Moonbase Alpha and STEM Education
Developer: The Army Game Studio and Virtual Heroes
Official Site: moonbasealphagame.com
As with so many public projects, Moonbase Alpha started with an RFP ("Request For Proposals"). NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was looking for partners to create a persistent online game to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, and educate the public on NASA's mission. On the way to producing the final game, The Army Game Studio (who won the contract to develop NASA's game) has worked with Virtual Heroes to release Moonbase Alpha. Moonbase Alpha is a "proof of concept" game both to demonstrate that the project could be ultimately successful and to give NASA a chance to evaluate the project's progress.
Moonbase Alpha has players working together to repair a near-future lunar settlement after a meteor strike damages critical life-support equipment. Using conventional first-person shooter controls (the game is built on the Unreal Engine), players will scramble around, welding and soldering equipment, replacing power conduits, and using remote-control robots to do the work in hazardous areas. The essence of the game is that you lumber around in your environmental suit, trying to support life-support power before the settlement runs out of air. Two to six players can work together, dividing the various tasks to restore power as quickly as possible, with the fastest times posted on online leaderboards.
To experienced gamers familiar with FPS controls, the challenge after learning the basics lies in coming up with the most efficient solution to any disaster scenario. That said, it isn't particularly fun after the first few tries. The game quickly devolves into a repetitive, soldering mini-game that has players tracing lines with the mouse to shave seconds off the ultimate rescue time. Were this part of a massively multiplayer online game, it's easy to see this becoming a repetitive grind where you save Moonbase Alpha over and over to rise in level or gain new skills.
The real question isn't whether experienced gamers will enjoy the problem solving involved in optimizing the restoration of power to a Lunar facility. The viability of the project rests on whether the ultimate game can bring in gamers of all sorts, and teach them STEM skills.
Firstly, Moonbase Alpha is only accessible to those with significant gaming experience. Non-gamers don't seem to easily grasp the controls, the need to move back and forth to the equipment shed to change out tools, or even the point of soldering mini-games. That's probably not an issue now, as Steam isn't a distribution platform aimed at casual gamers, and most of the control confusion could be resolved with better tutorials.
More importantly, Moonbase Alpha and the ultimate MMOG project are being developed to teach STEM. Aside from the lunar trappings, the main educational point of Moonbase Alpha appears to be learning to optimize problem solving. Since that's the core element of virtually all games, why make the game as boring and slow-paced as Moonbase Alpha? Portal does a far more interesting job of teaching physics. Space flight simulations teach rotational kinematics every time players dock. The problem solving of Moonbase Alpha isn't really any different from determining a solid build order in a real-time strategy game. The difference is that Moonbase Alpha has a "realistic," NASA-style setting.
To be honest, Moonbase Alpha isn't bad. It's just not interesting for more than a moment as anything more than a gratuitous leaderboard. In fact, the more players participate in a repair effort, the less interesting the game gets, as players no longer have to make difficult decisions. Instead, they can each take on a particular repair role and move forward without significant thought or communication.
As a proof-of-concept, Moonbase Alpha demonstrates that The Army Game Studio can make a NASA-themed game. It doesn't demonstrate that they can make a game that teaches science, technology, engineering and mathematics in a way meaningfully different from existing games, that is also fun. Let's learn the chemistry and physics of mining asteroids, or the physics of docking with a rotating space station or launching a chemical rocket. Let's speculate on terraforming. A NASA game should do a better job of teaching STEM skills than Will Wright's past games ranging from Sim Earth to Spore.