Commercial war-game designers can provide realistic and user-friendly simulations far more cheaply than the military's own multi-million-dollar systems, some experts argue. Yet, developers and operators of big-ticket simulation systems counter that off-the-shelf games lack the official testing and validation needed for accurate models.
This is more than a technical dispute. It is a clash of cultures.
On one side are nimble and innovative commercial game companies, whose simulations focus on intangible factors of warfare such as morale. On the other are the military's tried-and-tested simulation centers, whose models are thoroughly grounded in empirical and quantifiable measures of firepower.
Either way, commercial games are bound to play a greater role, officials said. "People in the Department of Defense will go to commercial designers and say, 'your game is almost what we want. Instead of paying millions to design it ourselves, maybe you can customize it for much less,'" predicts Col. Matt Caffrey, professor of war gaming at the Air Command and Staff College and a senior reservist in the Air Force Research Lab's Information Directorate in Rome, N.Y.
The Army used commercial game designers for America's Army, a first-person-shooter match that has become a successful recruiting tool. But the adoption of civilian war games by the Army has been unofficial and haphazard, as usage varies with instructors' whims and pinched training school budgets.
"A lot of what has been done has come from end-of-year money, when people find they have a little extra and are willing to try something speculative," said Doug Whatley, CEO of Breakaway Games, a Hunt Valley, Md.-based game developer that has turned out commercial war games, such as Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Commercial war games bear a striking resemblance to the military's own strategy simulations. Aimed at demanding hobbyists with expertise in military history, they allow players to command tank platoons, relive campaigns such as Waterloo and Guadalcanal, or even change the outcome of World War II. Heavily researched and extremely cerebral, these games often are laded with rules for morale, fatigue, logistics, command and control, and other factors.
It is precisely this kind of strategy games that the military needs, argued Caffrey. "We have majors here who are going to be squadron commanders and staff officers," he said. "At that level, you're not worried about stick-and-rudder. You're worried about coming up with the phases of campaigns and orchestrating airpower within a joint campaign plan."
Proponents say that surviving in the Darwinian consumer game market has given commercial designers several advantages over simulations produced by the military and large defense contractors. For one, they are definitely cheaper. Designer John Tiller said he spent about eight months and less than $100,000 to design the first of his Panzer Campaign series of operational-level war games, which retail for about $50. The Defense Department's JWARS (Joint Warfare System) theater-level model, developed by CACI and AT&T, already has cost $30 million to $60 million.
Commercial games also are produced much more quickly. While funding for JWARS began seven years ago, the Entropy-Based Warfare (EBW) model, developed for the Defense Department by Booz Allen Hamilton and Break-away Games, went from board game to fielded computer simulation in four years.
"There is interest in commercial games, because the senior military guys are saying, 'I can't wait two years [for in-house simulations],'" said Booz Allen principal Mark Herman, a war game designer who created EBW. "There is a perception that 'if I can go to a CompUSA and get a game that I can get some insights and answers out of, why can't we do that?'"
Many say user-friendliness and accessibility is where commercial games have their real edge. …