The U.S. Army spent more than $4 million in taxpayer money to create a video game as a training tool, but gave itself no way to recoup its investment. When the game was a flop for training purposes, the game developers were free to market the product and rake in huge commercial profits at the stores. The Army got nothing.
Called Full Spectrum Warrior, the combat video game used official military battle tactics and doctrine and was supposed to help train Army recruits who had grown up playing video games, the so-called Xbox generation.
"We had subject matter experts assigned by the Army to the project from the very beginning all the way through," said Josh Resnick, president of Pandemic Studios, the company that developed Full Spectrum Warrior. "It was the only game that actually was commissioned by the U.S. Army."
But Army officers told ABC News that the battle tactics in the game were already out of date when they started using it, and its graphics and scenarios were too simplistic for use as a training tool. The contract the Army had signed gave all commercial rights from the game to the private Hollywood companies that developed it, including Sony Pictures Imageworks, leaving it with no way to make back the millions already sunk into the project.
In their defense, Sony Pictures Imageworks and its partners in Full Spectrum Warrior said they fully complied with their contract with the Army and gave the Army exactly what it called for, and now have the right to make as much profit as they can.
New Lessons in Training
The Army officials in charge say they have no regrets over what happened, and that Full Spectrum Warrior was a valuable research lesson for the future.
But advocates for taxpayers weren't quite as pleased.
"They have a game and it is really sitting on shelves collecting dust and they are not really using it," said Keith Ashdown, who investigated the deal for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based taxpayers group. "They have sold a million copies at $50 a copy and the Army got nothing in return."
The U.S. Army is spending several billion dollars on video simulations and games like Full Spectrum Warrior to help train recruits. In the game, U.S. soldiers make their way against insurgents with mosques in the background, moving through what could easily be Baghdad or Fallujah.
"We don't care about taxpayer groups, we don't care about a lot of the silly nonsense that people bring to you," said Michael Macedonia, chief scientist for the U.S. Army Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command. "Our focus is on training the soldier."
"You have to really use tactics as they're really used in the real Army, in war, in this game," said Peer Schneider, editorial director for IGN entertainment, an online guide for video games.
Even Better Than the Real Thing
Full Spectrum Warrior has been a $50 million hit at video stores, in part because players say they love the game's authenticity.
"It's just real cool that you know this is made by the military," said Sam Vongillen, one of the players at Game Time Nation, a gaming lounge in lower Manhattan. "I'm sure it's going to be a lot more authentic and realistic than a lot of games which I enjoy because they might be fast but this seems a lot more realistic."
It's been a great deal for the game's makers. At E3, the annual video game convention last week in Los Angeles, the makers announced a sequel to Full Spectrum Warrior, predicting another round of huge profits.
"They actually turned out to be really fun, really authentic great games," said Geoff Keighley, a longtime veteran journalist of the gaming world. "At the end of the day, if they're fun to play, that's what matters most."
But to Ashdown, the game represents wasted millions in taxpayer money, and that is a troubling bottom line that should not be ignored. "I think it starts with the Army," he said. "Nobody was minding the store."