NASA, Army collaboration takes gamers to moon
July 19, 2010
By J.D. Leipold
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 19, 2010) -- Eight years after the Army Game Studio launched its initial first-person shooter video game, "America's Army Recon," NASA joined in with the release of its prototype game, "Moonbase Alpha," July 6.
The new NASA game was developed with the assistance of the Army Game Studio, so "Moonbase Alpha" and "America's Army" share some DNA. But the two games have different goals.
While the "America's Army" game has morphed into more than 38 versions, each offering true-to-life Soldier experiences -- from training through combat missions -- "Moonbase Alpha" allows gamers to step into the role of an astronaut at a futuristic 3-D lunar settlement.
The mission scenario of "Moonbase Alpha" requires virtual astronauts to restore critical systems and oxygen flow after a meteor strike cripples a solar array and oxygen-generating equipment on the moon.
Resources available to players during the game include an interactive command center, a lunar rover, mobile robotic repair units and fully-stocked equipment. "Moonbase Alpha" is free, rated "E" for play by everyone, and can be played by a single player or with multiple players online.
"Moonbase Alpha" is the first game in NASA's Learning Technologies project. Like the Army, the space agency plans to continually develop the game. The intent is to grow the prototype into a massive multi-player game called "Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond."
Daniel Laughlin, NASA Learning Technologies project manager, said the agency is looking into how ideas from players of the current game could affect its future development. He said he's already receiving ideas from players, who sometimes play in untimed, "sandbox" mode, creating race tracks for the moon rovers. A particular thrill to players has been the virtual experience of operating on the moon with one-sixth Earth's gravity.
Through interactive technologies such as virtual worlds, games and software applications, NASA wants to encourage American youth and teachers to heed the White House's call for education in the STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Laughlin said. The goal seeks to inspire, engage and educate students about NASA technologies, job opportunities and the future of U.S. and international space exploration.
There are no bad guys to shoot in "Moonbase Alpha," as there are in "America's Army." NASA's game, where players are part of a group of weaponless astronauts tasked with solving a life-support problem, is more of an exercise in planning and time-management. But that hasn't made the game unpopular.
Proof that video games don't necessarily have to be first-person shooters to succeed with a target audience of elementary and high school students, "Moonbase Alpha" has already "generated more than 100,000 downloads in less than two weeks," said Mike Barnett, the game's chief engineer with Army Game Studio, which put the game together based on models that NASA supplied.
And those who download the game are actually playing it -- for a considerable amount of time.
"Average playtime was one hour and five minutes and that's huge, especially for a prototype game," said Frank Blackwell, AGS director. "Playing the game that long is a big deal because a standard mission is 25 minutes, which means gamers are playing for an average of two missions or they're really exploring, moving around, getting accustomed to the different controls and devices. That's exciting when you've got people from all over the world collaborating and interfacing together in technology."