Plugged In

Controversial Blackwater security firm gets video game treatment

Plugged In

The odds are pretty good that you haven't heard of 505 Games, but you've probably heard of Blackwater.

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Blackwater (505 Games)

The private military company -- which changed its name to Xe Services in 2009 after getting hammered during Congressional hearings focused on the killing of civilians and non-combatants in the Middle East -- is back.

But this time, it's targeting gamers.

Erik Prince, who's no longer with Xe Services, has resurrected the Blackwater brand in a new first-person shooter aimed at Microsoft's Kinect for Xbox 360. 505 Games is publishing the title, which is being developed by Zombie Studios, whose past work includes the downloadable shooter Blacklight: Tango Down.

"Blackwater approached us wanting do a shooter because they know we're experts in military shooters," said Richard Dormer, Lead Designer.  "We thought it would be cool to get the player into this space. Blackwater has an interesting position because they're not an actual military army."

Prince, who has worked closely on the game with the developer, hopes Blackwater is the beginning of a new franchise.

"It's the storyline," said Prince. "Good guys fighting to defend those in need and take out the bad guys. There are dozens of storylines that can be spun over time. And as technology progresses, it can only enhance the experience and increase the demand for the next generation Blackwater games."

The first game puts players in charge of a team of Blackwater operatives in a fictional North African town that's being terrorized by a warlord. There's Eddie the sniper, Baird the assault rifle guy, Devon the SMG (sub machinegun) expert, and Smash, the shotgun-toting brute.

"There's a warlord who is running roughshod over what's left of this country and there are people that are trying to broker a peace deal, so you're in the middle of it," said Dormer.

The game has been built to take advantage of Microsoft's motion-sensing Kinect; everything from reloading to taking cover to aiming can be done with -- or without -- a controller.

"Nothing can replicate a real firefight," said Prince. "But the Kinect platform gives the gamer the closest approximation available in the gaming world to a real mission. You're going to get your heart pumping and your muscles straining a little to keep up with the story."

Despite Blackwater's real-world business model, earning money isn't a part of the game.

"You're not getting money to buy anything," said Dormer. "The game's about your score and your efficiency. It's about how do you do as a Blackwater employee."

Zombie Studios worked with Prince and other former operatives to create an experience that replicates what it's like to be in enemy territory without an army behind your back.

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Erik Prince

"More than anything, we wanted it to be a unique experience for the gamer," said Prince. "As for avoiding the conflict between realism and revealing trade secrets or tactics, we had a few of our best field operatives consult on from the beginning to the end of the development phase for those reasons."

The question is, can it compete with the big boys? Blackwater is going up against some of the top shooters in gaming, like Activision's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Electronic Arts' Battlefield 3, and Microsoft's Gears of War 3. But Blackwater does have one advantage.

"Microsoft is keen to expand the Kinect experience to include hardcore titles, and there aren't many Teen or Mature rated games that support Kinect, so 505's Blackwater game won't have much direct competition," said Billy Pidgeon, video game analyst at M2 Research. "The developer, Zombie, has created some quality military action games. However, like most Kinect action games, Blackwater's cover and shoot gameplay will be on rails rather than free roaming. On-rails shooters tend to get low scores from the specialist press and low scores tend to inhibit sales."

People will be aware of the game without 505 Games needing to compete with the $100 million budgets that EA and Activision are investing in their military shooters. The Blackwater game, like the company it's based on, has been criticized from all angles since its recent announcement.

"The controversy surrounding Erik Prince and Blackwater is likely to attract negative mainstream press," said Pidgeon. "This can drive interest in a video game, but if gamers aren't convinced that a title is worth playing, free publicity from negative mainstream media coverage isn't going to help."

Blackwater is due out during the holidays for the Xbox 360.

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