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GDC 2011: Spacetime pontificates on pocket MMOs

Justin Olivetti
Justin Olivetti|March 2, 2011 4:30 PM
Although portable MMOs seem like the next logical step in enabling our online gaming addiction, remarkably few titles have graced the field as yet. Of the select few, Spacetime Studio's Pocket Legends heads the pack in style and popularity. It appeals to a wide range of players because the basic game is free; the developer charges players only for expansions and other item shop goodies.

Cinco Barnes took the opportunity to speak at GDC about how Spacetime sorted out the complex issues surrounding portable MMOs, how the studio came up with the payment structure, and what the team learned as it goes forward with its next MMO, Blackstar.

Pocket Legends' roots go back to 2005 when Spacetime Studios took some seed money from NCsoft and began work on a large-space sci-fi MMO for PCs. While the project went bust and NCsoft pulled funding, Spacetime came away with the technology it developed if not the deep pockets to compete in the field. By 2009, the company became enamoured with the iPhone as a gaming device and decided to take the tools it had developed to create a unique game for that platform.

Before the team could go ahead on the project, it had to ask the fundamental questions of what an MMO truly was and how massive it could be on a phone. As a result of these questions, Spacetime pared down the necessary features and design to something that would fit the specification of a mobile MMO.

Instead of focusing on a widespread, expansive virtual world, Spacetime chose to pursue "bite-sized" experiences and gameplay that would be connected together.

"The scope and complexity of the game was not intended to match the dreams of our PC product ideas," Barnes admitted. Having a simple and stable game was the most important factor for Spacetime. Once it figured out this basic foundation, the rest of the gameplay could be built on top of it as technology and time allowed.

The key idea that enabled Pocket Legends to succeed, Barnes said, was that the company decided to design it to be grown over time.

The "sweet spot" for Spacetime's mobile MMO wasn't the hardcore PC gamers but the casual market and general RPG fans. It helped that the entire Spacetime team was composed of gamers who genuinely wanted to create something that they, too, would play.

The team had anticipated that it would gradually make the game's systems more complex over time, but this changed when the devs saw that wasn't what the casual RPG players wanted. Instead, these players craved a broader, not deeper, experience with similar simple mechanics that were easy to understand. Being able to hop into Pocket Legends for quick gaming sessions became the most attractive aspect for Spacetime's core audience, and the company wisely did not try to force the players to see otherwise.

Spacetime had no interest in trying to challenge what a game was or to reinvent the wheel but rather hoped to take established concepts, pare them down to their essentials, and repackage them for mass consumption. Classes and skills were deliberately kept simple and clear as to their focus and abilities.

However, Barnes admits that the team made a key mistake when it came to Pocket Legends' PvP gameplay: It focused on PvE first and then tried to tack on PvP later. Trying to balance PvP after the fact became extremely difficult, which is why Spacetime decided to focus on PvP first in design for all future titles.

To keep life in the game simple, Spacetime tried to take all character customization out of the players' hands to focus solely on the gameplay. This was met with a negative reaction from the players, so Spacetime redesigned the game from the ground up to allow for some limited amounts of customization (such as different weapons). Players, even casual players, have a deep-rooted desire for expressing individualism through customization, a factor the studio could not ignore.

Forcing all of the players to be non-human characters -- bear, elf, or bird -- was intended to play down the fact that the game's customization was limited. Human characters, Spacetime felt, would prompt the players to notice this absence more than cartoonish animals. The company still hopes to add more layers of customization in the future even so.

Keeping with its "bare essentials" philosophy, Spacetime quickly settled on instanced gameplay to avoid barren open worlds, just to get the players into the thick of the action as soon as possible. Story, too, became a casualty of this design, although Spacetime found that the items themselves became the story as players would spend time hunting down and equipping special gear and weapons.

The layout of the game harkened back to old-style arcade games such as Gauntlet, with players clearing dungeons over and over and over again in search of great loot. This setup proved to be extremely easy to add on to as the developers designed new dungeons and instanced areas for adventurers to conquer.

Even so, Spacetime identified a growing need in its players for a sense of world cohesion, for the world to somehow connect. Although it couldn't create a seamless overworld, the dev team did put in portals and an overworld map to foster the illusion of traveling from one place to the next as if they were connected instead of floating around in their own tiny bubbles of existence.

Figuring out the payment structure and the in-game store was -- and continues to be -- a challenge for the studio to adjust and balance. Initially, Pocket Legends came with an up-front cost to purchase, but Spacetime decided to scrap that notion and offer the basic game for free supplemented with an in-game shop that would sell levels and items. Barnes said that the store is "constantly" under review as the team struggles to make a profit without pushing away its playerbase.

A little older, wiser, and richer, Spacetime is on the verge of releasing its second mobile MMO: Blackstar. Blackstar was Spacetime's canceled PC project, which the team is reworking to fit a smaller platform. Barnes describes it as cool-looking characters running around killing monsters, jumping into spaceships, and blasting each other.

By combing the simplicity of Pocket Legends' style with the ambitous original design of the game, Spacetime hopes to push Blackstar above and beyond anything its fans have experienced. Story will be a much bigger part of the game than in Pocket Legends, and the company is planning to be much more up-front with its payment model from the start.

"It will grow for the audience it finds," Barnes promised. If Pocket Legends is any indication, Blackstar could grow beyond Spacetime's and players' expectations indeed.