Two Different Soldiers Talk Army of Two

Electronic Arts' Army Of Two is set in the world of private military contractors - but what blend of brutal realism and stylized entertainment exists in the game? Former Navy SEAL and military consultant Woodie Mister and the game's producer Reid Schneider discuss how you adapt a charged topic into a game.

Right before Electronic Arts announced that its EA Montreal-developed duo-focused military action title Army of Two would now debut in 2008, we had a chance to speak with two men who contributed a lot to the project from different perspectives.

Woodie Mister, the game's military consultant, has a background that includes being a Navy SEAL and working for controversial military contractor Blackwater. Here, he speaks about his involvement with the game and his philosophy towards touchy issues like politics and violence in games.

This is followed by a conversation with Reid Schneider, the game's producer at EA Montreal, which talks inspiration, technology, and collaboration with other EA studios.

First of all, can you give me your background?

Woodie Mister: Background? Former Navy SEAL. Did that for almost a couple decades. And I moved into the private world, based just before 9/11. And went into, deeply, the security firm business, interested in working with K&R stuff -- you know, kidnapping and ransom stuff -- because I had hard skills they could use. They could send a guy, they could teach a guy a lot of different things on how to do that type of security issue, and then send him into harm's way and have him negotiate that stuff.

And then when 9/11 hit, I went to work for different government agencies as a contractor. They hire contractors as soldiers for hire. And you can bounce around. There were other overseas opportunities as well but they didn't seem too legitimate, so, anyway, that's pretty much what I've been doing, and I've worked for a lot of different large firms. And some of 'em you've heard of; some are in the news lately, and some that you may not have heard of.

Are you alluding to Blackwater, or...?

WM: Well, Blackwater; I've worked for Blackwater before. Blackwater, I'll have to say, is one of the few companies that definitely is very professional, and they have definitely stepped up to the plate, and taken the fight to the bad guys on the other side of the pond -- you know, the Atlantic -- because we certainly don't want 'em here, fighting in our streets. So, you don't see many companies stepping up to the plate to do what Blackwater and their friends have done.

How did you get involved in this sort of arena, working on game consulting?

WM: I've always been a huge gamer. Because you sit around a lot, on these missions, waiting around to do different work, and playing games, and watching movies. So you become an avid gamer, if you will, and you start getting tired of seeing a bunch of movies and a bunch of games that are being consulted by guys that are in their 60s and 70s, and talking.

So I thought, "You know what? Things have changed, and they need some good new blood in there. Guys, guys with some serious hard skills, smart guys, business-orientated guys who get out to make some good money doing this stuff." And so that's what drove me to start my own entertainment consulting company, and I've been doing it since just before 2000.


So when you get approached to work on a game, do they develop the concept with you at all? Where is it in the development stage that you're brought in?

WM: It all depends on the company. EA started from scratch, bringing me in from the very beginning. They had some -- obviously, they always get their writers together, the developers, they get their artists together, they get the engineers together, and they start developing certain things. They kind of get, like, a ballpark of what they want to do, and then they bring in guys at the very beginning, to make sure it's going down the right road.

You know: "How do we customize weapons? How do we make these guys look the way they're supposed to look? How does the gear really going to wear, you know? What are they wearing? What's the latest and greatest? What's going on? Are there any things that we don't know about? How do they act? How do they talk? What's the industry about?" And they collect all that; they harvest all that information at the very, very beginning, and they put it together with the startings of what they had, and then they of go from there.

Then of course it turns into a massive building this engine, doing that, doing this; there's just tons of work to do. And then the other big sprint to the finishing line is during the marketing phase, when we're coming out, to say: "Hey, these guys have been contacting me along the entire process; asking me certain questions, and I've provided with pictures and attitude."

The thing with me is, I have access to all of that. I have access to all of the military units; all of the private areas. I know what's the latest and greatest weaponry, the gear, the equipment, the way things are going. I can provide that for them constantly; constant feedback with them. And that's been a real advantage for 'em.

Do you focus on consulting now exclusively?

WM: I currently am still a full-time contractor for these companies -- for security firms.

Oh really?

WM: Yes. And that is a daunting job, of, you know, between 60 and 80 hours a week. And then I do the entertainment consulting on the side.

So do you travel overseas to do that stuff, and then come back to work on these game projects?

WM: Yep. I will -- right now, my job consists of managing the guys that do that right now, but yes, I'm always available to go overseas at any time.

How does that work, in terms of -- this project had a, let's say give-or-take three year dev cycle -- and they needed you, I'm assuming, periodically throughout?

WM: Yeah. The beginning and the end are the two big, big pushes. And then, periodically throughout, they tap me for information. Which gives me a break too, because I've been concentrating on my other work.

And then I have other gigs that I've been working with, too. I've worked with Ubisoft, for the Splinter Cell series -- and the same thing there. Totally different type of game, though; stealth game.

And now that I'm, you know, I am getting older, and towards retiring out of the business. It's been over 21 years now, and so I'm getting to the point where I need to -- starting to move more and more into the games.

Like I said, I'm tired of seeing the movies and the games that are being consulted by the wrong people, so I'm available now for that, and I'm moving down that road. But to do it, it takes a lot of time, so you've got to have the time to do it.

What sort of influence would you say you've had over this game?

WM: Well, you know, I give all the credit to the EA development team. You know, the writers. Those guys are brilliant. The things that they came up with are -- they're interesting, they're witty, they're with the times, they know the gaming industry very, very well. They know what gamers want to see, they know how to sell the product.

And then I think that there's a whole other group of gamers out there that are kind of like part-time gamers. You know, guys like me, who, who aren't, that's not what they do, full-time live and play games; they actually have another life that they do, and then they play games for entertainment.

What EA's been able to do is, is tap both of those markets. Very, very well. And they're using the real people to bring it in. They're using people with credibility. People that are relatively bullet-proof, if you will. 'Cause they're not just guys saying they did this, that, or the other thing; where there are some consultants right now that are consulting for games on tactical stuff, that aren't even tactical. So it is interesting in that respect. EA's got a bunch of smart people -- bringing in the right people to push the game, that's the main thing. It's entertainment.

That's sort of an interesting topic. I mean they bring you in, obviously -- or at least I would infer -- to add a real, gritty realism to it. So, you really know what goes on out there; you really know what goes on with their equipment, and everything. But there's a certain extent to which it's unrealistic. I mean, how does that get balanced, do you think?

WM: Well, I mean, no one wants to play a game that's too realistic. It'd be boring. I mean, there are games out there right now, that if you don't play 'em, like you would do in real life -- who has time for that? There are games out there that people just don't even finish, 'cause they're just too slow, because... There're games, for instance, out there right now -- I don't wanna name 'em -- if you play it exactly by the rules, the way you're supposed to do it, you'll live. But if you run out there and try and have fun and get it over with, you get killed.

Take Halo 3, for example. That's a fantastic game, everybody loves Halo 3, but that is a fantasy game. Everybody likes it because of that reason. They love playing the game; the fact that they can pick up a grenade that they can throw and it'll stick to another guy, doesn't exist. And it's how you make a game that interesting, that exciting, that is also as real as it possibly could be. Without making it too boring. That's a very difficult task, but EA's been able to pull it off with Army of Two.

I mean, by far the most interesting thing about it is the co-op. Co-op blows everything out of the water. Because in real life, I mean, the same saying that I said earlier today is the same saying that I've been saying for over twenty years: "one is none and two is one". And you're going to need two guys on every mission, to do anything. And those two guys have got be able to interact socially and professionally as well. Everybody's heard of the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartans took on over a million Persians.

Well, everyone's seen 300.

WM: Yeah, well, there's a scene in 300, where they talk about when the Persians fire their arrows, there's so many that it blocks out the sun. And the Spartans come back and say: "Well, we'll fight in the shade." I mean, to be able to come up with something funny like that in the midst of an arduous situation, in the middle of battle, that's totally realistic; and that's what they've also brought -- that element to the game as well. And they've been able to crack the code on "How do we do something that's realistic? Something that could happen, and still entertain me as any other game that's ever been brought out there." By making it co-op blows everybody out of the water, in that sense.


That also brings up an interesting point when you say you've got a two-man team. Is that a realistic scenario for you -- in the situations that they've been deployed into, in the game?

WM: I'd never do anything by myself. Always going to be at least one other guy. And, potentially there could be three, but if you're going to have three, you might as well have four. So you're usually going to be in pairs; so you can operate in pairs, typically. And usually, and in a lot of cases, those pairs are joined together, so you'll have a six-man team somewhere, where you can operate together. But you're not going to be out there by yourself. Too much of a liability on the company, anyway. Who's going to do that? No one guy can do all that.

But at the same time, like, like I said earlier: there is a profit to be made, because this is private business. So, if I can send six very, very highly trained guys into an area, pay 'em a little bit more -- or a lot more -- be able to make a better profit than sending twelve guys, that's better for me.

And it could be better for them as well: it's a lower profile, they're able to get the job done, and if they need help, maybe they'll train indigenous forces to be their shooters. Pay 'em in cash. Get them on board. You know? Go to Afghanistan, train up a bunch of hardcore Afghan fighters to be on their team, instead of bringing in twenty Americans -- or, we call 'em "patriots". "Patriot fighters". Or "Third-Country Nationals." It's the way to go.

This is high-level talks, about how stuff goes, or might go. How much of that drills down to the game? How much do you feed in? Do you just feed this stuff in, and then the developers take it and run with it?

WM: Well the beauty of it is, is: you're going to play in these scenarios, and then in between scenarios, there's cinematics that kind of describe what's going on. And that's the beauty of animation. I mean, you can create a story, and make it anything you want. As opposed to trying to shoot a movie, I mean it's difficult to do that.

Although everybody's becoming more technologically advanced, and people are just getting basically smarter, because there's more information available to everybody. And they're able to do that in the game; they're able to kind of make you smart on what's going on, from start to finish. So you're going to start out, really, knowing really nothing about what's going on; by the end of the game, you're understanding.

And at the same time, they can tell a story. So they can either make it go good or bad, or they could just kind of keep it the same. But they, they're able to tell that story through the game, with the smart use of the cinematics, and you get smart on the game as you go. You're able to learn different things, and gain more money, and buy more weapons, or, you know, customize your weapons better, so...

Would you say your influence was more in the, you know, the nitty-gritty of what these guys might encounter; how they might operate? Or was it more in terms of the story? Where did your influence come in?

WM: I think it was different levels. Obviously, in the beginning, they were more interested in getting some of the hard stuff down. Like, you know, how do we customize weapons. And I played a big part in the customization of the weapons; because you can kind of sit there and pontificate, and come up with a lot of ways to do it, but to really make 'em look real, and to make them look good -- and then there's, like, a couple "fantasy weapons." Where they really bling the stuff out; it's really kind of funny. But you got to have that whole level, because being in situations like this is funny. I mean, the whole God damned thing's funny, if you ask me.


WM: Yeah, it is surreal. But no, there were different levels. There's like, down into the nitty-gritty of how the actual equipment and gear looks, all they way up to just conceptual issues, like in the writing. So...

Do you think that, like, the stuff like the "blinged out" weapons -- and I mean that word has been tossed around a lot, as regards this game -- and also the skull-masks -- do you think that's a little silly?

WM: Once again, we're back to "entertaining." You know, do you want a couple of guys that have just human-looking faces, or do you want a couple of guys that are running around blasting people, one guy's got a skull mask, and the other guy looks like he's got flames on the side? I mean, that's cool. And to sell the game, the game's got to be cool. And this game's definitely got those elements.

Now realistically? You know, if you're over in the desert, in 120 degree heat, do you want a ballistic mask on your face that's not really going to withstand a shot from an AK-47 round? A 7-6-2 by 39 round, with a steel penetrator that's going to go through a ballistic face shield? Unless it's got a metal plate in it. They're not made of ceramic, so yeah, realistically? It's not normal. But then again, you're not going to wear a big riot face mask that you've seen police do -- that have a big giant, thick shield on the front of it? I mean, you're going to have to have a big-ass neck to carry that thing around. Like a bison.

So those are unrealistic pieces, so why add 'em? I mean, let's make those guys look daunting, and cool. You've seen -- you've got commando teams all over the world, that wear balaclavas, and wear face masks when they do missions, and they go, and they look scary, and they hit. And that -- there's a purpose for that. They're supposed to dominate that room; they're supposed to go in there and scare the living crap out of you. And it adds a whole level of domineering to, to it. And that's what they do. And so that adds that element of it. They do it very well.


As someone with over two decades of experience with these kinds of situations, do you find that you're conflicted in any way, about making it look cool?

WM: No. No, because, you know, like I said: this is a business. And we're in the business of selling, selling a game to the consumer. It's all about entertainment. If we wanted to make the animated videos or training videos, we'd make training videos that would be restricted to only certain populations. But entertainment is the name of the game; if you're not entertained when you're playing the game, then you're obviously not going to play it. So there are levels, where you've got to make it as realistic as possible, then you've got to look for ways to make it as entertaining as possible, as well.

So the volume of fire that's going to come down on top of these guys in the middle of these battles is possibly unrealistic. The fact that they're able to take as many rounds as they're able to take is possibly unrealistic. But realistically, if you had that much volume of fire coming, your guy would die, and the game would be over. It'd be no fun anymore. So, you've got to be able to -- these guys are able to carry around two, three big giant weapons on 'em, they're very heavy -- well, maybe. Depends on how big you are, but that's a lot of weight. A fully kitted-out guy wearing with all the weight that you're looking at, with all that body armor? He's wearing a couple hundred pounds worth of gear. So you know, you're not going to be very maneuverable. So.

But I mean, there's a certain degree to which -- do you think it's a good idea to make fighting and battles look cool to average kids that don't really know squat?

WM: Well, the bottom line is that it is a video game. So. We could sit here and argue about whether or not the game's too violent, or we can sit here and say: "Well then don't let 'em play the game." And if he doesn't understand the difference between a video game and real life, then it's your opportunity to explain it to him. If you're not doing that, we go into a whole sociological discussion on that one. If you've got the money to buy the game, then certainly you've got the opportunity to sit out and say: "Kids, this is a video game. This isn't real." And they should be smart enough to understand it. If they're not, then maybe you shouldn't buy the game in the first place.

Definitely. I mean this is undoubtedly an M rated game. I don't know if it's actually been through the ratings board, and that would be restricted to 18 or older, at least by intent. It's not necessarily "kids" kids -- when I say "kids" I mean kids who might be of age to want to join the Army right now. Eighteen or 20 year-olds.

WM: The thing about, the thing about Army of Two is: It allows, it allows you to learn a little bit about the PMC world. Obviously, a lot of it's going to be some fantasy in there. But it's entertaining; they're going to know the difference between real and unreal.

There's going to be conspiracy in the game, that typically doesn't occur -- you got to remember that giant corporations like this, that are handed a lot of money, you know, people always think there's some sort of conspiracy around 'em, but that's not necessarily true. Most of these companies are reporting to the SEC. They're having to have a liability that nobody else has, because they've got to put their own men in harm's way, so they've got all these different checks and balances in these corporation that even the military doesn't have. Even our own government doesn't have.

I think the irony of it is, is that the tax revenues from all these giant companies is what pays for the military in the first place. So without 'em, where would we be? So, the fact that we're able to supplement, in the private military world, we're able to supplement and help our own government. So that the fight stays overseas and doesn't come home. I think that's the most important thing here. And certain companies step up to the plate, and batter-up. There's about a handful of them that'll do that right now.

You've expressed some words of support for Blackwater, and we spoke to Chris Ferriera, and his attitude toward Blackwater was, basically -- I think it could be summed up by the quote "It's fucked up." Did you ever butt heads with the creative staff behind the game, about the direction to take these things, or do you stay out of that and just offer your expertise?

WM: Yeah, I offer my expertise. I'm not political. People need to understand that the real world of private military contracting is exactly that: it's private. What you hear on the news, what you see sensationalized in the media, is not... I mean, we could take any subject. Right now it's private military contracting; contractors in Iraq. It's not their fault they're in Iraq. They're there because they have to be there, and because they can make money doing that. We can take any issue, any social issue -- we could talk about schools, we could talk about housing, we could talk about taxes, and the media's going to sensationalize that too. That's just what they do. And everybody knows it, so why do we complain about it?

But unless you really know; unless you've been there, and been out there in the field, and been under fire? I mean, there's instances -- and I'll use Blackwater as an example: There's instances where they've been under constant threat of fire, and they were able to sustain themselves, and not get anybody killed, based on their own selves. The military wouldn't even come in and help 'em. But they had helos flying in, resupplying them on rooftops, or these guys would've been dying. These guys are... that happens, it's not the first time it's happened, you know?

But when it comes to the development of a game do these discussions ever happen?

WM: I stay out of it. Yeah, I mean, if they do, it doesn't have anything to do with the game at all. I mean, they have a focused objective: "This is the information that we want from you, to make the game." And I provide that information.

Would you ever step off of a project because it conflicted with your personal or political beliefs?

WM: Ah, well, it hasn't happened yet. Because none of the companies that I've worked for up to this point have ever been that unprofessional. And we've only dealt in completely professional ways. I believe that EA has probably been one of the most professional companies I've ever worked for. They want this game to look good. They want to represent the game -- as well as, they're doing a lot of justice for PMCs by explaining that this is something that is possibly going on out there, and they just made a fun game out of it.

It doesn't represent exactly -- it doesn't make any company out there less professional, just because they decided to make a game about PMCs. And just because they've added the element of conspiracy theory to it, doesn't mean that that's what's going on. I mean, do you believe every movie you watch?

Certainly not. But art can paint a realistic impression of things. And I'm not speaking either to Army of Two or what real-world situations are -- obviously, I don't necessarily have a grip on those. But you know, that's what it's for. Narrative.

WM: So, it's a great game, and that's pretty much all I got.

The last question I basically have is: Have you seen any of the other games that are coming out that have PMC content, such as Haze, or Metal Gear Solid 4?

WM: Metal Gear Solid 4? No, I haven't seen that one yet. Although I have played all the other games. And I like the game a lot. It does have a bigger element of fantasy in it.

Is that the Metal Gear series you're talking of?

WM: Yeah. Yeah, it's got a lot of... there's a lot of things in it that would never happen.

[That concludes Gamasutra's conversation with Woodie Mister. What follows is Gamasutra's interview with producer Reid Schneider.]


Earlier, we spoke to lead designer Chris Ferriera about the game. Earlier, you were talking about how it went back to desire to make a co-op game. Could you tell me where that came from?

Reid Schneider: Right. Absolutely. So we, when we began thinking about the game, we had a lot of different ideas about, you know, the setting; about where we wanted to take it. So we looked at this sort of, you know, this "cops and robbers" idea... What we knew is that we felt co-op was really -- we began to see the seeds of co-op really taking shape on Xbox... with Halo, and things like that. And we, a lot of us are huge fans [of games] like Double Dragon, and Contra, and the thing was, when you look at when you played Contra as a kid.

We looked at that more and more; we were like: next-gen is hurting for this kind of thing. No one's really [done] that yet. So that's, that's a sweet spot for us. That's where we, that's where we want to be. And the team was, they were really excited about about [it]. So we thought this was, it was for us, it was about having a really narrow focus, focus, you know: Do one thing, and do it better than anybody else. We're not going to be a squad management game.

We're not trying to do squad management tactics, you know, Rainbow Six. This is really about playing co-op, playing with a buddy, or playing with partner A.I., and just enjoying that experience. And so for us, we always said that one of the guiding principles for Army of Two is: "Co-op's not the mode, it's the game." And every design decision we made was always about: "How does this leverage co-op?" And if it doesn't focus on co-op, then don't do it.

How did you go about taking this idea to management, as you said, and convincing them to go with it?

RS: Well, we were, we were really passionate about it. And had a "won't take 'no' for an answer" kind of attitude. I think we, at EA Montreal, we were really about generating variety, and making interesting stuff. The execs at EA saw what we were doing... we were really thinking about, "This is where we want to be." And we were a team -- you know, credit to them, because the team was so passionate about these ideas. I think that passion, and that focus really convinced execs at EA that these guys really want to make it.

I think whenever you have people who are so passionate, so driven on one core idea, they have a vision; they have a dream that they want to make. That's what sells something. And passion, when you talk to someone who's got passion, it carries over. Whether it's passion about making video games, or playing paintball. People with a passion about something: Those are the people that I want to invest in, and that EA would want to invest in.

Now is this the first project that the team has worked on? The studio's relatively new, right?

RS: The studio's relatively new. Myself, the animation director, the art director, the lead level designer -- we all worked together at Ubisoft, actually.

Ubisoft Montreal?

RS: Exactly. Yeah, we all worked together -- we made the original Splinter Cell. And then we all came to Montreal as a group, and we -- that was really the genesis of the core team. And along the way, we've added some amazing, amazing people. I'll give you an example: our Lead A.I. Programmer. And our Lead Programmer as well; and our Lead Platform Engineer. These guys have done a great job. Injecting new blood into that team was really, really great. It really forced the team to think of individual directions, and the new people who've come on the team have really made the game their own, and huge credit to them.


So you guys, did you come over to EA with the intent to form as a team and make another military game, like Splinter Cell?

RS: I think we came over to EA with the intent of making a, making a new I.P. in the shooter space. Whether it was military or whether it was something else, I think that was really something that it turned into in the process. We didn't come over with the intent to make, you know: "Let's make a military game!" We knew how to make great shooters. If you asked us to make a football game, we'd probably be the worst people on the planet to do that. But in terms of making a shooter, that's one thing the team's going to do really well, in terms of focusing on that.

And you talked about how the idea went th

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