Q&A: Exploring NASA's MMOG space

Project manager Dr. Daniel Laughlin talks about getting the US space agency's educational massively multiplayer game off the ground.

As it would turn out, conquering the stars hasn't been as easy as simply finding some long-abandoned alien technology, as popular science fiction would have society believe. However, that hasn't stopped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration from staring at the stars in search of humanity's own interstellar technology. In January, the space agency's Learning Technologies department signaled its move to groom would-be scientists to continue its spaceborne efforts by soliciting information on massively multiplayer online game development.

Earlier this month, NASA took the next step on its MMOG journey, saying it was actively pursuing partners to work with on the project. According to NASA, the primary goal of the game is to encourage young people to pursue the science and engineering professions. The space agency hopes the game will appeal to young gamers and help promote "thinking, planning, learning, and technical skills increasingly in demand by employers."

Beyond that whole learning, teaching, and collaboration angle, the game's project manager, Dr. Daniel Laughlin, also emphasizes that the NASA MMOG needs to be fun. A collaborating scientist through the University of Maryland, Laughlin is no stranger to gaming, nor even the MMOG sphere, as he is a professed fan and veteran of several of the biggest games the sector has on offer, including Everquest, Everquest 2, and Star Wars Galaxies.

GameSpot recently spoke with Laughlin to find out why it makes sense to make an educational MMOG, the problems associated with throwing engineering students in an isolated crucible, and, contrary to some reports, how NASA isn't asking anybody to make them a game for free.

GameSpot: What is your position at NASA, and what is your role on the game?

Daniel Laughlin: I am the project manager for NASA Learning Technologies, which is a NASA-wide initiative, but our project office is here at Goddard Space Life Center.

GS: So why is NASA looking at making a game?

DL: Since about 2000, there's been a buildup of research on the educational potential of games in general. Kurt Squire has been the poster boy here, he did his PhD just at the right time on that and made Civilization a proper education game, I'm sure you've heard of Jim Gee work also on learning and games. Over the last seven or eight years, there's really been a buildup on the legitimacy of games as a learning tool. And as a longtime gamer myself, and already working with NASA and education, it seemed like a really good opportunity to bring together NASA and our mission at Learning Technologies, which is to promote cutting-edge development of educational tools that use NASA data and good-learning practices, and propose the idea of a massively multiplayer online game that supports learning and meets NASA's needs.

GS: I'm seeing the term "STEM discipline" tossed about in your request for proposal (RFP) as your target audience for the game. Could you explain what that term means?

DL: That's Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Basically, most people just call it "sciences," or some people call it "the sciences," and engineers like to call it all "engineering." It's those fields of technical endeavor where NASA particularly needs a workforce that is highly literate and skilled in those, whether we're talking about engineering or aeronautics involved in rocket science or we're looking at planetary biology or planetary geology, we're looking at a very technically literate workforce that NASA needs, and the news overall for the country is that our STEM literate workforce is shrinking as we get fewer and fewer students going into those educational areas and fewer of them graduating with degrees from those areas.

GS: So the game is primarily designed to get people interested in the STEM disciplines?

DL: Yeah. And NASA's got three big educational goals, and two are very closely related are to get more kids interested in going into those fields of study in school, and very closely tied to that is to getting them to graduate successfully from those fields and go to work in those areas. It's not just NASA--the whole country needs a technical workforce. With that pool shrinking, there's no reason to believe that NASA will attract a bigger portion of the pool. So we have an obligation to make the pool grow to meet everybody's needs.

GS: Has development or high-concept mapping of the game begun yet?

DL: No. If you've looked at the RFP, we've left that very wide open for proposals. We're looking for very creative proposals for this. If you sit the average person down, myself included, and say, "Make math fun," that's going to be a challenge. We knew this was going to be challenge, and rather than trying to solve it ourselves, we decided to seek out the most creative, energetic people we can find, and get them to come up with ideas on how we can meet this challenge. That's was the plan we had back in January, where we asked for input, and we got 800 pages of input from the outside world submitted to our request for information. A lot of that input said that we've got to leave the developers and the people who are going to be proposing as much latitude as you can in their proposals. And that's what we went with. The other thing they said at the top of the list was that NASA has to be committed to this being fun, because it's too easy to believe that a government agency would suck the fun out of it through its bureaucratic red tape.

GS: Were there any names in particular that you got comment from?

DL: It's confidential, so I can't tell you exactly. But I can say that we got interest and input from people at all levels, from kids to college dorms who are excited about the idea to experienced professionals.

GS: Cool. So why an MMOG and not a regular console title?

DL: The life span partly is an issue. Even a really good title in a couple of months is going to be stale, and you're going to find it on the discount rack. The MMOG comes with that built in, as long as you can keep expanding, updating, and putting in new material, it can stay fresh. Everquest turned nine this year, and there are still people playing Everquest. Civilization II came out on consoles around 1998, and there's nobody playing that anymore.

GS: [Laughs.] I wouldn't say nobody.

DL: Right, but they've gone on to Civilization III and IV. There are people who didn't upgrade their computers, and are still playing Civ II, but. [Laughs.] If we did an educational game that used NASA content, or a game that had NASA content, and we went with a stand-alone console game, then next year, we'd be out looking for how do we do NASA Game 2. Also, another element to that is that while you do get communities built up around stand-alone games, the vibrancy of the MMO community seems to be stronger to me, and we are looking particularly for communities to grow up around this.

You get a lot of kids going into engineering school, for instance, then they go to enormous seminar classes with 300 other people, because engineer schools have decided that the way to see if you're a good engineer is to throw you into a big pot, turn up the heat, and see who can survive on their own. And a lot of kids drop out at that level.

I expect the community that develops around a game that supports STEM is going to act as a support unit also for those kids who are up to their eyeballs in boiling water trying to survive on their own, that they'll now have a support network to help them get through and reach the level where they get to become engineers. I personally don't think that being able to survive on your own is particularly a technique that makes you a good engineer, it just helps you survive the first year of engineering school.

GS: So do you see this game as something that will exist primarily in an educational environment, or do you see people coming home after school or wherever and also playing the game?

DL: Primarily outside the education environment. The reality is that any given kid has 15 times more leisure time than they've got time spent on any one subject in school. So the idea would be to capture some of that time that we know kids and adults are spending in games and on recreational activities. And that's one of the reasons that it's got to be a fun game, something that you'd sit down and say, "I want to play this game, and any education that happens is a bonus, because the game is fun and it's useful." So if we just shoehorned it into classrooms, we'd miss the real power of using games.

GS: Have you thought about what kind of business model you'll be employing, whether that be free to play or subscription?

DL: We are looking again at the proposers to submit their business models, but frankly, unless there's some funding mechanism that we've overlooked, we're expecting the developers are going to have to propose generating revenue screens, maybe through advertisements or maybe through subscriptions. We're looking for the developers to tell us how to do that. One of the things I want to say, and make sure is clear, because I've seen it on the Internet, that people are saying, "NASA says you have to build a game and give away for free."

GS: Right, I was going to ask you about that...

DL: To be clear, NASA is not saying you have to give it away for free. We are looking for the proposers to come back and tell us what they can do. The vehicle we're using for this partnership is called a nonreimbursable Space Act Agreement, which is a very flexible tool that NASA has to negotiate partnerships. In this case, the nonreimbursable means that NASA doesn't give money to the development partner, the development partner doesn't give money to NASA.

We do, however, have a bigger strategy on the game, where we on the Learning Technologies side are going to be doing a follow-up solicitation to bring in education experts to work on this, and also to bring in NASA subject matter experts to work on it. And we do, in fact, have a budget up to something over $2 million to spend on that, so it's not that we have no budget, it's that strategically we're putting the funding into bringing the education and subject matter experts who frankly have no ability to generate revenue out of a game and are looking for the game developer to be able to generate revenue out of a game, which is how the game community works.

GS: Was there ever any consideration to have the game bankrolled in a fashion similar to America's Army?

DL: The Army paid for America's Army directly, and there are differing reports on what that cost, but from what I understand, it was upward of $20 million if you include development and the funding they put in to running it. There was never a realistic possibility that we were going to get that much funding from NASA to do this. Early in the process, we talked to folks from game developers, and the reality is when you're looking at a couple million dollars, the amount NASA could put in directly doesn't compare to what a big developer could afford.

GS: Is the precedence created by America's Army something you've been able to leverage at all?

DL: There are similarities, obviously, but the Army has advantages. In a profession where carrying a gun and being able to shoot it is part of your job is easy to tie in to the game community with first-person shooters. We don't have that advantage with NASA. But also, while America's Army is a multiplayer game, it isn't a true MMOG. It isn't a persistent world, and the persistent, immersive, synthetic environment is something we're looking for. So there are differences in the end product. Also, NASA isn't looking directly to recruit. I mean, the Army, you've got a link that you can go straight to a recruiter from the America's Army game. I don't expect we'll see a link that takes you straight to HR offices.

Although, one of the possibilities that has helped us internally is that we can eventually put real challenges that NASA faces into a game environment and engage thousands or tens of thousands of people on finding solutions, instead of just a couple of people working in a lab in isolation. So this has potential, and NASA will be looking at this as a potential way to answer serious questions that we don't know the answers to about space exploration and future missions. So it will have potential to have realistic implications directly through NASA.

GS: So, in your opinion, what would be a successful player base?

DL: Wow, having been the person to put this idea forward four years ago, if we actually get the Space Act Agreement signed...actually, I consider getting the request for proposal out a success. But that's me personally. [Laughs.] We don't have a thermometer drawn on the wall that says if we get X number of players it's a success, and if we have less than that, it isn't. I think NASA would be happy if we got 100,000 players. I think NASA would be happier if we got 1 million players. I think the same thing that any MMOG developer is looking at, that 1 million is really the target you're shooting at, but we know that almost nobody makes it there.

GS: Yeah, it's definitely a difficult milestone to reach. Is there anything else you'd like to add about the project?

DL: We're really excited about it, and this is a whole new venture for NASA that we've never done anything like this as far as an educational game on this scale. Of course, nobody has done the educational MMOG, and so this is new. What we're really doing is saying, we want somebody to explore this space, to venture into this new area, and NASA is in it to encourage them to go there, not because NASA is an expert on building games. So it's an exciting adventure, and we're hoping that we'll get some really good responses to the RFP to go along with us.

GS: Do you all have a time frame that you're all looking to get this game out by?

DL: Again, it's something we're looking for the proposers to come back and tell us how long it's going to take in development, but we've got very realistic expectations about how long game development takes. We're not expecting someone to come in and say, "Alright, we can build an MMO, roll it out, and have it up in three weeks." It all depends on the nature of the proposals, but we've done a lot of background research on this, so we have realistic expectations that it's going to take a sizable amount of time even to get it out for beta, and then longer after that to get it ready for a general release.

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Discussion

28 comments
balrogthane
balrogthane

It sounds really hard but I wish them the best of luck. @ kpsting - he says repeatedly they're still in the very earliest stages-- and he's asking other people to come up with those gameplay specifics. He spends paragraphs explaining how NASA would suck at trying to come up with fun gameplay, and they'll only be dealing with putting in the science.

kpsting
kpsting

everything that this guy says tells me this game (if it ever comes out) is gonna fail big time. they know exactly zero specifics on the game itself. he talks about revenues from advertisement. monthly fees? WTH! And he thinks it's good if an MMO has montly fees. LOL $2 mln on development? LOL I love space and spaceflight, rocketry, etc., BTW... but this is just sad

TrueIori
TrueIori

love anything that has to do with space so i give it a try

jjdomo
jjdomo

i assume this would be like 2nd Life, where you just run around doing whatever you want . . . except that it would be in outer space, or in a NASA office, or something like that.

Booticon
Booticon

Whoa! Really cool game idea! This kind of creativity is what we need these days.

Adam_the_Nerd
Adam_the_Nerd

LOL @ this idea. As long as there's no monthly fee, I might check it out haha. I still don't see how a NASA themed MMO would work. Would it be an RPG? a shooter? a simulator? hmmm....

agni_1
agni_1

Talk about a wacky idea

Superstrokey
Superstrokey

AM i the only one that realy really want this to come out? If done properly this could be amazingly entertaining. This could be one of the first games taht really pushes learning and actually dont well.

BigSmitts07
BigSmitts07

maybe a bit of a nerd. but id actually consider playing this game if it came out for 360 and there was no extra fees over live...i love space science stuff =)..at least everything but the math part =) =)

andyrae11
andyrae11

Sweet! I'm going to collect rocks in space. In space it will take 5 minutes to complete a tea bagging session due to the lack of gravity where as on earth would take only 5 seconds. I'm going to stuff radioactive meteors in my astronaut suit and smuggle them back to earth in my space diaper and sell it on the black market in Kiev, Ukraine. YEAH THATS RIGHT...I GOT YOU FIGURED OUT!

markharris31
markharris31

I really hope it works out well. This is an interesting idea, and bringing more people in the tech/engineering industries would be a MASSIVE help.

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

karl, you may not like SWG, but it is still, in every technical sense of the term, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. If you don't like cod on your dinner plate, it's still a fish.

karldf1982
karldf1982

Sorry, but Star Wars Galaxies does NOT count as MMORPG experience. I wouldn't claim that disaster as an example if I were you. If you want to see a true MMORPG, play Final Fantasy XI.

Neloy
Neloy

I would definately love this game to have a Freelancer style gameplay!!!

Grodus5
Grodus5

Very neat idea, I'm interested in this. I'll be watching this closely

m_margaritis
m_margaritis

The idea of learning and helping nasa learn more about the universe simply means: more scientific findings=more knowledge=more technological evolution.I do enjoy the occasional violent shooter but having an option to actually waste my brain cells for something productive and rewarding for once, is fantastic They have to make it awe inspiring if they want to attract more people...Nasa's name alone raises expectations to a higher level

andalore
andalore

Pwning Noobs In Outer Space, Wish You Were Here :) I Think The concept Of This Game Is Interesting, an Educational MMOG? as Long as they Dont Mess It Up It Could Turn Out To be Quite Good...

EPaul
EPaul

Nasa should get a Great developer to make it like Blizzard

rikhan_z
rikhan_z

This is exciting, did you know that NASA researchs invited the first 'FPS', im interesting to see what NASA will come up with.

Mortal_Medic
Mortal_Medic

Interesting concept, I have to say I am not turned off to the idea. It will be cool to find out how they intend to structure the game. A space race type deal is probably out of the question to prevent controversy. I would envision it ending up to be some sort of space-goal oriented system. Where the entire population works towards some global goal say finishing the space station, etc. But it couldn't go too realistically since gamers don't want to have to wait 4 days just so their rover moved 17 feet and 4 days for the info to get back. I hope they meet their goal, it certainly isn't a horrible idea.

Gridiron123
Gridiron123

Excellent idea. By taking the energy from obsessing over DPS (which is math) to actually converting it into practicalities is quite possible. After all, Video Games (at the least the deep ones) are math to begin with. I feel that this kind of progressive ideal of turning video games into (somewhat) educational tools to bring awareness to the real world is absolutley necessary. (Just imagine if all those WOWers could name all the moons of Jupiter just as well as they could name all the zones of Azeroth). Granted, it can't be a school first game, but providing a strong base of activites that is education in the end brings fun in the end would be possible.

StanleyL
StanleyL

I think this is an awesome idea. Gaming needs to move out of the spectrum of existing solely for entertainment, and more into areas like art, education, and activism.

Jazzism
Jazzism

HAL... What are you doing HAL?? Needs some sort of nemisi in the game even if it's for building blocks or the multiplication table.

evilross
evilross

I think this has the possibity to be really intresting and fun for anyone that has a real intrest in space, science, and physics. I know i would at the very least check it out. Now if we could only make Michio Kaku as an online avatar.....

reininop
reininop

He didn't say it was free Kh1ndjal. He didn't say there would be advertisements. The only concrete statement was that they wanted to somehow make a game educational and fun at the same time, which often is a pitfall in its own right. Targeting science education just makes it more difficult. Beyond the basics, I'm not sure how much "fun" you can put in a game that both serves an educational purpose beyond what you would get in an average science class and caters toward the mmo crowd. The biggest obstacle is that for this game to really serve any type of educational goals, it would necessarily be complicated if the educational parts were to be interactive and not static objects that can only be seen, read, etc. This goes against the proven formula that WOW has set and that all other MMO's seem to try to emulate. I for one would love a complicated MMO, but that's coming from somone that enjoys the sciences. I think if they could create a game that was heavy on concepts and low on math, they could still make a complicated MMO that is fun and interesting. But I still have reservations about asking people to think about anything in a game today. Maybe it won't work....

Kh1ndjal
Kh1ndjal

looks to me like a big advergame america's army anyone? i really dont see what the "oomph" factor could be for this game (being free doesnt count)