BLOG: Playing risky games – seriously?
09 Jun 12 | By Tim Mahon
For all those of us who have not been cosying up to a banded Gila monster in the Mojave desert for the last couple of years, it has been glaringly obvious that serious games have found their niche in the training and simulation community and are here to stay. Companies that have come from the games industry have leveraged excellent marketing skills to assuage some of the growing demand of the ‘digital native’ generation of young soldiers for high fidelity and hyper realistic visual scenarios. Tens of thousands of licences for games engines have been sold to military and governmental users around the world, and building scenarios and entire training solutions based on these engines has been a burgeoning and profitable business for a growing number of companies.
But is the gravy train about to enter a siding? Is there a new business model around the corner?
We talk frequently about the emergence of the ‘intelligent customer’ – the military acquisition community that ‘gets’ what commercial off the shelf solutions can do for it, especially in the current (and probably lasting) era of budget austerity. Stressing this does not indicate the customer was unintelligent before, we view the emergence of this beast as ‘a good thing,’ with fringe benefits for all. But is there a hidden issue that may shortly come to light?
In the wider defence context, authorities such as the UK Ministry of Defence are throwing increasing weight behind the development of open systems architectures for everything from word processing to sophisticated sensors. The Generic Vehicle Architecture espoused by the MoD seeks to mandate an open architecture for all military vehicles and their embedded subsystems, with the objective in mind of true ‘plug and play’ as opposed to ‘plug and pray’ for replacement or upgraded systems over a vehicle life that may exceed 30 years. That’s another ‘good thing,’ surely.
Well – yes. But there may be a sting in the tail. If you extend the same thought process, it quickly becomes apparent that there must be considerable interest in leveraging the capabilities of games engines for alternative scenarios, additional training requirements or across systems and equipment for which the ‘standard’ engine was not originally optimised.
And that means that military customers may now be demanding access to the engine code. Rather than buying a license to operate across a defined number of seats in traditional fashion, the military is increasingly likely to demand access to source code and a license to exploit the technology in relatively unlimited fashion. Which demands a new business model being implemented by the industry.
There’s a problem, however. Product liability. Taking the example of Unreal Engine 3, recently licensed to the US Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center to teach decision-making skills for medical personnel prior to foreign deployment, what happens if – even years from now – severe injury or death results from an error being made by an individual trained using this system? In our increasingly litigious society, might the deceased’s family sue the manufacturer of the engine at the heart of the teaching system? And doesn’t that make it difficult if not impossible for a responsible commercial organisation to agree to the customer demand for access to source code? If there is a future product liability risk, the last thing you want to agree to is to allow people over whom you have little or no control to tinker with your intellectual property.
One answer, of course, would be to adopt William Shakespeare’s solution and kill all the lawyers. On a more pragmatic level, however, I regret not having a more graceful solution. If I had one, you would find it for sale in small bottles on the ‘Snake Oil’ section of the TSF website.
Instead, let’s pose the question to the community at large. How do you balance the emerging requirements for flexibility in contracting with protection of the IP your shareholders have invested in? Is this a storm in a teacup and there is actually a viable, practical solution at our fingertips already? Or is it going to become a pervasive and increasingly pressing problem? Let us know your views.