Serious games in space: Working with NASA

Small developer shares the story of its out-of-the-world space game and its experience collaborating with NASA during development. A report from the Serious Games Summit in DC.

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WASHINGTON, DC--While most presentations yesterday at the Serious Games Summit addressed the challenges associated with managing the relationship between serious game clients and game developers, with a focus on what not to do, two individuals took a different tack--taking the stage to explain what they did right and how a successful collaboration with NASA on an educational game opened the door to performing development work for the space agency.

Vision Videogames' technical director Greg Beauchesne and company president Bill Mueller also took the opportunity to showcase their game, SpaceStationSim, which they completed last month after four years of development.

The object of the game is to build, staff, and operate the International Space Station, and it marries what appears to be a fairly rigorous space station simulation with attractive, whimsical graphics featuring things like corn plants, each with a single ear of corn, bobbing gently in the zero-G laboratory module, and a space tourist tastefully attired in a Hawaiian shirt and straw hat.

At one point, as the audience watched an astronaut floating in front of a communications panel, Mueller quipped, "That's one benefit of zero-G: no need for a physics engine."

Mueller is a veteran of both the gaming industry and education, making serious games a natural next step. He did sound design for old-school game company MicroProse, and has years of experience teaching sound design at the college level. Unsurprisingly, he has a solid understanding of motivating students to learn and a firm belief that games are an effective way to do so.

Mueller was confident in the value of serious games as educational tools and believed the concept was good, but Vision Videogames needed help to build the product it imagined. To achieve the desired level of accuracy in the space station simulation, the company needed cooperation from NASA. In describing his experience getting NASA on board, Mueller included a word of warning: "Large government agencies are underfunded, understaffed, underappreciated, and overworked."

As Mueller put it, NASA's focus is putting human beings safely into space, and a request for assistance with game development is a completely unrelated distraction from that mission. Moreover, Mueller noted that NASA builds extremely high-fidelity simulators for internal use: They may have been less than impressed with Vision Videogames' less capable product.

NASA's simulator technology, according to Mueller, is almost unbelievably advanced: An internal space suit design tool simulates the human skeleton, the action of muscles on the skeleton, and the motion of the skin over the muscles, in order to determine where a space suit might chafe. He also told a story of visiting NASA and walking through a building where they were simulating the impact of closing a runway at LAX for repairs. The facility was complete with a 360-degree wraparound screen, air-traffic controllers, and 12 pilots flying high-end flight simulators made out of the cockpits of actual commercial aircraft.

Undeterred by the fidelity gap, Mueller persisted and eventually won over NASA administrators. But there was still another constituency that hadn't bought in: the rocket scientists that could actually provide the data that Mueller needed. Mueller opened his first meeting with NASA's technical staff by describing his company, only to be interrupted pointedly by a rocket scientist: "I'm sure you have a nice company and all, but can we get on with it?"

In the end, the most important factors in helping win support from NASA's technical staff were perseverance and demonstrating strong interest in and knowledge of NASA in general and the International Space Station in particular. Once they saw that Mueller's team had a genuine interest in the subject matter, NASA's employees gave the company "more material than we could actually use."

Throughout development, Vision Videogames worked closely with NASA (the game box will bear the legend "in collaboration with NASA"). This gave NASA employees a chance to develop an understanding of Mueller's development team and the capabilities of their software: both the tools they use as well as the end result. So, when the agency decided to create a simulator of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), it's not surprising that Vision Videogames won a contract for an initial proof of concept.

Once they had the contract, Vision Videogames' four years of work on SpaceStationSim paid off: The CEV proof of concept was completed in just two months, building on code written for the game.

SpaceStationSim is available now at science museums and similar retailers, but to try the Crew Exploration Vehicle simulator, you'll have to apply to NASA.

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