“The game needs to be challenging and offers players freedom” Interview with Ivan Buchta, Creative Director at Bohemia Interactive

On the future of military sims, making realistic game mechanics, and devotion to the community.

Ivan Bukhta has been working at Bohemia Interactive for 14 years and has held the position of creative director for 10 of them. All this time he has been working on the popular military simulator Arma. We talked to Ivan and found out how they create realistic military conflicts in Arma, why they give priority to long gaming sessions, and why they put a real T-72 tank in one of their offices.

“The first hours in the office felt more like a nightmare”

 When were you first introduced to gaming?
— It was in the late 1980s, when I was about 9 years old. My uncle let me play some games on his Atari 800XL with a small black-and-white TV screen.

— Can you remember the first video game you played?— River Raid on Atari.

 When did you realize that you want a career in the gaming industry?
— It was probably when Marek Španěl, Bohemia Interactive’s CEO, offered me a job in early 2006. Until then, games and some modest modding work I did were either for fun or as side projects. Although I was pretty invested into this hobby, I never thought I would possess any special skills which would make me able to work on video games.

— Your major was Environmental Sciences. How does your education help you do your job?
— The curriculum was very broad, ranging from natural sciences to psychology or basics of urbanism, with some extra subjects like law or geoinformatics. While this sounds like a weird mashup, it’s a perfect overview for making an authentic game, allowing me to understand various aspects of the real world. With such knowledge, abstracting the reality into a video game environment is much easier. Besides, the university studies gave me the general “tools” to find, sort, and interpret information, which helps a lot in research or whenever we need to learn something specific in detail.

— If possible, can you share how you got into Bohemia?
— Soon after the release of Operation Flashpoint in 2001, I was active in its modding community. Eventually, I became part of the ČSLA (Czechoslovak People’s Army) Mod team, a small but dedicated assembly of Czech and Slovak mod-makers. Around 2005, we started working on a desert terrain inspired by Iraq, which caught the eye of David Lagettie, who lead the development of Virtual Battlespace 1 (VBS1, a serious game based on OFP) in Bohemia Interactive’s Australian office. We were invited to participate in the development of “Terrain Pack 3”, a terrain-based expansion, and I employed some basic geoinformatic techniques in making TP3’s “As Samawah” terrain. This caught interest of Marek Španěl, who I briefly met in autumn 2005 and then, in 2006, he offered me the role of environment designer.

What was your first day at work there like?

— I started working at Bohemia Interactive’s office on the outskirts of Mníšek pod Brdy, a small town south of Prague. There was a pond on the location and a forest right behind the company grounds, and the office itself looked like a chalet from a 1980s James Bond movie taking place in the Alps. Being able to work there after a few years of following the studio and modding their game was a dream come true. However, the first hours in the office felt more like a nightmare: at that time, the whole team was crunching on a demo of Game 2 (which was intended to be a perfect do-it-all successor of Operation Flashpoint) for E3, and I was expected to set up my PC and immediately start contributing to the build.
I had some knowledge of the previous versions of terrain tools and data formats, but the concept of versioning (the company used SourceSafe at that time) was completely alien to me, as well as some internal communication and task tracking tools. Eventually, colleagues helped out, and I learned quickly, but it was a real “baptism of fire”.

“We would certainly like to offer a future Arma to the console audience”

 The Arma series always tried to be as close to the real life as possible and follow the realities of modern military conflicts. Were there any real-life conflicts that served as an inspiration for your team when working on the recent titles in the series?
— The Arma team has always focused on general research of military forces from specific eras rather than on a particular conflict, based on our momentary needs. In Arma 2, we looked into contemporary armies of the period in general rather than trying to depict a historical conflict, but for the background, we drew some inspiration from the conflict in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The development of Arma 2’s expansion “Operation Arrowhead” was certainly influenced by the footage and imagery from the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

— Your games have a ton of real-world weapons and military hardware. How do you manage to make weapons behave realistically? Does your team have access to military-grade equipment?— We have always obtained the majority of our references from publicly available internet sources, with rare chances to try some firearms or see some older military vehicles. We also have a small collection of disabled Cold War-era firearms and gear and a T-72 in one of the offices, which all serve as general references for our artists and designers.

Arma has a rather steep learning curve. The sessions are long, and understanding all the mechanics and gameplay features takes time. Can you tell us a bit about your playerbase? Who are your projects for?

— Obviously, Arma can be understood as a niche game for people willing to invest time and effort, rewarding patience and creativity—Arma can certainly offer a lot to a mature audience. On the other hand, I believe one does not have to put a terrible effort into the game to be rewarded. Now that the latest installment of the series has been out for seven years, there’s a welcoming community as well as a lot of content providing an introduction to various aspects of the game.

 Considering the previous question. How could one attract new players to projects out of the realm of mainstream and casual gaming?
— We do our best to offer long-term value: there are vast environments and endless possibilities to set up various situations, which always end up a bit different thanks to the non-deterministic nature of events in Arma. Add the terabytes of user-made content to play through, and you’re set for years of entertainment. Indeed, the plethora of options players have in the game is reflected in a steeper learning curve, and I’m sure this is one of the areas in which improvement would be appreciated by many of our players. On the other hand, we won’t sacrifice the challenge itself: modern combat as we try to depict it is not an action movie experience; it has to stay gritty.

 With each new installment or a DLC, Arma gets new features or changes, making the mechanics deeper. Can you tell us more on the way creative process is organized? (How do you come up with mechanics or details to add?)
— A lot of these features were in the team’s backlogs practically since the beginning of development, and although I was not directly involved in making most of them, they followed the pattern of bringing the general rule set for everyone for free and premium assets (e.g., weapons or vehicles) to the DLC owners. Arma has always been developed as a comprehensive simulation game covering the combined operations of infantry, ground vehicles, aircraft or surface vessels.

In Arma 3, we tried to cover the most attractive areas we found feasible to create, and there’ve been a lot of internal discussions about the content of each DLC. In general, we’d start by picking one of the considered topics, e.g., tanks or sniper rifles. After that, the team came up with a set of ideas for new content and rules, considering how the new additions would enrich the rule set or enhance the gameplay.

 When working on game mechanics, do you build them on the gaming experience or real military action? Do you first come up with a mechanic and then try to add on realistic elements, or do you go through, let’s say, military videos and then decide what could become a good game mechanic?
— It’s usually the latter. We try to understand which real-life military operations or procedures might work within the game’s scope, and see whether we could deliver them in a form which would not complicate the matters for players, would work in multiplayer and could be performed by the game’s AI.

 Arma was always a PC title. Is it related to technical or input complexity, that is more suitable for computers, or is it more about hardcore audiences playing mainly on PC?
— The Arma series has been powered by the proprietary Real Virtuality engine. Despite the years of development that brought us several generations of Real Virtuality, the engine has retained technical limitations which make it impossible to run on consoles. Of course, the fairly complex controls would also be rather hard to simplify for the controller without taking some important controls from the player, especially after the Arma 3’s DLC-related enhancements.

Is Bohemia planning to release Arma games on consoles in the future? Considering DayZ successfully went beyond PC.

— We’ve offered DayZ to our console community because it was technically possible thanks to our new and still in development Enfusion technology. And of course, it would be nice to offer console players the Arma experience in the future as well. It may be a challenging but important lesson for us developers to create such a complex experience without overwhelming players by the complexity of controls. Making a console Arma may teach us to create a game that would be truly “easy to learn but hard to master.” We’ll see what opportunities will be there for the future Arma on consoles because it’s a complex thing.

 One of the main tendencies in the modern gaming industry is the shift towards mobile. Do you think hardcore projects and series akin to ARMA should react to it somehow? Is there a way to adapt to the new reality?
— I believe Arma shall stay true to its heritage and keep delivering interesting experiences to people interested in it, and we shall focus on improving what we do well and what’s been appreciated by our audience. There’s a lot we can do within the range of our original concept of a tactical military game, and we have a firm vision for the features to come. Staying original and faithful to our players and community is probably a good business plan for a franchise as specific as Arma.

Of course, Bohemia Interactive has already explored the mobile world; it just requires different games made by different people. I am happy to say that our mobile team succeeded in making several remarkable titles, and we can be particularly proud of MiniDayZ.

“The events in Arma scenarios may evolve by themselves”

— 2019 was a rather good year for Bohemia. What are the reasons for this growing interest?
— In 2019, Bohemia Interactive released major updates and DLCs for all of its titles, which certainly boosted people’s interest. Also, DayZ was released on consoles, which on its own was a huge success.

— Arma and DayZ are conceptually different, yet they still work with similar mechanics. How different is the creative process behind these games?
— The similarity is probably due to the common technical solution: DayZ started as a modification of Arma 2, and even in stand-alone DayZ, there was a lot of continuity and similarity due to the shared Real Virtuality engine. Also, I daresay both games share the “design DNA”: combat is made to be challenging and unsparing, and there’s considerable depth to the core game mechanisms: tactics and combat rules in Arma and survival rules in DayZ.

The creative process was very different, though: perhaps it could be described as either a “horizontal” or “vertical” approach to making a game. Arma games depict various facets of an armed conflict of varied scale; therefore we have always approached it as a content-heavy platform catering to various ways of use by its players, providing them with a wide range of simple features and huge numbers of assets and plentiful opportunities. DayZ started as a very condensed experience with few well interacting features and a very limited scope of assets, focusing solely on perfecting its single game mode.

 It is fairly obvious that there are almost no games like Arma. Most similar projects with a focus on realism still shift towards shorter multiplayer matches. What future do you think hardcore military sims have? What would the ideal end goal for the genre be?

— Most other military simulation games focus on various different aspects of war, e.g., infantry or aerial combat or a particular vehicle type, perfecting their trade. Arma, on the other hand, is a very broad platform focusing on the authenticity of an armed conflict, attempting to depict tactical situations arising from the simultaneous use of various weapon platforms, vehicles and even tactics employed on its battlefields. With the freedom, large worlds, and broader feature scope of Arma, players can also be put into non-combat situations with authentic context, e.g. just driving a truck with supplies to a distant base, which makes it even more unique compared to most other tactical military games.

In general, the future of hardcore military simulations will be in using the available resources to increase the scale and fidelity of the experience. In the case of Arma, it would be a detailed and interactive game world with a more persistent environment and more non-combat rules and interactions.

— I think you’ve seen people comparing Arma to Squad. What would be the main difference in the ideas behind the two projects?
— Arma still shows its RTS roots, attempting to depict combat with vehicles in larger areas, populating the battlefield by vast numbers of AI units. The events in Arma scenarios thus don’t need to depend on players’ actions and may evolve by themselves based on predetermined plans and AI routines. Squad is a great example of a game focusing on certain aspects of combat, perfecting the rules and features to match its environment scale and player counts. As far as I know, it’s driven by the desire to deliver an authentic infantry combat experience in adversarial multiplayer scenarios, which are naturally evolving around the actions of players.

 ARMA players sometimes start conversations on PTSD on the game’s subreddit. Many veteran gamers say that realistic military sims allow them to get the sense of brotherhood or camaraderie without the negative feelings. Did that, dare I say, therapeutic effect appear on its own or was it somehow planned? (Are you working on additional mechanics that help the players communicate ingame and build stronger connections in the community?)

— When Operation Flashpoint was released, nobody at Bohemia Interactive expected it could be used for such serious purposes, and there was no intention to reach beyond the field of entertainment. However, the game was meant to be an authentic war game from the very start, and it succeeded in picturing combat in an authentic way and with deeper context, which has been appreciated not just in PTSD therapy, but also in military training. Both of these non-entertainment applications have always been the domain of Bohemia Interactive Simulations, an independent company with different owners since 2012, who have been developing Virtual Battlespace, the military training spin-off of the original Operation Flashpoint, since 2001.

“Copying reality mindlessly would probably end in disaster rather than a game worth playing”

 How do you and your team come up with new ideas? Do you play similar games from other devs for inspiration? (What feature did you recently see and think “Ah, this would be cool to add?”)
— There are many passionate people at Bohemia Interactive, constantly bringing up various ideas. Be it military history fans, airsoft players or sim gamers, most of them also actively play Arma and are aware of the scope and vision of the game. Playing other games is important as well, but we also watch movies or read books. Of course, all the ideas are thoroughly assessed, considering feasibility, influence of gameplay or fit to the momentary setting. We also want to remain true to good old Flashpoint’s heritage of being challenging, and offering freedom and meaningful consequences to players’ actions.

— What do Creative Directors in AAA companies usually do? What does a typical workday of a Creative Director in Bohemia Interactive look like?— As far as I know, the label may describe completely different roles in various companies or even teams, with particular team setup and a Creative Director’s personality and skill set. I cannot speak for other companies or teams, but as far as my role is concerned, it’s partly the solidification of vision, partly intense work on a game’s setting and narrative in its broadest sense, and of course the responsibility for a game’s “look and feel.”

Given this fairly broad area, my day can be anything from meeting people or playing a game we work on to field trips. My common “office day” usually starts at 6:30 am by handling daily communication, checking out latest builds or more creative tasks, as the offices are fairly calm in the mornings. Then, the first round of meeting people and talking is around 10 am, followed by an early lunch, after which it’s either more meetings or some more work, which often includes checking out various parts of the game as part of the production process. I leave the office rather early to be with my family, and in the evenings, I usually end up handling emergent tasks, chatting with colleagues or friends, and playing games. In any case, I am trying to stay in touch with the game and its development team as much as possible, in order to know the state of the product and provide a good service to my colleagues.

 There is a rather famous quote by Soren Johnson (GD of Civilization): “Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.” Do you agree? How does this apply to Arma and DayZ?
— I certainly do! My colleague Karel Mořický, author of Arma 3’s in-game 3D scenario editor and Zeus DLC, once said that Arma is “a game as entertaining as its player,” and I can only agree. Both Arma and DayZ are meant to facilitate player freedom and provide interesting emergent situations, but the “optimization by players” does not end with the experience itself. Both our flagship games are fairly easy to modify, and we provide deliberate support to these community activities: the community can use the same tools we have, there are sample data available under community-friendly licenses.

— Development of such titles as Arma involves hundreds of people, and good and quick communication is, to my mind, one of the key elements of success. How do you maintain communication between different departments in Bohemia while working on your projects?
— There’s a good unified infrastructure for documentation, task tracking, and chatting available across the offices, allowing us to collaborate efficiently. Talking in person or via online video calls is regarded as vital, and we try to constantly revise and improve the communication in the company, inspiring people to handle the daily communication diligently and with initiative. Transparency is also an important thing to maintain, as with so many people involved in making a single huge product, everyone needs to be aware of the main changes. On the other hand, we try to avoid meetings for the sake of meetings or letting too many opinions into a discussion, as things like this tend to hinder or stop the development.

— A lot of popular games are seen as auteur projects. People say “a Hideo Kojima game” or “a Peter Molyneux game.” What do you think about such a perсeption of collaborative art?
— It’s a strong way of branding, especially when it comes to the few legendary developers around. I think there’s merit in realizing the contribution of strong bearers of vision to the “face” of a final product. I can fully understand Hideo Kojima’s statement about his personal attention to every detail of Death Stranding making it “a Hideo Kojima game,” but there are many other people like him with the same degree of centralized subjective control over “their” games, they just chose not to make their personality a part of their game’s brand. As far as our games are concerned, we are Bohemia Interactive and we understand that nothing would be possible without the concerted effort of the whole team.

— Why are there so many remasters and remakes nowadays, and why do you think a lot of them are so successful?
— While I generally prefer to experience new things in games, I don’t mind playing a good remake of an old game I enjoyed in the past – many older games are still worth playing today. Of course, there’s also business involved, and not a bad one: a game with a strong brand and proven concept remade to current standards has a good chance to impress new audiences due to its timeless qualities and contemporary industry standard solutions (e.g. in UX or art), and a team doing such a remake operates on safe ground, following the known recipe.

I bet there are also remakes made out of passion, and it would be my case if I’d have the chance to pick: there are two old Czech shooter games I adore and would love to see remade: Vietcong and Hidden & Dangerous 2.

— In the last few years, we’ve seen a few games released as a service with the detailed roadmap for the upcoming years that were later abandoned because the player base turned out to be too small. How to ensure that the service-like model would add to the experience and not drive players away?
— There’s probably no obvious correct answer, otherwise we probably wouldn’t see many of such games failing. Along with the necessary qualities of the game itself, I believe good marketing and a good attitude towards customers are among the key prerequisites. Also, every game probably needs a dash of luck to succeed on the market

— Let’s go beyond the shooter genre for a second. Why do you think realistic or simulative games are limited to a number of comfortable genres? Like vehicle or occupation sims. Where are realistic GTAs and Hitmans? Can there be ultrarealistic RPG simulators?
— These are two worlds offering completely different kind of entertainment to a completely different target audience. Some people want to create, take their time, build something; on the other hand, there are players who want fast-paced action, destruction, a different kind of fantasy they want to live through in their game. Employing realism in video games is certainly tempting, and reality with its depth and complexity has always been a great inspiration to me, but copying it mindlessly and literally would probably end in disaster rather than a game worth playing.

“There are many Cold War-era conflicts that would be interesting to depict in an Arma”

 A few rapid-fire questions: M1A1 Abrams or Merkava Mk IV?
— T-72 “Edita,” our company tank.

— What setting would you personally want to see in ARMA? No limits.— Soviet airborne troops invading San Francisco in mid-1960s, wearing flowers on their helmets for better camouflage. But seriously, there are many Cold War-era conflicts which would be very interesting to depict in an Arma game.

 Battlefield or Call of Duty?
— Arma.

— Singleplayer or Multiplayer?
— Both, with recent inclinations towards Singleplayer.

— What professional media do you follow, and what would you recommend?
— It’s probably nothing special, rather a subset of what most people follow: Twitter, LinkedIn, Gamasutra. I also follow topics and media outside the area of game development, I read books on various subjects ranging from game development to natural sciences or military history.

— What does your perfect weekend look like?
— There are too many amazing things in life to cram them into a weekend. But I guess my amazing family, mountains, some good food, music, books, drink, and possibly games would be involved in such a thing.