This is a transcript of an interview I did with the Charlie Foxtrot community for ArmA2. A year or so after doing it, Charlie Foxtrot dissolved – I’ve rehosted the interview here for historical purposes.
Thank you for taking time to talk to us today. We really appreciate it
Thanks for having me.
What made you get into the game and community?
I found myself checking out the Operation Flashpoint demo shortly before going into the Marines in 2001 – it hooked me immediately, as it offered a level of freedom that was pretty much unheard of at that time. My enlistment into the Marines kept me from becoming too active in the community, though I did keep up to date on mods and tended to play OFP a great deal in singleplayer when I had the time for it. It wasn’t until 2004 that myself and some members of the Shacknews community started playing it in an MP capacity, and we quickly found it to be quite a bit of fun.
Unfortunately, I ended up shipping out to Okinawa shortly after that, which put my MP Flashpoint experiences on hold until after I EAS’d (expiration of active service) and made it back to the US in a civilian status. Once back I picked up the concept again, got some more of our “Shackbattles” happening, and shortly afterwards formed Shack Tactical. The more ShackTac grew, the more I found myself dealing with the general community, though even today I tend to spend much more time reading the forums than posting to them.
Can you tell us a bit about ShackTactical?
Sure! ShackTac was founded in January of 2006, making it a bit over three and a half years old at this point. We don’t openly recruit anywhere – we don’t even have a thread in the Bohemia Interactive forums about our group. Those who want to join seek us out on their own time, which starts a process through which we detail our expectations, standards, participation requirements, etc. We screen our new joins very carefully and are selective about who even makes it to the point of “pre-FNG”, which is our equivalent of a probationary status in the group. We strive to epitomize the “quality over quantity” concept. Fortunately, the initial screening and subsequent on-boarding process is quite effective, and in all our time we’ve only ever had to drop a handful of people for unsuitable behavior. Often when we part ways with applicants it’s because there is a mismatch between their needs and what we offer/expect – and when that happens we try to steer them towards friendly communities which we know will better suit them.
As a group, we tend to stick to ourselves and a large percentage of our members don’t play on any servers aside from our own. We have done some joint gaming with select other groups in the past, though this isn’t a regular thing for us – it’s certainly fun, though, and we enjoy seeing how other groups approach the game. We have our own thoughts on “how it’s meant to be played”, but recognize that everyone is entitled to interpret the game however they want, and we’re not arrogant enough to think that our way is “the only right way”. We’re certainly proud of what we’ve accomplished, though, and are happy to share thoughts on what has worked for us, what hasn’t, etc, in order to help others avoid mistakes that we’ve learned from in the past.
The great thing about the ArmA community is that it offers something for pretty much everyone – from hardcore milsim groups to totally casual experiences, as well as everything in between. We occupy what we would call the “serious fun” side of that scale – we’re not stuffy or rigid in how we play, we know that it’s all a game at the end of the day, and we’re all in it to have a good time. Our sessions – typically lasting eight hours or so of non-stop gaming – reflect this mentality as well, with us playing a wide variety of serious and not-so-serious missions throughout.
For those wanting to read a bit more about the group, you can find our site here: http://www.shacktac.com
How did the TTP guide start off?
The TTP has gone through three major iterations at this point – the very first one was for Operation Flashpoint, and was started in February of 2006 as a response to the biggest OFP session we’d experienced as a group at that point. While the members who comprised our group had been playing Flashpoint together prior to this (starting in 2004), ShackTac itself had just been established at that point – a month prior, in January of 2006. The original TTP – let’s call it OFP TTP for the sake of brevity – was simply a quick method to get everyone on the same page regarding the tactics, techniques, and procedures that would help us to live up to the potential inherent in playing large-scale games.
OFP TTP was oriented around explaining the basics of the game, the weapons, and the unique aspects of Flashpoint that weren’t immediately obvious to players. It was a way to share knowledge with the playerbase in a single resource that all could reference and learn from. OFP TTP ended up being around 12,000 words or so, and was updated one major time to add Wargames League information to it, due largely to the fact that WGL played very differently from ‘stock’ OFP and required more detail devoted towards getting the most out of it.
The next TTP, the ArmA1 TTP, was the one that most were first introduced to. This was a much larger work, hitting somewhere around 60,000 words in total and covering a huge variety of topics in-depth. The A1 TTP benefited from several things that happened within our group from OFP TTP to the US release of ArmA1. One of these was the introduction of our platoon structure, which allowed us to increase the complexity of the tactics we’d use as well as generally refine the way the group fought, communicated, as well as provide a standard that we could use when creating missions. A1 TTP came out to coincide with the US release of ArmA1, and it served us well as we transitioned over into the new game and brought in a slew of new players to the group.
The most recent TTP, the ArmA2 TTP, blew the prior two out of the water with regards to how much content it contained. Dwarfing both of the others at around 120,000 words, it took advantage of our group’s ever-increasing proficiency and went even more in-depth into every aspect of how we experience the game, from the basic grunt all the way up to platoon commander and everything in between. Like the prior two guides, it focused on game-practical TTPs that would find legitimate use within our gaming and not just sit around, dusty and unused. OFP TTP and ArmA1 TTP were the stepping stones that allowed us to get to the point that we’re now at with TTP2. It has been a hell of a lot of work to develop all of it through in-game and out-of-game testing, experience, research, etc – the A1 and A2 TTPs, combined, are about 9 (or more) months worth of effort – but the energy poured into it has paid off in spades through our gaming.
How does your military experience influence the way you look at and play the game?
There are many lessons that I’ve taken from the military and applied towards ShackTac, as well as my views on this sort of gaming in general. Strong leadership, responsibility, accountability, integrity, discipline – those are just a few of the concepts that I’ve found to be key to running a successful group, and I demand a lot from our members insofar as their attitudes, behavior, ethics, and so forth are concerned. The proud traditions and emphasis on history in the Marine Corps have acted as inspiration in many ways for how ShackTac approaches its group identity. The esprit-de-corps of belonging to such an exclusive brotherhood like the Marine Corps is something that I have tried hard to infuse into the ShackTac community, and I think it has paid off in how tightly-knit our group has become over time.
That’s the bulk of what my military experience means to me insofar as this particular game is concerned. There are a myriad number of other things that the USMC opened my eyes to regarding military service, but the biggest benefit was being able to experience that level of camaraderie, see how it was cultivated and maintained, and use that to help frame how ShackTac would operate. At a higher level, there is so much more that could be said about how beneficial I feel being in the Marines was, but I won’t bore you with the details – suffice it to say that if I had the choice again, I’d do it all over without hesitation.
In what way is virtual training used in the USMC. And to what degree is it integrated in the standard training protocol?
The Marines make use of VBS2 for all manner of tasks, from firearms training to convoy operations, calling for fire/CAS/medevac, learning about enemy tactics, counter-IED training, mission rehearsals, etc. There are dozens and dozens of different types of training that are done via VBS2, or with it playing some part in the training. There are some articles to be found on the vbs2.com site if you dig around a bit, too.
Have you guys switched to ArmA2 already?
We haven’t yet. We run our A2 server alongside our A1 server and tend to play a weekly session on it each Sunday, but ArmA1 and the ACE mod are still our standard for now in our primary Saturday sessions. We have no hard date set for when we’ll transition over – ideally, we’d like to see a few more VON fixes before making the change, as we use VON extensively in A1 and depend on it to get the most out of our gaming. ACE2 being released would of course act as another incentive to get us to switch.
What kind of scenarios do you play and how would you describe the difference between a regular clan playing these and ShackTactical?
We end up playing a mix of cooperative and adversarial game types – while the exact ratio differs as time passes, we’ve lately been hitting about a 70% adversarial, 30% coop mix; perhaps 60/40 at times as well.
Generally speaking, our missions revolve around infantry combat, without many supporting assets or fancy weapons. We stick to a platoon structure that has every player using a weapon with a reflex or ironsight optic – magnified optics are very, very rare to see. Our anti-tank assets typically are AT4s and SMAWs, with Javelins being incredibly rare. In short, we like a tough fight, and we equip ourselves accordingly. When we have air support, it’s often in the form of something basic like an AH-6 or a Blackhawk with an M240 on it. We generally avoid stronger air assets, and when they are employed, they’re done so in careful moderation to ensure that the infantry gets a tough fight without the air “stealing all the fun”.
ShackTac members aren’t looking for easy, pat-yourself-on-the-back scenarios that use endless respawns to ensure that defeat can never happen. We’re always looking for hard fights, and we want our triumphs to be earned through skill, determination, and the proper coordinated application of infantry tactics at the platoon level. If we don’t play at the top of our games, we expect to be defeated. Any defeats we suffer are their own special type of fun, and apart from entertaining us as we spectate the remainder of our platoon getting chopped to bits in a brutal mission, they also inspire to do better next time, refine our tactics, and learn from our mistakes to ensure that we’re a better team because of it.
We play no-respawn scenarios as a rule, though we have experimented with limited respawns in creative ways that attempt to resolve the issues that we feel exist with respawn as a general concept. So far they’ve been quite successful, though we expect no-respawn to remain as our primary play method for the foreseeable future.
As far as mission variety goes – we play all sorts of different types of scenarios. Our typical playercount is from 50-70 players, so we have a lot of flexibility in what type of scenarios we craft, whether intended for coop or adv. All of our scenario development is done in-house, and at last count we had over 650 ShackTac-developed ArmA1 missions on our server.
Our coops can come in a wide variety of flavors – from heliborne ops to convoys, platoon attacks, raids, defenses, etc, along with all sorts of other types. Adversarial scenarios show even more variety, as we’re able to take advantage of the human-vs-human dynamics to get extremely creative with objectives, scenario concepts, etc. We take full advantage of ArmA’s VON system and have developed a myriad number of scenarios that integrate it into the mission dynamics.
A good example of the kind of creative and unique experiences our playerbase gets in our gaming can be found in the “Paradrop!” AAR I wrote up in early 2008, which you can read here: https://dslyecxi.com/articles/arma_airborne.html
It’s hard to go into any more detail on our mission types without writing pages and pages about the subject.
What would you consider your best Flashpoint/ArmA moment of all time?
Wow. Waaaaaay too many to definitively pick a “best moment”. There are a few that jump to mind that I’m rather fond of – I’ll go into detail on one of my favorites.
This happened in a scenario where a platoon-sized force of RACs (players) was set to patrol a few villages in the dead of night. I was on the opfor team, acting as one of a handful of insurgents who were tasked with disrupting or destroying the patrol. We had two players tagging along with the RACs as “war correspondents”, one of whom was filming while the other guy tried to interview people as they made their way into and through the patrol area. We had predicted that the enemy would approach the area from one particular direction, and I found myself in position, waiting for them, with the single sniper rifle in the scenario and a paltry 10 rounds for it – when facing 30-40+ enemies! As mentioned earlier, scoped weapons are very rare in our missions, and when we do employ them we limit the ammunition severely.
I watched as the RACs trucks pulled up and dismounted their troops near a woodline about five hundred meters away, downhill from us. The troops hopped out and ran around, taking cover behind trees, bushes, and anything else they could find. The full platoon was there, though you could only see handfuls of them at a time due to the majority of them being in concealment or cover. I wasn’t about to risk a shot on a moving target at that range, so I waited and watched.
After a short period of time, the two war reporters showed up in plain view, looking for someone to interview. Other soldiers ran around near them, moving from position to position. I watched the reporters through the scope, waiting…. waiting. Some hapless RACs soldier wandered by and turned towards them, halting to say a few words.
That was my cue. A single shot raced off, dropping and crossing the distance in an instant. The RACs soldier crumpled to the ground mid-sentence, and the horrified reporters scrambled away. After seeing the soldier fall, I relocated back to a different position – as I was doing so, the RACs players started throwing flares up and firing .50cals, rifles, machineguns, and everything else they had. Problem was, they were shooting at a location I hadn’t ever been at to begin with.
Seeing the video of this after-the-fact from the war reporters was the icing on the cake. It was a textbook sniper attack – a single shot, out of nowhere, that dropped a player and sent the rest into a flurried and panicked response. It was great, and a perfect example of the unique experiences you can get from ArmA. What made it even better was finding out that it was Fer – project lead of the BAS f and F2 mission frameworks, and the mission’s author – who I had ended up shooting. Haha. Bet he regretted putting that SVD in there after that.
That sort of scenario is what sniping means to me in ArmA – a few rounds, a large and dangerous enemy threat comprised of skilled human players, and zero margin for error. It’s scenarios like that which have been used to develop the ShackTac TTP regarding sniper employment as well, and I think it adds a level of validity to it when you know that the TTPs for sniping in our group have been developed through player-vs-player sniping, and not simply shooting AI that may or may not react.
You can see the video of the shooting here, from the war reporter’s cameraman perspective:
Last interview we did was with Seth Steiling of Naturalpoint. You are a big supporter of TrackIR. How would describe the value add of using TrackIR in gamer terms?
TrackIR has been the biggest change to how I play games, without a doubt. I can remember being quite excited to hear that it was going to be supported in ArmA1, and after playing A1 with it, I was happy to see that my expectations were met. Since then, they’ve gone from the TrackIR4 to the TrackIR5, with an accompanying boost through improvements made in ArmA2. I’ve done a number of videos for it in ArmA1, but my most recent one is in A2 and covers the TIR5 itself and what it brings to that particular game. You can find that video here.
I really can’t imagine playing ArmA1 or 2 without a TrackIR at this point. The immersion and situational awareness boost that it brings is incredible. The ArmA forums are full of people who echo that sentiment as well.
To be more specific – flying, in particular, is a completely different experience with a TrackIR compared to without one. I wouldn’t be half as good of a pilot as I am now if not for having the freedom that my TIR gives me. Using it as an infantryman takes a bit more practice, but once you’ve mastered that, it adds a whole new dimension to the game as well. It all ultimately boils down to situational awareness, and in a game like ArmA, that’s a key aspect of your success, not to mention your survival. I highly recommend them.
You work professionally with VBS2, that seems like the dream job for many guys.
On the one hand, it can be quite rewarding to create content that will ultimately be used to save lives. There’s a real feel-good aspect of it because of that, and it’s great to sit down with military service members or contractors and work out a new set of training possibilities for them. Going on-site and seeing the sorts of simulation center setups they have is likewise rewarding and fascinating, and I enjoy that side of things immensely.
On the other hand, when it comes to playing ArmA1/2 as a hobby, VBS2 can be quite a downer to deal with. While the general community probably gives VBS2 too much credit re: how much “better” it is than the commercial games, there are some undeniable aspects of VBS2 that are painful to see restricted to it, and not brought over to ArmA2. A look at the Biki’s VBS2 scripting reference shows one side of this well – there are dozens of new commands in it that really should be in ArmAx, yet aren’t. The mod community would find so many new possibilities if they had access to these commands, and the overall community would benefit greatly from it. Some of them are understandably restricted to paying VBS2 customers, but others are frustratingly powerful and inaccessible to the gaming community. It’s a real shame that there isn’t more cross-pollination, so to speak, between the two series.
When you skip away from the scripting commands, there are two other major aspects that I desperately wish were part of the ArmA series. The first is the Offline Mission Editor/Real-Time Editor (OME/RTE). This is used both to create missions as well as edit them while they’re running. While I can’t say that I have a great deal of experience with the ArmA2 “3d editor”, I can say with confidence that from what I last saw of it, the VBS2 version is far, far nicer in usage and just generally awesome to deal with. It feels like a major step backwards anytime I go from VBS2 editing at work, to ArmA2 editing at home. The normal 2d editor in ArmA2 is a creativity-blocker. I wish they would magically pull the VBS2 OME over into ArmA2 – even without the realtime during-mission editing aspect to it. You would see far more interest in mission editing if the interface of the A2 editor(s) incorporated some of the ideas and features from the VBS2 one(s).
The second thing I would love to see ported over would be the after-action review module. Being able to record a scenario and play it back from any angle is simply amazing. The ability to go through an hour-long scenario minute-by-minute, until you’ve pinned down exactly what event caused the outcome to go a specific way, is utterly fascinating and of incredible value to any groups that are interested in self-improvement. I don’t expect this AAR module to ever be released in a civilian game, sadly, but I can still dream that some day it might. I’d happily shell out a great deal of money to buy a “server license” of such an AAR tool, and I bet there are plenty of other communities that would feel the same. It’s a real shame that a game like BF2 can come with an AAR-esque tool, yet a game like ArmA is lacking such a thing.
The final note regarding “working with VBS2” is that of burnout. It can be a struggle to *work* on VBS2 during the day, then deal with ArmAx stuff in the evening. Maintaining a healthy tempo and balance between the two, as well as good compartmentalization of them, is key to preventing one from simply burning out on it all. So far I’ve managed to do that. Here’s hoping it holds out.