"Do You Want to Play a Game?"
Kuma\War: Frontlines of a New Medium

Mark Wallace | 6 Dec 2005 07:02
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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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