Over the last week, I had the opportunity to talk to Spacetime Studios, the people behind some of the most popular if not the most popular MMOs on the mobile platform. (They were great, by the way. I don't think I've ever met any group that could pull off clustering around a speaker phone as well as those guys.) While the full content of that interview is going to have to remain a mystery for a while, one stuck out in that conversation:
"It's always good to be a big fish in a small pond."
Needless to say, that got me thinking.
For those unfamiliar with the Spacetime Studios, the company was founded in 2005 by a bunch of veteran MMO (are they ever fresh-faced teenagers anymore?) developers. After facing some hurdles in regards to the creation of a PC sci-fi MMO called Blackstar, the group eventually went on to make Pocket Legends. It worked. The game was a hit. From April 2010 to May 2011, Pocket Legends enjoyed an expansive 4 million downloads. And while everything can always be better, Spacetime Studios managed to carve a niche for themselves in a market framed by angry poultry and strange, jump-happy creatures.
Now here's the interesting question: How would their original idea have done?
If Blackstar, the name of their original IP, had come into fruition first, would it have enjoyed a similar amount of popularity? Like it or not, the MMO market is oversaturated. Everyone is trying to be the next World of Warcraft, the next Guild Wars 2 - the billion dollar franchise with an enviable lifespan. Would a sci-fi MMO stand out? Maybe. But, then again, it's more than likely it'd fade into obscurity again, a brief novelty that will hold the lime light for but a moment before attention is turned to the next, shiny thing. We've seen a lot of MMOs with good ideas come and go over the last few years, all of which beholden to its audience's not-quite-expansive attention span. And as much as I advocate the indie spirit, it's hard for me to imagine an indie MMO capable of standing up to these big dogs. After all, if even the wolves can't find enough to eat, what's going to happen to the allegorical Shih-Tzu puppy?
That said, maybe that's something that indie MMOs need to remember. Instead of attempting to fit within a popular niche or to capitalize on the latest trend, maybe they need to find a space where they can properly belong. Pocket Legends is a free-to-play experience, one that requires no significant investment. Don't like it? Move on. Miss it? Return. Feel like purchasing a few extra goodies? Do so, and do it at their own pace. It's a refrain that mobile gamers enjoy. In an environment populated by dollar deals and casual experiences, few have time for what passes as overpriced (You know you've done it too. You know you've complained about a $15 game on the iOS) in the market. There's also the fact that it's one of the rare MMOs available for the iOS and the Android, one that not only supports the idea of playing on the go but also the concept of cross-platform interaction. Once again, what we're looking at is a need fulfilled.
In order to get anywhere, indie MMOs may have to find a way to exist as a big fish in a small pond. Screw being yet another sandbox MMO, make a revamped Asheron's Call. Forget pandas, give us castles that we can defend in wars. Intricate storylines? They're great, but environments that foster player stories might be better yet. It's a tall order, but, hey, dreams sometimes come true.
Read more of Cass's Independency columns from days gone by: