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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