eSim Games and Steel Beasts Q&A, Part 1
Continuing with this issue's theme of Serious Games, I talked to Nils Hinrichsen of eSim Games about their flagship product, Steel Beasts. While Steel Beasts looks like a hardcore tank game on the surface, it is intended to be a simulation, a military training tool for use in teaching the tanking trade to the soldiers of tomorrow. Their clients include the Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, along with a dedicated civilian fan base that produces maps, mods, and scenarios with all the fervor of the true believer. In Part 1 of our interview, Nils talks to us about eSim, the development process, who uses Steel Beasts, and why they use it.
The Escapist: Who are we talking to? What's your position at eSim and what do you on/for Steel Beasts?
Nils: Hi there, I'm Nils Hinrichsen, wearer of many hats. eSim Games is a very small team so there's one guy - me - to do all the stuff that is related to business, administration, and marketing. This helps to free the very precious time of our programmer and el presidente, Al Delaney. So, to most of our customers I'm known as the guy for customer support, but many know me as Director Sales, Marketing, and Business Development.
The Escapist: Tell me a little about the game, especially the different versions. From reading the description on the site, it seems like there's one version meant to be used as part of a larger network sim and one intended to be almost like homework. Is that actually how it's used?
Nils: That's been our intention at the decision point where we determined the different feature sets. Ultimately it's up to our customers to see where our software will fit their requirements best. Yes indeed, we have two different versions, one that we call the "classroom version" and one which is known as the Personal Edition. Ideally we see the two in mutual support, and our major customers are already using both versions or are likely to order this option with next fiscal year's new budget.
The idea is that especially collective training requires the presence of an instructor while other training goals can be achieved in solitaire sessions with occasional competitions among the students themselves. Therefore the classroom version has certain features that support the work of the (impartial) instructor and give him "ultimate cheating tools" (like the resurrection of killed vehicles, or teleportation) which are absolutely undesirable if there is a competitive team on team exercise just among students.
So, in order to prevent hacks we compile two different executables. They are still file compatible so that instructors can hand out a scenario file as "homework" to the students to let them develop, say, a battle plan.
For dispersed training facilities - think of Canada, or Australia - travel expenses can be a serious impediment to give each soldier the training that he needs, so once that he attends a course failure is not an option. Good learning however needs occasional failures - by analyzing them we learn better than by doing everything perfectly right, all of the time. So, some armies are interested in the distance learning aspect, or using it as a preparatory tool before a high fidelity simulator session with its precious few hours.
It can make sense to hand out the software prior to an actual course - say, at officers' school where they may need it, so no time is wasted during the actual course on teaching the basics of handling. If a serious game has retained some entertainment qualities, soldiers might actually like to play it at home, in their off hours. I certainly would have loved it in my army years!
The Escapist: Do you guys have, say, a training regimen or package or curriculum for it?
Nils: No. Ultimately the armies know best where our software fills a training gap, or helps to get a certain lesson across more quickly. Our software is to support and supplement established training methods, not to replace them. Also different armies have different requirements. Some focus on gunnery training, some focus on tactical training and wargaming. These different training objectives and continuums warrant individualized approaches. We provide a simulation and authoring tool - army instructors will do the rest (with our support, if needed be). And I see a trend in armies to hand out certain software to the soldiers "You may find this useful. It's not mandatory to play it, but if you feel that it helps you to professionalize yourself - here it is, and it's free."
Last but not least, "serious gaming" is about explorative learning. Please excuse the buzzword cliché, but yes: There is a paradigm shift in training methodology. Especially from officers we expect mental agility and the study of the "art of war" - be it through reading the history and AARs of contemporary operations, or by simulating conflict, different options to direct a battle, and analyzing their possible results.
Steel Beasts Professional is very flexible in many aspects, but it is obvious that it is just one "club" among others in an army's "golf bag of simulations". It may be an "iron six", if I were to continue this analogy, inasmuch as it is relatively versatile in its application. But let's not forget that simulations are only one among many elements in armies' training toolboxes.
The Escapist: For the civilian versions, what do you have to remove (if you can say)? Are the changes for classified material and that kind of thing, or are they for the sake of playability?
Nils: There are no big secrets. In fact, we don't want to know classified stuff! Once that you work with classified data the administrative procedures become a nightmare, especially for someone like us who is small and working internationally. We can't afford compartmentalization of information, so it's better to rely on open sources and ... shall we call it "educated guesswork".
It's mostly a question of playability. We offer comparatively cheap development prices under the condition that the work results can be made available to all other customers of Steel Beasts Professional - other armies, but also the general public. At the same time, armies can subscribe an Upgrade Plan where they get the work results for other customers at a fraction of the license price. That way all our customers profit from our development work. We maintain a common code basis, and keep the different versions network compatible. Sweden and Australia can run common exercises that way, eventually preparing for some United Nations mission that may come up on the horizon.
Our customers seem to be very happy with this "informal joint development"; it's good for us, them, and consumer customers as well since they get to play with the cool new stuff that we create for serious training needs.
The Escapist: So who actually uses this as a training tool? What's their incentive to use Steel Beasts versus something else, developing their own application, etc.?
Nils: Our customers include all of Scandinavia and Denmark, Spain, Australia and New Zealand, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and more. We think that our software would be ideally suited for the US National Guard, but it's a tough nut to crack remotely from Germany.
As I hinted two questions ago the motivation for each of these customers can be quite different. It can be an interest in the distance learning aspect, or a need to install a medium fidelity gunnery trainer on a broad basis to increase the throughput of the few high fidelity trainer cabins that the army may have.
I think the primary motivation to develop interest in our software roots in several fundamental points which may be of different importance.
Steel Beasts is cheap, both for initial investment volume as well as costs of operation are concerned.
It's versatile. You can do individual and collective training. You can (but need not) combine crew procedure training with tactical training, from the individual vehicle up to about battalion level (a battalion sized task force usually has about 120 friendly vehicles, and an opposing force that may be three or five times stronger, depending on the setup of the exercise).
And Steel Beasts is of much higher fidelity than the price tag suggests, or the fact that we rely exclusively on open sources. Simply put, it is adequate for the intended training purposes and has lots of safety margin to venture into areas that "aren't covered by warranty" but still work good enough in most cases, most of the time.
Developing from scratch is a costly venture, and it doesn't guarantee superior results. You can pour ten million bucks into a new application and may still end up with an inadequate training value. Development with open source components may be an alternative, and actually has been done, but I don't think that this offers serious cost advantages over Steel Beasts.
This leaves competing products as the last alternative. Are there any?
The one product that I'd consider to play in a similar league is VBS; but VBS is more of a complementary product as it is very strong in the dismounted/infantry combat area while Steel Beasts has its strengths in the vehicle centric simulation. And in fact, we're collaborating on a solution that will enable our customers to run a joint simulation exercise via a gateway so that the dismounts can fight their fight in VBS and the tanks will provide fire support from within Steel Beasts.
The Escapist: Tell me about making/updating Steel Beasts. How much detail do you go into? Do you just peruse Jane's, etc. for the important stats, or do you actually go out into the world and drive tanks, etc.? How realistic do you get?
Nils: Jane's is the last resort. If we don't have any other source it certainly is better than a blank stare. No, we dig very, very deep - usually with the help of our army customers. Of course, to get invited to do this kind of work you need to prove first that you're capable of delivering a useful result, the typical hen & egg paradox.
We managed to do our first steps completely on our own. Me being a fully trained armor officer certainly has helped to get things reasonably well in our first version of Steel Beasts. Since then other subject matter experts have helped to fill gaps or improve things that we kept simplified in the first release.
Attention to detail was a key to our success. This applies both to the user interface as well as the technical modeling. Originally we didn't do this so that our software could be used for gunnery training. It came natural to us as engineers, and as game designers we figured that it didn't make sense to simulate two similar tanks like the Leopard 2 and the M1 Abrams if we didn't try to illustrate the different concepts of their user interface. We didn't think much about the fact that sound travels at 330m/s and that light travels about 91,000 times faster - we simply did it. Later on it turned out to be a frequently mentioned "feature" that you'd see the impact flash seconds before the "Kaboom" came out of the speakers. Sometimes it's surprisingly easy to make people happy.
We try to record as many original sounds of each vehicle that we try to model. As far as the sound is concerned, we try to make soldiers feel at home in their virtual "office". We do drive tanks; we crawl around in them with measure tape and bruise our knuckles - on occasion, not on a daily basis of course.
We simplify where we must, we go into details where we can.
Next Friday, The Escapist presents Part 2 of this interview, including how they sell to an army client, ethical questions, the game vs. simulation debate, and more.