Autopsy: Moonbase Alpha

(for an explanation on the terminology used in our Autopsies, visit the following LINK.)

NASA Games recently unveiled a “proof of concept” mini-game that was available free over the Steam network.  Though not an MMO, rumors are circulating that this game is the first demo of an upcoming MMORPG that will take place on our Moon, Mars, and beyond!  Even though it is very much a prototype, we decided to give our thoughts on how it currently stacks up.

Before we slice this one open, let’s cover a few of the basics.

The game utilizes the Unreal engine.  This is noteworthy for an MMO only because games based on this engine have not, to this date, enjoyed much success in the MMO market.  This trend has started to shift a bit lately, with the release of Global Agenda, and the positive previews that TERA has been generating.

It’s actually a bit of a misnomer to call this current release a “game.”  In my opinion, it’s less than a beta, but slightly more than a demo.  I believe the developers are using the term “proof of concept” though I’m unsure which concepts they are attempting to prove.  That movement on the moon is really, really slow?  I’m convinced.  The entire experience, top-to-bottom, can be enjoyed (or tolerated?) in under an hour.  If the first play-through interests you however, I’d recommend giving it a second round, using the multiplayer options that are available.

Y-Incision:

Immediately upon loading the software, you’re greeted with a window showing a moonscape flyover, and a number of buttons.  Right from the start, I felt like something was… off.  The buttons, and the entire UI, is crafted in a very ‘sci-fi’ way – with random bits of digital decoration framing each button in different ways.  Usually a fairly appealing UI design for a space-themed game, but … isn’t this supposed to be a real-world experience of living on the Moon?  There is an off-putting juxtaposition between this very high-tech looking interface, and the relatively low-tech tools that your avatar utilizes during the rest of the game.

The main menu does not have a “Play” or “Start” button.  Instead, you’ll use the “Create” function to make a match, and can choose from several multiplayer options.  At the bottom of the screen, easily overlooked, is an option to play in Offline Mode.  It should probably be made more clear to first-time players, that this is the recommended mode.  I hopped into an online match with 5 other players for my first experience, and was endlessly lost as to what I was supposed to accomplish, and how.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that your first play experience should be hard-coded as an offline tutorial, just to keep from overwhelming anyone.

As I mentioned before, there is not a lot of content available in this game right now.  It basically consists of 3 different difficulty levels (intended for 1-2 players, 2-4 players and 4-6 players), which all take place on the same map, and the entire purpose seems to be to place high on the Leaderboards based on the time it takes to complete the repair tasks.  An interesting social angle, but far from being an MMO.

I don’t want to sound too negative about the matchmaking system currently in place, however.  I’m impressed by how easy it was to view, sort and join any number of multiplayer matches that’d been created by other players.  And the addition of a text-to-speech filter in the chat system also helps with the social aspect of multiplayer mode.  Even if it’s a computer voice, there’s something much more visceral about actually hearing what your teammates have to say.  Plus, it’s totally a kick to hear a robot say, ‘whoopsee.’

Heart Weight:  3/10

Working on the surface of the moon is a slow and meticulous process.  It requires the utmost care, and careful coordination with your environmental suit and its surroundings.

But we’re not really on the Moon, guys.  We’re playing a video game.  Sometimes realism needs to be sacrificed a little in the name of fun, when you’re talking about a game.

It’s not fun to be the victim of game design.  When you’re playing this game, you are continually reminded about the timer at the top of your screen, and the fact that people will die from lack of oxygen when that timer runs out.  And yet, while you watch the timer tick down, you are at the same time subjected to canned animations for simple actions, that sometimes take up to 10 seconds to complete, for something as simple as putting a piece of equipment onto the back of a vehicle.  And heaven forbid there’s some sort of collision caused by parking said vehicle too close to a piece of machinery, as that will take even more time for the engine to figure out the pathfinding and then re-render the animation all over again.

Each repair process is accompanied by a mini-game that feels like it was designed for a touch interface.  Connect two dots, following a thin path.  Sounds easy right?  Well, unfortunately it’s not so easy using standard pointing devices.  Furthermore, the rewards are too small, and the timers too unfriendly.  The whole thing feels like an exercise in frustration, and there were numerous times that I’d just purposefully fail the thing, to get it off my screen.  It also interrupts socialization, as the mini-game window takes precedence over the chat window.  It’s never a good idea to interrupt socialization, when you’re creating a social gaming experience.

Moonbase Alpha also currently lacks any form of player advancement — a cornerstone of MMORPG play.  But I’m all for breaking boundaries in game design, so maybe I should give NASA Games the benefit of the doubt, and accept the player model they are using.  However, it would be nice to be able to skill up in “Torch Use” or “Solar Panel Repair” so that those specific tasks take less time.  It would also give players a reason to keep playing, other than trying to see their name show up on the Leaderboards.

Overall, this little ‘proof of concept’ still needs to prove to me that it’s a game, and not just a simulation with points thrown in to try and motivate the player.

Brain Weight:  8/10

This title has pulled off an impressive feat, despite its flaws.  It has created a genre that I had not previously experienced:  Co-operative Puzzle Solving.  The design of the repair tasks set before astronauts entering each map, forces cooperation on many levels.  Several tasks require multiple interactions using separate sets of tools, which can only be accomplished in a timely manner by more than one person, working as a team.  And on the 5-6 player maps, the challenges have been crafted in such a way that you’ll be lucky to successfully complete the mission at all without having a minimum of 5 people attending to different repairs, and completing tasks in tandem.

In a way, you could call this a form of game balance, for this type of gaming experience.  And I think the guys at NASA Games have nailed the balance for what they’re going for.  There is no doubt that these maps remain a challenge no matter how many times you succeed, and that co-operative play is an absolute necessity.

You can see that a lot of thought has gone into making this a thoroughly immersive experience, and so despite my earlier gripes about the game design, I’m not going to fault the developers on this front.  They have made intelligent choices about the way they want their game experienced, but not always the most fun choices.

DIAGNOSIS:

This has proven to me that the developers are on the right track towards making an innovative MMO product.  But they still have a very long way to go, to really fit into the genre.

First off, the matchmaking system of spawned individual maps will have to be done away with.  Instances must be larger, and must be persistent on some level, in order to truly be an MMO.

Character advancement of some sort must be the driving force of continued interaction.  Either through skill increases, or content unlocks.  In an MMO, very few people want to be exactly the same as someone else.  Customization through advancement is an incredible motivator.

And lastly, ditch the leaderboards.  In an MMO environment, giving players the bragging rights to show that they are the top dog only causes rifts in your community.  At all times, developers must seek to bring their users closer together, rather than driving them apart.

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