You will know when you hear a gun: Red Storm's battle for authenticity

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What we learned from a day at the shooting range with the authenticity engineers behind Ghost Recon Future Soldier.

I'm standing in a muddy field, holding a loaded firearm.

There is a man standing behind me wearing camouflaged pants and a black t-shirt. His day job: special forces commando. Today, however, he is off the clock. Today he is teaching a group of journalists, game designers and Frenchmen how to shoot. Today he is a tour guide.

He tells me how the hold the rifle, how to clear it, how to slam in a magazine and close the bolt. Then he shows me the safety and reminds me to breathe.

Then this man, whose name I have intentionally not been told, instructs me to fire.

Red Storm revising

I'm at a shooting range in Eastern North Carolina with the guys from Red Storm Entertainment, keepers of the flame for all that's military in the Ubisoft game lineup. The event is part of a full court press prior to the release of Red Storm's new game, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, its first in over five years.

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Full disclosure: I'm covering this event somewhat in protest. I know Red Storm pretty well. I live just a few miles from where they work. I eat lunch with some of their employees. Others, I consider dear friends.

I had originally pitched their parent company, Ubisoft, on taking a few Ghost Recon developers to a shooting range near my house, where I would interview them about their next game. That pitch was put on hold, meanwhile a multi-day press event was announced, one part of which would take place at a shooting range near my house.

While it's entirely possible this was a coincidence (Ubisoft's official response to this situation was that the original person to whom I had pitched the story had left the company, and did not communicate my request to the rest of the team), it nevertheless created something of a sticky situation. This story that had at one time been an exclusive was now a junket.

We decided to accept Ubisoft's invitation, but to skip the demos and hands-on presentations. Instead, I would attend the shooting range event and focus my coverage on the authenticity team at Red Storm, who are responsible for making the weapons and tactics in Ghost Recon Future Soldier (and every other Tom Clancy game) as realistic as possible.

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Many of the developers I am speaking to at the event are new, having been hired on to Red Storm within the past few years. Some have been on board since the company was acquired by Ubisoft in 2000. Some since well before, dating back to 1996, the year the company was founded by none other than Tom Clancy himself.

Why Ubisoft acquired the company is fairly obvious: the Clancy name sells games. But why the massive, French game developer and publisher with offices all over the world would keep the small team headquartered in the woods of North Carolina has remained somewhat of a mystery for years. With Tom Clancy games being produced at Ubisoft studios all over the world, by a company based in Paris, why keep the brain trust of those franchises deep in the American South?

The answer to this question is partly geography.

Mere minutes to the north of Red Storm's office building is the Raleigh Durham International airport, with flights to and from Paris, France and most other major cities all over the world.

To the south is the headquarters of the United States Military's Joint Special Operations Command, at Fort Bragg. This is where Army Rangers learn to jump from airplanes. Where the Delta Force trains. Where members of the special forces, in other words, become special, and where they more often than not choose to settle down after they retire.

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And that is the other reason Ubi has left Red Storm in North Carolina. Why RDU airport has become as familiar to Red Storm employees as their own break room. To transplant Red Storm anywhere else would be to remove them from the culture that makes them unique: The gun culture that encourages game-making geeks to become gun shooting geeks.

Half of the 20 or so men in attendance this day at the range are employees from Red Storm. Some of them are present to be interviewed, or help shepherd the press, but most are just here to shoot. It's a Saturday in North Carolina. They'd be shooting anyway. It's just what they do.

On a table under an aluminum shelter lies an assortment of military weaponry. There are half a dozen assault rifles, a shotgun, a few tactical pistols (one silenced) and a variety of other firearms. Standing over them is the Grey Group, Red Storm's team of military advisors, all current or ex-military. They are dumping ammo into boxes and loading clips.

"This part isn't in the game," they say, laughing. I will later learn that the aspects of warfare that do make it into the videogames - the fighting, in essence - represent only about a third of what these men do for a living. The second third is what they are doing now: maintenance. The last third, which is really the first, is planning.

The pile of weapons grows as Red Storm employees grab their own from their vehicles. A circle soon forms around them, and journalists offer to help load up clips, eager to get started shooting. A line forms. Standing at the back are the executives from Ubisoft. They are wide-eyed, observing.

THIS IS WHERE THE SPECIAL FORCES BECOME SPECIAL, AND WHERE THEY CHOOSE TO SETTLE DOWN WHEN THEY RETIRE

It is no accident these men from Ubisoft are here at the range today. They fly out regularly, to meet with the Red Storm team and their military advisors. To assimilate the first-hand weapons expertise and witness the rapport between the Army men and their game-maker neighbors. To allow them to understand that what exists here, in these unassuming woods, is something rare and perishable. Irreproducible..

The Downer

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Red Storm is coming off a rough few years. The last major game shipped under the RSE flag was America's Army: True Soldiers, the Xbox version of the popular "awareness" shooter co-developed by the US Army in 2007. In that same year RSE released the sequel to their Xbox 360 launch title, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter. Since then, the team has worked behind the scenes on a variety of Ubisoft games, including everything with the Tom Clancy name on it.

Shanghai. Montreal. Paris. Bucharest. It is not unusual to see a Red Storm face in any of the 20 some-odd studios owned by Ubisoft all over the world. What is rare, however, is a game made wholly by Red Storm. That was all supposed to change last year, when the game they had long held in reserve was finally released. Their first new, original IP since before they were acquired. The "New IP," as they called it.

I first learned of the New IP in 2009, on a visit to Red Storm's new offices in Cary. Apart from a few sketches on the wall, they couldn't show me anything. It was to be a military shooter, this much was clear from the concept art. But beyond that, I was told, I would have to wait.

The wait would be indefinite. The New IP never even made it out of the RSE building. Developers say that it went through a number of iterations, but that most of what came out of the process were tools and techniques they then used to produce other games. Some of the developers say they consider it a learning experience.

Awards_300_medium THE NEW IP NEVER MADE IT OUT OF THE BUILDING Jobs-lobby_300_medium

Ubisoft cancelled the New IP in 2010, along with issuing pink slips to 38 Red Storm employees. The few who remained were repurposed and, eventually, put to work onFuture Soldier.

"It was definitely a little bit of a downer," says weapon modeler Mike Climer. "It's always sad to see something that you've put a lot of heart and soul into not make it onto a store shelf. But we rolled right back into another project. We take all of that same energy that we had on the last project, we roll it into this project and we just keep driving through."

There is definitely a sense here, on the eve of the release of their first game in half a decade, that Red Storm has something to prove. That the return to the Ghost Recon franchise, the franchise they invented, one of the first ultra-real military shooters, is a big opportunity. There is a lot riding on this game.

"Now that we actually have another big project coming out," says Climer, "we're able to do the media events, do the press events, do the commercials and the YouTube spots to show the public who had almost forgotten about our passion for getting it right. We're reintroducing them to us. It's about getting the people who are young and new to the gaming experience - the COD fans or the Battlefield fans - to learn who we are ... and hopefully get them interested in the fact that we take so much time and effort to get it right."

The really big gun

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Jay is giving a presentation on the M24 sniper weapon system. Jay is a sniper. Jay is not his real name.

It's been raining off and on this morning. The small shelter where Jay has his M24 set up is covered with an aluminum awning. There is a target 100 yards downrange. Jay has been shooting at the target which, for his M24, is very close. He hasn't missed.

This area is occasionally used for shotgun practice. Jay knows this because the first time he shot the M24 here, the gasses displaced by the gigantic .300 Win Mag cartridge were so great, water droplets and empty shotgun shells erupted from the top of the aluminum shelter in a giant wave.

The M24 is a loud gun. It is so loud, you can hear it over the hill and across the property from where he is firing it. This is why we have all come trudging along the pond, nearly a quarter mile, just to see what is making all of that noise. Standing near it when it goes off, it will almost knock you to your feet. Standing 50 feet away, you will still feel it in your chest.

I want to shoot the M24. I want to feel it.

After Jay finishes his safety presentation, he asks who wants to go first. I do.

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I situate myself behind the weapon and familiarize myself with the scope, the bolt, the trigger. The safety. This rifle is similar to the Remington 700, which I have fired. It is a standard hunting rifle. There is very little difference.

Jay tells me the order in which to do things, and I practice doing them in my mind. Close the bolt. One hand on the weapon. The other braced against the bottom of the butt. Sight the target. Breathe. Squeeze the trigger.

A note on squeezing a trigger. Most marksmen agree that a gun should almost surprise you when it goes off. The act of "squeezing" sounds violent, but in terms of squeezing a trigger, it means that you should situate your finger pad lightly on the metal and gently apply backward force until the gun goes off.

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If you're anticipating it, you will jerk the gun, or flinch, or lose sight of your target. You will miss. If you … squeeze … it will go bang and you will be surprised, because the whole time you will have been keeping your sights dead on target, thinking of a warm spring day. Breathing. Bang.

I WANT TO SHOOT THE M24. I WANT TO FEEL IT

To hit a target at 100 yards with the M24 firing .300 Win Mag is not a remarkable feat. Nevertheless I am proud. It is my first time firing the weapon. It is magnificent.

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Jay is giving a presentation on the M24 sniper weapon system. Jay is a sniper. Jay is not his real name.

It's been raining off and on this morning. The small shelter where Jay has his M24 set up is covered with an aluminum awning. There is a target 100 yards downrange. Jay has been shooting at the target which, for his M24, is very close. He hasn't missed.

This area is occasionally used for shotgun practice. Jay knows this because the first time he shot the M24 here, the gasses displaced by the gigantic .300 Win Mag cartridge were so great, water droplets and empty shotgun shells erupted from the top of the aluminum shelter in a giant wave.

The M24 is a loud gun. It is so loud, you can hear it over the hill and across the property from where he is firing it. This is why we have all come trudging along the pond, nearly a quarter mile, just to see what is making all of that noise. Standing near it when it goes off, it will almost knock you to your feet. Standing 50 feet away, you will still feel it in your chest.

I want to shoot the M24. I want to feel it.

After Jay finishes his safety presentation, he asks who wants to go first. I do.

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Audio: "Jay's" M24 sniper rifle demo

Jay talks about sniper training. He hands around his ghillie suit. He explains that when establishing a sniper's nest inside of a building, he will usually put at least one room between where he is firing his weapon and the window or door or hole in the wall through which he is firing. That way the expelled gasses and noise won't betray his position.

I listen to him speak and I realize that he is a craftsman. His craft happens to be killing.

I look around at the operators with him. They are all young, lean and fit. You might recognize them as military from their bearing and hard eyes, but you wouldn't peg them as killers, necessarily. But that is what they are. They are the product of the finest and best-equipped fighting force the world has ever seen. They are the modern Spartans.

They are also Red Storm's secret weapon.

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The military advisor

Dutch talks about it like it's not a thing, how he left the military. He says it calmly, matter-of-factly. Like you would describe getting a flat tire.

What happened to Captain Jean-Louis "Dutch" DeGay was this: He "burned in on a jump," landed wrong and broke his ankle. And his pelvis. And his back. And, not realizing this, he kept going.

"There is no such thing as being pain free when your job is to be an infantryman," Dutch writes on his blog, Fueled by Iron. "That job makes you do things to your body that it was never meant to do ... and that results in pain - daily and often. But you're taught to 'suck it up and drive on.'"

So Dutch drove on. It wasn't until years later, after having been released from the Army, that he realized the extent of his injuries. After years of therapy and re-training, Dutch is now a triathlete.

His day job is working for the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, often called simply "Natick." Natick is the place where the Army designs and tests its new technology. Stuff like improved combat rations, pills that adjust your core temperature, and advanced body armor.

His hobby is working as a military advisor for Red Storm. He's been doing it for 10 years.

"THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS BEING PAIN FREE WHEN YOUR JOB IS TO BE AN INFANTRYMAN."

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"They had military advisors when nobody cared about military advisors," he says. "I think that has a [lot] to do with Tom Clancy first and foremost, because as a writer he was very well aware of who he was dealing with and [had] an appreciation and a respect for them and wanted that to reflect in his book. Any of his books you can read and they could be entertainment, but they're actually correct when soldiers pick [them] up. So I think [Red Storm] has really put their stamp on the industry. If you want something that's truly authentic then you come to us."

That's exactly how Dutch came to be involved himself. Early on, the team at Red Storm knew that if they wanted to make their games authentic, then they needed to talk to the soldiers themselves. Dutch was at a trade show, showing off a prototype of the Army's then-revolutionary "Future Force Warrior" battlefield electronics suite, when a member of Red Storm walked up and asked to take a picture of the technology for their new game, Ghost Recon 2.

"I was like, 'I'm a gamer. I know Red Storm.'" It would turn out to be a fruitful meeting for both parties.

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Red Storm already had the proper clearances, so it was an easy matter for Dutch to lend his expertise. The company would send him a sheaf of documents asking for advice on everything from the look of weapons in the future, to how soldiers would move and interact. Between his own experience and his deep connections to the active duty special forces, Dutch believes the work he has done with Red Storm has made their games the most accurate representations of the military in the business.

"We have so many guys that are in Afghanistan, or that are coming back from Iraq ... and can say 'that is really what it's like,'" Dutch says. "Or they can ask somebody who is a soldier and they will say: 'Yeah that's actually pretty close to what we've done.' That doesn't work without lots of effort put in by all of the military advisors. Red Storm have always said that that's what we want."

What Dutch and his network of military advisors understand is that warfare is work. It is hard. It is not, for the most part, fun. What opportunity for fun that does exist, exists as a result of hard work, training and planning. Sweat. But sweat is not fun. Creating a videogame about being a soldier, therefore, is as much about extracting those tiny elements of fun from the surrounding bedrock of pain as it is anything else.

The side effect of reducing war to its most visceral, fun moments in games is that a new generation of soldiers, raised on videogames as much as anything else, have come to expect that the things they see and touch in videogames will be waiting for them when they join the military. Dutch says that this, more than anything, is the biggest challenge related to making realistic military shooters and, conversely, training the 18-20 year old soldiers who come into the Army that real war is not like what they are used to playing on their Xbox.

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"I came into the army in 1990," Dutch says. "And kids come in now and they bring in their iPhones and Blackberrys, they have technology in every level of their life and they're gaming on every platform so when they come into the army, that just comes with them. And they have that reliance on technology and they want to see that kind of videogame movie style stuff in what they do every day."

Dutch, with one foot in the videogame world and the other in creating new technology for the Army, can see where the lines are crossing. He admits that a lot of the technology represented in games isn't possible in real life - yet. The biggest problem is power. Until batteries become bigger, or nuclear reactors become smaller, there are things that a soldier in the field will simply not be able to carry with them and use on a battlefield.

But the technology is advancing, in some small part because of the work that Red Storm and others are doing in videogames. The military is currently working on extending their "Future Force" concepts, and part of their research involves researching what's used in games. When the Army designs a new head-up display, or a graphical user interface, more often than not, they're copying what's already been designed for a videogame.

"Your imagination is your only limit," Dutch says, and it's not entirely clear whether he's talking about his work in games, or his work at Natick.

The ACR

I'm holding an experimental assault rifle manufactured by Remington called the ACR, or "Adaptive Combat Rifle." It is very expensive and relatively hard to find. Few civilians have seen or held one outside of a videogame.

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I am staring at a paper target printed to look like a terrorist in a Ghost Recon game and aiming the holographic sight of the ACR right at the terrorist's midsection. I take a breath, then squeeze the trigger.

The ACR kicks, but not as much you might expect. The round it fires is the 5.56mm round developed originally for the M16 assault rifle. It is based on a small, high-velocity hunting round. Its lethality is based on its accuracy, not its power. And sure enough, I'm able to land quite a few of the things where I aim them without gaining too many shoulder bruises.

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Thirty rounds go downrange in a handful of heartbeats. My paper terrorist is perforated. My heart is racing. I hand over my ACR and go back to the shelter for another gun. This time, a shotgun. I want to fire as many of the weapons as I can to compare how they feel in real life to how they feel in the game. So far, it's pretty damn close. According to Red Storm, this is what they spend most of their time trying to achieve.

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Audio: Shooting a subsonic Glock

The sound of the gun is the key.

You can take a gun out to a range and set an audio recorder next to it and fire it and all you will get on the recording is a few pops. Maybe a bang. But it won't sound like a gun. It will be loud, but not gun-loud.

People call 911 and tell the police dispatchers they think they've heard a gun. Most of the time it's a car backfiring. Or a power line snapping. Or a tree branch falling. Most of the time, when someone says they think they heard a gun, it is not a gun.

This is because when you hear a gun, you know that you have heard a gun.

"When you shoot a gun, you feel it," says audio engineer Matte Wagner.

Take the M24. I'm conducting an interview almost 50 feet away, while Jay is firing. On my audio recorder the explosion sounds like a very loud pop. At the time, standing in that field, it was deafening. My stomach moved. My eyes jiggled in their sockets. It was monstrous.

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You don't just hear it with your ears; you also feel it in your stomach. In the same place that gets wobbly when you stand too close to the speaker stack at Lollapalooza. The sound itself is among the loudest noises you will ever hear. You must wear ear protection in order to not go deaf. This makes the most unrealistic aspect of most military movies and videogames not the way the guns sound on screen, but that you can hear anything else over them.

It's no easy thing to reproduce the effect of a noise that moves your insides. To accurately re-create the sound of a gun without the concussive wave of excited gasses, the sound of the detonation and the force of the bullet exploding from the barrel of the gun is almost impossible. To accurately re-create the sound of 52 distinct weapons so well that visiting servicemen can identify them by sound alone is something like magic.

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Red Storm flew a group of developers, sound designers and weapon experts out to the deserts of Arizona. There, in the absence of bugs, wet air and any other man-made noise, they set about carefully placing an array of microphones and then shooting until their ears fell off.

What they brought back was nothing short of an exhaustive catalogue of what it sounds like when various firearms go bang. Even better than the sounds, however, were the feelings. What it feels like when the gun went off. How it reacts with the body. How you know, beyond just hearing it, when you have heard it.

The challenge then, is weeding through days worth of shoots, finding, mixing and editing the perfect sounds to recreate that feeling in the studio for the players at home. The process is lengthy.

"Ultimately it's about finding the character of the weapon," says Wagner. "For our games we want to have a really rich gun sound as opposed to a sci-fi game where it might be a little more blown out and crazy. We want to have it sound like it's in a world. Like it fits in the world that it's supposed to."

The weapon smith

MIKE CLIMER IS ONE OF RED STORM'S WEAPONS MODELERS. IT IS THE ONLY JOB HE'S EVER HAD

It starts with the barrel. Weapon barrels (most of them) are round, which means they are as tall as they are wide. If you know what size bullet a barrel is designed to fire, then you know how wide the muzzle opening should be, and therefore how tall the barrel.

So when you are modeling a gun, you measure the barrel. From that, everything else should match up. These are the lessons you learn if your job is making guns.

Mike Climer is one of Red Storm's weapons modelers. He has been working at Red Storm for six years. It is the only job he's ever had.

"When I first started here working on the weapons," Climer says, "we had a different process. We were a little bit more in depth but the very first weapons would take typically two-and-a-half to three weeks per gun and over the course of the time that I've been here we've been able to speed that up and we're down to about a week now. Maybe a little bit over a week. Which is still for something that only takes up an inch on your 37-inch monitor. It's one of those things that we pride ourselves on, to make sure that we get the details right. So putting that extra bit of time in there is well worth it."

There are 52 distinct weapons in Ghost Recon Future Soldier. Of those, only a handful are weapons that Climer and the weapons modelers have actually held in the their hands. For the rest, they must conduct exhaustive research. Attending trade shows, taking pictures and measuring barrels.

For extremely rare weapons, like rare Russian prototypes of experimental weapons of which there are only two or three in existence in the entire world, they might have to guess. But their guess will usually be a good guess.

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"We can sort of extrapolate because we've been doing it for so long, we know how the gun functions," Climer says. "We know how the trigger functions work, the safeties, the mag releases. We know how all the parts of the gun work together, so even if we can only see one side of the gun, we can usually infer what else is going on there. Even if we can't find real, authentic pictures we still try to keep the parts that we extrapolate based on real world knowledge so that it's believable even if It might not be authentic or real.

"The good news is that if we can't find pictures to make it right, neither can the public. So the odds are if we say it's right it's close enough."

Climer planned to work in film. All through college, he worked at his digital art skills, perfecting his chops making high-polygon models of real world objects. His goal was to move into making special effects for movies. After he graduated, he sent out his resumes and waited. And waited. It was a humbling experience. When Red Storm called, impressed by the examples in his resume, he was eager to get to work.

"IF WE CAN'T FIND PICTURES TO MAKE IT RIGHT, NEITHER CAN THE PUBLIC."
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"I've always been interested in guns," Climer says, "but apparently at the time, [I had] what was a reasonable amount of skill making this one thing that they liked and ended up with a job working on it. It just ended up being that perfect match made in heaven that you always hope for but you never expect. It was good dumb luck."

Climer's experience and interest have blossomed into a new opportunity with Future Soldier. One of the game's key features is the ability to make and modify weapons out of the game's existing arsenal. He believes that this will be the ultimate test of Red Storm's commitment to authenticity.

"To have them full on screen in your face where if you don't get the details right, you get called out on it," he says. "It's been training up to this point and I think it's going to end up paying off pretty big on the authenticity side of things, which is fantastic."

Gun culture

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Spending time at the range with the developers form Red Storm, one thing becomes clear: They love their guns. Take Mike Climer. He was raised in Ohio and taught to shoot at a young age by his military family. He calls military service "a gateway drug to guns."

"I would go back to visit family in Ohio and go spend some time with my uncle on his property," Climer said. "And he was army and so when I was there he would teach me how to shoot and it just sort of evolved into a passion that ended up paying off."

Now Climer shoots competitively and modifies guns in his spare time. His favorite is a bolt-action Savage Arms 22-250 that he's taken apart and rebuilt from the ground up to shoot silently.

"I honestly don't even remember why I bought the thing," he said, "but it sat in my closet for five or six years and I never shot it or did anything with it so I decided to turn it into a project gun."

He put on a new barrel, trimmed and threaded it to accept a suppressor, re-machined various parts and re-assembled it. The result is, as he calls it "a Frankengun abomination."

"It was a learning experience, and being able to tear apart a gun on my own teaches me how the mechanism worked. Which in the long run is good for me personally as well as the projects I work on."

Matte Wagner grew up "out West" but says he wasn't into guns until his family moved to Georgia. There, he'd shoot cans with a .22, but never anything like the "gunnage" on display at Red Storm.

"It's a natural thing," he said. "You're working on these games and eventually you're like 'this is really cool; I want to go find out about these weapons.' And then you start doing a little bit of research and then you get sucked in to it. It's just the environment."

Wagner's favorite gun is the ACR, same as mine.

"That thing is a beast man. It's awesome!"

"JUST A GOOD OLD CLASSIC M4. I REALLY ENJOY SHOOTING IT."

Level designer Evan Champlin says learning to love guns is an occupational hazard at Red Storm. He says the lingo, the way of looking at the world and the appreciation for making things go boom comes from exposure to the guys who make war for a living and is a sign of the times in which we are living.

"We're getting this really weird blend of cultures with the military geek and video game nerd," he said. "It's pretty cool. And all of these guys that are serving, they're playing video games back at base. So we're kind of growing up with both of these things at the same time and both those cultures have blended."

Champlin is an AR-15 man.

"Just a good old classic M4," he says. "I love the design and I really enjoy shooting it."

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This coming together over a shared love of firearms — shooting them talking about them, then taking that experience back and folding it into the game — is part of what makes Red Storm so unique. The team knows there are other military shooters. Even though this is a genre pioneered by Red Storm, it has been taken over, in recent years, by other companies. Knowing this just makes them want to work harder.

"We have a really unique group of guys and a really, really strong team," Champlin says. "We're not trying to do something that everybody else is doing. We really try to set ourselves apart and be unique, and make Red Storm a little bit more the household name that it used to be."

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