Blackwater game aims for fun, not controversy
LOS ANGELES—In the world of video games, realism reigns supreme, but the makers of a game based on the infamous private security firm Blackwater are intentionally steering clear of it.
There's no blood, the enemies are fictional and civilians can't be killed. With no moral dilemmas in "Blackwater," it's simply a matter of shoot -- or be shot.
"It's a game," said Erik Prince, the company's founder. "This is not a training device. This is not a simulator. We're not doing this to teach folks how to conduct military operations in an urban terrain. That's not it at all. This is more along the lines of kids running around their neighborhood playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians."
Prince partnered with developer Zombie Studios and publisher 505 Games to create the game using Microsoft Corp.'s motion-sensing Kinect technology for the Xbox 360. The camera-based system detects players' movements as they dodge enemy fire, kick down doors and lunge across rooftops while shooting foes across virtual battlefields in a fictional North African country.
The game's protagonists are a team of made-up Blackwater operatives tasked with protecting aid workers and other dignitaries in a volatile nation overrun by a warlord named General Limbano. Along the way, the four-man team -- with each member armed with a different type of weapon -- must blast away the hordes of encroaching minions.
The game is Prince's first attempt to leverage Blackwater as a brand. After founding the company in 1997, the former NAVY Seal stepped away from daily operations in 2009 but retained licensing rights to the Blackwater name. The security firm, which is still in operation and is now called Xe Services, was sold to investor group USTC Holdings last year.
Blackwater, which provided services to the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, drew criticism from members of Congress and others after a 2007 shooting in Baghdad that killed 17 people. Those accusations were thrown out after a judge found prosecutors mishandled evidence, but the case was resurrected this year by a federal appeals court.
The game, which is scheduled for release Oct. 25, isn't an attempt to convalesce Blackwater's reputation, according to Prince. He said his motivation was to ultimately create an active and engaging shooter that would make players' entire bodies sore instead of just their thumbs. Still, Prince recognizes not everyone will want to push the start button.
"I think anyone who sticks their neck out in life will be attacked in some quarters for doing it," said Prince. "I'm fully comfortable with that. Some people are not always going to like Blackwater, but there are many millions of people that do like Blackwater. I'm not out to rehabilitate an image. We're out to provide a good experience and enjoyable game."
"Blackwater" isn't the first shoot-'em-up game to depict private military contractors or court controversy.
The 2008 cooperative third-person shooter "Army of Two" and its 2010 sequel from Electronic Arts Inc. focused on a pair of former Army Rangers carrying out missions for cash in such locales as Afghanistan, Iraq and China on behalf of a fictional security firm.
Electronic Arts switched the name of virtual combatants in the multiplayer mode of the military shooter "Medal of Honor" from "Taliban" to "Opposing Force" after the game was banned from being sold at U.S. military bases in 2010.
"Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2" from Activision Blizzard Inc. included a skippable level when it was released in 2009 that cast gamers as an agent who infiltrates a Russian villain's inner circle to defeat him but ends up participating in a terrorist attack on an airport while acting as part of the villain's group.
Konami Corp. canceled plans in 2009 to publish "Six Days in Fallujah," a game re-enacting a 2004 battle in Iraq.
Zombie Studios lead designer Richard Dormer said the "Blackwater" developers hoped to avoid such resistance by reducing the game's violent content and emphasizing arcade-style competitive elements. Players can vie for the fastest time and biggest score. They can also shoot out hidden propaganda materials -- but definitely not civilians -- found within the game's levels.
"I waged strongly for the possibility of shooting civilians because I thought it could tell the story well," said Dormer. "In the end, we didn't need there to be any more controversy. It seemed beside the point of the game. It was a much bigger risk to jeopardize everything else involved, especially with what happened with `Six Days in Fallaujah.'"
While players are awarded extra points for shooting combatants in the head, the blood and profanity doesn't flow as freely in "Blackwater" as it does in mature-rated shooters like "Call of Duty." The teen-rated "Blackwater" includes "mild language" and "violence," according to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
"We didn't want this to be restricted to adults," said Prince. "We wanted to dial the violence down so that kids could play it in the same way that they go outside throw snowballs at each other or whatever. We wanted to be able to spread the game to that demographic. Frankly, I also wanted something that I'd be comfortable with my own boys playing."
AP Entertainment Writer Derrik J. Lang can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/derrikjlang.