October 10, 2005 by: Daniel Duane
Here’s what I learned first, in my interrogation of Navy SEAL operator
Rob Roy, the long-time military consultant for the SOCOM franchise and the
real human behind the game character Wardog: I learned that his father was a
steel worker, his mother did housekeeping at a hospital, and he was born in
the seriously poor and seriously small town of Sunflower, Mississippi, a
largely crime-free black and Hispanic farming community of about 700 souls,
between Indianola and Doddsville. He grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the
1970s, which he says was “a very tough place, despite the Happy Days
images.” In the wake of the Vietnam war and the violence of the civil rights
movement, inner city life was marked by racism, violence, and crime, with
drugs and alcohol on every street corner. “There’s this thing I call the
ghetto claw,” Rob says, “that pulls you in just as hard as you’re
pushing to leave. I can’t believe I made it out and became a Navy SEAL.”
I was asking all this because I don’t play shooters. And I don’t want to play shooters. And yet SOCOM II sucked me in so hard and fast that I finally had to give the disc to my wife and tell her to hide it somewhere. And it’s not just that I like blowing up stuff and killing bad guys. It’s that I respond in a curious way to the whole squad strategy aspect; I find that barking and receiving voice commands over the PlayStation 2 headset—actually talking to my fellow SEALs, and worrying about their health, and loving it when they do a dirty job well—gives me this surprisingly personal affinity for them, as if they weren’t just AI constructs. (I haven’t gone on-line yet, because I know I’ll get waxed in seconds flat; I want to get my chops together first). But the whole experience feels so human, and it made me want to understand something of real life SEALs, and especially of their relationship to the game.
For Rob, who not only consults on SOCOM, but appears on the box art, it turns out that the Navy was all about escaping the inner city. “I knew that life wasn’t for me,” he says. “I wanted to see the world.” He hadn’t even graduated from high school when he walked into a recruiter’s office. “I can remember the only thing he said was, ‘You’ll learn a lot!’ No speech…no touching words – just his no frills way of offering a ticket out.” The SEALs were more elusive in those days, with less presence in movies and the public eye, and Rob spent four years as an aircraft carrier before he even heard about them. “I was stationed in Rota, Spain, where I first met a Navy SEAL,” Rob says. “He took the time to tell me about all the physical training - running in soft sand, long ocean swims, weapons training, the explosives and the secret nature of the SEALs.”
In the first few weeks of BUD/s—Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training—115 out of 173 candidates dropped out. “It tests you physically and mentally in ways you could never prepare,” Rob says. “216 hours of no sleep. When he graduated 6 months later, in 1987, only 28 guys were left. Rob was an operational SEAL for the next eighteen years. “I have seen and done everything you could imagine,” he says, “but the job also came with certain sacrifices to family, friends and relationships. It’s hard to compare it to anything else, because it’s not your typical job. There is so much riding on the line - more so then your career, or your reputation, -- it’s your teammates’ lives and the faith of the nation.”
There is also, of course, your reputation among your teammates, which might have encouraged Rob to make the SOCOM games as realistic as possible—to encourage his fellow SEALs, as he puts it, “to appreciate and even embrace the SOCOM series.” Thus the emphasis on teamwork and stealth, the intel, and weapons selection—the importance of paying attention to detail, avoiding contact with unnecessary threats. Rob admits that the gear works better in the game than in real life, and that the intel is generally more accurate, but still, he says, “The game is as close as most people can get without joining the military. Each player experiences real combat stress, especially if one of your teammates is shot and you have to change strategy. When you’ve got the headset on and you’re playing for hours, your blood pressure starts to rise and you begin to sweat and it’s all about your men.” Rob even insists that he approaches the game the same way he’d approach a real op. “I’ve always used my skills as a real SEAL, and my battle experience, to approach game play, from using suppressed weapons to shooting the fewest bullets possible.”
Apparently, everyone else does, too. A lot of on-line SOCOM Clans, Rob says, practice the same noise discipline as real SEAL teams, limiting their chatter to precise commands. “SOCOM has implemented this into the game,” Rob says, “in order for gamers to develop the same sort of relationships without going to BUD/s. I’ve played against Clans that were as organized as any real SEAL team and got spanked.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Rob sees SOCOM as a potential aid in recruitment, although one that attracts a different breed. “The recruits that play games are not lured by the promise of travel, college or a military career,” he says. “It’s the adventure, the adrenaline. So here’s the sale: this is who we are and this is what we do and if you’re good at this, maybe someday you can do it for real.”
If I weren’t way too old, I’d take a good long look at Rob’s journey—from Sunflower, Mississippi to Special Operations Command—and wonder if maybe the SEALs were right for me. But of course I’m not too old to join a Clan, and as soon as SOCOM III comes around—and before my wife gets ahold of the disc—I know I’ll be heading over to the on-line recruiting office.
BOULDER CITY, Nev. — Rob Roy(SEAL) clearly enjoys a good gun. Like the 300 Win Mag sniper rifle.
"Up to 1,000 metres you can shoot a guy in the chest," Roy said appreciatively. "Guys that are really good with it shoot them in the head."
His interest comes honestly since guns used to be the tools of Roy's trade, helping keep him alive. Roy spent 25 years in the U.S. military, include 20 as a member of the navy's elite Seals team.
The 45-year-old former chief petty officer now serves as a consultant, and video gamers around the world have benefited from his Seals skills thanks to Roy and colleagues helping with the "Socom: U.S. Navy Seals" franchise.
The latest instalment is "Socom: U.S. Navy Seals Confrontation," an online-only game for the PlayStation 3 developed by Vancouver's Slant Six Games studio. "Confrontation" is due out in mid-October.
While the U.S. military doesn't endorse any product, it has a relationship with the video game developers. No money changes hands but the game is a potent advertisement for the Seals.
And Roy - who is the character Wardog in the franchise - says the Socom series is true to the Seals' weapons, tactics and style. Aimed largely at the online community, with gamers communicating via headsets, it tries to offer a genuine team-based third-person shooter experience.
"The game has some artificiality but you have to have that in any game to be a competitive game on the market." he explained in an interview. "But I think because of the gear and the way the guys walk and the way they swim and everything, it does exude Sealness. And there's nothing else on the market like it, as far as having that kind of relationship.
"There are other games on the market with that branding of the military. They're crap games. We do go the extra mile of ensuring that it's close to the real thing. Of course we don't want al-Qaida playing the game and then going 'Hey, the Seals are going to come in the door this way,' so it's as close as it can be."
Roy says more than a few Seals are gamers.
"Team guys are competitive in everything. So it's like playing your namesake."
Sony played up that angle with a TV ad for "Socom: U.S. Navy Seals," showing a group of online gamers, connected via headsets in dorm and other rooms, getting smoked during a game session. "Who are these guys?" asks one frustrated wide-eyed gamer. The ad cuts to a military tent and four soldiers gathered around a TV. "Like shooting fish in a bucket," says one as they high-five each other.
For Allen Goode, lead game designer at Slant Six, the Seals are a breed apart.
"They're amazing. They're really cool, considering they're trained killers," he said. "They're strangely down to earth. In general it's easy to talk to them. They don't really hold back, they let you know all the little gritty details without getting into details of where they're actually getting into the combat."
The Seals - it stands for Sea, Air and Land - are the elite special operations forces of the U.S. navy. There are just 1,700, including some 300 officers, currently active and wearing the Seals' coveted trident pin.
They're proud but not loud. Seals are team players who endure months of training - including a "Hell Week" during BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition School/Seal) that features 5 1/2 days of continuous training on less than four hours of sleep. On average, only a quarter of trainees make it through Hell Week.
Roy says the secret is to take it one day or task at a time.
"If you take the entire program, the two years it takes to actually to become a Seal ... then you won't do it, it's just too much, it's too much information, you have to learn too much. If I thought about running 36 miles every week at the beginning and upwards, up to 70 miles a week, and swimming two miles a day, it's too much. But they start you off in baby steps. As long as you're able to do those baby steps, then at the end you're able to run those long miles.
"The Seals are the only training program that push you beyond your limit. We open the doors to everybody but only a few people want to stay. But in order for you to reach that plateau, you have to do all these things like everybody else. . . . from the same training we all know and respect each other for what we have all gone through. Is it difficult? Yes, it's extremely difficult. Is it impossible? It isn't."
Veterans like Roy offer details that work into every aspect of the game, according to Goode.
"We use them throughout the entire development of the project right from square one. ... They'll literally sit down with us and teach us about tactics and teamwork and how they use it in the field.
"A lot of people don't really realize the amount of details that goes into how they hold and fire their weapon, if your elbow should be in, so it really helps from an animation point of view - the correct look of our Seals, our characters, how they should move in the game, all the way to the design of how the weapon should actually function. It's everything, what scopes are used and what weapons and actual gear they'll actually take out into the zone with them."
Six Seals, four active and two retired, put on a show for visiting video game journalists at the remote Desert Lake Shooting Club recently outside Las Vegas. Ignoring the 42-degree heat, they peppered metal targets and a junked vehicle in the quarry-like range with everything from assault rifles to a booming 50-calibre gun.
"The Seals are surgical shooters," explained Roy.
"We're not allowed to go into somebody's house and just kill everybody," he added. "We're supposed to shoot the person who's supposed to die. No matter what else is going on, you have to shoot the person who's supposed to die. So that's why the weapons are the way they are."
Fancy laser and other sights help accomplish that goal.
"The person with the most sophisticated weapon is usually the winner. Not all the time, because it depends on the environment," Roy noted.
Snow, water and dust can play havoc with special optics, so sometimes the basic iron sights are the best option.
"It's like an extension of your arm," Roy said. "You point it, you shoot it. Bam, you're good to go."
The Socom franchise - there have been four games for the PS2 and three for the PSP - has sold more than 10.5 million copies and remains a hit in PlayStation's online community. The initial version of the game shipped with the PS2 network adaptor in 2002, ensuring it was the first online experience for many PlayStation gamers.
"Confrontation" will come with seven game maps, with more to follow online. Each of those can be played in day and night mode, with seven different game modes (team suppression, breach, demolition, escort, control, extract, elimination). Depending on the map, the game can support eight, 16 or 32 players.
Expect urban combat, on foot, up-close and personal.
Goode says the first thing to do when you get hold of "Confrontation" is start making friends online. The game is structured so a group of regular gamers can prosper as a so-called clan.
"The big thing with all of these games that come out within the design is they're all about community," he said. "I strongly recommend if you don't have friends that have PS3s, when you start playing, start making them, add them to your buddy list.
"And as soon as you have a good group of friends that you're playing with all the time, then the enjoyment level goes up a billion times when you're playing an online game. Having a good group of guys is essential, for sure."
Slant Six, which has about 100 employees, also developed the PSP title "Socom: U.S. Navy Seals Tactical Strike."Copyright © 2008 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.