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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.