Joystiq interview: America's Army's Marsha Berry

America's Army is without question the most widely recognized name in serious games. The game, which started off as a tool for Army recruitment, has become something of a marvel, bridging the emerging serious games market and the larger mainstream video game industry. According to those helming the project, since America's Army's initial launch for the PC in 2002, players have taken part in more than 212 million hours representing some 3.6 billion rounds of online gameplay. In addition, the game, which now has players in over 60 different countries, has been downloaded more than 40 million times, and has received more than 24 different releases, including new missions and gameplay additions. There's strong, and then there's America's Army strong.

Later this month Ubisoft and developer Red Storm will release the latest game in the America's Army franchise, America's Army: True Soldiers, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Army exclusively for the Xbox 360. We recently sat down to speak with America's Army software manager Marsha Berry to discuss this game, as well as America's Army's possible console future, and who exactly is being targeted with this and future games in the series.


Hi Marsha, thanks for taking the time to speak to us about America's Army. I know we've talked extensively about the project in the past, but if you could, just give us an idea about where America's Army is today in terms of market penetration, and usage, not just in North America, but globally as well?

Debuting on July 4, 2002, America's Army has more than 8.6 million user accounts and has been one of the top ten action games played online since its launch. America's Army has grown from its initial roots as an online PC game to a brand that encompasses console and cell phone games; the Real Heroes program that recognizes heroic soldiers; and the Virtual Army Experience, which places players in a life-size America's Army game.

Millions of game discs have been distributed at local Army Recruiting stations, ROTC Detachments and Army events listed at The game's popularity and brand recognition led to a licensing deal with Ubisoft for a console version, America's Army: Rise of a Soldier, which launched on Xbox in November 2005. An Xbox 360 game, America's Army: True Soldiers will launch in November of 2007. Version 3.0 of America's Army, which will debut in 2008, will use the new Unreal 3 engine to display even more exciting aspects of the Army.

What goes into making a game like America's Army that is marketable both as a tool as well as a mainstream, fun video game?

We look at the creation of the America's Army game and new levels from a number of angles. Great gameplay is paramount to our success with the America's Army game. Our goal for the game is to have it feature innovative and fun gameplay features and make sure that the game takes advantage of new technologies. In addition, we are trying to impart valuable information about the Army, from Army values to Army training and technology and the types of career paths available in our organization. We also are always mindful that we are a public institution and have developed the game accordingly by making sure the game complies with a teen rating and offers features such as Parental Controls.

I'm curious, were lessons taken from other similar projects, such as Marine Doom, or Full Spectrum Warrior?

America's Army is completely new and not comparable to those projects. The goal for America's Army was always to create an innovative and entertaining way to educate the public about the Army. We uphold the strictest standards for our game and make sure it enforces the Army's Rules of Engagement. Success in the Army's game depends upon factors such as teamwork, situational awareness, communications, and navigating life challenges by balancing goals, and adherence to Army values. And players always play as the good guy.

You mentioned America's Army: True Soldiers. How is this project unique among the other titles in the America's Army family?

America's Army: True Soldiers was built from the ground up by Red Storm Entertainment to be an authentic U.S. Army experience but featuring the strengths and talent that the studio has built its reputation on – great level design, multiplayer and authenticity. The America's Army: True Soldiers game accurately portrays the values that guide soldiers in the U.S. Army, by specifically incorporating gameplay based on mission accomplishment, teamwork, leadership, rules of engagement, and respect for life and property.

Just like in real combat, honor and respect must be earned. In the game, the Play-Lead-Recruit feature allows players to earn respect as they move up through the ranks and become a true leader. Teammates can award points to other team members who play honorably and step up when the mission is on the line. By playing America's Army: True Soldiers, console game players can earn America's Army coins. These coins can then be redeemed at our Live the Experience contest website for prizes that only the Army could offer – such as a day with the Army's parachute team, the Golden Knights.

Why was Red Storm the right fit for this project? Was it simply a matter of the studio's work on franchises such as Ubisoft's Ghost Recon series, or was there more to the selection?

Our agreement is with Ubisoft and Ubisoft assigned the project to Red Storm because of their passionate desire to make authentic military shooters, as proven by the longstanding Ghost Recon franchise. They are the studio that delivered GRAW 1 and GRAW 2 to amazing reviews and gamers' delight – so, we're thrilled that they were able to sink their teeth into an America's Army title and make it amazing.

It's interesting that the game was developed as an Xbox 360 exclusive, given the series' PC roots. I know there have been iterations of the series on consoles before, but this game seems different.

This game is indeed different, as it's the first America's Army title on a 'next-gen' platform and the Xbox 360 is a great console for military action games with an emphasis online. There are many new and exciting features this game brings to the table that previous iterations simply weren't able to have due to the continual improvement of technology in actual combat.

For example, America's Army: True Soldiers will feature state-of-the-art equipment, including a Blue Force Tracker that improves recognition of targets and battlefield awareness for the player. Additional Intel will be gathered by the Raven UAV and displayed on their portable Blue Force Tracker PDA. AI bot teammates can communicate Intel with each other and with players. Multiple players can also share Intel via in-game voice-over chat.

Do you believe then that a console like the Xbox 360, with its focus on online gameplay and downloadable content, represents the future for the America's Army brand?

The America's Army game has used online gameplay and downloadable content since its launch. We believe that with consoles taking advantage of these game-play innovations we will be able to grow the America's Army title in new directions tapping into new technologies and features as they become popular.

In the case of America's Army: True Soldiers, the game is very squad-based and you need your team members -- Xbox Live Clan support really brings this feature to life allowing teams to be able to quickly jump online and compete. Downloadable content presents some great new avenues for game development and player community that we want to take advantage of in the future.

Do you feel you can reach an otherwise untapped market by focusing exclusively on the Xbox 360?

We feel that the Xbox 360 really presents itself as a popular and strong platform for America's Army: True Soldiers because of its multiplayer strengths, overall success of first-person action titles and the team/squad features that differentiate it in the market.

But why Microsoft's console? Why not, for example, the PlayStation 3, or even the Wii? These consoles have online capabilities as well. Is there any chance of see America's Army on either of these formats in the future?

The Xbox 360 is a great place for America's Army: True Soldiers and we're really excited about bringing this title to an audience we feel will embrace it as both a game and a great Army experience. There are no other platforms announced as of right now for America's Army: True Soldiers. However we will always look to find appropriate platforms for the game in the future.

In having a game rooted in the console market, is America's Army: True Soldiers being positioned as a means to reach out to players who might be interested in joining the U.S. Army for real but who might have not otherwise been exposed to America's Army through the PC?

We are looking to explore all platforms that make sense for the America's Army brand. Clearly there are a number of gamers who prefer console gaming to PC gaming and by bringing America's Army on a next generation engine to the Xbox 360 we hope to spread the Army message to new players.

Along these same lines, America's Army began its life as a tool for recruitment into the armed forces, as well as one for entertainment. Is this still the driver behind the project?

We still look at the America's Army brand as a way to educate the public on the Army and its values and opportunities. We've had great success in this arena and as a result have been able to grow the brand into new and exciting directions like recognizing soldiers for their heroism through the Real Heroes program and the Virtual Army Experience which allows people to participate in a hands-on, life sized virtual mission. We've also had great success in using the America's Army platform to create specialized versions of the software for training, education and to prototype real equipment.

Is there any research that shows that people in the military are prone to play shooter-type games, and thus America's Army is used to selectivity appeal to players who might already be predisposed to join the U.S. Army?

No research that I'm aware of. We have heard however from many of our soldiers that they do enjoy these types of action packed military games.

Similarly, do you have any research that shows how successful America's Army has been as a tool for Army recruitment?

We have found that people enjoy coming to events that feature the America's Army game and often have questions for our soldiers as a result of playing. Last year, our recruiters included the game at more than 175 events.

The America's Army game is merely another medium through which the Army is getting out its message. We would never expect someone to sign up for the Army simply because they played a game. Rather, if someone played the game and became interested in the Army because of something they learned, he/she could go and talk to a recruiter who would give them the information to make an informed decision. Our success is based on the high numbers of players and the hours they spend exploring the Army through the game.

Given America's Army's widespread appeal, do you still see it as a member of the emerging serious games market?

Yes, the America's Army platform has been extremely successful in the military arena. We have a number of projects ranging from ground and aerial robotics operation, interactive virtual learning for force protection, cross-cultural awareness and communication, convoy operation, and mission rehearsal. America's Army teams are also developing basic skills training devices for the Army's most advanced missile systems, remote weapons stations and nuclear, chemical and biological detection systems.

Do you find that America's Army is played by players in the armed forces in addition to the general civilian population, and if so, how do you target recruits already in the military?

We have many soldiers who play the America's Army game. In fact we've given them a special in-game icon that they can display so that other players know they are playing against real soldiers. In addition, new soldiers in the Army use a modified version of the game known as the Future Soldier Trainer in which they train and explore in a virtual mission where they are able to complete objectives while overcoming challenges that soldiers confront. In so doing, they gain self-efficacy and confidence over these challenges, thereby increasing their likelihood of success upon entering the Army.

Shifting gears, how has the reception been thus far concerning the Real Heroes program?

The reception to the Real Heroes program has been amazing. We've had hundreds of thousands of America's Army players who have read about these heroic soldiers or viewed their videos in our game and on our website. In addition, many people have met our Real Heroes at events like the Virtual Army Experience and are truly inspired by meeting them and hearing their stories. The Real Heroes action figures are now starting to hit retail through AAFES (on military posts and bases) and Toys R Us.

Finally, was there any push back from families of soldiers or other interest groups that it's inappropriate to "trivialize" the efforts of soldiers by transposing them into video games or action figures?

Our Real Heroes press has been extremely well received. We've had a number of soldiers and soldiers' families who have written us to let us know that they think we are really helping to get soldiers stories out to the public and helping to dispel any stereotypes about soldiering.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.