Space explorers, ready your virtual engines three game developers have signed on to create NASA's massively multiplayer online video game (MMO), called "Astronaut: Moon, Mars & Beyond."
NASA plans to let Virtual Heroes, Project Whitecard and Information in Place take the lead in creating a game that emphasizes fun first and foremost. The game community sent in 800 pages worth of responses to NASA's initial outreach on developing an MMO.
"The single biggest point that was pushed forward by the game community was that you have to let game design lead the development," said Daniel Laughlin, project manager for NASA Learning Technologies at the agency?s Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center in Maryland. "It's easy to build a game that's no fun. It's hard to build a game that's successful and fun."
A playable demo of the game is slated for release before the end of the year, based on a tech demo that uses Epic's Unreal Engine 3. Players will get to roam around in a multiplayer experience focused on moon base operations, although real astronauts on the International Space Station may have to hold off until they return to Earth.
"We've had to create a new genre of gameplay, creating what we call first person exploration," said Jerry Heneghan, founder and CEO of Virtual Heroes. He noted that the full game will emphasize player cooperation to master both harsh space environments and complex machinery. Players would take on astronaut roles such as roboticist, rather than becoming a grenadier or sniper in a more combat-oriented game.
Eventually players may get the chance to provide their own user-created content, ranging from scouting out new paths for space exploration to creating and flying their own ships. But unlike other space-themed MMOs such as EVE Online or Star Trek Online, such ships probably won't be toting laser weaponry.
The game developers also hope to have game missions connected with what Heneghan termed the "near-future reality" of space exploration. NASA has already created many concepts of future space tech that the developers plan to incorporate into the game, which has the added advantage of saving on game development costs.
"This model has been proven with America's Army," Heneghan told SPACE.com, pointing to how Virtual Heroes has already worked with the U.S. Department of Defense in developing the Army's free and popular online game. "The difference here is that we're talking about first person exploration, so it's all about exploring the environment, expanding and building things rather than shooting other players."
Each game developer has already amassed considerable experience working with one another on space-related games. Virtual Heroes and Project Whitecard are finishing up a different project for the Canadian Space Agency, while Virtual Heroes is also working with Information in Place on a "Virtual Astronaut" project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Laughlin said that he was pleased to see development of the game moving quickly, at least for NASA. The MMO project first started in 2004, and NASA selected the three developers just after the New Year.
"I'm working with NASA and video games at the same," Laughlin said. "It's the coolest job in the world."
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