All the Faces of Arma
Nineteen years ago, he played a demo of Operation Flashpoint on a friend's computer, not knowing it would become his fate. Soon, he started creating new content for the game and managed to draw the attention of the developers from Bohemia Interactive. Karel Mořický eventually became part of their team and contributed significantly to the development of the Arma series of military simulators, with their lively modding scene. The influx of user content never stops, and Mořický never ceases to be amazed by what people are able to create.
Mořický started working as a contractor for Bohemia Interactive even before finishing high school. He did eventually graduate but dropped out of his subsequent studies at Czech Technical University in Prague. He rose through the ranks to become a senior level designer, and starting with Arma 2, he has contributed to basically everything that has to do with the brand, most recently to the sci-fi themed Contact DLC for Arma 3. He works in the Amsterdam studio of the company, living with his wife in Haarlem, close to the Dutch capital. You can still download his older projects from moricky.com.
Operation Flashpoint and the follow-up Arma series are easily moddable, making it possible to create almost anything in them. What are the most bizarre mods that you can recall?
There have been many of them. Our game has already seen dinosaurs. The Nassau 1715 mod turns you into a pirate, sailing on a ship. There are also the Napoleonic wars, LEGO, a mod converting the game to the Warhammer 40K universe, a Halo mod, and a remake resembling Nintendo platformers. A very popular mod is Altis Life which changes the game into a civilian RPG – a little bit like GTA. Many people start up Arma 3 but don't actually play the game. They fight battle royales, play a civilian RPG, a survival sim resembling DayZ, perhaps a King of the Hill mod. This was the case of most of our players before 2016, when PUBG came out and attracted them instead. There were also great rally mods for Flashpoint, which we used to play every Christmas.
Mods add armies from countries all around the world, including the Czech army
You’ve probably seen all possible environments in Arma…
In one experimental mod you could even fly a plane through the atmosphere and end up in orbit. But yes, I've seen Norway, Afghanistan, Chernobyl, an island resembling Pandora from Avatar. And someone has even created the offices of Bohemia Interactive in Mníšek pod Brdy. There are occasional issues with licensing terms, that's why the creators of the Star Wars mod had to eventually pull it. But the aforementioned Halo has different terms, Microsoft welcomes mods, and the Halo developers even invited the mod creators for an interview for their blog.
Did you like any of the more serious remakes?
I liked for example Operation Cobalt, a campaign for Arma 2 which was a great addition to the official one and actually gave more meaning to it. After showing it to Marek Španěl (the CEO of Bohemia Interactive – ed.), we eventually hired its creator. He then worked on a large part of the Arma 3 campaign. The Czech creator called Celoush made a Western mod named Cope's Revenge, in which time slows down after every shot, feeling like bullet time. Some mods have inspired us, like for example the amazing mission Pilgrimage, in which you start at the edge of the island and have to explore all of its chapels. Your brother has died in one of them, so you have to find his body to bring it home. But there's a civil war happening on the island, and you may encounter enemies. It was a great open-world experience, so when we were designing the introductory part of the Laws of War DLC, we made the player look for their brother in a chapel.
Don't you think that some community creations can put the official content to shame?
It depends. Official content is consistent, everything has professional voice-overs and works reliably. The commercial missions expand the game further and allow you to do various things. Whereas community missions often only work if the player sticks to the correct path, because modders don't have the time or even the interest to cover all possible approaches. But yes, community content can sometimes outdistance the official one, mainly because fans are able to devote much more time to developing it. When I used to create mods of my own, I could spend a year working on a single mission. The creators are willing to put tremendous effort in, and the results often make me stare in amazement.
I've heard the first mod for Flashpoint was brought to Bohemia on a floppy disk. Is that true?
Yes. And the person who brought it was Joris-Jan van 't Land, the lead developer of Arma 3 and my current boss in Amsterdam. It happened at a gaming expo in Brussels, where he handed his work over to Marek Španěl. As a member of the fan community, he had access to a beta of the game editor so it was no surprise that he brought a mod. What was a surprise was the actual thing he had created: a simple strategic mode, in which buildings slowly rose from the ground like in Command & Conquer. Back then, the developers didn't expect anyone to use their scripts for anything other than cutscenes.
Feeling like Tom Hanks
Do you remember your first contact with Flashpoint?
That was me and my friend playing the demo at his home. Whenever I died, he got to play instead, and vice versa. The demo had several endings so we played it many times over, trying to discover all of them.
And you have been enthralled by the game ever since then?
Let's face it, we all wanted to play mostly Czech games back then. Titles like Mafia, Bulánci (a top-down shooter in which you play armed pillows - ed.) or Flashpoint were played by everyone. I spent more and more time with Flashpoint, and then I began creating mods and pretty much forgot about all other games. It took most of my time.
When was the first time you opened the editor?
I can't recall exactly, but the thing that drew me in was the Czech community that was just forming around the game. There was a website called Ruprt's Advice where people exchanged their tips. Most of the game was unknown back then. Today, the scripting language is well-documented, there are tutorials… But in those days, when we wanted to light a fire in-game, we first had to discover the scripting command responsible for it. And when I managed to actually write the code, run the game and see the fire burning, I felt like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, dancing around the fire.
What happened after?
We started exploring the game more and more, writing guides – how to set up a parachute jump, how to create a cutscene… The first players were basically pioneers and had to discover everything. But things did progress, and eventually they started using the editor. This was something the developers hadn't expected. The players used scripts to create new in-game logic, which didn't happen in the official content until the first Flashpoint expansion.
How did you yourself learn working with the editor?
You can learn in two ways. Either from the official documentation or by reverse engineering. Which means unpacking a mission that contains a great moment, and taking a look at how it's been done. Then you try to isolate it, use it in a mission of your own, and perhaps even expand upon it. There also used to be officials forums where people shared their missions and learned from one another. The developers only rarely joined the discussion – for us, they were like demigods. I remember there were two main competitors in creating missions, nicknamed Ježuro and Sarge. Both of them now work for Bohemia. And hiring the best creators is a practice that we still do today. What's great is that the moddability of our games allows us to easily train potential employees. The only thing left to do is to check if they're good team players, and we can make them an offer.
The main output of the Amsterdam studio is the unconventional Contact DLC for Arma 3
How long did it take you to get acquainted with the editor?
There is a book by Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers, in which he says that it takes ten thousand hours to become an expert in anything. I think it's about correct. I spent all of my time with the game. Even in school, I was always writing scripts on pieces of paper so I could type them into the computer after getting home. I kept thinking about it.
You were quite young when you started, weren't you?
Yes, it was in 2002, when I was fourteen. Arma came out four years later, and Bohemia recruited me a short time after. That was when Ivan Buchta sent me a message, asking if I wanted to work for them.
You've mentioned that Bohemia has often hired talented creators. Did you ever dream of being one of them?
I never even thought about it. It seemed like an impossible goal. Both of my parents are machine engineers, so I thought I would do the same job. I studied machine engineering at high school in Liberec, which is where I come from. I did go to university, but mostly out of inertia. I had little motivation to stay at the school because I was already working for Bohemia.
Let's go back to how you were hired. Did you simply receive an email from Ivan Buchta one day?
Not at all. He dropped me a message on ICQ, asking me to come to Mníšek pod Brdy. In those days, even Prague felt like a megalopolis for me. Now imagine me traveling even further away! The night before the meeting, I couldn't sleep.
How did the meeting go?
I visited Marek, we spent about an hour talking about random design topics and future plans, after which he asked me to create a mission for the special release of Arma. You know, the game was released in the Czech Republic first, but after that they started preparing the European and American versions. And I was to create a special mission for those. The next week, I spent all of my time after school doing just that.
I worked for Bohemia during the summer between high school and university. I experienced how the company worked. After my first year at university, I decided to risk it, drop out and start working full-time.
Flashpoint on steroids
What made you love working on missions so much?
Mainly the technical challenge. To come up with something that nobody has thought about, and then make it. Sometimes it would be a cutscene, sometimes a script. I wanted to know if I could do it. Sometimes it worked well, sometimes it didn't.
Do you think this is what drew the attention of Bohemia?
Perhaps. But I was also one of the first ones who created their own posters and websites for their missions.
What was the first fan-made mod that you tried?
I was mostly influenced by two mods, both of which were, coincidentally, Czech. The first was the Czechoslovak People's Army mod, which added a new faction and a campaign consisting of twenty missions. It made quite a splash in the community, and everybody suddenly wanted to create a similar campaign. Typically, they created their first mission and then asked on the forums for help. Well, and then there were two missions named Hawk in Nets and Hawk in Shadows, both of them variations on Metal Gear Solid. This was the point where I lost interest in classic army missions and wanted to do something else. Which brought me to Metal Gear itself – I even bought a PlayStation 2 because of it, and watched MGS trailers. Eventually, I tried doing something similar for Flashpoint.
What were your other sources of inspiration?
Books by Tom Clancy, films by Michael Bay or Tony Scott. They tend to be bombastic, packed with effects and epic music. I've already grown out of it, I think. But Clancy has been a huge influence for me – after all, he was the reason why I started reading. He's very easy to read, even though if you stop and think about it, you'll realize there are many illogical segues and that it's a little bit of a Republican propaganda.
What were your design principles?
I grew to respect people who managed to take the basic premise of Flashpoint and give it a twist of their own. To take the game's strengths and multiply them. To play with details. For example, I've recently replayed a mission called “The Three Wise Men” for the original Flashpoint, made by the aforementioned Ježura. The player has to wait for a convoy to pass. Suddenly, you can hear the sound of a mosquito, and the main character comments on it. It's just a little detail but it draws you in. Better than a grandiose cutscene. It's like Flashpoint on steroids.
Do you think Flashpoint was ahead of its time in terms of moddability?
I do. The main factor was – and still is – the fact that the editor was part of the game. You didn't have to look for files hidden in such and such folders. That was the case with, for example, Command & Conquer, for which I created maps, but I always had to open the game's folder first. Whereas if the option is placed directly in the game's main menu, players will sooner or later try it. And for many of them, there's no going back.
A step towards the unknown
In a previous interview, you mentioned that you eventually realized that learning theory at university would be useful for you. In what sense?
I wasn't aware of this at first. I only realized it during the development of Arma 3. The creative director of the project was Jay Crowe, and I sat right next to him. He's got a college degree, a Master of Arts. I watched the way he approached problems, the way he was able to document everything properly, to describe the goals. He knew what to do and had an analytical way of thinking. I never had to write a bachelor's thesis or learn how to structure my work. The way the modding community worked was: “I have an idea, let me just do it!”
Have you eventually learned what you need?
I've learned by watching other people work. For example, my current boss Joris studied at university focused on IT, and even wrote a Master's thesis about Arma. He let me take a look at it – by the way, this is the only thesis I've ever read. And I've actually learned a lot out of it.
So do you think it makes a difference when a developer has a theoretical background?
I do. There are people, including modders, who are able to script anything you can think of, but if you want them to document something properly, they're at a loss. Even though it's such an important development skill. I often come up with an idea for solving a problem, and many times the solution is correct. But not always. That's why it's better to describe your goals and think of several ways of achieving them. Doing this, I'm able to tell if following the first solution is the best option, or if it will just cost me many hours and not accomplish much. Plus, this way you're covered. When somebody asks if you've thought of doing something in a particular way, you can tell them you've already explored the option. Doing analysis before you start making something – that's a skill that's often underestimated. And I'm currently trying to make others realize that.
What was your job in Bohemia in the past few years?
I spent a lot of time in Mníšek pod Brdy in a room with about ten other designers. My role there was as senior designer, meaning that whenever we discussed anything related to scripts, I was there. I also liked to listen to others and join conversations when the design had to be tweaked.
The Napoleonic Era mod recreates 19th century warfare
How did you get to the Amsterdam studio?
The lead of the Amsterdam studio is Joris, who's Dutch. He worked as the project lead of Arma 3, so he was close to our boss (Marek Španěl). He lived in the Czech Republic during development, but after that he wanted to return home. One of the options was that he would leave us altogether, but then he agreed with Marek to open a branch in the Netherlands. I know Joris personally, I even invited him to my wedding. He asked me if I wanted to move, to use my experience and know-how. When you're opening a studio like that, you want to have people with a wide field of knowledge. At that point, I had been working on the game for 14 years, I knew it throughout, and I knew what to do in any situation or at least who to ask.
Did you hesitate before venturing for the unknown?
Joris is one of my best friends. There wasn't much keeping me in Prague, my family is from Liberec. So I agreed because I trusted him.
What does the Amsterdam branch look like?
It's a smaller team, less than fifteen people in total. We knew our first project would be a DLC for Arma 3, so we had to be fairly conservative. We only focused on the most important content, and coordinated the rest with Prague. Going into the future, we would like to be more independent and able to create a game just by ourselves. But we still don't want to have more than twenty people.
How do you like living in the Netherlands?
It's not much of a difference. When I go to a shop, I can hardly tell I'm not in the Czech Republic. The standard of living is similar. True, I can ride my bike to the sea. I like the fact that Amsterdam is flat and you can easily ride a bike around. It's better for me because I don't have a driving license. In Prague I was limited to using public transport. Here, I can jump on my bike without having to wait for a bus.
Is there a more family-like environment in the smaller team?
Mníšek pod Brdy was actually similar. It's like a rural cottage some way from Prague. But even Prague didn't feel very corporate – Bohemia is great in this regard. Moreover, we designers from Mníšek pod Brdy were quite a tight-knit group because we took the same bus from work, and after arriving in Prague we often went for a beer. Here in Amsterdam, everybody goes straight home. We knew each other much more closely in Mníšek, and the friendships still hold.
You've been working with the same video game for almost 20 years. Aren't you growing tired of it?
I'm lucky enough to always be working on something slightly different. For example, during the development of Arma 3, I worked on the Zeus multiplayer mode. I often focus on various side projects. It's an ideal way for me to avoid burnout. I wouldn't be able to work just on missions and nothing else. I sometimes like to get back to doing them but not for long. I do both small things and large things, I like a good technical or design challenge. So I don't really feel like I’m working on the same game all the time. I'm also lucky in that the development cycle of my projects tends to be shorter.
What do you mean?
I've worked on many DLCs, which typically get developed in the span of six months up to a year. That's a short time. You get immersed in it, go through the whole development cycle, and then start working on something else. In contrast, Arma 2 took us three years, and that was a long time. Each developer gets motivated when their game is released and they can see the reactions of the gamers, which tend to be positive for us. Working on DLCs, there's always something going on. The development, the announcement, further development, the release, and so on. Some of the developers we hired for Arma 3 have never worked on anything else.
How is the Dutch gaming scene?
More focused on indie games. There's a single large studio, Guerilla Games, but they don't socialize with the others as much. There's also the marketing office of PUBG. But aside from that it's mostly just indie studios. This is supported by the fact that the Netherlands are themselves more decentralized. Unlike in the Czech Republic, where you have studios just in the two largest cities or so, here they’re scattered all around the country. The most popular places are Amsterdam and Utrecht, perhaps even Breda, where many people study game development at the local university. An organization called Dutch Game Garden holds a monthly event called Network Lunch in Utrecht, where you can present yourselves and your game, or even offer jobs to others. It's very friendly and informal, and many contacts get formed here.
You can't only make Czech landscape
The Arma series is quite a hardcore thing. But despite that, it has become a phenomenon with millions of copies sold. What do you think is the explanation for that?
I wouldn't call it hardcore. More like authentic. When I shoot a bullet, its flight follows some physical laws. Many games cheat in this regard, they don't simulate ballistics. Arma simulates a real environment to a large degree, which makes it predictable. That's what DayZ was built on. It didn't have to explain anything, it simply let the players behave like in the normal world. When the player was bleeding, they could tear up their shirt and use it as a bandage. In Flashpoint, when you see a car, you can get in and drive it. In many other games, it would be just a prop. When you see a weapon lying in front of you, you can pick it up. It's comfortable for both players and modders because it makes the rules easier to learn. The helicopter simulator Take On Helicopters was similar, it had a real physical model for helicopters. We've had quite an interesting experience with it.
We were presenting the game at an expo when a real helicopter pilot came in to play. He grabbed a joystick and immediately started flying better than our testers, just because he knew how to do it in real life. Arma is similar. Many of its players are former marines, and they can act in the game the same way they would act in real life. They know that a wooden obstacle isn't completely bullet-proof, that you can shoot through it. They use real habits, which work even in the game.
What were the most amazing moments for you when you played the game?
I think it was the openness. Even in the mere demo version of Flashpoint. In it, you first attacked a small farm, and after you had defeated the Soviet garrison, you continued to another village. I tried approaching a car parked near the farm, and I noticed I could get in. So I got behind the wheel, drove straight into the enemy village and into a building, got out and started attacking the Soviets from the inside while the rest of my team was attacking outside. And I was like: wow, you can do this in this game.
On the other hand, I feel that Arma is no longer as “Czech” as it used to be. In the original Flashpoint, you could see obvious inspiration by the Czech landscape. The Resistance expansion was directly based on Czech history, while the Chernarus island from Arma 2 took inspiration from Eastern Europe (although the landscape is actually Czech, and based on an area near Ústí nad Labem). Hasn't the series abandoned its roots?
You can't only make Czech landscape all the time. Arma 3 is located on a Mediterranean island, and we've even expanded it with a jungle map. It's a nice change for both the developers and the players. Plus, when we release an island with a new environment, modders can then use it.
Haven't you alienated the Czech community a bit, though?
Maybe. But the Czech community is only a minor fraction of the overall player base. We like doing something for them but you can't compare the number of Czech players to Germany, Russia, UK or the US.
Flashpoint: Resistance was an interesting example of a game that was heavily inspired by historical events, namely the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, which in the game didn't result in Czech capitulation but rather in guerrilla resistance. Why do you think there aren't many games inspired by reality, and developers in general prefer fictional conflicts and create sci-fi or fantasy worlds? Why are games afraid to be the mirror of reality?
The Resistance expansion takes place in a fictional country and is only inspired by the invasion. If it were located in real Czechoslovakia, it would have to recreate not just the authentic topic but also the geography, the calendar dates, and probably even some individuals. Any inaccuracy might become the target of criticism, both emotional and legitimate. That's why it's inspired just by the topic: “What would happen if we decided to fight in 1968?” And the rest is filled in in such a way to support gameplay. Fiction can often capture history better than many real stories.
Are mods the biggest strength of Flashpoint or even Arma? Or are they just a means to prolong the games' lifespan?
They do prolong their lifespan significantly. Arma 3 is seven years old – how many games of this age still get played? But just moddability itself isn't enough for success. The game has to be good on its own. Just take other big games that are heavily modded: Skyrim, GTA, Kerbal Space Program. All of them are great even without any mods.
In the pirate mod Nassau 1714, you swap tanks for sea vessels
Don't certain gaming companies underestimate modding support?
Maybe. But creating a game that's well accommodated for modding is very difficult. Each line of code that I write may be looked at by anyone, and then expanded upon. You have to think differently, structure things in a different way. During the release of Arma 3, we left some things in its code that didn't make it to the final game. People immediately discovered them and started spreading various conspiracy theories.
Is developing a game that's suitable for modding significantly more difficult? Is it possible that the invested time won't pay off?
It can be risky. Our advantage is that we have an established brand. Skyrim or GTA are similar cases, where you have an established game engine and then you build several sequels with it. But the Arma engine is already showing its age. That's why we're developing a new engine for our future projects, called Enfusion.
What areas and topics can you still explore with Arma?
We have many ideas. Even back during the development of Arma 3, we already had plenty of them. I could speak about it for hours. But I can't. Not yet. I can only say that good ideas never die, they ripen instead.