Virtual Worlds

NIVARS

One of the projects I am working on is launching a new Center of Excellence for the Rocky Mountain Supercomputing Center (RMSC), which will be the National Institute of Virtual and Augmented Reality and Simulations (NIVARS). Yes, I know it is a long title, but there really isn’t a nice short term that encompasses all things virtual, augmented, and simulations. Maybe we should start saying using Dynamedia or something to refer to any or all of the following: virtual reality, virtual worlds, augmented reality, mmo, mmorpg, interactive, immersive, geolocative, contextual, meta, etc. etc. Much of the underlying technology is the same, so why not?

Anyway, NIVARS will officially launch its website later this month (January). In addition to acting as a center of excellence for RMSC, it will also engage in activities that promote innovation and advancing the state-of-the-art of dynamedia (see above!). This is purposefully somewhat broad in scope, as I want to have some elbow room to engage in and support research, publishing, conferences, think-tanks, collaboration, and mindsharing.

If you want to contribute ideas or volunteer some time, feel free to email me directly. We will probably have a formal launch of NIVARS in the Spring.

Avatar Technology

I recently saw some video clips from “Modeling and Simulations Capitol Hill Expo 2008” where all of the usual suspects on the government/military side of the fence were showing their “serious games” wares for training, simulations, and so forth.

Two things struck me…first, several of the people mentioned “avatar technology” as a big selling point or key aspect of their technology, and second, the “state-of-the-art” being touted at this event (and similar ones) is woefully NOT state-of-the-art.

First, let’s deal with this goofy concept of “avatar technology”. Listening to these people, you get the sense that they really have no earthly idea of what the hell they are talking about, or perhaps they have some inkling but figure that if they talk real fast over the buzzwords, you will be impressed. Being impressed leads to sales!

Imagine a lot of people selling something they don’t quite understand to people that don’t really understand what they need, but feel like they should be buying something to keep up appearances.

But really, what is this “avatar technology” they talk about? It is basically using avatars, or more accurately, 3D characters, as a method or tool for teaching, training, and doing simulations. While this seems pretty obvious to half of the country that has experience with any kind of video game or educational animation, the other half of the country still thinks this is some kind of strange new magical technology.

The idea of using technology from the game industry for non-entertainment applications is generally referred to as “Serious Games”. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that the game industry has been in the lead (for a long time) in innovation, and has been pushing the envelop in multiple areas…3D rendering, 3D lighting, motion capture, artificial intelligence, massively multiuser networking, dynamic load balancing, world creation, behavioral modeling, simulations, physics, and generally anything interactive and immersive. Anyone leveraging any of these technologies in other industries should have a huge edge on the competition, and be able to do some amazing things.

So why is it that nearly every “serious game” application I have come across looks like crap, is clunky, feels like it came from 1996, and is marketed by people that really don’t understand the technology?

My take on this is that the people running the companies that focus on “serious games” (inclusive of anything with the words virtual, interactive, immersive, avatar, simulations, etc.) are generally from backgrounds in government or academia, that acquired some cheap tech and then leveraged their existing connections/expertise to secure grants and government funding. I have yet to see one of these companies run by game developers (current or ex).

The curious thing here, is that this results in a lot of money flowing to these companies, as the military, government, and even corporations are under the impression that they are getting “state-of-the-art” because this is all that they are seeing and being sold. Sure, there are exceptions (and I’ll tip my hat at America’s Army, which used the Unreal engine to roaring success), but not usually.

Probably the most dramatic example of this is the Institute for Simulation and Training at the University of Central Florida. I was fortunate enough to have a guided red-carpet tour of the facility recently as part of a team evaluating the facilities (not directly related to my own ventures, I was acting as a subject matter expert).

The Institute at UCF has quite a lot to brag about, and they do so. Repeatedly. I won’t go into details about the 140+ companies that have some presence at the Institute, or the $18M+ in grant money every year, or the sheer breadth of R&D topics being investigated there, or even the multiple buildings (all quite nice) and the new development. That was all quite impressive, and rightly so.

I do take issue with the presentation of everything as the world capital of simulations, or that this was the end-all, be-all of innovation and state-of-the-art. I’ve never been quite this underwhelmed by anything technology related, except perhaps by the E.T. game or the movie “Battlefield Earth” after all the movie hype. I think the most “cutting edge” stuff I saw could be done by a high school student over a weekend in a garage, or might have been considered pretty awesome in 1993.

One of the big highlights of the day long tour was the simulations/training platform for Forterra Systems. They ran a demo for us that was horribly cheesy (worst voice actors ever), with a pretty solid script that definitely showed off what they could do. I was reasonably impressed with that. However, their tech is severely dated (based on the same engine as there.com) and limited to something like 30 or 40 people concurrently logged in to the same virtual environment.

That last bit stunned me a bit so I commented about using commercial off the shelf (Cots) game technology to implement a more robust “back end” (refering to the server side networking) to get a few thousand concurrent users, or even a more realistic 3D graphics (you know, maybe only a decade out of date). I was immediately slapped down by Dr. Randall Shumaker, the Director of the Institute (who never bothered to ask anyone in the group (outside of the leader, for which the tour was to benefit) who we were, what our backgrounds were, or what we were looking for from the Institute).

Anyway, he pretty much dismissed me, and the game industry as a whole by saying that game tech is too flashy, unrealistic, over hyped, incapable of doing physics (beyond simple things), and essentially useless. Yeah, I was shocked. Someone has been drinking too much of their own kool-aid.

At the end of the day, the lesson here is that the “state-of-the-art” is certainly not so, and that the government is spending a lot of money to transition towards simulations to SAVE money, but there are a lot of jokers taking advantage of the gravy train. Why should they really innovate and push the envelop? Isn’t it easier to just snag all of the grants (SBIR, STTR, etc. and whatever else) and just coast?

Just for grins, if you want to see what I was talking about, simply go to the Forterra site and check out their demos (be prepared to cringe at some of the voice acting, particularly for the “kids”).

I was initially surprised that Forterra has been doing a lot with IBM, but then again, IBM thinks that Second Life and Open Sim are great and next-gen. Right idea guys, wrong implementation. The whole “virtual world thing” is not going anywhere as long as the money keeps going to the wrong companies, tools, and technology.

Avatar Technology is a red herring. The avatars are the least important aspect of virtual worlds and what their true potential is. Avatars are nothing more than self-representations of our individual selves.  Getting excited about more dancing emotes or greater variety and realism in clothes misses the whole point. The real value is in the world itself, and the tools necessary to build them, and make them useful.

 

 

Second Life Grid Trademark really annoys me

Apparently Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, have gone out and filed a trademark on the word GRID. For you virtual world folks, the word implies a lot of things and is usually interchangable with a number of other cyberspace related words. Anyway, I don’t have a problem with LL getting a trademark on “Second Life Grid” which is usually how it is presented but to try to trademark the word grid by itself is pretty damned cheeky. Personally I find it offensive, insulting, and unfair. They might as well try to trademark cyberspace, web, network, polygon, avatar, pixel, link, and a few other generic terms that are common words, terms, and phrases used in the virtual worlds sector (which includes your standard virtual worlds, mmorpgs, and simulations).

I’m pretty disgusted with this.

I’m beginning to sense a bit of desperation from Linden Labs these days. Their CTO left recently, and their CEO has decided to “step down” in the near future. The media backlash against their unrelenting PR in late 2006 through 2007 (studded with misleading and disingenuous stats about their active users and subscribers) is continuing, and SL is handicapped by many problems that don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

I think that Second Life would have died a long time ago, but for the fact that there is no clear competitor. Sure, there are places like there.com or whatever, but Second Life has bent over backwards to wrangle a lot of big name corporate sponsorships and virtual presences, and catered to the explorer and tinkerer types. Of course, there are a lot of virtual world experts, luminaries, entrepreneurs, and researchers that have found a home in Second Life. To be sure, SL has been valuable to a lot of people, and to some degree has validated virtual worlds in business, research, education, and online collaboration.

But I still think that the Emperor has no clothes, and the SL house is a house of cards that is very shakey. The first company that comes along with a better offering…more functionality, streamlined performance, better features, etc. will marginalize SL and dominate it, much in the way that World of Warcraft came out of no where and smacked down most of the MMORPG industry (not to worry, that gorilla is getting old and someone will knock them off their throne soon enough).

Anyway, I don’t want to get too far into an anti-SL rant here (at least not without doing it comprehensively and backing up my opinions), but their desire to trademark grid is crossing the line and just one more straw on the camel’s back.

 

 

“Walled Gardens” are not the problem…

Maybe it is just me, but my experience has been that most people I talk to don’t have their own websites anymore. Instead, they have a page on myspace, a profile on facebook, a gallery on deviantART, items for sale on EBay, or they have a blog on one of the hosted blog communities (like wordpress or blogspot). In a similar fashion, gamers usually have distinct characters in multiple MMORPGs (and not always the same class or even gender).

One of the problems that everyone faces, is trying to manage all of these identities and profiles. It is a real pain in the neck creating a new account on the latest social networking site (fad!) or some other website. In the Web 2.0 world, there are a few options for creating an ID once and using the same login for other places, and a few social sites make it easy to import your basic profile data or even entire friends lists (sometimes even sending out email invites to everyone in your address book).

In the virtual world sector (including MMORPGs) several ideas have been bandied about concerning avatars that easily migrate from one world or game to another (where you create a character or avatar once and use it anywhere), and some virtual world platforms boast the goal of breaking down the so-called “walled gardens” to create hundreds of thousands or millions of virtual worlds…one for every user.

This sounds good on paper, but I wonder if anyone is considering problems this approach naturally creates, particularly given the social and psychological natures of humans.

First, I should probably define what a “Walled Garden” actually is. The term, particularly in regards to the internet, refers to an exclusive or proprietary environment or community that is “closed” or that requires membership of some type. AOL is a good example of a walled garden, in that you had to be a subscriber to access most of its content, and the whole thing was pretty much setup as a network within a network. For MMORPGs, each of them is, by definition, a closed garden. You need a unique client application to access the servers and game network. The client handles everything from rendering the world’s graphics to acting as the interface for chat and gameplay interaction with other players. You cannot use the client software from one game to access the virtual world of another game.

There are more than a few benefits to the “walled garden” approach. A few examples include security, management and moderation, contextual consistency, advanced features, “uniqueness”, easier access to the flow of traffic of other users, etc. etc.

The problems are also plentiful, but generally ignored (or perhaps unrealized by designers and evangelists?). To help make my point, let me go back to web communities and social networks which are all technically walled gardens at one level or another.

  • Ease of use and content generation

It is easier to setup a profile on any given social networking site or a hosted blog than it is to setup a server, register a domain, and set it all up yourself.

  • Easier to network and find traffic

It is deceptively simple to do a basic search and find friends that are already on a particular site, find new friends with similar interests, share just about anything, and so forth.

  • There is a strong sense of community or belonging

While the strongest feelings of belonging are based on smaller social circles, being a member of a particular site or community can engender similar feelings (even if they are very subtle or subconscious).

Remember, these are walled gardens…supposedly a bad thing in the minds of a lot of experts in virtual worlds, cyberspace/metaverse, etc.

But what are the problems if everyone can have their own virtual world? This is the same as everyone having their own website.

  • Traffic is harder to find and drive to your site. Without an overarching and all encompassing community or world, you basically have to use the entire internet as the replacement. Instead of being able to leverage internal stats, tracking, referrals, and other features and functionality, you end up trying to compete with everyone on the web for attention.
  • Client and Server applications must be open and freely available. The lowest common denominator wins the day for the greater market saturation and standardization. All content must be as simple and generic as possible for a truly open metaverse/internet. As soon as you start having to worry about downloading billions of modules, extensions, or versions so you can access one location over another, you realize that this misses the point, and it becomes a turn off for a lot of market share.
  • Open = unregulated and unmoderated. If anyone can make an avatar or character that can go to any virtual world or game, it becomes an imbroglio of issues to sort through when e-commerce becomes involved, not to mention hacking and security headaches. Sure, this isn’t an issue with the internet so much right now, but we are talking about webpages, not immersive worlds…this is a whole magnitude of difference in complexity and elements.

The better approach, I think, is a walled garden of many gardens. Yes, I think that at some point there will be a truly open and ubiquitous platform that is pretty much ungoverned and the transition from web 2D to cyberspace 3D will occur, but I think it will quickly denigrate into chaos and become a useless mishmash of crap. The true successful ventures will be the massive ones that are indeed a walled garden, but are also composed of nested worlds/gardens. You belong to Myspace, but you have your own unique page that you can customize to your heart’s content…but ultimately, it is moderated and controlled by Myspace.

Maybe I’m drawing too much of a distinction over what might be nothing more than a fine grey line. I dunno…I just think that trying to make the whole internet into an open (in all senses of the word) 3D universe isn’t the great idea that it sounds like. While I don’t like the idea of one company pretty much owning and controlling the virtuality that we have been dreaming of (particularly if it isn’t MY company), I think that this is exactly what is going to be required, at least in the interim of the next decade or so to push the industry forward, establish the standards, build the market, and so forth. Also, at least as far as MMORPGs go, making them all so generic as to allow characters to move from one to the other seamlessly is a really stupid idea. Then again, most of the titles coming out these days are virtual copies of each other in the most generic way possible, maybe it isn’t so bad…after all, they are starting to look alike, and you can find the same old static quests, missions, creatures, and classes in each one. Perhaps I’m getting bitter in my cynicism.

I feel like the voice in the desert sometimes…I have a clear vision of how things could and should be done, what the missing pieces are, where the convergences of various technologies needs to occur, and how to build “IT”. But the money flow keeps going towards the same ideas, the same people, and the same failing models…both in design, business, and execution. I’ll say it again for the hundredth time…where are the pioneers, innovators, and dreamweavers? Ten to fifteen years ago there was a tangible sense of excitement in the air and new ideas were constantly being explored and pursued (not just in the internet sector mind you). Now? It seems like the only exciting thing is another social network, another mobile phone, another way to shove ads in your face, or another MMORPG that is more static and single player oriented than a truly immersive world full of engaging experiences and a sense of wonder.

One way or the other, I’m going to shake things up (or at least get a damned good start at it) this year. 2007 was pretty crappy in many respects, but 2008 still has promise.

Yes, you will see me using “hybrid”, “convergence”, “adaptive”, and “evolving” a lot this year. Good stuff is coming.

PS: Yes, I realize that I sometimes ramble my way through these blog posts. Most of them are brain dumps and they aren’t intended to be edited and polished articles that follow a strict outline. So, if I need to clarify something, or I missed a point, feel free to comment or email me.

Virtual Items...who owns what?

The issue of virtual item ownership has been percolating in the background of the industry for a few years, occasionally coming to a boil as a dispute gets some press or litigation occurs. One one side, we have the publishers and developers of massively multiuser online games (usually role-playing, hence the term MMORPG) and virtual worlds (Second Life, Project Entropia, etc.). On another side, we have the end-user…the players who spend hours and hours drudging along to level their character and gain hard to find or rare items. This category also includes people that spend time in various virtual worlds…in some cases generating or creating content of their own. There is a third side that everyone seems to ignore for the most part, and that is the Government (the US Government for the most part).

When you create an account with a MMORPG or Virtual World (VW), you generally have to agree to a “Terms of Service” that is loaded with a lot of legal sounding mumbo jumbo. Among other things, users are expected to recognize and agree that the developer (or publisher, depending on how things are setup) owns, claims full copyright, and reserves all other rights regarding to everything within the game or world. For example, the World of Warcraft Terms of Service states:

Ownership.

All rights and title in and to the Program and the Service (including without limitation any user accounts, titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialogue, catch phrases, locations, concepts, artwork, animations, sounds, musical compositions, audio-visual effects, methods of operation, moral rights, any related documentation, “applets” incorporated into the Program, transcripts of the chat rooms, character profile information, recordings of games played on the Program, and the Program client and server software) are owned by Blizzard or its licensors. The Program and the Service are protected by United States and international laws. The Program and the Service may contain certain licensed materials, and Blizzard’s licensors may enforce their rights in the event of any violation of this Agreement.

Second Life, however takes a different approach:

Content available in the Service may be provided by users of the Service, rather than by Linden Lab. Linden Lab and other parties have rights in their respective content, which you agree to respect.

You acknowledge that: (i) by using the Service you may have access to graphics, sound effects, music, video, audio, computer programs, animation, text and other creative output (collectively, “Content”), and (ii) Content may be provided under license by independent content providers, including contributions from other users of the Service (all such independent content providers, “Content Providers”). Linden Lab does not pre-screen Content.

You acknowledge that Linden Lab and other Content Providers have rights in their respective Content under copyright and other applicable laws and treaty provisions, and that except as described in this Agreement, such rights are not licensed or otherwise transferred by mere use of the Service. You accept full responsibility and liability for your use of any Content in violation of any such rights. You agree that your creation of Content is not in any way based upon any expectation of compensation from Linden Lab.

Before I continue, let me declare a few definitions to help clarify what I am talking about. Yes, labels and names are important. Let’s define User Generated Content (UGC) as content that is built (like fitting legos together) or customized (character race, stats, name, appearance, etc.) based on other content that is created by the developer. Your character’s avatar in the game is not created by you…individual components are created by the developer and put together by you (this includes equipping the character with particular gear and items, or selecting skills, etc.).

User Created Content (UCC) is any content that is created by the user from scratch. This includes written fiction and stories, textures, 3D models, animations, code (widgets, applications, scripts, etc. usually based on some sort of scripting language provided), and so forth. In the case of Second Life, it is a very open environment and architecture, that lets users use tools to create and upload new content. Second Life makes no claim to this content, and they are willing to literally sell ownership rights to sections of virtual “land”.

Ok, moving on. Regardless of which type of content we are talking about, people have a natural feeling of ownership for their character/avatar, as well as everything that the character or avatar “owns”. This goes beyond the name of the character and its likeness, personality, and backstory. In MMORPGs particularly, there is a significant and substantial time requirement to develop characters, complete quests, collect items, and so forth. Users equate their time and effort to collect these items (indeed, most of these games heavily emphasize item collection) as their investment to acquire the items. Remember, MMORPGs are supposed to be about role playing…you are your character. All of these games have built in mechanics to trade items from one player to another, as well as sell these items directly to another player for in-game currency (platinum, gold, silver, whatever), sell them in in-game shops, or even post them on auction systems built directly into the game. While this is absolutely necessary as functionality in any MMO game, they serve to reinforce the perception of ownership…not just by the character, but by the player as well. So, naturally, people attempt to sell items, currency, characters, and even entire accounts for real world currency. There are dozens of auction sites for doing so (Ebay has been particularly aggressive about disallowing such sales), and venture capitalists have funded several ventures that exist solely to buy and sell game currency in multiple MMORPGs (gold farming anyone?).

Developers are usually against this. The reasons vary, but basically they don’t like being left out of the loop and not making any money on it, they feel that users don’t have the right to sell something that doesn’t belong to them, and there are a lot of potential legal issues and pitfalls that developers simply do not want to be exposed to or have to deal with when it comes to this particular issue. It is interesting to note that some publishers, like Sony Online, have changed their stance somewhat and make provisions for things like character transfers and whatnot, but they charge a fee for the service (I don’t believe that the mechanics are there for person to person sales though).

The issue is further muddied by the growing emphasis on virtual item sales (microtransactions) where developers sell game items directly to the player. $5 gets you a shiny sword or some unique piece of limited edition clothing. But do the players actually own this? Or are they just paying for access or limited license to the object? Are they in fact paying a service fee to use the item?

I’ll come back to that in a moment. First though, I want to talk about the third entity coming to the party. The Government. For the time being, the Government has limited its interest and interference to crowing about ratings systems and mature content (rightly so), and the occasional congressional nutcase (both parties) hollaring about how games are destroying our youth and the definite cause of much teen violence (which is ludicrous). The danger that lurks is when the Government decides that virtual items DO have real value, and they DO belong to the end user. Which means, they are taxable. Great. You really want to own your level 70 Warrior in World of Warcraft? What’s the market value on that? Do you really want to have to declare it on your tax return and pay for it? How about virtual property taxes? Be careful what you ask for…

Another quick point…I think Second Life made a big mistake in selling virtual land. The concept is good (and honestly, I was pitching this in the mid 90’s (95/96) with my first MMORPG venture), but there are some issues. One of the problems that Second Life has (and they have many) is that they have a difficult time keeping new users (the reasons I may discuss in some other post). People make accounts, buy some virtual land, build some objects (usually displeasing to the eye, but that is the nature of the toolset and no moderation over user created content), and then they don’t come back after they get bored. What happens? Landscapes filled with a chaotic imbroglio of buildings and objects with no consistency or context…and no population. So, Linden keeps releasing new land and the cycle repeats. Because some user OWNS those objects and virtual land, there is nothing Linden can actually do about it to clean it up or reclaim it.

Wouldn’t it have been better to sell leases, licenses, or limited rights to the property? Pay rent and do what you want. Quit paying rent and your virtual land gets forclosed on and resold. This simple little twist would have made Second Life a much greater success than it is now. Revenues would have been higher, the economy would be much more stable, and high traffic areas would be much easier to develop. Plus, the continual refreshment of content would help keep the world alive and vibrant. This approach (applied to virtual items as well) would let developers maintain all rights to their content in games and solve a few potential pitfalls. Even in WoW, the terms of service should be modified to allow users to transfer ownership rights of their license or service agreement.

I’m not an attorney by any means, but I think this is the way to go. Oh, I haven’t discussed the pitfalls I mentioned earlier. If the user owns everything, what happens in a MMORPG where there are thieving skills? What happens if another character kills your character, or screws up a quest or raid you were in the middle of trying to earn some epic item? If these things have real world value and ownership tied to it, you could conceivably sue them, and the developer for the loss or even emotional distress. Think about it… not very reassuring, is it? What happens in a server outage or rollback? Bugged items?

The moment that users (especially gamers) claim full ownership to the virtual items and start placing real world value on them, the pandora’s box opens wider and wider. Then at some point, developers will be shut down after litigation (ruining it for everyone) or the government will step in with a fat tax package (Obama already wants to raise your taxes by a ludicrous amount…it wouldnt be a far cry for anti-corporate and anti-gamer politicians to go after the mythical internet tax or the more realistic virtual item tax).

Just my two pieces of gold.

If you noticed I was incorrect in anything I mentioned specifically here, or you have some data on which party has been more vocal and anti-gaming (or even which politicians favor taxing internet stuff), please comment and let me know. 

 

NASA MMO RFI

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 gamasutra.com. 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 kongregate.com…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