Behind the Scenes of NASA’s Upcoming MMORPG

by Ray Sanders on September 12, 2011

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. Image Credit: Project Whitecard International 2011

These days, nearly every game company is trying to get their fingers in the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) pie. Given the past successes of games like Ultima Online and Everquest and the current success of games like EVE Online and World of Warcraft, it’s no surprise that companies want try to create the next “killer app” of the MMORPG market.

One such game company that will be launching a new game is the company partnered with NASA to develop a space-based MMORPG for the space agency.  Having raised nearly $40,000 in pledged funding via kickstarter, the company aims to start beta testing their offering some time next year.

So what does this new MMORPG do differently that will attract and retain paying customers? What makes Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond different from say, EVE Online, Star Trek Online, or Star Wars Galaxies?

When a game developer becomes associated with a “big-name” property,  expectations from both fans and developers can be quite high. Despite securing a license to create a game based on the Stargate franchise, a game development company never released the game and eventually ended up in bankruptcy. Star Trek Online, despite being one of the most anticipated MMORPG franchises went through two developers and when finally released had less than stellar sales.  Of course, many fans of MMORPG’s are all too familiar with the myriad issues that plagued Star Wars Galaxies.

Not all online games are destined for failure. Some games build up players steadily over time and retain an extremely loyal fan base. In some cases, “slow and steady wins the race” is a reality for some game companies. So, what does it take to build a successful online game franchise?

Concept Art of a Future Astronaut: Image Credit: Project Whitecard International 2011

In the case of the upcoming NASA MMORPG, Daniel Laughlin, project manager of NASA’s Learning Technologies cited research over the past decade indicating that games have tremendous potential to enhance learning. Laughlin stated, “The goal of the MMO project is to tap into the power of games to inspire and promote learning specifically in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)”. Laughlin also added, “Based on the existing literature as well as my own experiences gaming, an MMO was the logical choice for a game project for NASA.”

What Laughlin believes to be of benefit to his idea is that a MMO gives the ability to continually update, adjust and expand a game – keeping players engaged over long periods of time.

Laughlin also mentioned the success of a NASA proof-of-concept game, Moonbase Alpha, as an encouraging sign of interest in a NASA-themed MMORPG, citing over 400,000 downloads. Laughlin also added “It is short proof of concept piece. Just a 20 minute mission, but it was built to prove to NASA that we could build a commercial quality game that uses NASA content – the lunar architecture – and is fun and inspirational.”

Moonbase Alpha Screenshot: Image Credit: NASA Learning Technologies

How does a promising proof-of-concept demo become a full-fledged online game?

Laughlin’s office solicited development partners to build the game under a non-reimbursable space act agreement (Meaning NASA is partnered with the game developer, but no funds change hands). The Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond team was selected through a competitive process and has signed an agreement with NASA. The development team has to raise development funds on their own and NASA will provide subject matter experts along with education and evaluation experts to assist the team. Currently, the development team has raised nearly $40,000 via their kickstarter page.

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. Image Credit: Project Whitecard International 2011

Khal Shariff, CEO of Project Whitecard is equally optimistic about Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, stating, “We view this project as an almost sacred opportunity to engage new and current generations of science fans, those who are forever looking outward, with a vision for space exploration.”

When asked specifically about the fund raising efforts via Kickstarter, Shariff mentioned “It means all of the world to the people making this project happen, and it’s a hell of a deal, especially when you see that a $30 bid will send two licenses to a school and one to yourself.” Shariff also added, “More than this, it shows that Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, has honest, people-driven roots and will succeed or fail on its own merits.”

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. Image Credit: Project Whitecard International 2011

Shariff’s goal is a very solid game mechanic that rewards players for competing in areas of STEM learning and mentioned that one essential gameplay mechanic is a combination of gear and crafting. One other game play mechanic of quests are standard fare in many online games. In the case of Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, the quests are missions that fit into the larger storyline. Shariff was tight-lipped as to what, if any protagonists are present in the game, stating: “We have protagonists in the game, and I won’t say much about them, because I don’t want to spoil the opening scene of Chapter One.”

On the topic of chapters, Shariff mentioned plans for a future expansion to allow manned travel to destinations beyond Mars and the asteroid belt, even though in first chapter, players will have visited said destinations with unmanned missions.

Based on information presented by the development team, it does appear they will be putting forth considerable effort to fulfill Laughlin’s goal of a fun, educational and infinitely playable game. Shariff concluded with: “We want you to sit down and curl up with one session and have a feeling like you had when you read the best short science fiction stories, especially like those of Clarke. There is plenty of adventure to plumb.”

If you’d like to learn more about NASA’s Learning Technologies program, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/programs/national/ltp/research/index.html

You can download the Moonbase Alpha game at: http://ipp.gsfc.nasa.gov/mmo, and you can learn more about Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond at: http://www.astronautmmo.com

Ray Sanders is a Sci-Fi geek, astronomer and space/science blogger. Visit his website Dear Astronomer and follow on Twitter (@DearAstronomer) or Google+ for more space musings.

About 

In addition to being a published astronomer specializing in variable stars, Ray Sanders has blogged for Universe Today, and The Planetary Society blog, among others. He runs his own blog, Dear Astronomer, teaches classes for CosmoQuest, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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