GDCO 2010: Spacetime Studios' Cinco Barnes talks mobile design

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GDCO 2010: Spacetime Studios' Cinco Barnes talks mobile design
Spacetime Studios, the developer of the popular mobile MMO Pocket Legends, was started back in 2005 to create large-scale MMOs. Its founders decided to make a mobile platform MMO upon seeing the obvious marketing opportunity that the iPhone provided. After all, the players would already be connected and would be accustomed to microtransactions through exposure to iTunes and the app store.

Of course, development could prove disastrous if the wrong game plan were followed, so Spacetime decided to keep it simple. How simple? Cinco Barnes of Spacetime was on hand at GDC Online to explain how his team members did it. What they found was a chance to do more than they'd initially planned on -- and an audience ready to gobble up everything the studio could create.

One of the most important decisions to be made in the creation of Pocket Legends was this: What type of characters would populate Spacetime's world? You'll find no humans in the character creation screen -- just a bear, an eagle, and an elf. It was important to keep the client stable and light, and customization could easily nudge performance onto shaky ground. A human would demand different looks -- hairstyles, faces and eyes -- so no humans. Ironically, once Spacetime did introduce more customization, the demand skyrocketed. Now you can find hats, weapons, clothes and other unique items to make your character stand out.

The studio also had other expectations that changed over time. At first, the devs expected most players to want an instant in-and-out game to be played while waiting at the dentist or in between meetings. Exploration was also absent from the "1.0" version of the game; instead, it relied on a Guild Wars-style lobby system that allowed for more of those 10-minute play sessions. Dungeons were designed for quick three- to five-minute playthroughs, all connected through one system. Leveling was also paced at "blistering," something that would eventually merit tweaks.

What Spacetime found was a playerbase that was tearing through the content that was released and hungry for more. Play times greatly increased from the expected several minutes to several hours; players apparently enjoyed grinding monsters for loot, socializing, and grouping. This was seen as a good thing, of course, but how would a six-man developer team keep up with demand?

The studio decided to go with a series of essential changes to meet a hybrid mix of expectations:

  • While still keeping instant access, the team added connected worlds so that players could explore, complete side quests, and walk from one end of the worldspace to the other. While this was achieved through a series of instanced zones -- think EverQuest II -- it opened the world up and offered new options while still maintaining good performance.
  • Dungeon play times were brought closer to 15 minutes, and bosses were tweaked to include layers of combat that would require group strategy.
  • To keep up with the now-several-hour play sessions, infinitely spawning mobs were placed for phat loot farming.
  • Leveling became more of a challenge, especially by endgame. The time required to max out a character was ramped up, while endgame quality was raised. Blistering leveling speeds were no more.
  • The cash shop was filled with more customization options, standard map purchases, and even nicer-looking weapons with "decent stats." The best and coolest-looking loot was still obtained through monster drops, however.
Overall, Cinco was frank and informative. It was good to hear about Spacetime's policy of keeping the game stable and always fun to play. The devs also listened very intently to their core audience, a group that has no problems voicing opinions. Creating a simple, stable game as a first priority seems to have paid back Cinco and his team in spades -- they are now able to add-on to the game without running off hordes of players who are using older tech. With the recent addition of an explorable world, the game stepped solidly into the light as a "real" MMO, but a mobile one -- a first in the industry. Despite the fact that exploration was something the developers wanted "for narcissistic reasons," it has helped increase the size of the game in more ways than one. Players can now explore and perform side missions, meet new people, and even roleplay, all thanks to that basic design choice.

Some concern for the future of Pocket Legends might arise if the game were to begin demanding beefier and beefier devices to run the client. Cinco assured us that the very nature of the way the game was designed (instanced dungeons connected to a larger series of dungeons) would help to increase the depth of the game while keeping performance well in the green zone. This was good to hear, being that the selling point of the game is the ability to play from anywhere, anytime. It would be pretty ironic if the growth of the game meant that mobile play was less satisfactory. Luckily, Cinco and company seem to be well aware of that possibility.

Check out the Spacetime website for more information about the game, or search for it in your app store.
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