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Feature: First look at NASA's Unreal Engine 3 based MMO


By John Gaudiosi

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, North Carolina – Epic Games has seen an influx recently in the number of massively multiplayer online (MMO) games in development that utilize its Unreal Engine 3 technology – an engine that was not originally designed for MMO games.

The latest entry in this Unreal MMO games category is the new subscription-based NASA MMO game, "Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond." This game, which will ship next year, joins other Unreal Engine 3-driven MMO games like RealTime Worlds APB, NHN USA's Huxley, Acony Games' Parabellum and Sony Online Entertainment's The Agency and DC Universe Online.

"We're using Unreal Engine 3 for the new NASA MMO game, which will allow us to focus on gameplay and realism and not worry about things like multi-threaded rendering problems or issues with rigid body physics or network programming," said Jerry Heneghan, founder and CEO of Virtual Heroes.

"Unreal Engine 3 is simply one of the best, state-of-the art game engines available," said Daniel Laughlin, Ph.D., project manager for the game at NASA Learning Technologies.

It was Virtual Heroes work on another Unreal Engine 3 game, America's Army, that opened the door for Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond.

Heneghan said one of the main reasons he and his partners on the NASA MMO game project, Project Whitecard and Information in Place, chose Unreal Engine 3 was because of their plans to open the MMO game up to its players. Like Epic Games has done with the Unreal Engine 3 Editor, which is available with PC versions of games like Gears of War and Unreal Tournament III, the goal is to allow gamers to create their own content, including missions and spacecraft, and then share that with others online.

"We want anybody that can go pick up a copy of Unreal Tournament III for probably $19 at the store now to be able to get content that could be submitted for inclusion in the game," said Heneghan.

The development team is crafting a series of events and missions that will start with the possibility of a near earth object impact hazard and expand to offer other reality-based challenges to gamers over time. While the subject matter might sound dry to those who dreaded high school science class, the team promises that the gameplay will be exciting.

"We have access to all of the digital assets from NASA that do not compromise national security concerns," said Heneghan. "I was blown away by the creativity, the coolness factor, and just the sheer excitement of seeing some of the systems that are being researched, prototyped and created in terms of how parts and pieces fit together and how equipment will work with redundant mission critical systems for robustness and survivability ."

Rather than having to spend time and money conceptualizing the futuristic technology being portrayed in the game, Heneghan said the team will make good use of the assets being provided by NASA.

"This game is going to be a fresh look at the future circa about 2035," said Heneghan. "This is a huge opportunity for us as a development team to leverage the work of brilliant NASA scientists who are creating the technology, systems and procedures of tomorrow and really pump up the cool factor so that game players can experience something that hasn't been possible before."

Taking a page from America's Army a free online game that Virtual Heroes has worked on, Heneghan said the NASA MMO game will be released in modular parts. This fall will see the first playable demo of the game and then next year the first episodic installment of the game will launch.

Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond will be a 'first-person-exploration' game that will also include traditional role-playing game (RPG) elements for both single-player and team-based space exploration, but with a realistic twist. Everything in the game will be crafted based on real NASA technology, as well as on prototypes from esteemed academic institutions for the next generation of robotics, spacecraft, spacesuits and space habitation.

"The core of the gameplay is going to be people building up their characters and as you move forward, you will have more options unlock with new places to go, new equipment to use and new things to do," explained Heneghan. "We are not so much focused on interstellar flight and all that entails... the gameplay is actually about being in a habitat on a planetary surface and doing things like mining Helium-3 for fuel, operating a hydroponics facility to grow plants and create oxygen and operating robots and vehicles"

One of the story arcs that will take place over the course of the game's first year is the very real threat of global warming.

"There is a component for the space station that needs to be built to combat the environmental concerns around an impending event that is happening," explained Heneghan. "People are actually cooperating together to mitigate this crises. There is a sense of urgency about the gameplay in which players will want to get better and not let their team down. It's pretty exciting stuff."

The game will allow players to utilize the latest technology from Big Stage, which enables photos to be transformed into virtual avatars. Players will be able to see themselves within the game world, if they so desire, or else use the game's editor to create their own character.

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