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The idea of finding life forms on other planets, either inside or outside of our solar system, has always been a big deal. But these days it feels like we are closer than ever. Just the other day was this announcement that Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, the largest moon in our solar system, might have oceans that may have supported life beneath its icy crust. Likewise, Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, was just announced to have a large underground ocean, with “south polar jets contain[ing] salty water and organic molecules, the basic chemical ingredients for life.”

Last month, there was a news release about Kepler 186f – the first Earth-sized planet orbiting a star within its habitable zone. The James Webb Space Telescope will be able to characterize the atmospheres of planets like this discovered in Kepler surveys, and tell us what molecules they are made up of. If there were CFC’s in the atmosphere of an extrasolar planet, JWST could detect them. (This is, of course, an extremely unlikely scenario.)

Kepler-186f, the first Earth-size Planet in the Habitable Zone
Artist’s concept depicting Kepler-186f. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

But what if we were to discover that there was an extrasolar planet that not only had organic molecules, but a rich and diverse ecosystem? And what if you could explore it, citizen science style, with a rover controlled by you through an internet browser window?

This is the basic concept underneath Lazy 8 Studio’s new game called Extrasolar. We were intrigued because of the “exoplanets & life” concept behind the game, but also because we’re big fans of real citizen science programs like Planet Hunters, Galaxy Zoo, and Disk Detective. As we played the game we were impressed not only by the visual design of the the planet Epsilon Prime, but by the surprising amount of science content. When we learned that the game’s exobiologist character, Dr. Jane Van Susteren, is an actual real life biologist, we thought it would interesting to learn more.

In the past we interviewed an executive producer of Bioware’s Mass Effect about astronomical imagery – so we thought it would be fun to talk to Extrasolar creator Rob Jagnow (who has a PhD from MIT) about his inspirations, and how the game was designed to balance both science and fiction.

Image of ‘Epsilon Prime’ taken by Maggie’s rover

NASA Blueshift: Why did you make the game? What inspired you?

Rob Jagnow: Part of the reason that Extrasolar is so unusual is that it had a peculiar evolutionary path. I have an academic background in high-end computer-generated imagery and I started thinking about ways to bring those sorts of images to an audience that’s never experienced them. That would mean that I’d need to render images on a high-performance computer in the cloud. If I wanted to support a lot of users, I’d only be able to render one image per player every hour or so.

So what kind of experience lets you explore a place with just one high-resolution photo every hour? The answer seemed immediately obvious — space exploration! This is almost exactly how we interact with our rovers on Mars.

ExtrasolarImage of ‘Epsilon Prime’ taken by Maggie’s rover

NASA Blueshift: You clearly felt strongly about incorporating real science into a made-up world. What made you want to emphasize science – and to try to make it realistic?

Rob Jagnow: Our whole team is passionate about inspiring young scientists, so it made sense to work as much real science as possible into Extrasolar. You might think trying to stay within the realm of scientific plausibility might constrain the team, but as it turns, out, it was perfect for focusing our creative ideas.

For instance, when we brought Jane Van Susteren on board as our biology consultant, we would show her pictures of alien plants and ask what she might want to learn about them and how she would go about doing that. She immediately reminded us that we can’t refer to anything on the planet Epsilon Prime as plants because they’re unrelated to the plant kingdom on Earth. Under the assumption that these things get their energy through some form of photosynthesis, she coined the name “photobionts.” She went on to explain that she would want to know if these species are cellular, how they reproduce, and where they get their energy. We turned these directly into missions that you’ll perform within the game.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but I should note that in addition to studying the fields of biology that you might expect — astronomy, biology, and geology — the design team also spent a lot of time talking about religion, politics, and sociology. A good story should convey the characters’ interactions in a way that feels so realistic that it prompts you to consider how humanity might react if the situation were real.

I believe that a good science fiction story can elevate a player’s consciousness. When you’ve simulated a visit to an alien planet with the potential for intelligent life, it may prompt you to ask some tough questions. Is it possible that intelligent life is waiting for humanity to achieve some threshold in evolution before they say hello? Do you suppose their requirement might be technological, like demonstrating that we can travel to another star system? Or might they be more concerned with social achievements, like true equality for all members of humanity? Would an alien species have a religion, and if so, how similar do you think it might be to any of the religions on Earth?

ExtrasolarImage of ‘Epsilon Prime’ taken by Maggie’s rover

NASA Blueshift: At what point did you bring Jane Van Susteren on board and how much input did she have in the game design? She did all the exobiology write-ups for the photo- and motobionts, correct? Were there specific inspirations for some of these life forms? [Note: What’s a photobiont? As explained in this feature on Jane Van Susteren, “…We showed her renderings of some of our alien species and asked, “What would you want to know about these plants?” She explained, “First of all, you can’t call them plants! They’re unrelated to the plant kingdom on Earth, so we need to give them a new name — let’s call them photobionts. Next, I want to know how they reproduce, whether they’re cellular, where they get their energy, and whether they follow the general principles of what we would consider to be life.”]

Rob Jagnow: Jane is a long-time friend of our lead artist, Brendan Mauro. After some of our species and habitats had already been designed, we realized that we could benefit from the input of a real biologist. We didn’t initially plan to make Jane a character in the game, but her analysis was so interesting and her voice so unique that it made perfect sense.

Once Jane provided some initial analysis, we redesigned some of our species and added new ones to try to keep the science internally consistent. Different species occupy specific habitats and ecological niches. There’s a food chain that goes from stationary photosynthesizing creatures to herbivores to apex predators.

As is the case with many games, there was a balance between artwork, mechanics, and story. Some species, like the scaled ancients, were specifically designed to show off the high level of detail that we can create in our custom game engine. Others were created later to fill ecological niches that we realized were missing.

ExtrasolarImage of ‘Epsilon Prime’ taken by Maggie’s rover

NASA Blueshift: The landscape is amazingly diverse – did you bring in geologists or geographers? Is there a real physical place (or places) that inspired the geography here?

Rob Jagnow: My father was a geologist, so when I was a kid and my family took long road trips across the United States, he would talk about the geology of the areas we visited — ancient riverbeds, tectonic plates, dormant supervolcanoes. I used some of that knowledge to come up with realistic explanations for the geography of Artocos Island, the first place that our players explore.

Biologically, this island was inspired by the life on Socotra Island on the east side of Africa. The island has been geographically isolated for so long that it has hundreds of bizarre species that don’t exist anywhere else on Earth. A clever reader may notice the relationship between the names of our fictional Artocos Island and the real-world Socotra Island.

ExtrasolarImage of ‘Epsilon Prime’ taken by Maggie’s rover

NASA Blueshift: There is growing interest in citizen science (i.e. Disk Detective lets people look for disks around stars that may be in the early stages of forming planets.) This game feels like citizen science fiction. Where do you feel it fits on the spectrum between gaming and citizen science? Is inspiring more people to do actual citizen science something you are interested in?

Rob Jagnow: Extrasolar basically pretends to be a citizen science project. So it’s a game masquerading as science masquerading as a game.

We were definitely inspired by crowd-sourced science projects like Moon Zoo, Galaxy Zoo, and Foldit. These are cool applications, not only because they leverage human power to do amazing things that are difficult for computers, but also because they tend to pique the interest of people who might not otherwise consider themselves scientists.

NASA Blueshift: What concessions did you have to make in the game to include science – and conversely, what concessions did you have to make in the science for the sake of making a fun game? What level of realism did you want to bring to the game?

Rob Jagnow: There are two places in particular where we had to bend the science to make the game believable. The first is propulsion technology. Our planet orbits Epsilon Eridani, which is about 10.5 light years from here. If we were to travel at the speed of the Voyager probes — 17km per second — it would still take about 180,000 years to reach that star system. We’re claiming we engineered a probe that was able to reach the planet in about 12 years at close to the speed of light. In reality, we’re a long way away from that technology.

Second, we’re claiming that we’re using near instantaneous communications. In reality, an electromagnetic signal would need 21 years to make a round trip between Earth and Epsilon Eridani. Our fictional communications technology is at least inspired by real science. We claim that the Exoplanetary Research Institute (XRI) engineered the Quantum Untangled Interstellar-Capable Binary Interchange Technology, or QUICBIT. Real science shows that quantum entangled particles appear to exchange information much faster than the speed of light — maybe instantaneously. But once this has been done, the quantum state collapses and the particles are no longer entangled. Our claim is that we’ve found a loophole in the physics that allows us to send probabilistic data between quantum-entangled particles without collapsing the quantum state. If we could really do this, it would revolutionize communications.

Aside from these two places where we’ve bent the truth, we try hard to be as accurate as possible and we really didn’t feel as though our pursuit of realism limited our creativity in any way. Our eagle-eyed players have already pointed out a couple places where we need to spend more time — like modeling the tides and tweaking the stars to be more accurate for the planet’s destination.

ExtrasolarImage of ‘Epsilon Prime’ taken by Maggie’s rover

NASA Blueshift: What’s next for Extrasolar?

Rob Jagnow: So far, we’ve released the first of three seasons of content. It takes most players about a month to get through it and during that time, you’ll just scratch the surface of the planet’s mysteries and also learn a lot about what’s going on back here on Earth. We’re in preproduction for seasons 2 and 3, which will reveal answers to some of the lingering questions about life on Epsilon Prime. You’ll also be meeting some new characters and I can promise some huge surprises, both on Epsilon Prime and on Earth.

ExtrasolarImage of ‘Epsilon Prime’ taken by Maggie’s rover

Thanks for talking with us, Rob!

More information on Exoplanets

Astronomy & Citizen Science


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