably not the most efficient way of learning things about tanks. But, if you are curious what works in tactics, and what doesn't; if you want to experience the challenges of information overload which is the standard mode for platoon commanders - direct your own crew, direct the platoon, monitor two radio channels, and use your own sights to scan for targets - well, here's your chance. And if playing Steel Beasts inspires you to read a good book, or learn about certain things that show up "in the background" but which aren't the focus of our simulation - well, I don't think that this is a bad thing.

imageThe Escapist: Obviously, this software could be a big help in training a nation's military. Is there anyone you won't or can't sell to, for moral, ethical or legal reasons?

Nils: This question hasn't become of pressing urgency yet. We've been approached only by NATO armies and their allies so far (well, technically Sweden is neither NATO member nor ally, but we don't have moral or ethical trouble doing business with them). Embargo countries certainly are off-limits. Beyond that, we will probably reject the one [or another] potential customer for a variety of reasons - could be that we don't feel easy to do business with them, could be that there simply is a cultural and/or language barrier. If we have the choice between two otherwise equal customers where one speaks our language and the other doesn't, we'll opt for the simple solution.

The Escapist: How do the design goals differ when you're targeting a military client versus the regular gaming market? I've read that [i]SB[/I. isn't a game, it's a simulation. Would you agree? What would you say the key differences are?

Nils: A game's primary, almost exclusive goal should be to entertain. Whatever is detrimental to that goal ought to be eliminated from the project. Of course, there always is a set of "game rules" that you need to learn to play the game successfully. And quite naturally, there is a diversity of interest among consumers what they find "entertaining."

A training application may be entertaining, as long as it fills its educational role. If entertainment doesn't facilitate or even obscure an important lesson, it must be "sacrificed for the greater good" - getting the desired lesson across.

The consequences for us were that two years after releasing the original Steel Beasts game, we came to the conclusion that we could no longer meet these potentially diverging interests in good compromise. At the same time, we saw a strong interest in the military market to see our software adopted in a training and educational role. We entered a number of customization contracts which lead to an ever growing complexity of the software. At the same time, our die-hard fans wanted to test out the new engine that we had developed, by then.

So we made the decision to release what we had as the "Personal Edition," but not to market it as a game, simply because we felt that its necessary complexity was detrimental to its entertainment qualities. We would like to use the achievements in a new game version, but I think that we would need to streamline both the user interface as well as some of the tactical complexity to make it a game with an appeal to more than a very narrow audience.

At the same time, we need to introduce some sort of a storyline and to make it more accessible by better tutorials that should be fun to play at the same time. And we are working on this, although I have to confess that it still is some sort of a sideshow while our focus is on the market for training and education.

The Escapist: Are you primarily a training/simulation company that happens to sell to consumers, or would you describe yourselves as a game company that happens to sell to the military?

Nils: We started as a game company. We are a training company. We would like to grow back a lost leg by working on a new game version, but business realities are what they are, and its not as if it wasn't fun doing what we do right now.

It's just that I would like to popularize the theme of tank simulation games to a broader audience, because I consider it a fascinating and multi-faceted topic that hasn't been done justice by other game developers - with partial exceptions.

The Escapist: Looking at the bios on your site, I'm seeing engineers, ex-military guys, etc. Would you say this gives you a different perspective when it comes to putting together a game (or simulation)?

Nils: Yes, definitely. Much of our initial motivation to do something like <i]Steel Beasts[/i] was borne out of frustration that almost nobody made tank simulations and where they did it didn't seem to do justice to the subject.

Just to name an example, if you are new to tanks you think, "Oh my god, what a brutal, huge, invincible war machine!" It's natural to get this totally instinctive reaction, this kind of primal fear. Or, if you're sitting in it and commanding your tank for the first time, this incredible feeling as if nothing could stop you. Now, if you stop at this point and let game designers make something out of it, a typical (and perhaps natural) result will be to display tanks as invincible, rampaging monster machines.

Reality is different, though. Even the toughest tanks can be knocked out if the attacker manages to hit the tank from almost any side except the front. It's like a tough nut at the front with a peanut-like soft rear. So yeah, you have a really big gun that has a tremendous punch, but if you let down your guard just for a moment, it can mean instant death, and quite often you don't even know where that one came from. So, here's my free advice to game designers: Don't have health bars, don't use a hitpoint system, and don't make tanks appear as invincible monster machines!

Of course, we've been very privileged by game industry standards that we found a market that would allow us to refine the same application for almost a decade now. This allows us to present a degree of maturity (not just as bug count is concerned, but also the richness of features and the simulation depth) that is hard if not impossible to accomplish even with a large and experienced team. There's only so much that you can parallelize in development, you need to get some feedback by customers at a certain point, and traditional laws of the game market don't allow this kind of work unless you are going to release a string of sequels which you need to sell at full price. That doesn't always go down well with the audience.

imageThe Escapist: Tell me about Steel Beasts 2. Is it going to be a consumer release or one of the professional releases? What kind of changes/enhancements/etc. will you be putting in?

Nils: Officially, we have split our product into two lines - the consumer versions which will be numbered sequentially, and the training versions which will come with "Professional" in the product name.

I already indicated what we think we need to do to turn a good engine and a rich training application into a good game. I don't like half-assed solutions. If it's supposed to be a game it better be fun. Whether and when we will find the time for it is an open question, though. I don't want to say that I wished armies would leave us alone with the time consuming customizations. It's a constant source of new and exciting features - and a stable source of income too. It took us about seven years to break even, and you learn to appreciate the absence of a state of constant paucity. Still, not having a game version is a constant throbbing like a phantom pain to me. I still have hope that we will come to a point that will allow us to work on (and finish) a new game version of Steel Beasts.

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