Command The Stack

Creative Direction / Design

AR Takes Flight

We’re all drawn to the dream of flight and the enigmatic beauty of those iconic silhouettes passing high overhead. The United States Air Force falls into the public zeitgeist of cutting-edge technological inventions and absolute control of the skies. The missions they carry out leave a tangible wonder and a draw for those seeking their own career path in the United States Air Force. Knowing this, the USAF wanted more educational outreach and were looking for a clever way to push the envelope of interactive technology. Specifically, the technology we have in the palm of our hands.

AR and the USAF certainly are no strangers given that they’ve had AR HUDs in aircraft cockpits for decades now. The USAF wanted to make a game that would leverage AR technology and educate the public on the mission structure they use for real-world engagements. This tactical planning approach is known as “The Stack”. We were challenged by the good people over at GSD&M with creating a game that would use The Stack in an authentic way while also making a game that was fun and quick to pick up. Our solution was “Command The Stack”, an AR tactical flight game for iOS and Android.

Command The Stack is an AR game played out in your world using your phone or tablet as a window to reveal “The Stack” tactical game board. You can think of it as your own holographic command table placed wherever you want to play. At the beginning of the game, you place the stack and watch it come to life either on your desk or out in a field. You choose the scale and ultimately, how you want to experience the game. That’s the beauty of AR in this gameplay scenario; you are both playing the game and controlling the camera.

As you walk around, dip in close and low for an energetic moment as you take down an enemy fighter or pull back wide when you scan for new targets on the top stack. The play style is solely up to you and completely transforms every time you play.

The Stack is made up of 3 distinct layers of engagement. The Top Stack, Middle Stack and Bottom Stack. Each layer offers different aircraft and unique strategic objectives. It’s imperative that all 3 work together to complete a mission effectively and efficiently. This is based on real engagement strategies in the USAF and helps illustrate how engagement works and the importance of teamwork across all disciplines.

To create one game with 3 different gameplay mechanics was no easy task. The top is more like playing an RTS where you watch from above providing support and marking targets of interest (TOI). The middle engages in enemy aircraft and plays more like a dogfighting game. The bottom is closest to the ground and balances a combination of dogfighting action with transport and ground force insertions/extractions.

To create the game environments we turned to an amazing and free resource anyone can tap into; the USGS. Using their topological data, Lidar scans, and satellite scans, we created 5 geographically unique locations we could develop our levels within. We then created a mapping shader that would use various satellite tiles and custom elements to recreate the look of a richly detailed location with just the right fidelity for the game.

Balancing this mapping fidelity, aircraft detailing, and gameplay FX with performance on a wide variety of hardware quickly became one of our biggest challenges... then we put it all out in your world using AR.

Mission planning was developed with a timeline gantt chart that helped visualize key moments in a given mission and look for opportunities to utilize different stack layers. The Top Stack is used for radar, mission support, and high altitude bombing. The Middle Stack is for air-to-air combat and ground support. The Bottom Stack takes on the role of ground insertion operations with the CV-22 and ground support with the A-10.

The game narrative was written to help establish an engaging approach to the missions that would develop as players gradually revealed the story. In this fictitious setting, a local militant organization has been gaining resources and power and is beginning to force their influence in the area. The USAF is asked by coalition forces to help ascertain tactical whereabouts, gather intel, and launch strategic deterrent missions as needed. As players complete the first few missions they quickly realize this militant group is much larger than first thought and it’s going to take all of their skill to neutralize threats while aiding the local populations impacted by the insurgents.

Not satisfied with just a single player experience, we created a multiplayer co-op mode that lets you join with players online. Once you get through mission 1 and prove your gameplay competence, multiplayer opens up in the form of quick matchmaking games or hosted private games.

Gameplay is the same for multiplayer, but you’ll be in charge of a single stack layer and will be reliant on your fellow players to do their jobs in their respective layers . This is the moment where teamwork really becomes critical. If your friends are running out of fuel on the lower stacks and you're not paying attention on the top, the mission might just fail because of you.

Lots of time was spent hyper focused on every single detail of the game. From the placement of often used buttons in the UI to the overall technical language of the GUI, every pixel was deeply considered. A whole suite of icons were created as well to handle everything from rank to weapons. Many of these assets were also developed as 3D assets for in-game rendering where needed but no detail was more important than the aircraft you pilot. These iconic machines were poured over for every detail — even those minute details you can only see from specific angles.

The authenticity of the aircraft was paramount and beyond their visual accuracy, we wanted to be able to reflect their flight signatures in a meaningful way. This game is certainly meant to be an arcade game, so flying the aircraft has been simplified to make this a fun and approachable overall experience, though attributes like relative speed, afterburners and turning radius were used while developing the gameplay flight mechanics.

As production wrapped up, we started to develop a language with GSD&M for marketing that would highlight the game in a unique light. We featured the aircraft from the game in striking, stripped down graphic perspective as well as editorialized product layouts. We also used The Stack itself to showcase the unique setup for the game. Marketing assets span the gamut from social motion posters to an interactive WebGL marketing site with real-time multiplayer leaderboard.

As the language came to life, we embraced a more editorial aesthetic mixed with dramatic perspectives on the content of the game. Fans of the USAF aircraft can find the beauty in the details and those who want to play a unique AR multiplayer game can see just how layered The Stack truly is.

All said and done, we’ve helped create an entirely new approach to AR gaming that reveals the exciting possibilities already available to us. The USAF became the perfect client to embrace this future-leaning project and GSD&M, the perfect partner to help make it happen.

The Air Force is already on the cutting edge of defense technology and to showcase their own desires to be innovators in the consumer entertainment front only reinforces their leadership across all categories. So grab a phone, tablet, Apple or Android and join us online! We’ve got some Stacks to Command.

USAF Command The Stack AR Game

2021