GDC Online 2010: Spacetime Studios and the making of Pocket Legends
Pocket Legends has been out on the App Store for quite a while now, but if you (like me) haven't seen it in a while, you might want to check it out again. Spacetime Studios has been steadily updating the game, and the title they showed off at GDC Online 2010 this week was pretty impressive -- an instanced MMO, running in full 3D with three character classes, dungeons and loot, and almost all of the other trappings you'd expect from the genre.
This week, I got to sit in on both Cinco Barnes' panel about the studio and its up-and-down background. I also chatted with the company's CEO, Gary Gattis, both about Spacetime's history and what it's done with Pocket Legends so far, and what's in store for the growing title.
Spacetime, like quite a few other iPhone developers, has its roots in AAA development. But rather than coming together specifically to make iPhone games, the company came together back in 2007 to make an MMO along with NCSoft called Blackstar. Barnes showed off some concept art of the space-themed online title during his talk. Development on that game was moving right along when the project was canceled, and Spacetime suddenly found itself without a plan. After trying to find another partner and doing some work-for-hire, the company decided to pare itself down and focus on what its founders thought might be their salvation: iPhone games. "We reduced our studio down to the core four plus two other guys," Gattis told me, "and we stopped paying ourselves and gave ourselves six months and said let's see if we can do it."
They started on the App Store as Clockrocket Games, assembling a few simple titles from various genres and types to test the waters and see what worked and what didn't. With that testing, they eventually "became convinced of 3D MMO potential on the App Store," and back in April, released Pocket Legends in a very early state, using their own Spacetime Engine.
That's when I played it, and while I was impressed at its potential, I didn't think it was all that polished. Which is fine -- Barnes said that they had decided to start with something "good, and then improve to awesome." Gattis says the team started up with the "minimum feature set -- what is the minimum that we can do" -- and then aimed to improve from there. That's a gamble, though. While it does mean you have an app in the store early, Gattis agreed that rushing such a preliminary product out might have cost them some players. "We burned through a lot of players at the beginning," he admits, "and they'll never come back."
But Spacetime's secret weapon, said Barnes, is patience. Since the app was released, they've been working tirelessly, listening closely to player feedback from all angles. "Me and the CTO do customer support," says Gattis, "an hour a freakin' day. We're there chugging through the emails, seeing what the issues are in the game." Their engine has allowed them to update the game quickly and often. Gattis says they update every two days, and often less. "We can do that because that's our engine," he says, "and we know that we can release stable content. People ask how much we test the content, and sometimes not that much. But we know it's going to be stable, it's not going to break the servers. It might be off balance, but we release it, put up a feedback thread, and within an hour we know what's wrong and what's not wrong and we can fix it, put it back out there."
That kind of agile development means that the features that they wanted to add are going in. The game now hosts six town areas and lots of different dungeons to play through, including one just added with actual bosses and boss mechanics. There are player-vs-player areas, full quests, and there are plans to add in an auction house, guild support, and even more features soon.
While Spacetime can't release actual numbers, they say the game is definitely doing well, given the scale of their operation. Barnes called the game "an unmitigated success," and Gattis shared with me that they're seeing "thousands and thousands of downloads a day" for the free client (supported by sales of in-game currency and content). Pocket Legends also hosts "a thousand to 1500 concurrent" players, according to Gattis, and runs smoothly and simultaneously all over the world.
Those numbers will likely grow -- Gattis says that all of their growth has been based simply on word of mouth so far, and because they recently did find some funding for the company, "it is definitely in our roadmap to market the hell out of this thing." Spacetime says it had to come back from the brink to make Pocket Legends, and the game is closer than ever to making all of the trouble worth it.
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