The game was codeveloped by Army Game Studio and Virtual Heroes, two of the leading developers of "serious games." And according to Laughlin, NASA's decision to move into the game space was influenced a great deal by the success of the studios' previous releases. "The project was inspired in part by America's Army," Laughlin told Ars. "It started as an effort to prove we could create a commercial quality game using NASA content that is fun. NASA was looking for a project at the same time the Army Game Studio was looking to branch out from America's Army. It helped that Army Game Studio and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center are co-located at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. Virtual Heroes has a history for with America's Army so we were excited to see them selected to support the Army Game Studio on the game."
Though development of the game didn't start until last year, Laughlin actually began researching the prospect of using games as an educational tool back in 2004. The main impetus for the project was the decline in interest in STEM education—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—amongst the American population.
"The US is facing a crisis in technical fields," explained Laughlin. "There are not enough students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics to fill our national needs in those areas. NASA literally cannot function without STEM graduates. The big goals for NASA Education are to get more students into STEM fields of study and graduating into STEM careers. It's also the president's goal with the Educate to Innovate initiative. Moonbase Alpha was developed in support of those goals."
In addition to funding the game, NASA also had a hand in ensuring that it was as accurate as possible, going so far as to have several engineers and scientists review the game for accuracy. Meanwhile, all of the models for the structures, vehicles and space suits were based on NASA's lunar architecture plans.
The game itself only takes around 20 minutes to play, and despite its sophisticated 3D visuals—the game utilizes Unreal Engine 3—Moonbase Alpha is really just a proof of concept. NASA has another, much more ambitious project in the works: an MMO tentatively titled Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond.
And, according to Laughlin, the success of Moonbase Alpha could have a big affect on the development of the MMO.
"Summaries of the player feedback from Moonbase Alpha will be going to the design team for Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond," he told Ars. "Even more importantly, Moonbase Alpha has the potential to make or break the MMO project. A big negative reaction would mean revisiting the rationale for the MMO and reconsidering the project. A big positive reaction will give momentum and support to Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond."