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You can read previews of Breach on pretty much every major games site today (the embargo expired at midnight). But what you may not hear about elsewhere is how Breach incorporates lessons learned from Atomic Games' side business — making training sims for the U.S. military and intelligence community. In fact, the CIA liked Atomic so much that it pulled a Victor Kiam and bought the company. Part of it, at least.
Peter Tamte, ex-Bungie executive VP and current president of Atomic, talked with me about the military sim business, the CIA's venture capital arm, and a bit about how that all fits in with Breach. And PR guy David Tractenberg couldn't help but interject a couple times as well….
Bitmob: So the CIA is actually an investor in your company?
Peter Tamte: We have investment from In-Q-Tel, which is venture capital firm that's funded by the CIA. What we can say about that — our business, we're open about this, we do make training systems for the military and intelligence communities. We don't talk about the specific customers that we have within the intelligence community, though, and that's because you're not supposed to talk about that kind of work.
David Tractenberg: And we can't talk specifically about what we brought over from the simulations to the game, either.
PT: But the purpose of that work is to help us get access to content and ideas that are unique to the kind of real-life activities that those guys are on.
Bitmob: How did you guys hook up with In-Q-Tel, were you already making these sorts of training simulations for government agencies and they came along and said, "Hey, we like what you're doing, we'd like to invest?"
PT: Correct. One day, they called us. It actually came through the Marine Corps. We were doing a lot of work with the Marine Corps at that time — with the military, we can talk about which organizations we work with, but with the intelligence community we can't. [In-Q-Tel] found us, and they knew we were going to work with the Marine Corps, and they asked to join in on some of the meetings we had to see how we worked. And then they said, "We have an interesting proposition for you."
At the time I thought it was crazy talk, we were doing a bunch of other stuff. And at actually the first pass of it I said, "I don't think so. I don't think this is right for us." And they came back, "No, actually let me explain a little more about what we want to do with you," and then I was like, "OK, fine, you got me." [Laughs.]
In-Q-Tel's role is to identify technologies that are useful to the intelligence community, and then invest in companies that can finish those technologies or products, deploy them as programs within the intelligence community — [but] they only look for companies that have a commercial application to that as well. So that way when they make an investment in a company, that company is sold or goes public, the money then goes back in to In-Q-Tel, which they can then invest in more technology. That's how In-Q-Tel works.
Bitmob: I know some guys at Zero Reactor who do some military sim stuff as well, but it seems to be more vehicle-based from what they're able to talk about. So I'm curious, the simulations you do, are they vehicle and/or first-person-shooter-related or are there more psychological aspects to the training?
PT: Yeahhhh…our area of specialty is in small team, hostile situations. So it's a really direct correlation between the video game world and the training world, but there still is a really big difference between that. We don't get so much into the psychological stuff — there are other people who do that sort of thing — our purpose with our training systems is to create virtual versions of real world situations.
But it's also fundamental with what we're doing that we don't make training systems for the commercial market, and we don't make games for the government. We can share technology, we can share artwork, but there are tools and things we need to do in the training systems that would make it not as much fun in the commercial market. And on the same side, without those tools built into the training systems, they lose their effectiveness as a training tool.
It's really an opportunity to share technology. One of the questions I get sometimes is, "Did the CIA fund this game?" Absolutely not. In fact our training systems business is a bit of a money-loser for us. But what I get is access to stuff that otherwise you wouldn't get access to.
"This is a game about using and destroying cover," says Tamte about Breach.
Bitmob: When you were demoing the game you showed me a "sniper detector" gadget, which picked up a bright flash from enemy scopes. I assume that's based on a real piece of equipment?
DT: I've seen it in action; it's actually very cool. It's a small lens you look through…it's like a monocular, basically. And it really does pick up on the ambient light, the flash from a scope, and it's able to pinpoint for you where they are. Very similar to what it's doing here, except we're giving you a big flash. But they really do work well.
We have Special Forces teams from all around the world who have actually helped us with the game side, talking about what's real, what's not real, what you can actually do. The M203 thing was really interesting; in real life, we wouldn't have thought that an M203 could blow through a wall. And they said, "Well, actually, in certain countries where this game might take place, their more mud-based walls, yeah, you'll blow a hole right through the wall."
Bitmob: Can you talk about the training layer in your simulations, and how that differs from normal game mechanics?
PT: On a high level basis I can, yes. The training tools are always created to reinforce a specific element in the curriculum. Students are going through a particular class, and there's a particular point that needs to be made. Of course in these classes it's not, here's how you multiply exponents, right? It's about, here's a situation that you're faced with, we've learned in the classroom how you're supposed to deal with that situation, now we're going to present that situation to you in a virtual environment, and we're going to throw variables at you. Unexpected variables, how do you react to that?
They call it, in some cases, decision-making simulations, or tactical-decision-making simulations — TDS is an abbreviation they use. And it's specifically cognitive training, it has nothing to do with how fast can you shoot — they've got plenty of ways to teach people how to shoot — it's all about thinking and problem-solving when faced with different situations.
(See page two for a Breach image gallery.)