Some years ago we started our 'Report In!' interview series to tell you a bit more about what it's like to develop games at Bohemia Interactive. With the newest Creator DLC (S.O.G. Prairie Fire) just released, we felt it would be a good time to question its third-party developers, Rob and Tuomas, who lead the Savage Game Design team. This special 'Report In!' gives you a more personal perspective and a more detailed look at the way they go about their work.
Tell the people a little about yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
Rob Graham (eggbeast): I have worked with really inspired teams on complex projects as a director of companies and charities for many years. I have always been a gamer and got into modding and then decided to make this into my job. Arma 3 Jets DLC was my first commercial game work, and Sgt. Savage and I wanted to take the gaming experience we had been refining for many years in the Unsung mod and really develop it to its full potential. Forming Savage Game Design was an ideal way to do that, to act as a rallying flag for so many other passionate Arma developers.
Tuomas Tuomala (HorribleGoat): I am a passionate creator of stuff in many different mediums. My actual profession is goldsmith but by chance, and through modding Arma 2 back in the day, I ended up making a career in developing 3D graphics for a distantly Arma-related training platform. Then Arma 3 came along, some time went by, and here we are now with a brand new Creator DLC.
What is your favorite BI game or mission?
Rob: Armed Assault: Evolution mission by Kiljoy. I learned to fly the UH60, AH6, and KA50 and fell deeply in love with Arma. Sahrani is a beautiful country. I watched ControlledPairs run a SEAL mission in Paraiso the other night, man that was a blast from the past. That dude rocks! I like Antistasi and Liberation too, as I love co-op play. Both teams sent some of their best talent to work with us on the DLC. My new favorite mission is Oscar Eight, our campaign finale. Play it and you’ll understand.
Tuomas: Out of Bohemia Interactive's arsenal, Arma 3 is my favorite game. As it has been proven to have the capability in so much more through modding than any other game I’ve seen. Though my most fond memory of the Arma series dates back to Operation Flashpoint (OFP) and the “Hind Attack” mission where the freedom of open-world gameplay really struck me as - *spoiler alert* - I ended up stealing one of the target Hinds and wrecking the base and a lot of the enemy forces patrolling the AO with it.
And can you give us some random facts about yourself?
Rob: I survived 8 hours in a hurricane at sea, hanging from the funnel rail on an open deck. It was touch and go for me and worse for the ship. I can’t cook very well, but I make a mean gin and tonic. I serve as a human pillow for my cat Freja - late at night she commands me to finish work so I can carry out my intended function. I’m also not to be trusted with a shotgun!
Tuomas: I don't like black candy (liquorice), so I trade that for chocolate with my wife. I once told a friend goldsmithing is done by having a big block of gold that is then carved with a chainsaw and the resulting “gold junk” thrown into the trash has an armed guard stationed on it 24/7. Goat is my spirit animal.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
How did the S.O.G. Prairie Fire project start? And how/when did you start forming your team?
Rob: The Unsung mod started back in 2003 in OFP. I joined the team around 9 years ago. It was already then a lot of content that we had to continuously adjust to keep up with Arma engine improvements. Hcpookie helped me vastly expand the scale of Unsung in Arma 2. Razorback began work on the Arma 3 version and motivated us to carry on. Through it all Sgt. Savage was there nudging us along with his limitless passion. When Arma 3 Jets DLC finished, the B01 team was invited to join with the Unsung team to begin scoping the DLC - this was late 2017. General Bowra joining in January 2018 made a huge impact on our motivation. Meeting Sgt. Savage in person at the Bohemia's Creator Bootcamp was a great moment, and then spending time with him, Icebreakr, Lordjarhead, TeTeT, Kju, Dwarden, Bludclot, Mondkalb, Ivan... all my Arma heroes.... was really cool. Having John Stryker Meyer join us two years ago was another defining moment, and then presenting the beta DLC to 50 former SOG team members at their reunion last October. It was the scariest conference I have ever presented at, and they were all so warm, generous and grateful. It was the moment I knew we’d accomplished our goal.
Tuomas: In the scope of the whole history that has led to the S.O.G Prairie Fire, I joined up “late” when the actual Creator DLC project was starting up and Rob was scooping up like-minded Arma community members to bolster the ranks. He asked if I was interested and I believe it was my crazy scaled ideas with my own project “Lost Dragons” and my “everything is possible” attitude that sealed the deal. I started to develop some of our more unique terrain features and ended up managing the terrain team along with IceBreakr for what now feels like forever ago.
What made you choose this particular setting?
Rob: I’ve had a lifelong obsession with the history of the Vietnam war. The debate about whether that war should have happened still rages 50 years later. Talking with veterans really opens your eyes to the nuances and humanity in the war and is a great way to overcome the stereotypes and understand more about it. Fighting in jungles is always challenging, and the asymmetry of the forces makes for a challenging game design. The mixture of World War 2 and cold-war weapons, the thick jungles, and the lack of night-vision creates a stark contrast to other war games. Fighting as MACV-SOG, well it’s the tip of the Special Forces spear... there’s nobody better qualified to give you a small team combat experience that you’ll never forget.
A lot of your development team is composed of several long-standing veterans and members of the Arma 3 community. Do you think this has benefited the Creator DLC? If so, in what ways?
Rob: A project of this scale could never have been realised without a team of committed and deeply experienced people. We had Arma community veterans from all areas - terrain, programming, mission development, sound, encoding, animation, UI, and 2D art. The Unsung team's sense of immersive jungle gameplay and its historical knowledge about the war were also vital (Razorback, Sgt. Savage, Barden, TeTeT, and NZDFCrash take a bow).
Our combined experience working on many mods and tools and Jets DLC taught us to narrow the focus to the MACV-SOG story to control the work-board and strictly define the experience we wanted to create. During the project we innovated so much content it was crazy. I want to make a special shout out to Nodunit and Cambo, without their expertise and decades of experience, our art would not look like what it does. I’m still amazed we actually delivered pretty much the original proposal, and I’m stunned at how naive I was walking into this. It was stupidly ambitious for a first outing together but actually due to the strength, tenacity of the team, and all our supporters we managed to deliver it!
Tuomas: Definitely! What we have created here could not have been achieved without the passionate people of the team and I don't think you could just “throw” uninitiated developers into a project like this and get near-immediate results like what we had from the beginning. For many of us figuring out the engine and how to create things on it has been a long lasting part of our lives which also has forged a sense of camaraderie, and with that shared experience we speak the same language, even though we come from all across the globe. Not to mention we have learned to be patient and relentless even when the game sometimes throws our work on our face because of a missing “;” somewhere in the config. The shared knowledge base also meant we have been able to teach a lot of new people to work with Arma to levels they did not even dream of before both from inside and outside the modding community.
How has your project benefited from being a Creator DLC?
Rob: We were immediately taken seriously by General Bowra, he and other MACV-SOG veterans jumped on board really early in the project. Without the Creator DLC program there was also little chance we could attract enough artists to work with us. Having the prospect of future income meant we could build the team of amazing artists we have today. The support from Bohemia has been regular and present, and we have learned a lot from that relationship, including meeting our heroes at the Creator Bootcamp. Without it being a Creator DLC, this project could never have happened. Marek Spanel, CEO of Bohemia, is the mastermind behind this program, and we are eternally grateful for his vision to expand the quality of major Arma mods by allowing them to earn an income. It was an idea not without risk, and we hope our DLC (and the other Creator DLCs) proves he was right. John Stryker Meyer sent Marek and Ivan Buchta, Creative Director at Bohemia, each a personal note of thanks and his personal challenge coin, thanking them for helping us to tell the story of SOG to so many people around the world.
Tuomas: From a development point of view, the direct access to knowledge into the engine and its quirks and support and cooperation from Bohemia Interactive has been crucial and the official capacity of a Creator DLC has made that possible.
Authenticity is a huge selling point to S.O.G. Prairie Fire. How did you start conducting your research, and why is asset accuracy such an important feature to your team?
Rob: I had already done a lot of weapon research for Unsung with Luchador, who made many of the weapons in our DLC. The unique character design for MACV-SOG was quite a challenge, as every year and in each area (CCS, CCC, and CCN) there were different equipment setups. Fortunately, we had our MACV-SOG veterans and the Modern Forces Living History Group who were just outstanding, as they have a lot of manuals and actual equipment. John Plaster sent us photos from his legendary SOG photo history book and General Bowra has a lot of equipment in his own personal collection! We also sent Barden off to research and scope every major asset. That guy wrote something like 200 specifications, each with folders of reference photos. Crash also toured Vietnam and Laos on a motorbike, sending back hundreds of photos of ground terrain, foliage and river banks. The veterans pored over the mission scripts and really dug into their memories to help make the design as realistic as possible. We engaged Vietnamese advisers to help with the voice scripts, signs and translations, and even squeezed in some things only Vietnamese people will understand. We all see it as a living history project, like a big interactive museum, only it’s a game!
Tuomas: Terrain planning practically followed the basic formula of first concepting out the area and the big picture of what is wanted on it. Then proceeding with studying the available material around the subject area from modern day satellite images to wartime tactical maps and recon photos and deciding what are the key elements we wanted to represent on the terrain. Cam Lao Nam is a mashup of the Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam areas and while the area is shrunk down to a game terrain size, there still are a number of real-life locations represented on the map, like the Plain of Jars, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Saigon, the military bases and camps, the mountains and the jungle. In such a miniature world the balance between authenticity and gameplay and game engine limits is a delicate compromise, which is why we were very lucky to put together such an exceptional team with an eye on the details and mind on the gameplay to produce this massive piece of art.
How did you go about selecting the weapons and vehicles in your package?
Rob: We aimed to recreate all of the standard infantry weapons plus many of the unique ones carried by SOG and the Viet Cong. We were lucky to have Luchador on hand with his vast arsenal, so we only needed to make a few new models from scratch. For vehicles, we drew up a list of the oldest assets in Unsung which badly needed replacing, like the UH-1C or AH-1G, and also some new vehicles which had not been seen in Arma before, like the Type 63 or M41 tanks. Generally, the scope was managed by myself and Barden who worked tirelessly on detailing each potential asset. Of course, we had to have the H-34 “Kingbee” for SOG, with the added one-zero seat for John "Tilt" Stryker Meyer, SOG veteran. Each vehicle was a monumental trial in itself, a combination of at least ten people's work to complete, over about a 9-month period per asset.
This Creator DLC contains an integrated soundtrack! Was this always part of the plans for the project and how was it developed? How was the music chosen?
Rob: The music is really great, we all love it as it takes you deep into the time and place of the Vietnam war. There was no chance we could get music from the era due to the insane cost. We decided to source our own compositions and opted for two composers to bring to life both the cinematic aspects and the rural landscape of Vietnam with a more classical score, and the casual psychedelic rock of the day heard on radios and in vehicles.
I knew Adam (originalsas), as he was at school with me in the 1980s, and Sgt. Savage found Fabian (FabianKreutzerSound) by researching hundreds of composers. I was so excited that Adam still rocked a guitar like the axe maniac he was at school, and when we saw that Fabian had collected flutes, mouth harps, and even folk songs from Vietnam, we knew he would be a perfect fit. Sgt. Savage did a lot of the work guiding and shaping the music, that was his primary goal, and he nailed it. The emotional punch of the score is evident when playing the campaign. It still brings a lump in my throat every time I hear some of the tracks. We are donating some proceeds from the soundtrack to the Special Operations Association to help with MIA/POW searches and veteran welfare.
With all the different content being added, how do you decide when something is ready and finished?
Rob: As former modders it’s very tempting to go in and make changes, but having a more professional focus is actually quite liberating. We adopted similar workflow stages that were used with Bohemia on Arma 3 Jets DLC - Prototype, Alpha, Beta, and Gold. John Spartan, B01 team lead, and Lukas Milacek, a former producer at Bohemia who joined the SGD team, taught us much of that. Maarten, our QA manager, decides when something is Gold. The correct staging didn’t always work properly due to a number of factors and that has taught us a lot for the future. We won’t ever repeat the mistake of not following the stages, it’s just so painful trying to fix those issues! Another interesting question to ask is, “What makes us decide to add a specific asset?” s there are so many factors in that - mission use, historical impact, player fun, uniqueness, interesting features, game balance, etc. - there’s a lot we’d love to add.
What would you say has been the most challenging thing about developing S.O.G. Prairie Fire?
Rob: For me personally it was recruiting, motivating, and retaining the team. Asking people to work for 2 years without immediate pay is no joke. Everyone who worked on the project made huge personal and significant sacrifices. Some left along the way, but we’re grateful for their contributions. The guys and girls standing together at the finish line, all look at each other differently now. So the biggest challenge led to the greatest pleasure - seeing a team forged together in chaos and fire! There were a lot of parallels between our team evolution and Special Forces teamwork. General Bowra gave us a lot of advice and encouragement from his lifetime in service, and Tilt's salty pro-teamwork motto is even printed on the hot-sauce bottle we added to the rations! Those guys really understand trials by fire!
Tuomas: Simple answer: Arma. Long answer: Having been exploring and going beyond the conventional limits of the game and engine for some years prior to the DLC project it was not always easy to draw a line on what is possible and what should be done. For some things, new tools had to be developed to be able to actually do them and some more crazy ideas had to be put into a box to wait for another time for being either too time-consuming or just crazy for the scope of the project. For a project to progress, limits naturally have to be drawn, but it is never an easy decision.
If there's only one thing you could point out, what are you the proudest of, and why?
Rob: Dennis, Arma 3 Jets DLC and JSRS sound mod creator LordJarhead, created his magnum opus with the sound design in this DLC. To me, and over 100 team members, it is a masterpiece creating the most immersive battlefield experience. We met in Prague and went shooting together at the start of the project to record sounds and develop a team understanding of the feeling of firing different weapons. Half of your game experience is visual, the other half is sound. For one guy to design and create an entire suite of sounds that completely work together, and really change the Arma 3 experience, is a magnificent achievement. It’s so rich, and it brings a smile every time I load up the game.
Tuomas: The team. This absolute unit of people working together for a common goal like this is a beautiful thing to behold and be part of. People from all walks of life moving heaven and earth for years, despite all the personal challenges everyone has had, despite the hardware challenges, despite everything else, these people came together and worked their asses off for this magnificent experience we are now about to unleash.
What type of experience do you hope players will get from playing this DLC?
Rob: I hope they will come in expecting a Vietnam war game - M16's, napalm, Credence, and Charlie in the treeline - and instead have a revelation about what the experience must have been like for those brave indigenous and US soldiers of SOG. Fighting on the ground, massively outnumbered in Laos, desperately fleeing the NVA, is a gaming experience most won’t forget. I hope they enjoy the awesome SOG veteran interviews on our Youtube channel, and read veterans memoirs like John Striker Meyers “On the Ground." If more people know about MACV-SOG, the world will be a better place. What those guys did beggars belief. As Sam, our voice actor for Wild Carrot and El Cid, says, “It inspires me every day and puts my own problems in perspective.”
Tuomas: I have to echo Rob here and say that an immersive Vietnam war experience is what our players will hopefully find in the DLC. In addition, I hope what we have made here inspires others to create their own adventures and mods with what we have made and in addition to it.
And after a long day of work and creating new Arma 3 content, what do you like to do to relax and unwind?
Rob: I am primarily a gamer of course - that is my main way to relax - but I have also been studying martial arts for 25 years and that helps me empty my brain during a heavy week. I study under Sifu Chris Crudelli, and he’s a Buddhist first and kung fu master second. He helps keep things in perspective. I also love watching movies, eating Indian food, and trips to the local pub with my wife. We play Prairie Fire all day on Saturdays. That first moment listening at the LZ with my psyched team of game brothers, signals a sweet relief from the pressures of work. When we also get to play with SOG veterans watching, or actually in game, telling us their stories and showing such generosity and warm appreciation for our work, it’s an indescribable high-point.
Tuomas: More often than not after a long day of making content for Arma 3 as a DLC I unwind by making more content for Arma 3. I have several projects of my own that I truly enjoy making and it is indeed soothing and relaxing even though “making the same thing the whole day already.” I guess the context is different when making things out of my own imagination. I also hang out at the Arma Discord with the like-minded people I’d like to call friends and I play games, quite a lot. Adventure games have always been close to my heart: point and clicks, RPGs, and text adventures all have their time and place, as well as the occasional fast-paced arcade shooter and strategy games. When I’ve had enough screen time I make all kinds of other creative things, sometimes miniatures, sometimes jewelry, drawing, painting, etc. When the creative juice needs replenishing I enjoy watching movies and TV series with my wife and reading books.
What would be your top tip for other developers out there?
Rob: Sort out your contracts before you start planning your content in detail, but also be fair to people, and generous with pay and responsibility. Working this way requires a huge amount of cooperation across the team and we have learned that having terms clearly defined is vital to avoid ambiguity and confusion. We also have open-book accounting, something I learned working with government agencies, so there are no secrets about money. There will always be people who aren’t happy with what you do, but try your best to work with them, resolve disputes, and see it through. Also when you’re doing something for the first time, don’t beat yourself up if you make mistakes, it’s normal to mess up and this has been a huge learning exercise on mistakes to avoid next time.
Tuomas: Be brave and believe in yourself and your teammates when/if you have them. There will be times when things are rough, you are not alone in that and whatever challenges you face, it can be overcome when you apply yourself to it. Sometimes you fail too, but failing at something is not the end of it, take a breather, and try again. Learn from your mistakes.
A vortex is suddenly opened in the sky that begins to absorb all the video games in the world. The only games you can save is what you can grab securely in two hands. Assuming Arma 3 is one what is the one other game that you'll save to be played for the future?
Rob: Easy! Vietcong! Thank you Jarek Kolar, for making the game that changed all our lives, and is still the best Vietnam war game ever made... until now? (Joke)... We all owe him and his team a huge debt of inspiration. If we even come close to creating an experience comparable to that classic game, we’ve met a major personal life goal. When he praised our DLC on Twitter, we were ecstatic!
Tuomas: Command & Conquer remastered. The original C&C was the first PC game I bought with my own hard-earned summer work money and I was delighted that the remaster held the torch high honoring the original game.
The Arma 3 Creator DLC: S.O.G. Prairie Fire is available now on Steam!