While there is a perception that PC MMOs need some drastic changes to remain viable, some developers are moving their expertise to smaller screens to try their luck.
The MMO genre as it exists in the mobile space is still in its infancy, and just as all mobile developers are still feeling their way around the market, there are developers taking the plunge into mobile MMOs and coming out successful, despite their key differences in approach.
A PC Developer's Hybridized Approach
Pocket Legends is where it things really started, according to Spacetime Studios CEO Gary Gattis. The team has a long history with MMOs, with key staff having filled prominent roles on games like Star Wars Galaxies at Sony Online Entertainment.
After starting the studio, Gattis and crew started working with NCSoft on a sci-fi MMO codenamed Black Star -- however the failure of Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa changed the publisher's priorities, and the title was cut from its roster. Following this, Spacetime worked with Disney on an educational MMO that had a similar fate.
The team quickly realized that, despite the setbacks, it had a solid technological bed to develop MMOs on. Noting an absence of MMOs on the iOS market, the team quickly got to work on Pocket Legends, which expanded to encompass Android and browser via the Chrome Web Store.
"We paid for our tech with soul crushing disappointment, but what came out of it was this tech that does not exist anywhere else in the mobile world," says Gattis. "There's no licensable 3D MMO technology that has the type of server capabilities that we have in the mobile world, so when we took our product from PC to mobile, it was like taking the engine out of a Ferrari, putting it into a go kart, and going to the races."
Spacetime Studios didn't immediately jump in with both feet, however, instead testing the market and technology to learn important lessons about developing on mobile.
"We sold maybe 100 copies cumulatively of these things. It wasn't a profit play for us -- it was very much a loss leader to determine if we could do it," said Gattis. "We were mitigating the risks of building an MMO and looking at all the necessary things which we needed to do to build an MMO. One had skeletal animation, one updated content on the fly, one had leaderboards, and after we had about six smaller games we realized, 'We can do this. Let's go for it.'"
The Legends series initially began with a form of the free-to-play model -- there was a paywall at level 13. After further consultation with investors and research into industry trends, Spacetime made a full transition to the free-to-play with microtransactions model.
While Gattis was hesitant to detail specific player numbers, he did note that at the time of the interview, last month the studio averaged between 1.4 and 1.5 million play sessions per week across its three MMO titles -- the fantasy-themed Pocket Legends, horror Dark Legends, and sci-fi Star Legends.
Now, after three years in the market, Spacetime is working on its fourth MMO. The studio has grown to what Gattis refers to as a "42 piece jazz fusion odyssey orchestra of experimentation". Gattis currently aims for a six-month gap between new releases of the Legends games, with Arcane Legends soon to ship on mobile and desktop, via the Chrome Web Store, both.
Spacetime was initially wary that launching another Legends game could cannibalize the Pocket Legends audience, but decided to take the risk anyway, believing a solid portfolio would win out in the end. This risk paid off when Spacetime found its games had "almost parallel growth... There are people who prefer each game, and I think that's a genre thing, but there's a significant portion who play all or both games, and it actually did turn out to be a nice synchronous loft by having all games available," says Gattis.
This genre-focused release model also allows Spacetime Studios to regularly iterate on its games. Its practice now involves iterating on gameplay systems for newer titles, then rolling those changes back into older games where appropriate. Dedicated teams are also kept on each title to make sure there is enough content and updates to keep players engaged.
Gattis cites a Nielsen study indicating that while Android users and iOS users spend 9.3 and 14.7 hours respectively playing games per month, the average Legends player spends about 25 hours per month in-game. "We built it for these quick play sessions, but people were playing the shit out of it," Gattis says. "Players would plug their phones into their computers to maintain a charge, and play for hours and hours on end."
"They log in about five times a day for about three hours, and give us about $115 a quarter -- these are guys who have stayed with us since the beginning, and they're not outliers, they're a significant portion of our player base."
Part of keeping these players engaged is done thanks to Spacetime's ability to push updates quickly and regularly, Gattis says. Possibly most important to the studio's strategy is that it also pushes updates simultaneously to users on iOS, Android and via Google Chrome, he claims.
Now, says Gattis, he's set his sights on improving the company's business model, by bringing in new staff from other social game companies like Zynga to help better understand the processes of monetization and player retention.