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The rocky terrain of the Moon crunches under the wheels of the lunar rover as it closes in on its destination. You are returning from a routine expedition from the moonbase, collecting new specimens or scouting out a location for a new moonbase to be built. A meteorite hurtles from the sky, crashing directly into the camp. The oxygen line has been shot, and the other astronauts in the base are beginning to lose air. It’s up to you and your teammates to work together to repair the damage caused by the meteorite strike.

This isn’t the next Mass Effect game, but a new IP from a rather unlikely source: NASA. Available for free on Steam, Moonbase Alpha is a 3D game that simulates a hypothetical emergency situation on a futuristic moonbase. You can play by yourself or with others, though it’s harder to complete if you play alone. I spoke with Daniel Laughlin, Project Manager of Learning Technologies at NASA, Jerry Heneghan, and Bradley Willson, Game Designer from Virtual Heroes about Moonbase Alpha, from its conception to launch.

NASA originally approached developers Army Game Studio and Virtual Heroes, asking them to create a game that would at once be fun and engaging, but also inspire interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), school subjects that are often met with equal amounts of apprehension and disinterest. “The US is facing a crisis in technical fields,” explains Laughlin. “NASA literally cannot function without STEM graduates. The big goals for NASA Education are to get more students into STEM fields of study and graduating into STEM careers. It’s also the President’s goal with the Educate to Innovate initiative. Moonbase Alpha was developed in support of those goals.”

As my astronaut avatar leap-floats across the rocky terrain, I can easily see where the STEM aspects come in during gameplay. The meteorite strike has damaged multiple areas of the oxygen-carbon dioxide generators, and with every repair you need to make, you learn a bit about what you are repairing and why it is important. As you fix the oxygen supply, you learn about each part that makes up the whole: the CO2 filter monitors carbon dioxide levels and removes it from the oxygen supply; the oxygen generator extracts oxygen from electrolyzed water vapor.

The moonbase is a fictional, though plausible, structure. “As for the basic structure of the lunar base, our team decided to create a surface habitat rather than a subterranean habitat,” states Willson. “This decision was made partly due to the game story that we wanted to present, but more importantly we wanted to depict a rather raw initial iteration of a lunar base.” Though the structures, equipment and vehicles are based on actual NASA models, the complexity of the tools and repair strategies had to be scaled down. “The largest concession that the team had to make in order to improve overall accessibility was the simplification of repairs made to damaged equipment,” Willson continues. “The majority of the complex equipment developed by NASA requires specific tools in order to repair and demands a significant amount of time, manual dexterity, and technological knowledge. This level of realism would not only create an unrealistic learning curve to the game, but would also lead to player frustration and confusion.”

Repairs can be approached in multiple ways, you can transport tools and items using the lunar rover, or use a mechanized robot with a soldering iron. You can also carry the items yourself, but heavy equipment weighs you down and time is of the essence. You have about 25 minutes to repair each section of the oxygen supply, and some areas will need to be fixed within an even shorter time frame. Each repair opens up a mini-game where you need to solder broken connections. The more connections you can make, the quicker the repair goes.

Moonbase Alpha is just a small taste of what is to come, a litmus test to gauge the audience’s interest in realistic, space-themed games. America’s Army is also working with Project Whitecard and Wisdom Tools to create a NASA-themed MMOG, with the working title of Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond. “Our plan is to truly immerse the player in the role of a NASA astronaut,” states Willson. “We envision multiple profession paths in which the player can specialize, presenting them with exciting challenges that progressively get more difficult the further they pursue their virtual profession. Accuracy of the science is paramount to us and we expect to see players seamlessly learn while their character gains levels. In essence, we want the player to be able to level their knowledge just as their character does.”

The NASA MMOG is looking to be one of the first “serious games” MMOGs in existence. The directive of the group in creating Moonbase Alpha and the MMOG is always to create something that makes learning fun and seamless. “We’ve ignored some of the commonly accepted rules and have placed the player in a situation with realistic limits and expectations. When placed in a realistic role, actions seem more significant and more plausible. It’s hard to feel fully immersed in a game when you know you will simply respawn when you get killed,” explains Willson. Realistic or not, I wouldn’t mind seeing a side quest to go track down a monolith in the game somewhere.

Serious games often receive the brutal assessment of being “not fun to play,” but Moonbase Alpha has a particularly compelling quality to it. In many ways, it’s a time-management game, as you’re racing against the clock to make the essential repairs to restore the life support systems to the lunar base. There are various things you must take into account while approaching the crisis. Heavy tools will weigh you down, making it harder to move from area to area, but using the lunar rover and repair-bots will slowly drain their batteries. Moonbase Alpha gets a weighty endorsement from Laughlin, “I’m a gamer myself, so it was easy to keep asking the question ‘would I play this?’ While there is no shooting, Moonbase Alpha has the important compelling element of a challenge that needs to be overcome. I think the design team came did a wonderful job of devising a cooperative challenge that many gamers will appreciate. To answer my own question, yes I would play this. And I do.”

The timer steadily ticks down as the last remnants of oxygen escapes the lunar base. The mission has failed, but I’m ready to try again. This time, I won’t place the repair-bot so far away from the base, so I don’t waste the stored solar power. My teammates and I have a clearer idea of what to do now, and this time around we’ll be better prepared.

Lauren Admire wonders about the chances of there being a side mission to check out a monolith at Tycho.

To download Moonbase Alpha, click here.

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