…this isn’t rocket science guys. Get your story straight.

I was at the NASA MMORPG Workshop held on Monday of this week at the BWI Marriot, so I’m speaking from first hand experience. The first thing I’ll tell you, is that everything you have been reading (like Slashdot, Gamasutra, Second Life Herald and even Wired are all wrong. Absolutely. Like, what happened to doing accurate reporting? Or even checking sources?

[Damn, even Wired goofed this?]

I’ll explain how and why these sources (and almost nearly everyone else there) has it wrong. First, most of the people that actually attended the workshop ignored the first rule of the world of technology. RTFM. Or, in this case, the website, documentation, materials, and everything else. Heck, I’m starting to think that the majority of the people that went didn’t even bother to pay attention during the panels or even read the powerpoint slides.

To make my point:

“but our thinking going into the RFI is that NASA and the partner would each fund their own participation in the development of the MMO, and that the partner would commercialize the end product.”

Yeah, right from the MMO FAQ page.

Mega FAIL for the game industry, and everyone “reporting” on it. You all suck.

* There IS a $3M budget for the project. However, this will be used for what NASA is contributing to the MMORPG, not for the partner/developer. Everyone reporting that the budget is gone, zero, or whatever, is WRONG.
* The “only reimbursement” for the developer for creating and maintaining the MMORPG is not limited to “NASA consider negotiating brand placement, limited exclusivity and other opportunities”. The developer gets to MAKE MONEY on the game…some of which (negotiable) goes to NASA. This isn’t any different than making a game based on a Hollywood license, except the developer will get better terms, more creative control, and probably some sweet technology out of the deal.
* Some of the attendees were bitching about not understanding the business model or seeing how this could make money (I’m looking at you Electric Sheep), and a few were even outside the hotel complaining about wasting the trip if NASA wasn’t going to fund any of the direct development. Duh, I knew about this BEFORE I went, mostly because I actually READ the stuff that NASA provided. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t clear about the funding (if at all) even as far back as the RFI stage.
* There were plenty of questions about educational requirements…a few people asked about meeting grade specific curriculum requirements (wtf?). NASA folks repeatedly stressed that the goals of the MMORPG are “it MUST be FUN” and “it MUST be educational” and “it must be realistic” (so as not to spread misconceptions or false science facts). Duh, nothing in there about having to meet educational requirements to graduate high school or earn college credit. Remember “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego”? How about “Sim City”? Both rather educational AND fun, no?

The point about “negotiating brand placement” was in regards to NASA’s logo. They have very specific and restrictive rules about how, where, and when the NASA logo is presented. Most large companies have similar rules, but NASA is REALLY picky about it. The logo can’t be used in such a way as to imply that NASA endorses a particular product or political stance, or whatever. They were quite clear about their willingness to try to work around this a bit and make it work.

NASA is contributing “subject matter experts”, which means the developer partner gets rather nice and direct access to all sorts of NASA engineers and scientists…normally a nearly impossible thing to get, and even harder if you needed to find people of these skills on your own. Part of the NASA budget pays for their time.

NASA is contributing deep and rich access to media, archives, data, and so forth. Probably at an unprecedented level of access. This might not sound like a huge deal, but it actually is. Much of that could be used to make a really kick ass game, or at least some really interesting simulations. Think about some of the NASA projects and the data those projects are streaming back to NASA…and then think of how that data could be used to seed a simulation of some sort.

The bit about limited exclusivity and other opportunities was in relation to some of NASA’s wicked awesome technology (it isn’t just about the space shuttle folks, NASA does a lot in many other areas…just think for a moment about getting access to some of their visualization tech…).

So anyway, 160 people responded to the RFI. Over one third of those were from “Joe Gamer” (or people that read about it on Penny Arcade). There were about 200 people at the Workshop, and I’m guessing that more than half really “didn’t get it”. (lolzors, I predicted this would happen)

NASA is partially to blame for not making things a little more clear and being a bit aggressive on their timelines, but there is a pretty solid opportunity here for any smart developer that can put together an interesting proposal and find some funding for it. NASA hinted at a few sources that might consider forming a consortium and providing funding, but as I said before, half of the audience stopped paying attention after “NASA will not provide the partner any funding”.

If Lucas offered the Star Wars license, and full access to all the movie sets, archives, scripts, and face time with the actors for a new MMO, but wouldn’t provide any funding, would the developer community have responded in the same way? What if Lucas insisted it have educational value? Actually, just switch out everywhere I said NASA and replace it with LucasArts. Tell me if the reaction would have been different.

Everyone that left the workshop with a negative opinion wasn’t paying attention and probably would have made a crappy proposal to start with.

Anyway, maybe this will keep the craptastic virtual world companies from making a stab at it…can you imagine the level of suck if this was built using the SL engine or one of the open source VW platforms?

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for a small dev team with a vision to make a sweet ass game that is fun and educational. Sure, it may be targeted at High School folks in an attempt to attract them to careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) but it has the potential to be fun as hell for the rest of us.

Oh, by the way, the attendee list is supposed to be published. Almost everyone there wanted to know who *else* was there (to gauge the competition maybe?). It will be posted on the NASA MMO page. I don’t know when that is going live, but you should go look so you can make fun of the people that attended and guess who blabbed to the “press” with all the wrong info.

Geez. And to think I was going to rail about the CEO of Realtime Worlds whining about not being able to make an MMO for less than $50M (at least he didn’t say $500M like that noob Kotick). Seriously folks, I could do THREE for $50M. Yeah, and they wouldn’t suck asphalt either. No, I’m not bragging. If you are trying to do a MMO for more than $15-20M you are burning cash unnecessarily. If you are looking at funding an MMO or building one and you want me to back up what I’m saying here (maybe so you can re-evaluate your plans) feel free to call me. My consulting rates aren’t that bad. Especially if I save you a couple million, no?

This also isn’t rocket science folks. Seriously.

My name is Robert Rice, and I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night.

24 thoughts on “EXCLUSIVE! Reporting about NASA MMO ALL WRONG…”

  1. 15-20 mil might be correct.. that’s a light budget though. Also marketing/travel/show booths and what not gets pricey.

  2. Hello Robert,

    Bill Mueller here. I was also at the conference.

    I am the only person anywhere (including the NASA staff at the meeting) to have already built a reality based, space themed video game in collaboration with NASA through a space act agreement. The game is SpaceStationSim and we spent $3.5 million on it, much of the money my personal funds.

    My company Vision Videogames, LLC is also working for NASA building SIMConstellation, a systems engineering and integration 3D visualization program I designed for the Orion and Ares vehicles to include missions to ISS, the Moon and Mars.

    Having actually accomplished all the tasks involved here and more, has given me a unique view of this entire process. I don’t spill my guts in public, but I can assure you this situation is extremely complex and anyone attempting it should go into it with eyes open.

    I will be on the contact list.

    Best Regards,


  3. No, it’s not the same as Lucas/Star Wars at all. Star Wars is a marketable brand–probably one of the best in the world. The NASA brand is not nearly marketable on any level, and it could be argued that the brand actually hurts the end product–especially internationally.

    NASA is not “cool” or “hip”. It’s seen as a stale, old, and throwback to science fiction that once was. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating here, but you get my point. Ask any 13 (the min age for their MMO) to 18 year old what they think of NASA and they will shrug their shoulders at best.

    IMO NASA completely missed the mark here. No developer is going to pay money to develop a game where NASA dictates the design and criteria of said game. A partnership with NASA wouldn’t help the developer raise money, nor would it help with co-marketing opportunities.

    My prediction is this never sees the light of day in any marketable form, other than a basic & simplistic JAVA or Flash app.

  4. Hello Robert,

    Ken Rigby here. I was also at the conference. but a stayed at the Hotel

    My company MellaniuM (http://mellanium.com), we develop Virtual Real Worlds mainly from AutoCAD files to create realistic environments and models

    I don’t see any real problems techniacally but creating a script that can meet the 3D to 3D paradigm (non-linear learning) we be at a premium. Any suggestions or contacts on 3D to 3D paradigm script generation would be welcome.

    I will be on the contact list.



  5. If any human being earnestly desires to push on to new discoveries instead of just retaining and using the old; to win victories over Nature as a worker rather than over hostile critics as a disputant; to attain, in fact, clear and demonstrative knowledge instead of attractive and probable theory; we invite him as a true son of Science to join our ranks.

  6. I was making a joke about the Holiday inn.

    This sort of feels like I broke a story. Maybe I should shout “First!” haha.


    Gamecyte (http://www.gamecyte.com/2008/04/23/nasa-asking-for-free-mmo-hardly/906#more-906 ) has interview directly with NASA folks to clarify (I was right) and Gamasutra (http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=18371 ) posts an update of their own citing my post for correction. Massively.com cited KTR as well (http://www.massively.com/2008/04/23/everyone-got-it-wrong-about-the-nasa-mmo/ )

    Good work guys and thanks.

  7. Those of us who stayed for the afternoon session and didn’t rush off to report or complain in the corridor got the real deal (approx. 20 of us). They explained what information we could obtain and that there was Oceans on Mars, etc, etc.

  8. Mars is also a good source of Epsom salts.
    Orwellian Pigs are screaming because the trough is empty.
    Time for the farmer to take charge of the farm methinks.

  9. Stop trying to spin this idiotic approach as a good thing. Yes, there is a budget, for the feds. Not for the contractor (or “partner” as the kept insisting. Also, I stayed for the afternoon sessions and all I heard is that they MIGHT be able to release the data and algorithms, it would have to be cleared through the lawyers first.

    it’s gonna be an EPIC FAIL. :(

  10. Oh, and you are wrong about not mentioning educational standards are requirements. They DID mention them. And this thing will NEVER be deployed into the classroom if it does not establish how it is addressing the Standards of LEarning. Oh, guess what, the Standards of Learning are different for every state. Guess you have to address em all or something.

    Lucas Arts owns valuable property to come to the table with. NASA does not. (Valuable as in entertainment value.)

    yeah, maybe you could make 3 MMOs for 50M, so lets say that’s 15M each. You got 15M burning a hole in your pocket? I’d like to see the business case you construct that shows how you make that 15M back.

    “Much of that could be used to make a really kick ass game, or at least some really interesting simulations.” NOT. more like a really crappy game with some really interesting simulations. This game will NOT be a commercial success with “really interesting simulations” that appeal to the geeks and nerds.

    The people that left the workshop at lunch, and the people who are now negative on it (like I am) are the people that UNDERSTAND what it takes to make a game, much less an MMO, and have it be commercially successful. They see what NASA is doing (acting like they are Disney or Lucas Arts, or someone that has valuable ENTERTAINMENT IP that could be leveraged) and they see that it is setting this project up to fail. Unless there is some one out there with $15M that they don’t know what to do with and really need to take a big loss for tax purposes.

    Ya never know.

  11. hmm, I don’t remember them saying a name. I just remember them saying that there would be some data that they would want to keep to themselves so they would have to get everything that they wanted to release to be approved. (It was either the first or second presentation after lunch)

    Anyway, using real world data has it’s own problems (as the Scientific Visualization guy indicated) with missing data, low signal to noise ratios, sensor drift, and just bad designs. I really loved his comment about the fact that they “fix” the data to show what they want to show. How Shrub-like.

  12. It was the guy who organized collaborative meetings by locking them in a room for 7 days ot until they had a solution. If they didn’t have the CAD drwgs/anims they would get them of the contractors. The height maps are in the public domain as well. I did miss a bit of the Visualisation guy as I had a one-to-one with J Harrington. Who confirmed the statement.
    Anybody seen a list of attendants that should idicate there cred.

  13. Uhm, wow. Anon you are so far out in left field I wonder what kind of crack you are smoking.

    There are NO specific educational requirements (in the context of classroom based curriculum or state goals), and the state specific “standards of learning” are not relevant. You make it clear that like many others, you didn’t bother to “read the directions” and “pay attention in class”.

    I’d be more than happy to educate you on the business model and 1) how to make a good MMO as well as 2) commercialize it for a return on investment (ROI), all within a reasonable $15-20M budget. However, I’d have to charge my normal consulting rate, I don’t have the time otherwise.

    Using real world data has its own issues, but they aren’t problematic. The visualization guy’s comments about “fixing” the data makes total sense if you know anything about visualization or presentation. The accuracy and integrity of the data is not changed, they simply fix aberrant visual “artifacts” that can be confusing because of how the data sets are put together, etc. You should read “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” by Edward Tufte. Maybe read up on visualization techniques while you are at it.

    Feel free to message me privately to continue discussion…I don’t like spending much time conversing with anonymous people that claim to be experts or tell me I have something wrong and then don’t back it up.

  14. Ahh yes, the very mature non sequitir “you’re on crack.”

    First, state educational goals ARE relevant due to the “No Child Left Behind” program. If this project cannot show how it is meeting the STATE educational requirements (ie, how it is going to improve students performance on the skills tests) it will not be allowed in the classroom. Certainly every states requirements are similar, but it’s still a battle that will have to be fought state by state, if not district by district. There are also all kinds of accessibility issues that will have to be addressed before this can be deployed into a public school. How will blind or deaf students interact? You make it clear that you have no understanding of the realities of inserting product into the real world US educational system.

    You are correct in that there are no specific educational requirements in the RFP, and this is going to cause serious problems later.

    I’m sorry, I was not clear. I was not talking about making just any MMO and making your investment back. I was talking about making THIS MMO and making your money back. I totally agree that with 15 to 20 M you could definitely make a MMO that would make it’s money back. I just don’t think this is it (if it’s done as a classic 3d MMO RPG style MMO).

    Sorry, my “fixing the data” comment was actually political ;) For example, obviously the administration wants to down play ozone depletion over Antarctica. The “real world” data is missing for 90% of the continent. Therefore, they fill in the data showing that there is no depletion for the areas that are missing. Now, maybe that is the correct data, but maybe it isn’t, but the impression that you get from their visualization is exactly what the administration’s political hacks want you to see. When 90% of your data is missing I don’t believe you can call fixing that (or rather “making the data show what you want it to show”) as “a simple fix of aberrant visual data.” (Incidentally, this is the example they actually used at the workshop, I’m not making this up. Perhaps they had another datasource that showed that there was no depletion which they did not show. I’m just tellin’ what I saw.)

    As far as real world data not being problematic, well, I’m guessing your a biz dev guy. For instance, one time when I was writing a data acquisition system I went and asked the engineer that was writing the control and monitoring software what tolerance he needed the data at so I could design what type of pre-filtering I needed to do. He looked at me funny then said with a straight face “Zero.” When we deployed his software it was initially incredibly unstable and he couldn’t understand it. It worked perfectly against simulated data. Data which had no noise in it, no drift, no modeling of the mechanics of the system, etc. Now, if you have never used real data before, you don’t expect to have to deal with these issues. Game developers don’t use real data, they “massage” the data however they want to make things fun and presentable in an understandable way. Which is 100% great, for a game. As much as they went on about how accurate the physics needed to be I expect this would be classified more as a simulation than a game, and if they want to use all these real-word data sources, they better be ready to deal with these kinds of issues.

    I have no interest in messaging you privately.

  15. I’d also like to say that I want to see this succeed. Badly. I just see NASA setting itself up to fail, and the last thing NASA needs kids to see is another failure. The concept here is a good one. But they are setting themselves up for failure due to what I have to believe is ignorance and it makes me sad. I worked at JSC in the 80s and 90s. It was a great place, I got to meet a number of the guys that were sitting around the table during Apollo 13 trying to figure out how to make a CO2 filter out of a pile of junk. (This also leads to a question, how come there were no JSC guys at the workshop? If they are going to try to do this without support from the manned space program? Another Bad Mistake(tm) if they do.)

    Anyway, yes I am passionate about this and I wish them all the success in the world. I’m also disappointed to no-bid the work, there is no way I could sell it to my boss or investors. Quite frankly, the only way I see it working with the way they have structured the budget is for NASA to run an open source program to develop this.

  16. Hello,
    I was a member of the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle team at NASA. I regularly present lectures about our experiences
    at companies, schools, universities, movie interviews, and locations like the Virtual Worlds workshop in January at NASA Ames, at which I described our LUROVA “Edutainment” simulation development. Interest was expressed by several folks in anticipation of the announcement of the subject NASA MMO. I still want to collaborate with one or more groups to get this done for the students and NASA. I can provide more details, if you’d like.
    Thanks, Ron Creel

  17. wow it always is impressive to me how incredibly stupid most of the human race really is, it would be nice if at least half of them would pull there heads out of there collective asses.

    first off most of the information i have read on the internet has indeed been from people with there heads up there ass, nasa has no marketability in enternainment, you need a brain transplant the one you have isnt working. of all the companies out there gaming and otherwise nasa has the most to offer from both educational and entertainment points of views…point of fact: lucasarts – good movies, some good singleplayer games, MMO sucks ass, 0 education; then you have say SL a craptastic VE were you have a little education value in the form of modding (sorta)and thats about it good for maybe making a buck or two; then you have nasa were you have the potential to create a VE/MMO were you can go and explore the environments of the nasa compounds(anyone with half an IQ point would give there eyeteeth for) fly a spaceshuttle or design one and test it maybe making trips to the moon or mars or some other planet and go through different processes of creating spacestations and/or space colonies-not only are you learning about science in a fun new way but your experimenting and having fun in an original way not to mention that all of that information can be gathered and used by nasa to create those spaceships/stations/colonies etc. i for one would love to even take a sorta vurtual tour of the nasa buildings let alone have any input used to create/design the next mission or station or whatever.

    so for all you people with your heads up your collective asses keep your mouths shut so that those of us who have more than half an IQ can work with nasa to make this MMO a reality and be able to enjoy it.

  18. I know this story is a tad bit old, but I needed to vent somewhere…
    I work at a large defense contractor, and was at the original workshop back in April as well. I actually managed to pull together a pretty good team to bid on this, until the official responses to the questions finally came out last Friday.

    Sadly, my team, and every other plausible team I’ve talked to has decided not to even submit a response. NASA appears unwilling to commit to even the smallest points, leaving everything up to ‘later negotiations’. I hate to tell you NASA, but serious companies won’t bid on the possibility that you’ll let them use the ‘meatball’ (your only real benefit in terms of marketability), forget about creative control, IP ownership and other concerns.

    Fronting $20M+ for an MMO (and then upkeep/maintenance costs every year it’s live), where NASA maintains control over content would be a nightmare. I can easily foresee the problem where the NASA-hired education ‘experts’ don’t understand games, much less MMOs…and then tell NASA what needs to change.

    I’m afraid this game will never be built unless NASA changes its mindset from this ‘volunteerism’ to the fact that the developer needs to have sole control over the game.

  19. It seems NASA has decided on Virtual Heroes & Project Whitecard to work on the MMO effort. [http://ipp.gsfc.nasa.gov/mmo/]
    Virtual Heroes is the same company that contributes code/content for the game ‘America’s Army’. [http://info.americasarmy.com/teams.php?id=2]
    I just thought I would let you know :)

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