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Justin Webb: iMMO

Column By Justin Webb on April 13, 2010

It's always interesting to take a look at something new. We're still painfully going through the (hopefully) last iteration of AAA WoW clones. However, there are many developers out there working on new cool stuff (some announced, some not). Developers who have learned the lessons of those who tried to "out-WoW" WoW. Developers who are trying to innovate in the online space by sidestepping WoW and taking the road less travelled. I took at look at what EA is doing with the Unity engine a couple of weeks ago, and pondered what the online space will soon look like now that that new tech is out there. This week, instead of playing a new PC game, I rolled the dice on iTunes.

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At this point, is there anything that the iPhone can't do?

Until last week, you could have answered "MMOs" to that question. However, on the same day as the launch of Apple's new device (the iPad), Spacetime Studios released a spiffy free-to-play game that remedies that problem. That game is Pocket Legends.

Spacetime Studios has an impressive pedigree. Formed by four ex-SOE employees, the studio worked previously on an unreleased sci-fi MMO for NCsoft before turning their attention to Apple's iSuite of mobile devices - Pocket Legends works on both the iPhone and iPad.

So, what's this new iMMO like?

Like most of the features in Pocket Legends, character creation is simple and simplistic. After downloading and installing the app, players choose between one of three classes: the bear warrior; the eagle archer; or the feline enchantress. There's no avatar customization - that's done purely through itemization - and there's no initial stat points to assign (but you do get 5 points to spend every time you level): Just pick a name and off you go.

The control scheme is also very straightforward. A virtual joystick (controlled by the player's left thumb) moves your avatar around. Abilities - you can only have four equipped at a time - are slotted along the right-hand side of the screen (within easy reach of the player's right thumb) above the auto-attack button. The camera can be rotated by dragging a finger across the screen (which can be tricky if you are currently using both thumbs), while the view can be zoomed in and out by "pinching" or "reverse pinching" anywhere on the screen. Players also have health, mana, and XP bars. Health and mana can be replenished with red or blue potions (Diablo style), and also regenerate over time.

 

Combat is mostly targetless. Clicking on the big "AUTO" button on the bottom right of the screen will enagage the closest monster with your auto-attack. Heals, buffs, and multi-target abilities are radial, and affect anyone/thing within a certain range of the player when activated, while direct-damage abilities "target" the monster you are currently auto-attacking. You get new abilities every few levels, and an ability skill-up point whenever you ding, which can be used to level-up one of your existing abilities. The game caps out at level 25.

Getting into a game is trivial. Pocket Legends comes with one epic quest (the undead-themed Forest Haven), which consists of about 15 or so monster-infested levels. Each level is instanced, and is automatically completed by killing all the monsters in it. Some levels have bosses. At any time, other players (up to a maximum of five) can "join" your game (without you having to invite them), which makes progress much easier. Even if you start a game on your own, it soon fills up with other players. No more LFG! Monsters drop gold and class-based loot, which can be sold at any time -- the store, as well as all the other menu-based features (such as stat and ability management), is reachable even while on the main quest.

Players can talk "at" each other, but very rarely do - there's little need to organize group strategy as the game is quite easy (especially when you are grouped up), and plays more like an action console game than an MMO. To further aid in communication, there is also a fairly robust menu-driven visual-emote system which is expandable. But overall, there's not many social options to explore. The art style is cute and kiddy friendly, reminiscent of an old N64 platformer.

And that's about it. While Pocket Legends is definitely light on features, it is a LOT of fun ... at least for the first hour.

Once you hit level 10 (which takes less than an hour), the XP progression ramps up geometrically. This means that you'll end up playing the Forest Haven quest line a lot, unless you are willing to drop a couple of dollars for more content. As a free-to-buy and a free-to-play game, there's a few ways to spend some actual cash in the game. However, the real-money store curiously contains only a few things: two extra quests lines; a couple of emote packages; in-game gold; an extra character slot (you only get two to start with); and a character respec.

Many people are going to find the combination of not-enough free content and an extremely steep XP curve very difficult to swallow. (For the record, I didn't buy anything from the cash store, so my assumptions regarding the pay-to-play content are pure speculation.) I'm a firm advocate of using real-money items to speed up progression, but not to unlock it. I'd much rather see consumable items that increase the amount of XP you earn, for example. However, I'm sure there are lots of players who won't begrudge Spacetime Studios the $2 for a new quest line. Whatever rubs your Buddha.

Overall the game is a very slick piece of tech and an absolute blast to play. I have enjoyed the two hours I've invested into it immensely. Pocket Legends won't replace your PC MMO of choice, but it is a fun distraction - something to do when you're not playing WoW, for example. The interesting thing about Pocket Legends though is that it exists in the first place. Although extremely simple, it IS an MMO, albeit a cute and fuzzy one. In the highly competitive iPhone game space, it's extremely important to be "first to market", and Pocket Legends is arguably the first "iMMO". Whether many players will be willing to pay once the novelty of the first hour has worn off is yet to be seen. However, the fact that an MMO exists on Apple's platform at all is (in itself) exciting, and (when considered along with some other recent developments) a further sign that some developers are pushing online play in some cool new directions.

What is especially exciting is to consider what will happen next. Recent releases have shown that you don't need to have a honking-fast gaming rig to play quality games in the online space. And that startling innovation can come from the most unexpected of places. We now have high-quality streaming browser games and real mobile-platform MMOs. What's next? Who's going to take the next step?

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