Massively multiplayer lessons

Massively multiplayer lessons

By Gary Gattis

February 18th 2011 at 8:00AM

Spacetime Studios CEO offers insight into lessons learned as his team built an ambitious MMO

Spacetime Studios came into existence in 2005. Our charter was to create a large-scale, science fiction MMO called Blackstar. We had built and run MMOs together before, most recently Star Wars: Galaxies, but this was the first company we had started on our own.

Blackstar was a very ambitious from the start. The goal was to have a projectile-based ground and space-flight shooter where combat could occur between the two avatar-types and environments. The game needed to scale to very large populations and run on low-end machines. To top it all off, the bar for the visual direction was through the roof. Bottom line, it had to play and look great.

The team had all worked on live titles before – when a MMO is running 24/7 – and gotten the panicked call at 3:30am that all-clusters-are-down-and-we-are-losing-money-and-we-need-to-get-things-back-online-now! We had all experienced the challenge of updating content and potentially causing drastic and unintended side effects. We had all crunched on projects because someone did not plan properly and maybe throwing bodies at the problem would solve it. This time we vowed to do it differently.

ENGINES ON

A fundamental business strategy of ours was to build and own our technology. Our designers and artists came up with an extensive list of toolsets and workflow requirements, and our engineers coded an extremely powerful client-server architecture and editor. We created a way to mass-produce very sophisticated content in a stable production environment. We called it the Spacetime Engine.

Blackstar went through pre-production without a hitch. We instituted a no-crunch policy and stuck by it. The Spacetime Engine performed flawlessly, handling everything we threw at it and more.

In spite of this, our original publisher, who just shipped two projects that performed poorly, decided to mitigate their risk of North American development and cancelled Blackstar. We parted on good terms but we were completely devastated.

We believed in Blackstar and our team. Instead of laying everyone off, we shopped it around to just about every publisher on the planet, and the result was always the same. The game was beautiful, and it sure looked fun, but what really got their attention was the way that we did things and the engine we had built. As the dust slowly settled, we realised that we had a lot of potential value in our skills and our technology.

FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION

One day, as the partners were driving to the airport to pitch yet-another-game, we realised we were all playing on our iPhones, by ourselves. Why couldn’t we be playing together? No one had done it before, but that did not mean that it could not be done.

The devices were powerful enough. They were all connected. People were used to conducting micro-transactions. We perceived these three factors as a perfect storm in the making, and that single moment planted the seed that grew into Pocket Legends.

We were unsure of the logistics of iPhone development, so we formed a research and development division called ClockRocket Games. We rapidly created seven games to explore the development and publishing pipelines, producing such critically acclaimed classics as Shotgun Granny, Zombie Weatherman, Dreadmill and Deadshot.

The ClockRocket suite of games explored several core aspects of our technology and development processes. Within a couple of months we determined that the fundamental systems from our engine worked on the iPhone. We could use our tools and pipelines to build and operate games on mobile devices. We had started to convince ourselves that we had the means to do something that no one else had done before. We had a strong belief that a 3D mobile MMO was the next killer app, and we decided that we were all in.

Development went quick because of the tools and techniques that we had available to us at the time. Inside of just a month we had a very fun little multiplayer action game to play. Two months into the project we had enough of a prototype to open it up to a small user-base.

We were excited to get wind of the iPad in month four. Pocket Legends looked good on the phone but a lot of graphical sacrifices were made to play at that resolution. The iPad development kit was very similar to the iPhone, and we immediately ported the game to the larger device. Pocket Legends really blossomed on the bigger screen. It looked amazing and played like a dream. We wrapped up the core features, held our breaths and hoped for the best.

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED

Pocket Legends was released alongside the iPad on April 3rd, 2010. A version for the rest of the iOS devices launched the next week. Since then, we have updated the content dozens of times, adding hundreds of hours of gameplay. We have had four client updates, adding major features including open-world navigation, leaderboards, character customisations, quests, PvP, secure trade, friends, gifting, and trial accounts. We have done all of this in four months thanks hugely to the amazing flexibility and power of the Spacetime Engine.
We feel our investment into Pocket Legends is a success.

We have a unique product on iOS, and we are currently porting it to Android and the PC. We are on our way to having a full-scale, 3D action MMO on multiple platforms where everyone plays together in a shared space.

Right now we are assessing where we are and what opportunities exist. We will continue to support, refine, and expand Pocket Legends. We may spin out multiple products and licence the engine. It is a very exciting time for us and we feel extremely fortunate to be here.