As you may have heard, NASA has put out an RFI (Request For Information) in regards to developing a MMO (well, MMOEG…Massively Multiuser Online Educational Game). The deadline for submissions is tonight at 11:59PM eastern, but for some reason the webpage with all of the submission information and link went offline much earlier today, and the page is now password protected. I’m beginning to wonder if someone made a mistake and turned things off at 11:59AM. Fortunately for us, I had already written down all of the information and successfully sent of our reply this afternoon. Hopefully we will make it to the next stage, which is invitation only RFP (Request for Proposals).

NASA has a unique opportunity here to do something new and truly “next-generation”. Looking at their requirements, it seems that they want to build an MMORPG (MMO Role Playing Game) that has strong educational elements, but they also require significant features and functionality for simulations (emphasis on realistic physics) and collaborative tools. This can be construed as either abilities for users to collaborate on missions (content related quests) or collaborative tools in the vein of what you would expect from your typical virtual world…shared files, integrated media (video, voice, etc.). My guess is the latter…especially if they want a platform where their own scientists and engineers can use for various simulations, meetings, and so forth. Now that I think about it, the RFI specifically states: “This new synthetic world would be a collaborative work and meeting space…”. Again, what they are looking for is more than just a NASA themed MMORPG.

Most game developers (and other interested parties) will likely respond and suggest something that is heavy on role-playing game elements and miss the larger picture of what NASA wants, and what could potentially be developed here by saavy designers. For more than a few years now, I have been evangelising the convergence of virtual worlds, MMORPGs, social networks, collaborative tools, and a few other things. To some people, this may seem either nuts or visionary. Personally it all seems pretty common sense. I mean, really. MMORPGs are nothing more than Virtual Worlds with engaging and immersive content, story, and gameplay, while virtual worlds are like barren MMORPGs but with better tools for collaborative features (to some degree) or user generated content. Other things like advanced collaborative tools (which the corporate sector really wishes Second Life actually had and did correctly) or robust social networking features and intuitive drag & drop user content creation are things that should be part of the standard set of both virtual worlds and MMORPGs.

Anyway, NASA has an opportunity to bring about industry shattering convergence…but only if someone is smart enough to tell them about it. After glancing around the internet, I’ve found some interesting comments and ideas (both perplexing and depressing to me in several degrees). On one forum, a poster implied that NASA and Linden Labs (makers of Second Life) were in discussion to build a research corporation inside of Second Life for the purpose of researching the viability of a NASA MMO. One of the commenters that replied to the post expressed some befuddlement at why NASA would even consider building anything “virtual” outside of Second Life, and that SL would be the perfect platform for having a space station that had information about NASA programs in it. Did these guys even bother to read the RFI that NASA issued?

Another thing that surprised me, was that Penny Arcade mentioned that they had been contacted by someone at NASA to announce the RFI and post it on their site. This really surprised me. Penny Arcade is (among other things) a community of gamers (yeah yeah, I know about the webcomic and PAX). The RFI is explicit that “The purpose of this RFI is to solicit information from organizations with proven immersive synthetic environments expertise who are interested in potentially forming a MMO platform development partnership with NASA.” Wow, that really describes the Penny Arcade community, doesn’t it? What NASA should have done, IMHO, was go directly to the International Game Developers Association and reach out to developers there, or even through other venues like I’m willing to bet that NASA got a lot of responses to their RFI from “Joe Gamer” talking about space boobs, missions against aliens on mars with weapons and ships, and probably suggestions about making the MMO(RPG) like Halo, Eve Online, Tabula Rasa, World of Warcraft in Space (Starcraft?), Star Trek Online (RIP), or even Jumpgate.

My fear is that most (if not all) of the respondents are going to miss the point entirely, and even worse, NASA will be snookered by a publisher/developer that does a real nice song and dance on paper, but will ultimately deliver another miserable and mediocre excuse for a MMO or a Virtual World. I’ll probably puke my guts out if they seriously consider something based on the SL platform.

In my opinion, the ideal approach is a hybrid one. The NASA MMOEG should first be designed as a robust Virtual World platform loaded to the gills with powerful content creation tools and collaborative functionality (both of which better be damned easy to use and intuitive). This makes it easy for users (players, academics, scientists, whatever) to continually create new content, areas, missions, etc. and share it, as well as help both NASA and the eventual developer partner, quickly prototype and deploy new content. Second, the world should have the most kick ass physics, artificial intelligence, and artificial life built in. This should be server-side based, and not client-based. I won’t go into the reasons for this, but it is the way to go. Taking this a step further, some sort of easy to learn scripting language (think LEGO Mindstorms or Actionscript) should be developed as well. All together, this makes creating dynamic content much easier and puts a lot of power into the hands of designers, developers, and end-users. The ability for anyone (NASA Engineer or High Schooler across the street) to play around in a virtual sandbox with scriptable AI-driven bots and creatures, or setting up mini-environments (think instances combined with nested worlds) is incredibly powerful…nothing like this exists, and if it is done correctly, it would be the dream app for many educators and future scientists. Hell, I’d love to play around with something like this. Anyway, this is key for making very interactive, immersive, and engaging educational content…particularly when it is tied into the fourth part…the game content.

NASA can go in multiple directions here when it comes to the game. If I was NASA or their partner developer, I would simply do it all, and segregate it. Over here, we have historical content…let players run through simulations of historic events, launches, and missions. Lots of fun, plenty of educational value. You could also do current day stuff combined with near future…lunar base, mars base, explore planets, fly the shuttle, etc. etc. The list goes on and on, but I’m not going to give you all my ideas haha. And finally, future…what happens if we introduce faster than light travel? Biodomes on Mars? Rogue AI taking over mining droids in the asteroid belt? Ok ok, what about ALIENS? I’m sure there are many people out there that would kill for a well designed Star Trek MMORPG (perpetual screwed that up royally, and I don’t think it will see the light of day anytime soon, and if it does get released, I have zero expectation for it). Anyway, my point is that there are a lot of fun, interesting, and really badass things NASA could pull off here with a bit of imagination and some great designers.

So what is left? One of the key goals (apparently ignored by most of the posters and bloggers that have commented on this) is that the NASA MMOEG needs to provide opportunities for players to explore and investigate career options in STEM fields (that is, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This is a challenge to be sure. Personally, I don’t think that any MMORPG developer out there has the right combination of talent and skillsets to pull this off, especially from a design standpoint. Seriously, imagine trying to learn about Engineering or Math through World of Warcraft or Eve Online styled gameplay. You must solve this equation 200 times before we will let you solve the next equation, and then you have to wait 14 days to earn a point in your Algebra IV skill. Great, gee thanks. I do think that this is where casual game design can come into play (pardon the pun). Take a look at some of the puzzle games over on…many of them teach things like physics without really trying to, and they are fun and replayable to boot.

Many “traditional” design methods for contemporary MMORPGs will not work well for a MMOEG, particularly one that needs to emphasize collaborative meeting spaces, educational elements (i.e. things that TEACH math, physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, etc.). Slapping on pseudo educational elements on a traditional MMORPG platform is a very bad idea. Similarly, trying to ram gameplay elements onto a typical virtual world platform (all of which are severely lacking in multiple areas in my opinion) is just begging for failure.

I’ll be interested in seeing what NASA and their eventual partner end up creating here. I think it will either be a dismal failure (giving NASA another black eye) or it will be something utterly spectacular that energizes innovation and new design in the interactive media sector. I’m hoping for the latter.

Robert Rice