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[EXCLUSIVE] NASA’s JPL Teams Up to Take Gamers to the Final Frontier in Terra Ex

Posted under Featured, and Interviews, and News by Meredith Sweet on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 -

Logo for the forthcoming space 4X game, "Terra Ex"

When science fiction and science unite…

When a real-time strategy game meets a roleplaying game…

When Earth meets Mars in an explosive planetary collision…

When NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory teams up with some of the major talent behind such fan-favorite games as World of WarcraftCommand and ConquerLost Planet 3StarcraftMercenaries 2, Resistance 3, and Nox, you get what is sure to be one of Kickstarter’s biggest computer game projects: Terra Ex, the story of humanity surviving and thriving in space after Earth and Mars collide.

Gaming Dead has the exclusive on this forthcoming Kickstarter project and planned game.

The Kickstarter, set to go live on October 16, has a lofty goal of $200,000, with stretch goals going all the way up to $1.5 million. That initial seed money will pave the way for Terra Ex Ventures, Inc., based in Irvine, CA, to create an expansive, educational universe in which players will play in the “4x” style–meaning they will have goals to explore their corner of the universe, expand beyond that, exploit resources, and exterminate dangerous alien forces.

What makes Terra Ex different from, say, Star Trek Online is that it’s not just science-fiction; with NASA’s JPL assisting, everything from ship design to the actual planets is based off what real science says is now possible or will be in the future. The game will feature a built-in information system, called Ask O.D.I.N (which stands for “On Demand Information Network”). Text boxes will explain the technology you’ve clicked on, and the Kickstarter allows for stretch goals in which real-life scientists will explain that tech and how it could come to be. These aren’t people calling themselves scientists like those doctors on TV hawking some medicine in front of a chalkboard; these are astrophysicists at the University of Southern California, project leads for NASA’s Jupiter Probe project, and many more. In other words: the real deal.

O.D.I.N. is a backronym homage to The Odin Foundation, one of several organizations that 40 percent of players’ in-game purchases profits will go towards, to further education in the Science, Technology, Education and Math (STEM) fields, specifically for underprivileged students in the United States. With billions of dollars poured annually from various sources into various STEM fields, it’s a tragedy to know that due to American students’ middling science and math test scores (25th in mathematics and 17th in science among developed nations around the world), they’re simply not qualified for some of the most intriguing, highest-paying, and most challenging careers of the next decade. By donating a portion of their profits to organizations like The Odin Foundation, Terra Ex is treating science education differently: by positioning it within a game that will not only be free-to-play and easy to access, but fun and engaging as well, people won’t even realize they’re learning about real-world science.

Not only that, but where you build your bases and fly your ships are real star systems–which means as NASA and the JPL discover new planetary bodies or learn more about existing ones, they’ll be added to a special NASA JPL app from within Terra Ex‘s home screen.

Some gamers cringe at the idea of a game description including the word “educational.” Who here doesn’t remember “learning” about history through Oregon Trail, or math via Math Blasters? Though some games marketed as educational are fun, many of them lose their appeal when it seems more like work and less like play. Terra Ex‘s challenge in that regard is in reminding gamers that whether or not they recognize the educational aspects, the game is free to play, so there’s no harm in trying it out. And if they do end up learning as they play? So much the better.

Concept artwork for actual astronomical bodies and possible space ships and stations in the forthcoming game "Terra Ex"

The game is geared toward a wide audience: not only gamers who like space games, but fans of science fiction, and students of science fact: space buffs, astrophysicists, biophysicists, and folks who just like looking at their night sky, wondering what’s out there. The game Clash of Clans inspired Terra Ex, but there was nothing Clans-like set in space. Of course, Western society today has been very inspired by tales set in space: everything from Star Wars to Star Trek, along with our actual history in space, which is still blazing forward, stalwart NASA still alive and kicking, alongside private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX.

“All science fiction shares from [one another],” notes Terra Ex composer Brenton Costa. It doesn’t matter if your notion of space came from reading science fiction by Isaac Asimov or  Arthur C. Clarke, watching NASA blast astronauts into space on a black-and-white television, or sitting enthralled on the edge of your movie theatre seat as you watch Sandra Bullock and George Clooney float helplessly in space in Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Gravity.

Science as a field is ever-changing; so too, is science fiction. We’re always coming up with new foes for our heroes to face, daunting challenges for them to undertake, and breathtaking new discoveries for them to find. To that end, Terra Ex is an open-ended game: you don’t “win,” per se, but you can keep on exploring, exterminating, expanding, and exploiting. The initial plan is to limit play to the Milky Way Galaxy, but depending on growth, we may see adventures set beyond our star system.

Concept artwork for base station design in the forthcoming Terra Ex 4X space game

And what about when you’re online, but your friends (or foes) are not? Players will be able to undertake missions and, depending on if the $340,000 stretch goal is reached, spy on other players or NPCs to copy base layouts and truly “exploit” all that space has to offer: humans scattered everywhere, dangerous aliens attacking, and the need to survive paramount. The alpha and beta testing will reveal if the option to hire more powerful players, gamers and NPCs alike, as mercenaries to defend your segment of space upon expanding beyond the initial “protected” starting system.

As a browser-based game, the opportunity to explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate is at the fingertips of many more gamers than could be possible with a disc-based, downloadable, or console-based game. Why browser-based? The Terra Ex team conducted research to find out which successful Kickstarter campaigns raised enough money for platform-specific titles, such as Mac or PC games. The numbers were unfortunately not promising.

Another reason the team opted for a browser-based experience was because of the built-in technology that links elsewhere: the Ask O.D.I.N. system for information about in-game technology, and the NASA JPL links that expand the game as new exoplanets are discovered. To prevent these outbound links from booting players out of the game and jarring them from their experience, everything is self-contained within the browser, making browsing those external information portals easier. While one of the stretch goals is to have dedicated iOS and Android versions of the game, the team’s goal is to make the game accessible to as many people as possible. In today’s Internet-connected age, that means going the way of the browser.

Concept artwork for possible ship types to be included in the forthcoming 4X space game, "Terra Ex"

What’s more, as a game that has its start as a Kickstarter project, the people that are most excited to be playing the title will have their voices heard: what ship designs are the best, and, if they’re willing to pony up $500 and up, the chance to have a star system (or maybe even a ship?) named after themselves!

“Other games [even those created by crowd-sourced efforts like Kickstarter] don’t necessarily have a vocal audience” that is being actively listened to by the game’s creative team, Costa says. But responding to gamer feedback is core to how the Terra Ex team plans to do things. This will be one of many reasons, the team hopes, that players will keep coming back, instead of playing for short bursts at a time.

“The world is definitely changing in regards to how we gather information,” says Costa. While research was once done by the cloistered few, now there are massive, constantly-evolving online encyclopedias, blogs, virtual classrooms, and more. With all of the possibilities for distraction out there, a crucial question the Terra Ex team has to answer is: “How do we keep people engaged?”

By offering different ways to strategize, create, explore, and in general have fun, Terra Ex aims to educate while it provides a unique experience for all comers.

Sources: Kickstarter, Terra Ex website,  Ed.GOV, The Odin Foundation, interviews

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