The ex-SAS soldier and best-selling author on what he told EA Dice about the nature of combat
Famed for his explosive SAS memoir Bravo Two Zero, and now the author of dozens of fictional military thrillers, Andy McNab is a pretty good person to go to if you're concerned with creating an authentic combat game. The decorated ex-soldier worked with EA Dice through the last year of development on Battlefield 3, helping with mission design, dialogue and motion capture sessions. He has also written a tie-in novel, Battlefield 3: The Russian, which explores the activities of special forces operator Dima, who appears as a non-playable character in the game.
But what has he really been able to draw from his covert missions in hotspots around the world? And has his work as a security adviser helped in the task of describing war to a bunch of coders and artists? We spoke to him last week, to find out.
You haven't been heavily involved with a video game before. What drew you to Battlefield 3?
The story. It's as simple as that. Normally, when you're approached by a games company, they just want you to jump on at the end as a marketing tool, or do a bit of motion capture. But when the call came from EA Dice, I went out to Stockholm and the guys there just seemed to get it – they wanted to progress the story-side. You've got to have a lot more than just shooting in games now, you've got to have that sense of engagement.
The first things EA Dice showed me were the scripts – and they had a sense of character, of emotion, of connection. That was what did it for me. And my first job was helping with the writing, coming up with plausible bridges between missions, doing some of the dialogue. Military speak is very progressive and positive. No one says, "Well, we'll try to get to X by 9am", it's all about you will do this, I will do that, this will happen. The point of that is, if you start with a moment of doubt, when things get worse, doubt becomes failure. It's got to be positive from the start. And it's all about brevity – military language is not as formal as we think it is.
And I spent time with the designers and artists, looking at the aesthetics – the right use of weapons, different ranges of fire, operations in urban and desert environments. I worked with the stuntmen and actors in the motion capture studios, showing them how to hold their guns. The team just wanted everything to look right.
This may sound like a stupid question, but are there moments in Battlefield that have reminded you of genuine missions you've been on?
Oh yes, certainly some of the urban stuff. There's quite a lot of action in Tehran, and through the Middle Eastern architecture, it does look very similar to Iraq. The tank section of the game is based on the earthworks that were built along the Iran/Iraq borders during their war. There were huge infantry battalions based around these earthworks. Four or five years ago, I was flying along the border with the Americans – I was working for a private security company at the time – and I saw these almost medieval constructions.
So I took a couple of pictures and when we were going through the tank levels in the game, I dug out them out, sent them over and Dice produced exact replicas in the game. There's an American tank commander who served out in Fallujah and now works for EA Dice in the US – he said the tank level is better than a military simulator.
A lot of people aren't comfortable with the idea of gamers indulging in war simulations for fun. Are you completely OK with it?
Yes! People have always been fascinated by war – games are just another medium for that. There have been war films since the beginning of cinema – you could go along to the Saturday morning pictures and watch John Wayne kill 100 Japanese soldiers in 10 minutes. It's all part of the same thing. And the big arguments about games inducing violence – they're a load of nonsense; violence has always been there. And possibly, the reason the crime rate is declining in the US is that people are now staying in and exploring violence through games rather than going out and beating people up.
It's the same with films and books. I've been blamed for a bank robbery in America somewhere; I've been blamed for a couple of murders. But look… take Chicago and Toronto: they're separated by two lakes, nothing more, the TV is the same, their influences are the same, but Chicago's crime rate is up here and Toronto's is way down there. How can that be? Is it a cultural thing? I don't know.
Are the emotions that you experience in shooter anywhere near the emotions you genuinely face in real-life missions? Are there any similarities at all?
Yes, there are. Once you're engaged with the character, you're part of it. You get fear, anxiety, you get the same rush of endorphins if you're successful; obviously it's all at different levels because it's just entertainment. You don't get wet, cold and hungry! Also, some people have gamers down as solitary and geeky, but that's not the case. It's very social, you're in touch with 16 other gamers in Japan, the US, all over the world.
And soldiers tend to be very good at shooters don't they?
Absolutely. The military uses games to as a teaching tool; soldiers in training have always used games. Conflict is progressing, it's becoming more about stand-off attack – you don't want to face the enemy, because people get killed. So war is becoming much more technical and soldiers do play a lot of games. They get it.
Which are some of the key weapons in Battlefield, do you think? Which are the most authentic?
The RPG works very well, certainly in the urban environments. We spent a lot of time working on that, getting it right, especially the signature left by the back blast. Everyone always expects a big explosion from an RPG, but you don't get that – it's designed to penetrate armour.
And with RPGs in shooting games you'll often get a guy who'll just stand right up and fire. Well, in real-life, sometimes you see them sometimes you don't; what you're looking for is the signature of the back blast, which is quite distinctive, it's a noisy signature. That's in the game, and it should help players find where the fire is coming from.
The M4 carbine is in a lot of games, but it works very well here. The animation in BF3 captures the way that soldiers manipulate these weapons, the different fixtures on the safety catch, whether it's on single shot or auto, all that sort of stuff. Even down to the moments where you have stoppage and you'll just tip the gun to see what's going on – if the working parts are back, you need a new magazine. So you'll just tip and look. That's in the game animation. Geeky things like that.
We spent a lot of time talking about the helicopter gunships, the 40mm cannons, the way that bullet casings come down like rain – that really does happen. So we played with that. Also, they asked me if the gunship would just stay still and hover over the battlefield. I said of course it will; the crew are like, "We've got a big gun, we're heavily armoured, what are you going to do about it?" There's this attitude, "we will go forward" and we've got to get that in the game.
It's about changing people's perceptions. If you have a line of machine guns pointing one in one direction, you think they're going to stitch the wall in a nice line – it doesn't work that way. When rounds fall, they fall in an oval shape, so instead of having the guns facing outwards, you have two slightly turned to each other – that way you have a bigger Beaten Zone. So often you'll get players asking, what's that machine gun doing up there? And actually, it's doing its job because you want the fire to be coming in from the flank, so the Beaten Zones cross. The Germans worked it out in the first world war. That's why we lost so many soldiers at battles like Passchendaele.
You've also talked a lot about ensuring a lived-in look for the vehicles, and about how tanks end up being heavily customised by their crews…
Yeah, I mean, people live in them! They customise them as much as possible. If they can get hold of a barbecue, they'll stick it on there. Some crews, certainly in Iraq, they were nicking air conditioning units and trying to rig them up in the tanks. They plug in their iPods. That's their home. Even in mechanised battalions, in Warriors and all that, they'll get as much of their equipment as they can on the outside, to make sure they can make the inside more comfortable. Everyone wants chargers for their phones in there! And there are mugs everywhere because they're continually getting brews on….
There's a lot of cynicism among the soldiers in Battlefield 3 – they're often very sceptical, even sarcastic, about their mission objectives. Is that realistic?
Yes, I think it's in every soldier's job description! They've always got to moan, they've always got to be saying, 'what the fuck's he on about… oh well, we'll get on and do it'. It's not all, 'yeah, let's go!'. It's not like that, people aren't like that. Everyone just takes the piss out of each other all the time. When they're not taking the piss is when you've got to worry.
The multiplayer element of Battlefield 3 really highlights the importance of good communications between infantry and air force. Is that realistic?
There are occasions where infantry just talk directly to the pilots. There are voice procedures, but if you've got a guy on the ground screaming for support, the pilot can just say "Shut up, where are you, what can you see? Mark it for me." Then they come in and say "Right. I've got it."
But there is a lot of chaos and confusion?
Yes, and I've explained that to the team. With the night mission in Tehran, when you're coming in to the city, I spent ages talking to them about the light flares and what they do as they descend – the shadows they cast, the usual confusion… we've played around with that a lot.
Can I ask you quickly, as a security adviser, what do you think about the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa? Did anyone see the Arab spring and the fall of Gaddafi coming?
No. There's this thing called "the future character of conflict", and both in the commercial military world and the state military world missed all this, it didn't hit anyone's radar. If anything, people were getting more concerned about central Asia. It remains to be seen whether this is all a good thing. I think everyone is relieved that Gaddafi is dead rather than going to the ICC – no one wanted him there. Why would they? It would give him a voice. Now it's cut, it's done, he's dead.
Now it's about keeping out of the way of the NTC, because there's that void to fill – they have to manage themselves. As soon as it was over, they were saying, "OK Nato, out!." That's the right way to do it. It's been about mentoring the NTC. They've got to be in charge of their own destiny. You don't want the Europeans stomping around out there.
If you were still in active service with the SAS, where do you think you would be now?
In Afghanistan probably, in a task force there. Since November, most of the Nato special forces have been all about malleting the leadership of the Taliban. The process of transition has begun in the country; the Afghan national army control Kabul now and have actually been quite successful. So the plan is to remove the hardcore leadership of the Taliban so you're left with people who you can negotiate with. I was out there just before Cameron in November last year and I got a brief that the task forces had malleted about 1,400 Taliban in a 90-day period. It was a huge operation. That's what it's all about – the run up to the point at which combat troops are withdrawn; they're going no matter what – late 2014, probably 2015. They will go, because it will be election time.
So where do you think the next conflict hotspots will be for western powers?
There are many of them – and again it's about assessing the future character of conflict. What all military forces do is assess energy and food security and the routes to and from trade partners. Food and water, we're all right on, so it'll be energy and trade routes – conflicts on the east and west coasts of Africa, possibly. The Americans, I think, still have an aircraft carrier fleet off the west coast protecting that flank. Our energy out of north Africa seems pretty secure now, it's the east and west coast that might be problem…
Battlefield 3 is released on Friday for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.
From: The Guardian