Community Spotlight: Shack Tactical, part 1

A group of eight infantry members strategically map out from which direction to infiltrate an occupied town. On a nearby road, about a dozen soldiers share prior war stories. "I wasn't Rambo-ing it up!" says one random infantryman. "I wasn't doing anything wrong and I just got killed. That's what I live with every day." Still another group plots out their strategy of entering through an airstrip using roads and bushes as cover.

This begins the latest video from Shack Tactical, a dedicated group of ArmA 2: Operation Arrowhead soldiers. The video (featuring an amazing 93 players) has drawn tens of thousands of views on YouTube to date, a far cry from Shack Tactical's humble origins. The group was pulled together in 2006 under the command of Shacknews Chatty's Andrew "dslyecxi" Gluck. Formed to play Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45, Armed Assault, and Operation Flashpoint sessions, the group later migrated to the ArmA series.

For Gluck, Shack Tactical represented a return to normalcy. Prior to the group's formation, he took part in a number of Shacknews Operation Flashpoint sessions before going overseas in 2004 to serve as a member of the US Marine Corps in Okinawa. Linking up with a like-minded group in the SomethingAwful forums, Shack Tactical's numbers started growing. The numbers grew even more with the transition to ArmA.

With the release of the group's ArmA1 guide, some ArmA 1 sessions peaked at 70 players, Gluck said. ArmA 2 and Shack Tactical's ArmA 2 guide helped increase the regular player base to more than 80. "It's only with ArmA 2: OA and the recent influence of DayZ that we have begun to push past the 100-player range on a regular basis," he said. "The gameplay that has resulted from such high player counts has been phenomenal to experience."

The group runs the latest Operation Arrowhead beta from Bohemia Interactive, linked together with ArmA 2 itself. Before starting a session, everyone must agree to abide by the group's common guidelines: No magnified weapon optics, no attack vehicles, and absolutely no respawning. More than anything, Shack Tactical aims for an authentic ground infantry experience.

Gluck said he makes sure that every prospective member of the group is aware from the beginning that Shack Tactical wants to model itself after an infantry platoon, although lately it has been more of an infantry company. Transports are uncommon and missions with jets, helicopters and tanks are even more rare. "Infantry gameplay is where ArmA shines brightest and suits our large player count exceptionally well," he said. "Instead of it being one tank 'stealing the glory' and accomplishing the bulk of the mission's objectives, we get to employ dozens of infantry, working closely as fireteams, squads, and platoons, to defeat the enemy. Every rifleman plays a role, and each can claim that they were a factor in our eventual success -- or horrific defeat. This 'sharing of the fun' keeps our player base engaged and coming back for more week after week."

After the battle is complete, Gluck goes to work on creating a Shack Tactical video. After a recent absence, ShackTac videos are coming back in force, with recent missions Nomads, Strike at Aliabad, and the aforementioned Town Sweep all hitting YouTube in the past couple of weeks. Gluck captures all of the footage using Fraps. The footage is then edited with Adobe Premier before being given a clean intro with After Effects. Gluck uses the game's built-in camera script along with some of his own additions, but determining what to film comes down to his own judgment.

"The biggest challenge of filming these recent sessions has been to not only watch what's happening in the scenario and try to place myself in what seem to be the most interesting areas of the mission," Gluck said, "but also to be able to listen to the radio chatter at the same time and anticipate where the next key action events will take place. This involves a lot of zipping around the terrain at high-speed, bouncing from squad to squad and hoping that everything you've recorded will gel into a coherent narrative later on."

The final product is on part with some of the best shorts that machinima has to offer. Of course, such an elaborate production has brought accusations of AI usage or scripted events, a charge Gluck vehemently denies.

"I am strongly opposed to groups that do promotional videos where they stage events, use AI to make their numbers look bigger, or generally create misleading content," he said. "What you see in our videos is simply legitimate ShackTac gameplay. I take pride in that fact. It's been a long road to get where we are, and when we see an accusation of staging our dialog, it makes me smile to know that our natural gameplay is engaging enough to lead some to believe that it must be faked. It is quite the compliment."

Each Shack Tactical video carries a strong feel of authenticity. A large part of that comes from Gluck's own military background. However, he notes that Shack Tactical's membership includes a number of active and former military from around the world, including American, Canadian, European, and Australian soldiers. With such devotion to painting a genuine picture of the battlefield, Shack Tactical has received praise from both civilians and active military.

"One of the most flattering pieces of feedback I received from a military member came in the early ArmA2 days," Gluck said. "A combat veteran from Iraq -- a bonafide US Army door-kicker -- remarked after one of his first sessions with us that it was 'as close as you can get without getting dirty.' I think these sorts of comments are great insight into why VBS2 -- the 'military' version of ArmA, and something I've worked with for over five years now -- has become such a dominating and successful training tool. In that same vein, I was surprised to learn recently that some ShackTac videos were used to help illustrate the value of games-for-training to the US Special Forces community by an operator with more than 20 years of service. It showed that if a collection of people playing a game online could learn tactical, decision-making, and other key training tasks, imagine what that same game -- now a 'sim' in the form of VBS2 -- could be used for in an actual military training capacity. It's a bit of a geek-out moment to hear something like that."

ShackTac is a growing community with an increasing number of applicants. So how does one go about becoming a part of it? Tomorrow in part 2 of our interview, Gluck shares the application process for Shack Tactical. He also shares what he hopes to see in the upcoming ArmA III.