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making drama with arma


An idea struck me recently. I wanted to see about producing an online web drama that mixed common machinima practices with actual ”˜in-character’ game play where the success or failure of the players in their mission would drive the evolution of the overall plot and each episode was a spontaneous and largely unscripted jaunt.

The game play aspect would essentially be sandwiched between an intro and outro machinima that brings the viewer up to speed and introduces the gameplay in a more cinematic way. In order to accomplish this, I first needed a game that both reflected the genre of the story I wanted to tell but was also sufficiently flexible to allow for some of the deep customization I would need to align game play aspects to the plot. I’ve always had a soft spot for war stories, not just blood and guts, but the human story behind the warfighting. I remember watching the T.V. series ”˜Tour of Duty’ back in the early ”˜90s and being captivated by it, so I took that as the inspiration.

Then I found Arma III!


First jumping in to the game and without too much prior exposure, I was struck by the level of detail being presented. As a U.S. Army Infantry veteran, I was both amazed and impressed when one of my training missions required me to do some map navigation which included using a compass, terrain associating and performing resection and reverse azimuths to find a location on the map. Bullet trajectories, ricochets, respiratory pauses and resting your weapon on a stable platform are accounted for during marksmanship and the sounds of my characters labored breathing after sprinting 50 meters wearing all of his battle rattle wore me out and made me want to walk it off in my living room. But hands down, the one thing that immediately got my attention was that characteristic snap of a round going over your head. So much so, I nearly threw myself down into the prone under my desk. Suffice it to say that the immersion level of Arma III is off the charts!

Immersion is definitely a good thing and would go a long way in making a compelling and visually interesting presentation, but the biggest obstacle for me was the ability to tailor the game to support the plot devices and situations that I had in mind. Once again, Arma III knocked it out of the park. Twice! I’ll explain:

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First, there is the Mission Editor, which is a robust and highly flexible WYSIWYG interface that allows you to build units, drop down vehicles, add static structures and generate environmental ambiance. It allowed me to build a custom scenario that I could use to set the scene, tone, and pace of my production. It has an extensive scripting library that exposes a gigantic amount of functionality for entities in the game and, with a little research, can be leveraged to add even more immersion and detail to the scene.

Secondly, there is Zeus ”“ an in-game ”˜Dungeon Mastering’ application that allows the Zeus player to do things like dynamically add a random patrol, change the weather, remotely control an NPC, deliver an air strike and a host of other tools that facilitate ad-hoc storytelling and scenario elements all while the players are actively participating in the game.

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So I had found the vehicle I needed to make my little production idea a reality. Despite all of the whiz-bang features sported by Arma III, there were also a few little issues that were more like ”˜Bummers’ than they were deal breakers. At first blush, the AI in Arma III is very deadly and I found myself being frustrated by how omniscient and laser accurate they seemed. Happily, there are ways to fine tune the skills and attributes of the AI to a level that is suitable to your ability or goal (I don’t want my Actors getting killed too quickly!).

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There are a few other pathfinding quirks and nuances to the AI that I had to work around. For instance, while dropping off my players on the beach from their assault boats, it was not uncommon for the boat pilots to run over folks on their way back out to sea or for AI units to decide they’d rather tread water than swim to shore. This could probably be dealt with through a bit of scripting and scenario refinement, but the AI do tend to enjoy running things over while driving (Don’t we all?). Also, any units that you place in the Mission Editor cannot be manipulated using Zeus. I placed an Allied Commander in the Editor that I had planned on taking over in Zeus in order to interact with the Actors but found that I have to drop the Commander using Zeus in order to control it. There are a few other minor issues here and there but nothing that would really impact my game or my production and I’ve found it to be thoroughly enjoyable, if not a bit stressful for an older vet during firefights.

Arma III is available through Steam and the cost is well worth having a realistic and highly customizable game that will provide me with countless hours of entertainment, not to mention allowing me to create my web series and potentially make me an internet sensation and worldwide celebrity! Well, in my own mind anyway”¦

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