Kuma\War: Frontlines of a New Medium

In July 2003, television screens around the world were filled with images of the dead bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein, sons of the Iraqi dictator, who had been killed by coalition forces in a raid in Mosul. American troops in Iraq had not been able to take the tyrants-in-waiting alive. But in the first mission from a small company in New York called Kuma Reality Games, gamers got the chance to do better. Just seven months after the brothers’ deaths, computer screens across America were filled with similar images: a pixelated Uday and Qusay holed up in an Iraqi villa as a squad of American soldiers – commanded by players who had downloaded the game for free – made their way past sniper fire to capture the wanted men.

Kuma’s follow-up missions took on similar moments from the conflict in the Middle East. Operation Anaconda re-created part of an assault on Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in the Shah-i-Kot mountains of Afghanistan. In another mission, Kuma put the player in command of soldiers of the 4th “Iron Horse” Infantry Division, who was seeking to put down a sophisticated insurgent operation whose ultimate goal was to knock over a bank in Samarra.

As the company got under steam, the lag between real events and their polygonated onscreen re-creations narrowed. When insurgents raided a police station in Fallujah in mid-February 2004, it took Kuma only two months to put players in the shoes of the inexperienced and poorly armed Iraqi officers who had struggled to fight off the assault.

Still churning out missions, Kuma wants to let players fight wars as they happen. “We’re a different kind of videogame company,” said Kuma CEO Keith Halper. “We have an extraordinarily fast development environment. [Four months] is really conservative for us, but it’s impossible for other videogame companies.” And if the company has its way, such fleet-footed production capabilities could change the face of not just gaming, but of television and other media as well.

Kuma\War, as the company’s basic game is known, is a game that aspires to the state of a cable news broadcast. Indeed, its missions come complete with historical information, links to actual news stories about the real-world events on which each mission is based, and news-like presentations mixing television and game footage with commentary from former military men who’ve signed on to be part of the project (as well as weirdly enthusiastic narration from Kuma‘s own “news” anchors). New missions are released on a schedule that mimics cable news cycles. At this point, Halper says, most Kuma missions take around three weeks to produce, and some have been produced in as little as three days.

Kuma stays fast on its feet, in part, by keeping only a small production staff in-house and farming out short-term work to outside production houses. Because the company’s development cycle is so short, Halper says it gives them time to experiment with more new ideas than companies with longer development cycles.

In part, Kuma can turn missions around so fast because much of their level design is done for them by the U.S. Army. With few exceptions, all of their missions are re-creations of historical events – including episodes like the Iran hostage rescue mission of 1980, or John Kerry’s controversial gunboat mission of 1969. Where they are not re-creations of real-life events, Kuma has taken on the task of creating true-to-life fictional scenarios, like the raid on an Iranian nuclear facility that was one of its latest missions. Because so many of the game’s 61 (and counting) missions take place in Iraq, many of the art assets from earlier missions can be quickly tweaked, reused and reconfigured to form new ones.

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Of course, many of the details of real events are lost in translation to the pixilated world. Kuma is not so much a simulation of war as it is a dramatization of it, just as Walter Cronkite’s 1950s television series “You Are There” re-created the stories of people like Joan of Arc and Galileo; you could never know, just from watching that first broadcast cosplay, what it was like to be burned at the stake, but you at least got to swallow the historical events sweetened by the sugar coating of television. Kuma provides a similar kind of sideshow: The game moves people who might not otherwise be interested to look at current events, while the ongoing conflicts of the world provide Kuma with a steady stream of new material.

Certainly, few would consider the accounts of war described by a videogame to be as informative as an in-depth news broadcast. But what’s interesting about Kuma\War is not that it translates a live shooting war into a first-person shooter game, but the fact that it does so in as near as possible to real time.

One of the emerging trends in gaming this year has been the imminent appearance of so-called “episodic” games, Ritual’s SiN Episodes being the flagship entrant to the still-gestating field. Taking off from Ritual’s 1998 FPS SiN (which suffered in the shadow of Half-Life, released the same year), SiN Episodes will present progressive installments, each featuring three to six hours of gameplay, that will describe an ongoing story much like chapters of a book.

The prospect of such an involved, ongoing shooter fiction has many gamers drooling over their Logitechs. But if you ask me, “episodic” is the wrong word to describe SiN‘s venture (as cool as it does sound). At three-plus hours a pop, SiN‘s episodes will be more like sequels in a long-running movie franchise than like episodes of a weekly television series. Which is exactly where Kuma comes in.

Halper’s brainstorm is to position Kuma for a tie-up with a weekly network television show like 24 or Alias. Imagine it: Every Tuesday night, Jack Bauer dodges terrorists and femmes fatale on Fox. As soon as the credits roll, you download the Kuma episode that re-creates the show and see if you can go him one better. Or maybe it’s Thursday nights with Alias, only you get the game episode on Wednesday and play through the back-story leading up to Sydney’s latest assignment. Who knows, maybe it’s Desperate Housewives that’ll have you marveling over brilliant squad AI, as you navigate Mary Alice, Susan, Lynette, Bree and Edie through the streets of suburbia to host the perfect Sunday brunch or bed the poolboy before Daddy gets home. The possibilities are endless!

And on Kuma’s production schedule, it could actually happen. The company recently signed with Hollywood firm United Talent Agency to shop the idea to networks, and according to Halper, the response has been very positive. When I spoke to Halper, he was hoping to have a product coming to your PC by January. It could be a weekly game version of a television show, as described above, or it could be something more hybrid: a story designed from the get-go to work as both a TV series and a game. Whatever form it takes, if Halper has his way it could do a great deal to leapfrog games into the forefront of America’s consciousness in a way they have not quite achieved so far.

Of course, it will help if both the show and the game are triple-A, engaging products. Unfortunately, that’s where Kuma\War falls flat, at least so far. As shooters go, it’s not quite doing its job. And the problem is not necessarily Kuma’s quick turnaround times. Spending three weeks creating what’s essentially a small level might actually be enough time to get some complexity and balance into the thing. While they’re not overly complex, many of Kuma‘s missions seem like they work just fine. It’s hard to tell, though, since the current version of Kuma’s proprietary game engine is fairly flawed.

I just went back and played the Samarra bank heist mission to make sure I wasn’t overstating things here. I’m not. Actually, I had high hopes for the heist mission this time. My entire four-man squad wasn’t wasted in the first five minutes, as has occasionally happened in other missions, as one man stands stock-still facing away from the enemy who’s shooting at him. Unlike in Desperate Housewives, squad AI in Kuma\War is so stupid as to make you want to frag your own men (which isn’t actually possible). Your squadmates barely register your existence, even when they’re supposed to be following you into the fray. Once we climbed in our M1A1 tank, we had better luck shelling the black-clad Fedayeen – some of whom didn’t seem very alarmed; they just stood there, too. When one finally did manage to disable our Abrams, we were tossed from the vehicle – only to get stuck within the model’s polygons, comically unable to escape the confines of Kuma\War‘s broken physics.

Battlefield 2 this ain’t. In fact, it’s not even America’s Army, though Kuma claims a similar level of realism, wrung from consultants recently retired from various branches of the armed forces. But an Abrams tank that can’t drive over a car – that can’t even drive over a small rock, for cryin’ out loud – is just not a realistic game feature. Nor is the completely non-interactive environment and the kind of collision detection that has NPCs occasionally wading thigh-deep through the landscape.

Nevertheless, I love Kuma\War. Even in the state it’s in now, it has a chance to help make not just gaming history, but media and entertainment history as well. Whether it’s Kuma or someone else, the idea is just too good not to happen, and it’s going to happen soon. The crossover between games and movies is already deep (though we’ve yet to see a game and movie that are designed from the outset as two facets of the same product). With online game delivery, Xbox Live and Turner Broadcasting’s new GameTap service, the medium of television and the medium of games are poised to go through some kind of significant convergence. A concept like Kuma’s could easily turn out to be a big part of the future of both forms of entertainment. And one of the best things about it is that it could do a great deal to help finally drag gaming right into the center of the mainstream spotlight.

As the soldiers in Kuma\War all too rarely say: Hoo-wah!

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

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