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Did the Army get out-gamed?

It paid $5-million for an urban combat training aid and got a product of uncertain value. The maker got a bonanza, with much more likely to come.

By BILL ADAIR
Published February 20, 2005


WASHINGTON - In a unique deal with Hollywood, the Army spent more than $5-million in taxpayer money to create Full Spectrum Warrior, a video game that was supposed to teach soldiers about urban combat.

The Army got what some say is a mediocre training tool, but the companies that designed the game got a sweet deal.

Pandemic Studios not only got paid by the government, it stands to earn millions from the hot-selling commercial version, which retails for $50. The company and its partner THQ have sold nearly 1-million copies for PCs and the Xbox game system; a PlayStation 2 edition will be released next month. Sony Pictures Imageworks, which did art work for the game, also earned money from a partnership with Pandemic.

Andrew Paquette, a former Sony art director, says the companies were so focused on creating a best-selling game that they cut corners on the Army version. As a result, the urban scenes are not as accurate as they should be.

The designers "pretty much disregarded the Army's concerns," said Paquette. "They wanted to make money on the commercial version."

Lt. Col. Jim Riley, chief of tactics at the Army's infantry school at Fort Benning, Ga., says his school rarely uses the game because it doesn't offer a realistic simulation of urban combat.

"It's not accurate enough," he said.

The Army says it's satisfied it got a good game at a fair price. The companies say Full Spectrum Warrior was a bargain.

"The Army got an incredible deal," said Josh Resnick, president of Pandemic. "This kind of product had never been done before."

But the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the game was "full-spectrum welfare" for the companies - and a lousy deal for taxpayers.

Keith Ashdown, the group's vice president for policy, said the game was "a feeble attempt at training our troops in urban combat. But it became a cash cow for Pandemic and Sony."

A vegetarian in Zekistan

Full Spectrum Warrior grew out of a marriage between the Army and Hollywood.

In the late 1990s, the Army created a $45-million research program to tap into the entertainment industry's high-tech expertise. The money established the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, which conducted research and hired game companies and movie studios.

The Army got sophisticated training aids for its soldiers, the companies got products to sell.

Video games were an ideal collaboration. The game companies were trying to build more realistic war simulations because that's what their customers - mostly teenage boys and young men - wanted. Likewise, the Army wanted realism to teach soldiers about combat.

There are two versions of Full Spectrum Warrior, one for the Army and one for consumers.

The Army version was to be a training aid to teach young squad leaders how to make smart decisions in the chaos of urban combat.

Set in the fictional country of Kazar, the game is supposed to simulate modern combat. Unlike a typical "first-person shooter" game, in which the player shoots the enemy, he directs teams through a hazardous town and must keep the squad alive.

Michael Macedonia, chief technology officer for the Army's office that oversees simulation and training, calls it "a first-person thinker" game. "Before soldiers go off to war, we want them to have as much experience close to the real thing as possible."

The consumer version takes place in a different make-believe country (Zekistan instead of Kazar) and is designed to be entertaining. The soldiers have personalities. Pfc. Alexander Silverman is the team's resident wise guy. Pvt. Asher Ali Shehadi, an Arab-American and a strict vegetarian, goes by the nickname "Rabbit."

The Army version is less polished and gives players detailed reports on how they performed. They can watch a replay or even jump back into the game and try different strategies. But the basic game is essentially the same as the commercial version.

Both versions are included on each Xbox disc; to access the Army version, players simply type a "cheat code" that is widely available on the Internet.

The Army was happy to see Pandemic and Sony pursue the commercial version. In return for the potential profits, the companies were required to provide the Army with $2.6-million of "in-kind" work on the game. That was supposed to give the Army a better product for its $5-million investment.

A lack of realism?

Internal Sony documents provided to the St. Petersburg Times by Paquette and Taxpayers for Common Sense suggest Sony and Pandemic were more interested in commercial sales than meeting the Army's needs.

A February 2001 memo from Sony manager Tom Hershey to another Sony division said the goals were "1) creation of state of the art entertainment, 2) creation of a commercial success, 3) the showcasing of advanced game design R&D." The Army's needs were last: "4) potential use as a demonstration and/or training tool."

Paquette, a graphic artist in movies (he created some of the buildings in Spiderman) and video games (he drew Scooby Doo and Shaggy in Scooby Doo: Night of 100 Frights), worked on Full Spectrum Warrior for Sony. He says he was fired after he questioned whether Sony and Pandemic had defrauded the Army and made misrepresentations about the product. He sued Sony for wrongful termination, but a federal judge dismissed the case last week. Paquette plans to appeal.

Paquette says the Army ended up with an unrealistic training aid because Sony and Pandemic employees were so focused on the commercial product.

"The attitude was, "We don't care about the Army, we're making money off this.' " Paquette said. "They really didn't pay attention to what the Army needed."

But Resnick, president of Pandemic, said he worked hard to give the Army a useful product. "Pandemic's focus was on making the Army version," he said.

Resnick described Paquette as a disgruntled worker and says he was the one who ignored the Army.

"He was let go from the project because, in the end, he was not meeting the Army's needs," Resnick said. "Andy was focused on making the most visually compelling work - to the extent that it could not meet the Army's needs."

Don Levy, a Sony spokesman, would not address Paquette's specific allegations. "The government determined that the claims had no merit," he said, noting that the judge dismissed Paquette's lawsuit.

The documents indicate that Paquette warned his boss in September 2001 that the graphics would not be realistic enough for the Army. In a memo to Sony manager Hershey, he said "the sort of realism the army currently demands of this project will involve either significant compromise on (the Army's) end or a sophisticated solution on ours."

Six months later, Paquette said in another e-mail that he was concerned new standards for the graphics would compromise the effectiveness of the training aid for the Army.

"Tactically, this lack of realism can drastically reduce the effectiveness of this product as a tool for the military," he wrote. For example, Paquette said the new standards made doors unrealistic - they were too wide and were supposed to swing both ways.

In an interview, he cited another example: The designers used less-expensive facades of buildings instead of more accurate structures with enemies lurking on upper floors.

"What they did," Paquette said, "was give the Fisher-Price version of a city."

"Caught up in the hype'

Paquette's complaints were echoed by Lt. Col. Riley, who tested Full Spectrum Warrior at the infantry school at Fort Benning. He said his soldiers were disappointed by the game's lack of realism and did not learn the intended lessons.

"It's a neat game," Riley said, "but I'm not seeing where I can train with it."

He said Army officials were so dazzled by early reviews from game aficionados that they did not get a useful training aid.

"It became very evident to us we hadn't done a good job in the development effort," Riley said. "People got caught up in the hype. . . . We were looking for a home run. We got a single - and it was a broken-bat single."

The deal was supposed to benefit both sides. The companies would provide $2.6-million in extra work in exchange for rights to sell the commercial version. But in June 2001, an alarmed official from the institute dashed off an e-mail warning that the Army was not happy.

"Regrettably, we have a huge problem on our hands," wrote Cheryl Birch, ICT's chief financial officer. She said an Army representative had visited Sony and Pandemic and "was not satisfied that the work done and the work to be completed is worth $2.6-million to the government."

Today, the Army says the companies met their side of the bargain. "I can tell you the Army was satisfied with the product it got," said James T. Blake, the Army's program manager for the game.

Neither Pandemic nor THQ, a company that published and distributed the Xbox game, would discuss how much they expect to earn from sales.

The Army officials who ordered Full Spectrum Warrior say it was a useful experiment in how video games can teach urban warfare; feedback about the game will be used to improve other training aids. They expect to save money by using the game's basic architecture to create other games.

"We have learned a lot," said Macedonia, the Army technology officer. "And that's the purpose of research - to learn those types of things, not to deliver a product."

A lesson from the Marines

Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense said the Army "signed a bad contract." He says the Army should have paid less and demanded more.

"The Army has now become the biggest investor of one of the most profitable video games on the market - and they got very little in return," he said.

The Army might learn some lessons from the Marines.

The Marine Corps recently formed a partnership with the game company Destineer to develop a training aid called Close Combat: First to Fight.

The Corps was heavily involved in developing the game - more than 40 Marines were advisers - but the government only paid about $700,000, roughly one-tenth of the cost. The Marines required that the bulk of the costs be paid by Destineer and others who will profit from the commercial version. It will be released for Xbox, PCs and Macs in April.

Army officials said they were not familiar enough with the Marines' game to comment on it. But Macedonia said the government routinely pays for work that can be spun off as commercial products, such as the Jeep and the Humvee.

"That's the way the law is," Macedonia said.

He believes the Army made a wise investment. A single video game can cost as much as $50-million to create, so it was reasonable to spend $5-million.

He said, "We got a bargain."

The commercial version has earned rave reviews from Web sites and magazines. The GameSpy site called it "wholly riveting and engrossing. . . . If only all products of increased military spending could yield results this progressive and compelling."

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or 202 463-0575.

[Last modified February 20, 2005, 01:23:00]


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