NASA Offers Gamers a Ride to Mars and Beyond

By John Gaudiosi

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Although only a select group of individuals in the United States become astronauts and an even smaller number are actually given the opportunity to enter orbit, NASA is opening up space exploration to anyone with a PC. NASA Learning Technologies and the Innovative Partnership Program Office are entering into a unique collaboration with Virtual Heroes in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina; Project Whitecard in Winnipeg, Canada; and Information in Place/Wisdom Tools in Bloomington, Indiana, through a legal mechanism called a Space Act Agreement, for which they were selected through an open competition. This collective, called Project Astronaut, is developing a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game called Astronaut: Moon, Mars & Beyond.

Taking a page from the Department of Defense’s America’s Army* online video game, Astronaut will be released in downloadable installments using Valve’s Steam* platform. The first module, Moon Base Alpha (working title), will be released for free later this year. The plan is for the first large, subscription-based portion of the game to touch down in 2010. Project Astronaut will continue to evolve the game through modular updates on a regular basis.

"With NASA planning future lunar expeditions and establishing a lunar settlement, now is the right time to renew interest in space exploration and living on other worlds," said Bradley Willson, a game designer for Astronaut: Moon, Mars & Beyond. "Our game, Moon Base Alpha allows players to assume an exciting role of an astronaut conducting research at a lunar settlement that has to address a catastrophic situation."

Dr. Daniel Laughlin, project manager for NASA Learning Technologies and a research scientist with the Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center at the University of Maryland, said NASA clearly believes in the power of simulations as training tools.

"When we asked for input on how NASA could use an MMO to enhance science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, the overwhelming message we got back was that NASA had to be committed to the MMO being fun. Many serious games are developed for an audience who are required to play, so they don’t have the same expectation about having fun. For training, serious games are a great tool. But to educate, inspire, and open young people’s eyes to potential technical careers, we need to go beyond simulation and create a fun game with real NASA content."

Working in tandem with leading scientists, engineers, and astronauts at NASA, the game developers are fusing the latest serious game development know-how with Intel’s computer power, bringing to life for gamers today a realistic vision of space exploration 30 years in the future.

Ready for Liftoff
The development team is using quad-core Intel® Xeon® processors for its build server and Intel® Core™2 Duo processor-based laptops for its development platforms. In addition, they’re using the Intel® VTune™ Performance Analyzer 9.1 and Intel® Graphics Performance Analyzers (Intel® GPA).

"Both the Intel tool suites help us improve game performance by collecting graphics and system metrics so that we can identify where CPU and GPU cycles are being spent, allowing us to do ‘what-if’ experiments and estimate potential performance gains from optimizations," explained Randy Brown, directory of technology for Virtual Heroes. "VTune Performance Analyzer helps us by making application performance tuning easier and is indispensable for making our software run its fastest on the latest single and multi-core systems. Intel GPA provides in-depth application analyses that help us pinpoint bottlenecks and optimize games for Intel® Graphics–based PCs."

Intel’s technology is also enabling the development team to create a realistic universe in which planets have geo-specific terrains. For example, when a player is on the moon’s Hadley Rille, they see what an actual astronaut would see based on NASA data. Even the smallest details, such as the time of day, the sky box, rock formations, and coloration, will be depicted in the game. Every surface will also have authentic zero-gravity that will be used for gameplay, such as making accurate jumps and tracking the movement of large boulders across the surface.

The game is also making use of a visual scripting system, multi-threaded rendering, and an extensible particle system (lens flares, beams, and trails) to enable dynamic characters to cast soft shadows on the scene. Moon Base Alpha will also feature fully integrated support for physics-based vehicles, including player control, AI, and networking. Rounding out the technology features, the game will incorporate 3D sound positioning, spatialization, and attenuation.

"We have created some truly amazing visuals," said Willson. "I feel that our depiction of the lunar moonscape is unmatched by any other application and will really blow away our players. Most of our 3D content is generated by Autodesk® 3ds Max®, and we’re using Adobe Photoshop* to generate textures and all 2D content. Adobe Illustrator*, Flash*, After Effects*, and Premier* are being used to create additional art assets, video cut-scenes, and user interface elements."

The Mission
Moon Base Alpha is set in 2032 on a small lunar settlement at the South Pole of the moon. After 12 years of research, debris from a nearby meteor impact strikes the solar array and life support system at the lunar colony. Willson said gamers step into the roles of this research team to work together to repair the life support system, solar array, and restore oxygen to the settlement before time runs out. The team of players will determine the best use of their available resources, which include a lunar rover, mobile robotic repair units, and a fully stocked equipment shed.

"When working on the development of Moon Base Alpha, it became fairly clear early on that to provide the most exciting gaming experience we needed to develop the application around multiplayer gameplay," explained Willson. "The game will support up to six active players (team members) and up to 12 passive players (observers). There are several ways in which the team can successfully restore the life support system of the lunar base, but since the team is scored on the time they took to complete the task, they have to work effectively as a team, learn from decisions made in previous gaming sessions, and make intelligent decisions in order to top the leaderboards."

Willson said the observers are considered passive players because they don’t directly interact with the team members, but instead they have the opportunity to view the game from pre-set camera positions and from the perspective of any of the team members. In essence, the observer role allows for a player to learn techniques and tactics from more advanced players and evaluate the competition, providing a higher level of gaming confidence to novice players that don’t want to simply jump into the action. Although the game observers won’t get to use any of the real-world-based gadgets and vehicles in the game, they will be able to communicate with other observers using voice-over IP and text-based chat. Likewise, team members will be able to talk with each other to help accelerate the problem-solving process.

"Our focus on Moon Base Alpha is to provide an accurate and immersive depiction of a lunar experience, a high level of replay value, and a test bed for multiplayer interactions that will be used in a much larger NASA game," said Jerry Heneghan, founder and CEO of Virtual Heroes, which was recently acquired by Applied Research Associates. "We currently are expecting for each game session to last approximately 15 minutes, but this will depend on player actions and extensive game tuning. Our lead-in module will have several selectable maps geared toward providing players with several options that will cater to their own gaming experience, including maps geared for just two players or for just four players."

The Future of Virtual Space Exploration
Moon Base Alpha is only the beginning of this virtual exploration of space. The plan is to greatly expand the universe, literally, of the game, while teaching gamers about the realities of space travel, as well as math and science. User-generated content will became a staple of this MMO experience, as well.

"Initially we are going to create a lot of content, but as time evolves we will create tools so that educational institutions and individual enthusiasts can create their own missions, content, and assets," said Dr. Sonny Kirkley, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Information in Place and adjunct assistant professor at Indiana University’s School of Informatics.  "We are inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers, girls and boys. In the game, of scientists and engineers, girls and boys. In the game, players will choose a role like a medic, roboticist, space geologist, or mechanical engineer and work together to solve problems on habitats on the Moon, Mars, and beyond."

Although there will be spaceships based on the next-generation replacement for the space shuttle and other rockets that are currently in design phases, the core gameplay will take a more traditional role-playing focus as players build up the attributes of their profession and move forward through the game universe. Players will perform missions on planetary surfaces, such as mining helium-3 for fuel, operating a hydroponics facility to grow plants and create oxygen, and operating robots and vehicles that are based on real-world scientific projections. To help them along the way, avatars based on actual NASA scientists, engineers, and astronauts will appear in-game to offer guidance. There will even be an Astronaut Academy on the Moon, which will serve as a virtual holodeck that offers video lectures from the NASA scientists.

Moving forward, the development team is creating a back-end infrastructure to offer educators the ability to engage students through this MMO experience. This component is "being designed to allow facilitators to go in, preview missions, and select the suitable missions for that particular classroom through a Web 2.0 interface," said Khal Shariff, CEO of Project Whitecard and creative director for the project.

"Students can log onto the game at school or from home, and they’re given a list of missions approved by their teacher for credit in school," said Shariff. "They can play through these challenges, which can be aimed at anything from a fifth- grade math class to graduate students, and get credit. For the younger students, they might be given a mission, which can take about a half-hour to complete, in which they have to calculate the volume of a comet they land on to receive credit. At the Master’s level, we’ve partnered with the Master of Science in Space Studies at the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace. These students will design their spaceships to meet their Master’s program requirements and then try them in the game. These ships will become available for other players to use to explore the universe."

As the Astronaut MMO game grows over the coming years, NASA will be able to tap into hundreds of thousands of hours of gameplay in the form of unique spacecraft. They will also have a new generation of virtual scientists, engineers, and astronauts that have already experienced space travel from the game’s perspective.

Heneghan said that from an educational standpoint, students and players will be learning things without even realizing it through problem-based learning. The game is being designed to be fun, at the forefront, but the scaffolding that’s behind this experience has been constructed to offer an engaging storyline that requires math, science, robotics, and other specialties to complete.

Whether driving a lunar rover across the surface of the Moon or piloting a robot-assisted mechanized suit on Mars, Astronaut: Moon, Mars & Beyond will stand apart from anything yet seen in the burgeoning MMO games space. America’s Army* has proven that realism can generate fun and compelling gameplay experiences. The team behind Astronaut hopes to push the bar even higher, and NASA hopes that this game will renew interest in space exploration. After all, the astronauts, explorers, and engineers of tomorrow may very well get their first training through this new MMO game experience.

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