Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Creating a Virtual Final Frontier for NASA and the CSA

     by Brian Orlotti

Traditionally, video games set in space have relied on far-flung futures with exotic tech and an emphasis on combat. Now, a Winnipeg-based firm is preparing something a bit more left-field; a massive sci-fi sandbox designed to help teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

Project Whitecard Studios Inc. of Winnipeg, MB is currently at work on 'Starlite," an online multiplayer game being developed in cooperation with NASA

The company was founded in 2008 by Khal Shariff, a former web developer and news writer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Toronto. Unfulfilled with the job, Shariff left the CBC in 2005. After hearing of declining math and science scores in both Canada and the US, Shariff decided to return to his hometown of Winnipeg to pursue his dream of utilizing game technology for educational purposes.

Project Whitecard’s involvement with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) came about from its association with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), where it had previously worked creating an International Space Station (ISS) construction simulator called "RoboMath." Robomath’s success brought an invitation from NASA to speak at two events on the efficacy of using gaming in education. NASA staff was impressed with Shariff and offered his company a contract to develop an educational game.

Starlite’s development is being funded from several sources. Contributors include NASA, Kickstarter, The Province of Manitoba, The University of Manitoba, and the Canadian Media Fund. The game is being developed in accordance with a Space Act agreement with NASA Learning Technologies.

Set in the year 2035, Starlite portrays an era where humanity has begun settling and industrialising the solar system. Players take on the role of astronauts, helping to build the infrastructure of these new worlds. Players travel across the solar system, building and flying spacecraft, constructing space stations and ground facilities (i.e. mines and power stations) as well the gear needed to do these things. The game will have a hard sci-fi slant, emphasizing present and near-future space tech over the more exotic tech typically seen in sci-fi games.

Minerva, preview from Starlite image gallery.
Starlite’s gameplay mechanics combine elements found in both traditional online quest-based games (i.e. World of Warcraft) with those of open-world 'sandbox' games (i.e. Grand Theft Auto). The thread tying these elements together is the use of real-world STEM skills to solve problems.

At the start of the demo, your spacesuit-clad character is inside a monster truck-sized rover (called ‘Minerva’) on the surface of Mars. Your mission is to investigate a magnetic anomaly and you have just arrived on the scene. Moving your character around the cargo hold of the rover, you gather your equipment and then open the large airlock door. As you step out onto the red surface, you’re followed by two small rovers (looking suspiciously like the offspring of Spirit and Wall-E) who serve as your companions. Your character’s first task is to setup a work camp which involves dropping an inflatable tent and deploying a power generator. The generator then extends a robotic snake-like appendage which connects to a port on the tent and inflates it.

It’s at this point that you’re interrupted by a distress call from a nearby aircraft. The aircraft has suffered damage, and is about to crash nearby. A cutscene shows the aircraft screaming overhead and plummeting towards the ground. The pilot’s air supply is low and he’ll need assistance. To locate the pilot, your character needs to triangulate his distress signal. Your character steps inside their tent and picks up two small radios and a spool of wire. Using a ‘crafting’ screen similar to other games, you combine the wire with the radios to make a pair of receivers to mount on the rovers. When the items are combined, a window appears displaying an equation that needs to be completed to determine the antennas length. You type in the variables (distance in meters, and frequency in MHz) and the process is complete. The equation is shown in a non-intimidating way (with the variables clearly labelled) and makes sense in the context of the game.

You then take control of an individual rover, driving it around and sweeping the sky with radio beams (shown on screen as coloured waves) to locate the signal. The beams shimmer and crackle the closer you get to the target. When you finally triangulate the pilot’s signal, you’re treated to a cutscene where a twin-engined jet aircraft called ‘Medevac’ hovers in for a landing. Mission Complete!

It’s quite clear from the demo that this is a different animal from other games. The slow and methodical pacing favours the patient, logical player. Space enthusiasts and puzzle-inclined players will be drawn in, but whether the larger public will sign up in numbers remains a question mark. This thought seems to have occurred to the developers since the game will be released first on the iPad. Sharif has stated that if the game gathers a strong following on a mainstream product like the iPad, a port to the more ‘hardcore’ PC platform could follow.

Starlite, by treading a different path, offers a more realistic view of the final frontier. In Starlite’s world, space is a place that will require more from us than combat skills or firepower. It will demand our creativity, ingenuity and inner strength to succeed…a truly game-changing idea.

1 comment:

  1. Terrific Piece! Thanks so much.
    We'll be starting to test an mmo module on April 14, 2014.


Support our Patreon Page