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New job for war vets: Game consultant

The battle to build compelling war sims is creating second careers for retired veterans.

Clarence "Bud" Anderson shot down 17 planes over Europe as a young World War II ace fighter pilot. Now he is getting paid to relive those days by playing computer games.

The retired Air Force colonel is one of a wave of veterans finding an unexpected new life as a consultant, thanks to a pop-culture boom in everything having to do with World War II. Companies are racing to bring out computer games that reproduce the visceral "you are there" experience of wartime, and the competition for realism is creating second careers for retired veterans.

 
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Electronic Arts Inc. paid the 76-year-old Mr. Anderson thousands of dollars for help in developing its game, "Jane's WWII Fighters." It also ordered 10,000 copies of his war memoir, "To Fly and Fight," to market with the game.

Learning Co.'s (NYSE:TLC) Mindscape Entertainment unit paid William "Bud" Gruner Jr., 85, a onetime submarine captain and retired Lockheed Corp. executive, a similar amount for advice on its new World War II game. Meanwhile, Laird Doctor, a 56-year-old pilot and Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, worked as a volunteer consultant to Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) on its "Combat Flight Simulator."

The game makers are watching the box-office and the best-seller lists. In a rush of end-of-the-millennium war nostalgia, Americans are flocking to the World War II films "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line." And they're snapping up World War II books such as Stephen Ambrose's "Citizen Soldiers" and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation."

The veterans' experiences and expertise are invaluable, officials at the companies say. Mr. Doctor's tips on the German ME-109 fighter plane that he flies and maintains for the Cavanaugh Air Museum in Dallas, for instance, helped game developers recreate how such an aircraft handles at different speeds.

'What Was That?'

Last year, when Mr. Anderson "flew" a vintage P-51 Mustang fighter, he was shooting down a German fighter when an orange explosion filled his screen. "Good Lord, I thought, 'What was that?' " recalls Mr. Anderson, who was testing "World War II Fighters." "There were some nice puffs of smoke, and then what looked like a sunburst."

Mr. Anderson, who lives in Auburn, Calif., phoned a young Electronic Arts colleague in Redwood City, Calif., who asked, "Isn't it cool?"

Not exactly, Mr. Anderson replied, explaining that realistic explosions generated a lot more black smoke and a lot less orange flame. The final game that shipped in December incorporated those changes.

Paul Grace, an Electronic Arts game-production executive says that Mr. Anderson's advice was especially prized because he still flew old fighters at air shows and has kept up with all the technical details. The colonel, who enjoys telling war stories, gladly looked at each version of the game, noticing incongruities such as a landing-gear cover that was out of position when a plane was taking off.

Some veterans volunteer their time, while others supplement their fixed incomes by earning several thousand dollars per project. Paying for the advice isn't a significant expense on a game project with a multimillion-dollar budget, especially when accuracy ends up getting reflected in the bottom line.

"The cost was almost less than 1% of our budget," says Rick Martinez, an associate producer with Mindscape in Novato, Calif.

Until recently, war games weren't considered a best-selling category. The biggest recent hit, the 1994 "Panzer General" from Mindscape, sold only 250,000 copies world-wide, according to market researcher PC Data Inc. in Reston, Va. By contrast, "Axis & Allies," a remake of a popular board game by Hasbro Inc.'s interactive unit, has sold about 300,000 copies just since September.

Game creators must keep in mind one audience in particular, the die-hard fans known as "grognards." The term, derived from Napoleon's old guard of grumbling veterans, refers to armchair generals who painstakingly plan and second-guess battles.

In the case of computer games, grognards delight in pointing out the publishers' smallest mistakes, such as the thickness of a tank's armor or the color of the Dutch army's uniforms.

"Accuracy is paramount for me," says 41-year-old Glenn Saunders, a computer expert in Alberta, and an admitted grognard who plays Talonsoft Corp.'s "West Front" game several hours a night. "It's a way of finding out about historical conditions that you can never really relive."

Slew of battles
The World War II games offer whiz-bang graphics and allow players to relive battles any way they like: as Allied generals commanding the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach, as pilots dueling in the skies above the Battle of the Bulge, and even as Russian soldiers or squad commanders gnashing it out with the Nazis in hand-to-hand fighting at Stalingrad.

Too much realism, though, can be a turnoff. Gary Lewis, a 35-year-old programmer in San Jose, Calif., says he stopped playing "101: The Airborne Invasion of Normandy" because it took forever to walk his soldiers across a field. If he made them run, a sniper would take them out. "I don't want to feel the whole pain of the war," he says.

Tim Brooks, president of the game's designer, Interactive Simulations Inc. in Apex, N.C., makes no apologies for the hard-core nature of the game. "It's not meant for people who like arcade games and want to twitch a joystick," he says. "I think we succeeded in being accurate and showing how dangerous it was to be an ordinary soldier."

Meanwhile, Talonsoft, a unit of Take-Two Interactive Software Inc., New York, plans to make "Hidden and Dangerous," a World War II game that will link historical accuracy in the British commandos depicted with the "first-person-shooter" style that particularly resonates with younger players.

Looking toward the future
Game developers, most of whom have no war experience, also say the vanishing breed of veteran consultants are helping them capture and recreate a view of history for future generations.

Mindscape's Mr. Martinez, who co-created its "Silent Hunter" submarine game, says he was amazed by what he learned from Mr. Gruner, his veteran expert -- information that only an experienced submariner would know, such as how torpedoes can malfunction underwater.

Mindscape paid Mr. Gruner, who was skipper of the USS Skate in the latter part of World War II, $10,000 for his expertise. "The money was good employment for me," said Mr. Gruner. But more important, he says, was getting "people to understand about World War II" and the role submarines played. "The submarines were tagged with the name the 'Silent Service' because people really didn't know what kind of contribution they made," he said.

For Mr. Martinez, the experience of working with Mr. Gruner was memorable. "Around the world, a lot of vets are dying," Mr. Martinez said. "Bud became a valued member of our team. He knew things that only someone who'd been on a sub would know, like why some torpedoes had problems."

Mr. Gruner also imparted some important life lessons, Mr. Martinez notes. "Bud is an unusual guy, an embodiment of how war makes somebody different."

Indeed, Mr. Gruner says, "It's impossible to truly create something that resembles war. When somebody has a gun to your head, you act a lot differently than you would when you're playing a game."