America’s Army 2 debuted in 2003 to rave reviews. Over the course of the next 4 years the game consistently ranked in the top 10 online multi-player games by active player count. The course of those years however left the player base wanting more than the steady stream of new content; they wanted an America’s Army 3. By late 2007 the development studio located in Emeryville, CA, had been working on just that for the past eight months. In November, the producers of the game arrived to the Software Engineering Directorate to demonstrate the progress of the game. Unfortunately, the U.S.Army management was very disappointed with the progress of the work. At that point they decided to assign me to Emeryville to assume Executive Producer oversight of the project and get it back on track.
I packed up my belongings, my pregnant wife, and two year-old son and drove to Emeryville to stay until the game’s delivery, slated at least a year away. The studio at that time consisted of over 35 experienced developers led by two producers, Matt Soares and Erich Blattner, and one executive producer, Phillip Bossant. Most of the developers worked on America’s Army 2 and had high ambitions for the remake on the Unreal Engine 3.
I assumed leadership as the perceived enemy, sent by management to radically change the game or even shut down the studio.
Coming on-board as co-Executive Producer with Phillip was very difficult. I assumed leadership as the perceived enemy, sent by management to radically change the game or even shut down the studio.
The staff had a high distrust of my intentions and abilities. I knew that earning their respect would be difficult and their trust even harder; the developers felt the Army management’s requirements were at odds with their desire to make a fun game. To some extent, these perceptions were correct. The Army wanted a product that communicated core beliefs and facts to compel young individuals to potentially join the military. The challenge was to make this information part of the entire game experience without detracting from the entertainment.
I committed myself to lead this studio by the highest example, showing that I was committed to them as much as to making the game. I began the effort by organizing the project management and task management. Early on I pushed the team to use Atlassian Jira in an Agile development approach to streamline management of the thousands of tasks. I worked with Phillip to revise design of the game to address the Army’s messaging requirements and the project management roadmap to better reflect the long term work ahead.
Once we had a common goal as a design, I then worked to impr
ove the operations of the studio. I setup continuous integration of the product and automation of the deployment, using CruiseControl, Ant, and various other tools. Later I would negotiate delivery of the product on Valve’s Steam, one of the first games to be delivered on the platform as a free-to-play. I created all of the scripts and build systems, six system stages in all, to prepare the engine assets and seamlessly deliver them to the internal testers and eventually the customer.
But time at the studio wasn’t entirely about work. I spent as much effort trying to integrate into the culture of the group so I could really be part of the team. As is typical with highly creative individuals, pranks and fun was always abounding. Moreover, there were plenty of late nights at the office spent working together, fueled only by adreniline and caffeine.
Balancing all this activity at work while maintaining my family at home was also a great challenge. My wife had our second son on July 4th, making him a unique production baby. Also, my wife had never lived outside of Alabama up to that point, so we spent as much time as possible seeing the Bay area and experiencing another culture. It was a very special time, but I also would not last.
I had to prepare for the release of the game and the shutdown of the studio…
I received instruction from the U.S. Army management about eight months prior to the game release that they would in fact be closing down the studio. This was a tremendous blow to me personally, as I had spent so much effort at this point building the team up only to see that they would eventually be disbanded. Moreover, I could not tell the studio of the management’s decision as that would cause many of them to flee to another job, jeopardizing the release of the game. Many of the developers were just trying to get started in the game industry and it was imperative that they get their name on a released video game title. So I had to prepare for the release of the game and the shutdown of the studio, keeping the latter to myself for the next many months. It was a grueling trial that I hope never to have to endure again.
Near the release date it became an all out sprint to get the game done. We had to cut a number of features so we could focus on the core gameplay elements. I personally started developing much of the user interface in Scaleform just to have other developers focus on more important tasks. When we did finally release the game, it was with mixed feelings. We celebrated heartily together the day of the release and yet the next morning I had to shutdown the studio and let all the staff go. Terry Ebbrecht, the IT Manager and only other staffer to remain employed, and I then spent the next two weeks clearing out the studio.
My family and I left Emeryville soon after and took a meandering trip back to Huntsville, Alabama to resume life there for a time. The outcome of the experience left me dissatisfied with the accomplishment of releasing the game. I sought out other opportunities and made contact with Peter Morrison and Mark Dzulko, owners of Bohemia Interactive Simulations, a training and simulation company I had followed for many years. Within a few months of returning to Huntsville, my family and I packed and left to Prague, Czech Republic. I accepted the position as Chief Operations Officer for BISimulations and we set for an entirely new sort of challenges.
For more pictures of America’s Army studio, check out the Google+ photo album.