GDC 2011: Spacetime Studios returns to Blackstar

I last spoke with Spacetime Studios' CEO Gary Gattis last year at GDC Online in Austin, and when I saw him then, he told me his company was commissioned to create a PC MMO for NCsoft called Blackstar. Spacetime spent months and months of work on the project before it was abruptly canceled, leaving the company in the lurch and requiring it to make cutbacks until it got to work on what was supposed to be a much smaller project.

That project eventually became Pocket Legends, an MMO that's now thriving on the iOS App Store. The game has seen over 3 million downloads across both the Apple and Android platforms (somewhat surprisingly, the game is more popular on Android, where Gattis says he's seen "more numbers and more money" coming in), and is an unqualified success.

It's so successful, in fact, that when Spacetime thought about what to do for its second game, Gattis and company decided to go back to their origins and recreate Blackstar on the mobile platform.

It turns out all of that pre-production work won't go to waste. The company has loads of concept art, planning documents and early gameplay design ready to go, and along with the extensive experience gained from designing Pocket Legends, that's brought the development time on Blackstar way down. Spacetime hopes to have a beta for the new game in Q2 of this year, and it'll be out and playable soon after that. "No mobile game has had this level of pre-production," says Gattis, and as you can see from the wall of art above, he's not kidding.

The company has smartly used this advantage, too. All of that concept art (some of it done by designers who went on to work on Tron: Legacy) is used in the game as cutscenes, so when starting each mission, you get a little snippet of story that sets up the game's huge universe. Gattis promises that Blackstar "will have a lot more story than we had with Pocket Legends," and from the few moments of gameplay I saw, that's definitely true.

While Pocket Legends is based in fantasy, Blackstar is obviously a more sci-fi story. It features a few familiar tropes early on, including a secret alien race, marauding robots gone bad and science stations to explore and clear out. The gameplay is more complex than Pocket Legends; one level I saw had you cutting down enemies as either a Commando, Operative or Engineer, but it also required more higher-level mechanics, like hitting switches in a certain order or turning off certain turrets to enter a specific area. Pocket Legends' raid encounters have developed over time into very complicated affairs, and "we just barely scratched the surface of what the Spacetime Engine could do" in that game, according to Gattis.

Blackstar looks extremely impressive, and while players of Pocket Legends sort of had to deal with Spacetime's growth as they went along (the game started out with only a few levels and grew much bigger over time), this game seems like a very impressive experience right out of the gate. That backstory helps here as well; Gattis already has a script to move the game along, and he says that Spacetime has about a year and a half of content already planned out.

That's not to say that Pocket Legends is done, either. That game is going to retain a "dedicated live team," and updates are still coming. But Gattis says that because of increasing costs and drains on users' time and money, "the day of the big scale MMO is going away," and with these two titles, Spacetime Studio is aiming to prove that he's right.