Funny old things, anniversaries. An occasion to both commemorate a journey made together and - one hopes - to reaffirm that commitment. Indeed,
the big gemstone corporations romantic types would have us mark the occasion with a blue topaz. But that seems a little gaudy for the PC's premier military experience.
Instead, on the day of its 4th - let's say, rather - birthday, we'd like to cerebrate with an Arma 3 retrospective that broadly charts our adventure thus far, and looks to the path that still lies ahead - plus a few other gems besides! Strap in. It's a long one.
ARMA 3 ORIGINS
Sometimes it's easy to forget that Arma 3 was one of the first games to launch as part of Steam's Early Access (actually - as true development hipsters - we can claim to have snuck out before that programme was even a thing). But, it was, and, at last, the game was in the hands of its community! The March 2013 release itself was built around a 'minimal package': an infantry-focused sandbox on a 'small' terrain, Stratis, presented via a handful of Showcases and, of course, the resplendent (if cough, cough, 2D) Editor.
While the underlying engine tech was in a grand state of flux, the progress from Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead was tangible. The new animations, lighting, and systems like modular equipment (and its associated new inventory) were important steps forward for the series. These fine additions were the result of many, many hours of dedicated work. Also, there was scuba diving. For the team, the Arma 3 Alpha (and the encouraging feedback that came rolling in with it) was a watershed moment. After all - in one form or another - what would later become Arma 3 had been in some stage of development since as far back as 2009.
It was in late 2011 - shortly after release of Take On Helicopters - that the Mníšek studio (aka 'Team Mike' - myself included!) reinforced the development. On its own, successfully injecting an entire studio into a project mid-production is some feat. Yet, to a team that would soon face the effects of extraordinary and unexpected external circumstances, it stands as testament to everyone's ability to pull together. Ultimately, then, the Alpha was - after a long and bumpy (but, thankfully, extraterrestrial-less) road - a chance for everyone to finally take a breath! Breathing, however, was to remain a luxury, as we hurtled head-long into the Beta.
BETA GET READY
E3 had been a common fixture on Arma 3's schedule since its initial reveal, way back in 2011. Particularly pre-release, these events were important waypoints - reality checks, in some ways, which set ambition against hard deadline! It's important not to underestimate the effort that goes into preparing such builds - and 2013 was no different. The Arma 3 Beta - to be demoed in LA, and published thereafter - was a herculean effort on the team's part. The Beta, after all, was our next big step.
With it, we were introducing a new tranche of sandbox assets - including some serious new fire-power. It was a time when Arma's more recognisable combined-arms gameplay started to come into focus. It was also the starting gun for a number of vital additions, which would guide us along the road to release. One such technology was the integration of Steam Workshop. For us, it was a big deal - a key part of our vision of Arma 3 as a platform for community content.
We'd also faced some complex technical challenges with our vehicles - particularly tracked simulation (hi, PhysX) - and with our new technology, drones. These were ultimately added as separate 'packages'. If nothing else, this proved how effectively the team - even one split across multiple studios - could work together on smaller, tightly-focused deliverables. Of course, the 'crown jewels' were yet to be revealed.
Altis was an ambitious terrain. A new part of the world, entirely new structures and vegetation - all made with a commitment to raise the high bar that Arma 2's Chernarus had set. Of course, it was not without risk - something rather clearly demonstrated once the terrain finally hit Dev-Branch.
Thanks, in most part, to the brave efforts of our programmers, a performance-hogging oversight (cough, cough, 1 fps on 32-bit systems) was swiftly addressed. The situation was a salutary lesson in the value of releasing early - and often! However - and though it'd be wrong to paint the final release of Arma 3 in a more negative light - all of these pre-release updates, which had contributed so clearly to the ultimate release of the game, came at a cost.
Opening a present on Christmas morning? Surprise! Delight! Everything sparkles. Even grandma, who's already tipsy in the corner. Six months on? You're still appreciative of the gift - but nobody's reaching for the eggnog (not really a summer drink). And so, in a way, it felt when we finally pushed the button and released. Compared to the Alpha, Beta, and so on, things were splendid, sure; yet, some things felt 'missing'.
THE NEXT EPISODE
Couched in those terms, it may sound like an excuse. Far from it. Despite some factors, let's say, 'beyond our control', we did drop the ball on our campaign, which was not included with the original release. Some 'MIA' assets, too. But, we had a cunning plan (and, thankfully, patient stakeholders and community, too)! Once it was clear we'd be unable to release important bits of content to the level of quality we demanded, an episodic post-release strategy was adopted. This enabled us to focus on manageable chunks of content (and more post-release platform support besides).
Refreshed by the growing player-base, new community creations, a more 'settled' technology and - honestly - just the weight of 'the release' being removed, the whole team contributed. The stand-out additions, of course, are the Campaign Episodes themselves. Three slices of 'The East Wind', setting Ben Kerry on a journey from - #spoilers - Stratis defeat to Altis domination (via a few guerrilla hideouts). With this content, we'd come a long way from the initial incarnation of the project, code-named 'Futura' (which, side-note, blesses our game data to this day with the suffix _F).
There were other valuable additions, too. CAS planes for NATO and CSAT, some heavy AAF reinforcements, and the iconic 'Ghost Hotel' complex (to name but a few) reinforced the 1.0 release. Attention also turned to our secret weapon: Zeus. It had been in development for many months but, finally, was in a position to receive the development attention it needed. Arma 3 Zeus stands as testament to our willingness to take risks, explore unscripted - sometimes hilarious - MP gameplay, and offer players a genuinely new way of controlling the battlefield. These additions were wrapped up by early 2014, yet our post-release effort was just beginning.
Our first 'formal' post-release roadmap was fairly ambitious. Our long-term goal would be to create an 'expansion pack', built around a new terrain, but that was lurking far off in the mists of time. In the interim, we set ourselves the objective of doubling-down on the platform: support, refine, invest. We were finally in a position to add things we felt would help complete the game, such as the addition of structured tutorials in Bootcamp Update, and make choices about the direction we wanted to take the platform.
Through our 'features are free; content is premium' DLC strategy, we were able to add whole new features, such as Helicopters DLC's 'Firing From Vehicles' technology, and find the room to develop greater gameplay depth, such as Marksmen DLC's weapon stabilisation mechanics, which, in April 2015, wrapped up this part of the roadmap. And, of course, we'd finally been able to deliver what the community had desired for years (but just didn't know it) with our half-experimental, half-charitable Karts DLC.
Meanwhile, our 'platform strategy' was gathering Steam. The Game Launcher was a big part of that. Initially, it was a more user-friendly way to configure the game, but we had far greater expectations. The ability to load, manage and maintain mods - linked, ultimately, to the Steam Workshop - was the objective. Jumping ahead to 2017, it's become that, and so much more besides (Server Browser, Arma 3 Units, etc.) thanks in chief to a small but dedicated fire-team of wizards! But we digress - and those mists of time wait for no one.
ROAD TO APEX
Make no mistake, the #RoadToApex was a long one. Our intrepid journey began after the release of the final campaign episode, 'Win', together with a final round of Altis environmental updates. Pre-production on what was to become Tanoa (side-note: originally christened 'Tanoabuka') started in earnest. After a round of experimentation, the team set sail for the Pacific! We wanted a fresh experience; we wanted - in the immortal words of then-Projec 't Lead, Joris-Jan van 't Land - 'a green hell'.
Naturally, we had a great many ideas about how to take Arma 3 forward. But we'd also learned a lesson about biting off more than we could chew. That in mind, we made a list of priorities, with Tanoa - and it's associated
mountain volcano of work - at the top, and divided our roadmap into bite-sized chunks. November 2015's Nexus Update was one such chunk: an opportunity to experiment with multiplayer and its associated systems (revive, dynamic groups, etc). It was also a chance to have some fun: End Game Tournament being a great expression of that!
Ah, and, of course, our ace-in-the-hole: the Eden 3D Editor. Released as part of the Eden Update (which was bundled with a bunch of other vital work), the love-child of Zeus and the classic Scenario Editor was the next dimension in content creation for our platform. Literally. It was an immense effort from a relatively small cohort, but its value will surely be felt for many years to come. It's fair to say that delivering all of this work together in one final-boss encounter would have been incredibly risky - and Apex itself was not without risk.
Arma 3 Apex had fairly clear goals: 1) release Tanoa 2) together with a bunch of great new assets 3) presented via some MP content (which, ideally, ties up - ish - the 'East Wind' canon). But, as always: no plan survives first contact with the enemy. The enemy, in this case, being time. Tanoa was a gargantuan piece of work. We all wanted a new part of the world, and, ultimately, we all ended up paying the price of having to make it!
The new structures, vegetation, factions - these alone were a truck-load of work for the art department! Add to that our goal to create new classes of vehicles (VTOLs, LSVs), and our plates quickly started to fill up! But, boy, it was worth it. We grew new roots in our sandbox - offering a unique, interesting place to explore. A place that fit with the 2035 setting we inherited, yet one that finally felt more 'connected' to modern day conflicts and weaponry - one that would offer valuable new toys for community content, too.
Towards the end of development, as part of the team moved on to pastures new, we felt that we had a solid package. We admit some shortcomings: we were, for example, unable to satisfy the appetites of all of our players - with particular respect to our singleplayer veterans - and that's something that we've sought to address in our second season of post-release support and DLC. That, and a commitment to double-down on the combined part of Arma's idosyncratic combined-arms military gameplay.
Following Apex, in October last year, we unveiled our plans for 2017 (and beyond!) and, since then, we've been hard at work delivering on those goals. Back in May, we celebrated the release of Jets DLC. A somewhat experimental approach to production saw us partner up with BRAVO ZERO ONE Studios, who provided the air-support for our assault on target identification, tracking and engagement gameplay. Oh, and that gargantuan slice of 'Freedom pie', of course!
Hot on its heels, Malden Free DLC fell into player's laps, too, bringing with it our re-imagination of a classic terrain, and the full release of a dynamic multiplayer game mode, Combat Patrol, which had been rattling around the corridors of development for one or two years! The release was a way to celebrate our heritage, and say a big 'thanks!' to the community for their enduring support.
Also worth mentioning, is Argo (née Project Argo (Prototype), via Bohemia Incubator), developed by a team in Brno. It's fair to say, without all their hard work, there would be no Malden at all! The terrain itself was also a great learning experience for the team being built there, reinforced now by Team Bravo Arma 3 veterans, too, as they re-focus on their next objective. And that, just about, brings us Back to the Future.
Or, perhaps, better said: the present. After all, just a handful of days ago, we launched Arma 3 Laws of War. Our seventh 'official' DLC (excluding Apex) - and fourteenth major (ie named) update - since the original release of Arma 3, The-Project-Formerly-Known-As
Prince Orange DLC is a step in a new direction. Suffice to say (and before I plagiarize any more bon mots from its release blog) we're delighted to see the positive reception so far!
To say that tackling this topic was 'tricky' would be an understatement, yet our best experiences enable players to engage with a subject and even learn something new - thoughtful gameplay for thoughtful gamers. Ultimately, being able to deliver not only a solid package of content for our game but a make contribution to charity has been incredibly rewarding.
On a personal level, perhaps even more so, as Arma 3 Laws of War stands to be my final 'hands on' title as Arma 3's Creative Director. But (cough, cough) worry not, I'm going nowhere just yet! Rather, as Bohemia continues to grow apace, I'll be helping out in a more 'cross-project' role, directly assisting the venerable Jarek Kolar, Bohemia's all-project Development Director. That being said, I'll still be on-hand for support as needed, and - more importantly - to supervise all future #CAKEREPS.
Having Scanned the Horizon earlier this year, it should come as no surprise that the next item on our third post-release roadmap is Tac-Ops DLC, which promises to be an authentic, replayable take on combined-arms military gameplay. Pivoting from our recent multiplayer focus, to more 'classic' singleplayer content, we aim to offer content that veterans of our series will be able to pick up and enjoy time and again.
From our own team's perspective, the project is also a chance to support several new colleagues, letting them take ownership - and learn the ropes! From the
peak Apex of development (a core team of around 80, supported by the multi-class heroes in departments such as publishing, legal, accounting, HR, and so on), the team is now a smaller band of brothers. Although the majority of our colleagues are investing in future technology and new projects, we're not quite done here yet..!
Indeed, that brings us to the true 'heavyweight' of our current roadmap: Arma 3 Tanks. The signal tribute to our lofty goal of doubling-down on combined-arms in Arma 3, this DLC is set to follow our well established pattern: splendid new premium assets, which help fund the development of free platform improvements for all. And, let me tell you, we've got some cool platform improvements in store!
THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH_
It's fair to say that, although this retrospective (ahem, somewhat wildly) sweeps back through Arma 3's development journey, each iteration in our series has been built upon the backs of its predecessors. It's always right to pay tribute to the teams, colleagues - and communities! - that have come and, sometimes, gone. Without them, we wouldn't be anywhere at all!
And, partly with respect to that legacy, partly in celebration of Arma's continued strength, but mostly because we're suckers for that motif, we commissioned a live orchestra recording of four of our favourite tracks. They were recorded in June at the Prague Conservatoire by OFO Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Varhan Orchestrovič Bauer. Enjoy!
Looking back over the last few years, it's been one hell of a ride. This retrospective, although far, far, far from complete - and totally inadequate in paying tribute to all the splendid developers I've personally had the honour to work with - has brought back some truly great memories. Moreover, it gives me confidence in the continued ensplendidisation of Arma 3 as a game, as a platform, and as a community, for many years yet to come!