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Moon Safari: Moonbase Alpha Interview

Following on from yesterday's release of Moonbase Alpha (and Jim and my gleeful jumping around ON THE MOON!), we took the chance to ask some questions to Daniel Laughlin (Ph.D) of NASA Learning Technologies about the Moonbase Alpha...

RPS: Can we start at the top - how did the project come to be? What's it's aims?

Daniel Laughlin: The project was inspired in part by America's Army. It started as an effort to prove we could create a commercial quality game using NASA content that is fun. We also hope it will inspire young people to consider studying in technical fields. Moonbase Alpha is a preview of bigger project. A NASA-themed MMO being developed as Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond.

RPS: And the game's free to play, yes?

Daniel Laughlin: Moonbase Alpha is free to play. It will be available on Steam so we can support a sizeable distribution and take advantage of popular Steamworks features like server browsing and leaderboards.

RPS: Could you talk about the research for the science. Who did you consult with? What sort of points were key?

Daniel Laughlin: It was important to get both the lunar environment and the equipment right. It was a great help to get the models of NASA's lunar architecture from Pat Troutman and his colleagues at NASA Langley Research Center. For specifics on the lunar surface and sky, Chuck Wood at Wheeling Jesuit University's Center for Educational Technology was a great help. It also helped that Virtual Heroes has an astronomer turned coder on their team. There was a lot of back and forth between NASA, the Army Game Studio and Virtual Heroes/ARA to make sure we got things right.

RPS: It's set in the the very near future. How much of the tech actually exists right now? I mean, clearly, the soldering irons are, but what about the oxygen generators and similar?

Daniel Laughlin: The technology is mostly based on NASA's planned lunar architecture. Some of it is still only models, but the lunar rover, the space suits and the robots are all based on existing equipment.

RPS: The game focuses on Co-op, placing the extreme nature environment at the adversary. It's a game not about creating the moonbase, but about maintaining it. Why did you decide to focus on this approach? I quite like the idea that a moonbase is an accepted given in the game. As in, it's just part of the future. That's an optimistic view, yes?

Daniel Laughlin: We did talk about building a base early in the planning stages, but it didn't fit the time scale we were shooting for in the game. The established base gives a deeper experience from the first moments of play.

It's important to remember that Moonbase Alpha is a game and not a policy document. But the moon is not going anywhere any time soon. I am pretty certain that sooner or later people will go back.

RPS: When playing the Beta, my comrade and I spent a lot of the time just writing WE ARE ON THE MOON! Did you feel like that developing it? Astronauts are a hero type we haven't really seen much in games, up to now.

Daniel Laughlin: The development happened at the Army Game Studio and Virtual Heroes, but when I got into the first working building I had the same reaction. I found myself holding my breath while playing trying to conserve oxygen.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Moonbase Alpha is available on Steam.

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