Despite the risk of turning this place into a newsblog, I just have to address this MMOG that NASA is planning:
The idea is to create a virtual world that mimics the physics, scientific goals, and presumably the realistic mission profiles of the space agency’s real-world activity. Which is an entirely admirable goal. But I might add a few words of advice: Add space orcs.
I really like the idea of less combat-oriented MMOG’s, but the question of “What does the player do all day?” seems to always get in the way of this. Of course there’s The Sims Online and Second Life, but these seem more like social platforms than any sort of actual game. A game has rules, goals, obstacles, and rewards all built into it, and by far the most repeatable form of content for a game is good old-fashioned violence. If you have a good, fun combat system with place for variety, all you need to do is provide some different weapons and switch out the enemies every now and then, and you can pretty much populate a 100-hour game with nothing but one skirmish after the other.
This is what current successful MMOG’s (definitely including World of Warcraft) have turned into a ridiculously successful business model. In fact the quest that made me cancel my subscription to WoW and never look back was one of many quests were I was tasked with going out into a field and killing a specific type of monster in anticipation of getting a particular item with a very low drop rate. I’d killed at least a hundred of these miserable critters until I quit in disgust, and seeing how WoW recently hit 10m subscribers, I’m thinking a lot of people are more patient with such quests than I am. In theory Blizzard could’ve just thrown 500 of those quests into their game and called it a day, players would be grinding mindlessly for years to come.
So the question is: What sort of activity could NASA build their game on? Exploration only works so long there are new areas to explore, and if there are no enemies or other time-sinks to slow you down, the world will have to be stupidly big to keep you playing for more than a month – and nobody will want to keep playing unless the world is full of interesting details to discover in the first place. Scientific goals are interesting enough, I suppose, but my experiences with science have never provided the sort of instant gratification that players crave. Plus I’d be hard pressed to turn science into fun gameplay, although it would probably help if I knew science beyond what I was taught in high school.
So what could NASA do to create a good, successful MMOG? Well, they could aim for a niche, of course, appealing primarily to enthusiasts and hobbyist astronomers and perhaps be content to attract the rest of us for just a month or less – enough to get some public relations messages across, if nothing else. Or they could sell out entirely, creating Everquest In Space, but that would be the boring, embarrassing, easy way out, and I don’t think any of us want that.
Me? I’d go for strategy and management, possibly letting each player create a colony on Mars or something like that, and demanding they explore their surroundings and expand their base while constantly maintaining a steady flow of research materials back to Earth. Maybe it’d work, maybe I’d get fired. Only a prototype could tell