How do you tell a story in an authentic military game like Arma?

There are many narrative devices. The most obvious of these comes from the personal experiences of principle characters. It’s a perfect way to show unique points of view but does pose certain limitations when it comes to exploring a bigger picture. Despite featuring many interesting protagonists, from David Armstrong in the original Operation Flashpoint to Nathan McDade in Arma 3 Laws of War, the game has never really been about them. Arma is not a game about individuals, but rather of armies, factions, nations, and their conflicts.

Exposition of such complex themes can be challenging, and over the years we have tried many different methods: simple titles on a black background, pictures with a voiceover, conversations between team-mates, officers giving briefings in front of a screen. They all work, but in the end, they are not really how we engage with real wars, at least for the majority of us who have not actively participated in any such conflict. Our perception of combat comes only from secondary sources: books, films, games, documentaries and, most importantly, from news coverage.

Scenes of a night battle, with tracers lighting up the sky, the distorted voice of a war correspondent describing the events, BREAKING NEWS flashing up on the TV, with a news ticker running along the bottom of the screen; we are all familiar with these images, as we’ve seen them so many times. It is through the lens of the media then, that the viewer has been able to observe most modern conflicts. But this does not necessarily reflect how events look from the perspective of the people on the ground.

News is a universal narrative device. Within one minute, you can introduce different locations, factions and time frames. Throw in some maps and quotes and add intentional misinformation and bias as a cherry on the top. It can feel impersonal and detached, but for Arma, a game which seeks to portray war without too much bravado and heroism, it fits perfectly.

More than a decade ago, we created AAN World News, a fictional media organization which helped us to tell stories across multiple projects. It started modestly, but eventually went on to become a major part of the interconnected Armaverse, producing news articles, video reports, press conferences and interviews, both in the games and outside of them. Now I’d like to tell its story.

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DLC vs. Core Game Development

When you start Arma 3 today, five years after its release, you’ll find several singleplayer campaigns in the list. There’s the vanilla one, East Wind, and the Apex Protocol introduced in the expansion. There are also several mini-campaigns added in recent DLCs, all of them released in the past several months. If you play all of them, you may notice that production value of the DLC scenarios somewhat improved over the content from the major releases. If you were to do the same with Arma 2, you could spot the same trend, with the DLCs offering more solid experience than the vanilla content (although none of them would get even close to Arma 3 standards).

This may sound like a natural progression, caused by devs learning new skills and processes getting fine-tuned over time. And while it’s an important part of the picture, it can’t be the sole explanation. After all, they’re not always the same people, and it’s often the exact same processes. Despite the recent introduction of 3D editor, designing scenarios haven’t changed much over the years. There are objects to place, waypoints to plan, scripts to write; doesn’t matter whether you’re creating the flagship campaign or a simple community scenario. No, there’s more to it, and it’s not limited only to playable content.

The reason why post-release additions can achieve higher quality is because they are developed on a stable, mature platform. Core development, meanwhile, is about building that platform, in far less hospitable conditions.

This may seem self-evident, but it’s easy to forget about it, especially when the game spent far more time in its post-release growth than in the initial development phase (which, in fact, is the game development in the traditional sense). Let’s take a look at it in greater detail.

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Mission Editing Competition 2004

Make Arma Not War is not the first editing competition Bohemia Interactive ever organized. About a decade ago, when Operation Flashpoint was still alive and kicking, the modding community got their first chance to prove their skills in what was known as the Mission Editing Competition 2004 (MEC 2004). The rewards included t-shirts, signed copies of the game and the main prize – VBS1 with all addons, worth hundreds of dollars.

Winners were selected both by public vote and by professional jury, but authors were kept anonymous to prevent any bias. The ten best scenarios were published after the competition was over, but trying to find them now, a decade later, is almost impossible. I recently discovered them on my drive, so with official web gone and addon links dead, I decided to release them for everyone else to play.


The archive contains all missions including required addons:

The winner, Hawk In Nets by Munch Studios, was a truly outstanding title. Inspired by the Metal Gear Solid series, it turned a military simulation game into tactical espionage operation. Its impact went beyond the competition, inspiring countless other modders in their efforts – including me.

The author of Hawk In Nets went on to become a Bohemia Interactive designer shortly afterwards. Although he meanwhile left to finish his studies, another finalist, Ježuro, was also hired and still designs scenarios to this date.

Video Game Terrains


Altis, Arma 3’s main island, is huge. With a ground surface area of 270 km2, and vast water and underwater locations, its total area clocks-in at almost 1000 km2 of highly detailed environments capable of supporting land, air & sea combat.

It’s so large that most people have trouble understanding such scale in a video game. The surface area value is not really descriptive, and even comparing it to our previous maps (e.g., 1.5x larger than Chernarus) really explains nothing if you never played our games before.

But you probably played other games. Who doesn’t know about the mountains of Skyrim, or the prairies of Red Dead Redemption? So I did a little investigation and prepared some images, one comparing all Bohemia Interactive terrains, and the other pitting Altis against the terrains featured in other famous games. While the former is using exact sizes based on our internal data, the dimensions in the latter are approximated based on what I was able to find in the respective games and on the internet.

I hope it will help you to understand the scale of worlds not only in Arma 3, but in other games as well.

Update 2013-09-11

I updated the game worlds comparison image after numerous requests for Just Cause 2’s Panau island. The recently leaked map of GTA V’s Los Santos, and the older, but still impressive Skira island from Dragon Rising are also included.

All of the mentioned worlds are from 1st / 3rd person games featuring on-foot exploration. There are bigger maps – such as the ones in FuelBurnout Paradise, or even our own Take On Helicopters – but they usually sacrifice their level of detail and area of accessibility to serve gameplay purposes.

And then there’s Daggerfall. Nobody can compete with Daggerfall.

Private Military Creators

Arma 2: Private Military Company (PMC) was a quite controversial DLC. Compared to previous British Armed Forces (BAF), it lacked traditional new national army which would cover everything from new weapons, infantry, vehicles, helicopters or static guns. Instead, it heavily focused on playable content dominated by two player coop campaign, while addons consisted mostly of “generic” para-military contractors and armed variants of civilian vehicles. Not much, you’d say, given the fact the prices of both DLCs were the same. That’s why I’d like to uncover some details about decisions which ultimately proved to be benefitial in the long run.

This article was originally supposed to be published on the official Bohemia Interactive blog, but Take On Helicopters stole the show before I was able to finish it and priorities then lied elsewhere.

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