A conceptual version of the flight simulator set to become a U.S. Air Force recruitment tool is seen in this image.
A conceptual version of the flight simulator set to become a U.S. Air Force recruitment tool is seen in this image. Credit: Courtesy / IMG Studio

A small San Antonio company has won an Air Force contract to develop a flight simulation game intended to recruit young engineers.

The IMG Studio, run by a wife-and-husband pair, will build a physics-based game that emphasizes STEM skills and the technical side of designing and flying a plane.

“It’s a fun, experimental game to open people’s eyes to all the careers that the Air Force has to offer,” said Heather Chandler, the company’s CEO and founder who is also an Emmy-award winning documentary filmmaker.

While many U.S. military recruiting games have gameplay centered around shooting people, such as America’s Army, the still-unnamed game being developed by The IMG Studio will take after games like Kerbal Space Program, a game about the challenge of launching a rocket.

The Air Force game will have users build and fly aircraft to meet specific goals, such as flying a payload 2,000 miles to a shorter-than-average landing strip. Players are asked to balance factors like speed, weight, and fuel load against financial costs. Sometimes those design parameters are constrained, forcing players to get creative.

“It’s like the paper airplane model,” said James Chandler, the company’s chief technology officer. “You’re building the plane, and then you’re trying to fly it.”

A conceptual image of the flight simulator shows aircraft parts used in the U.S. Air Force. Credit: Courtesy / IMG Studio

The 10-person studio has developed practical-minded games in the past, such as one that has players play basketball in a wheelchair, developed as a recruiting tool for South Texas Regional Adaptive & Paralympic Sports as well as Morgan’s Wonderland. It also developed a game called Dr. Grammar, intended to teach English grammar to the children of migrant farmworkers.

Funding for the game comes from the contract with the Air Force, signed through the Small Business Innovation Research program at AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Air Force.

Heather Chandler said the goal now is to partner with an Air Force base to develop a prototype. The base, she explained, would be able to provide expertise on the technical aspects of specific planes, as well as provide feedback that could guide the game’s development to best fit Air Force needs.

The company will have two years to develop the prototype under its contract, but it expects it will only need six months to a year.

Once fully developed, the company plans to license the game to bases or the Air Force as a whole. It also hopes to distribute it on platforms like Steam, which would allow anyone with a PC to download it.

The Air Force has increasingly made forays into the gaming world, which it and the Department of Defense increasingly see as a viable way to recruit and retain personnel. The trend has accelerated under the pandemic.

Last November the Air Force Service Center headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland launched the military branches’ intramural esports program, called Air Force Gaming.

More than 80% of Airmen ages 18 to 35 identify as “gamers” and play between four and 10 hours per week, according to a press release from the Air Force.

The connection between gaming and talent pipelines, particularly for the military, is at the heart of Port San Antonio’s decision to include an esports arena in its upcoming Innovation Center, currently under construction.

Will Garrett, the Port’s vice president of cybersecurity, said the Port hopes to make the arena available as a venue for the Department of Defense and other military organizations to stage gaming events.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.