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Cinco Barnes Talks Mobile MMOs

By Michael Bitton on February 25, 2011 | Interviews | Comments

Cinco Barnes Talks Mobile MMOs

You’ll be speaking at GDC 2011 next week on bringing MMOs to the mobile space. Can you give us a preview of what you’ll be discussing?

Cinco Barnes:

Yeah, the nature of my talk out at GDC is gonna be about how we essentially adapted our favorite large scale pc game type for mobile devices. First for the iOS and then later for Android and I’ll be talking about some of the major design challenges that we ran into, dealing with crushing something of large scale down to something that’s ultimately pretty small and portable, and some of the stuff we’ve discovered, A. about how MMO audiences are really the same whether they’re playing on PC or whether they’re playing on mobile in some ways. And then some of the key differences, some really key differences about how to approach this that we found after developing Pocket Legends that may not be obvious to folks who are just starting down the path of building multiplayer content on the new mobile devices, so that’s sort of the high level, I guess.

Why do you feel now is the right time for developers to get into the mobile MMO space?

Cinco Barnes:

Well, it was the right thing for us at Spacetime Studios because back in 2005 we sort of started down the road of making a really large scale PC MMO, but as things went for us we weren’t going to be able to continue, and it seemed like kind of a waste of a bunch of folks who love MMOs and have the technology to build MMOs. We had spent a little bit of time developing some games for the iPhone, which we fell in love with right around 2009 and had some development bandwidth to play around with it. One of our chief technologists, Rick Delashmit, who was lead programmer of Ultima Online and was one of the chief technology guys behind Star Wars Galaxies, it was his idea originally to say, “Hey, why don’t we take what we can do, take our stuff and make a mobile MMO.” And sort of from there, the speed really caught on with us, and we love it, it makes a lot of sense. Very powerful devices, all connected to the internet, we’re able to do real time social gameplay, I don’t know, the doors just seemed to open once we headed down the path of making the game.

Spacetime Studios are of course the developers behind the mobile MMO Pocket Legends. What challenges, both technical and in design, did you face when bringing the MMO experience to mobile users?

Cinco Barnes:

Well, I think the number one thing was for us to sit back and assess what it is that fundamentally makes an MMO. I mean, being someone like yourself who is obviously so close to the MMO community, I’m sure if you were to pull a random person, they’ll have a random feature at the top of their list that is going to define what the MMO experience is for them. For us, really, the number one challenge was to step back for enough so that we could see a core nugget of gameplay that we could build on. Plus, we’re also a studio that didn’t invest like hundreds of millions of dollars in a game that had to succeed, we launched a game fully aware that MMOs grow, and so we just wanted to put out something that was super solid and really fun, that over time would grow with an active community. That turned out to work really well, a lot better, in my experience, than putting a whole lot of effort into a game that is supposed to be perfectly complete when it launches, ‘cause that’s significantly harder to do than what we do with Pocket Legends.

What lessons have you and your team learned in developing Pocket Legends and how do you intend to apply them to the continued development of Pocket Legends as well as any future projects in the mobile MMO space?

Cinco Barnes:

Well we are working on some new mobile MMO content and new games that will be coming out, I’ll be showing some cool stuff from our new game that’s coming out. And some of the big lessons I think we learned were to A. we were right to keep it simple, and to put out something that we could grow, that was dead on. But some of the things on the other side, we underestimated just how intense and ravenous an MMO player can really get. We know how obsessive we get when we’re into a game and how the hours turn into days, and how we get so deeply involved with the lore and the progress with our quests. And I think we as a design team, as developers, really kind of underestimated how the mobile audiences are going to adopt that MMO style of play, and really demand deep, long gameplay.

Keep a casual surface, where you can continue to advance, where you can continue to get cool adventures and find cool stuff like that, but there still has to be this deeper, even harder core that goes along with it, that dedicated fans can bite into it deeply just as they would other comparably larger products on the PC. So, that was a really interesting lesson, and MMO players like a good game. Even if we give them a small one, they’ll stick with it and demand that it gets bigger over time.

Mobile gaming is generally considered to be a casual, bite-sized affair, and so there are undoubtedly some people who are skeptical about the idea of MMOs on their smartphones. What would you say to those skeptics?

Cinco Barnes:

: I say, don’t sweat it, we’re cool. I was there when Star Wars Galaxies, when Guild Wars came out, and I was around a lot of very articulate and deep thinking people who said that an instanced based game can’t be an MMO. Of course, I’m talking about some old school folks who made some original open-world games, and I don’t know if that attitude is really correct, because ultimately I think my experience in MMOs is really defined by my friends. And when we really get into a game, whether it’s the very extensive real-world sort of travel mechanisms of going all the way across the galaxy in something like EVE Online, or popping into an instance for a bit of quick fun in something like Guild Wars, it all sort of comes down to the fact I’m experiencing this with some of the closest people in my life. And we feel like in Pocket Legends the mechanics of the gameplay and the specifics of the game are in and of themselves really just there to foster a really good relationship between people, and I think saying that you have to have a particular list of features in order for it to be considered an MMO on a sort of a dogma basis, I think that’s a little bit limiting, and that’s probably not a concept that a developer who wants to do really good business is going to be thinking.

We’re going to be looking at mobile as an opportunity to introduce what we know to be a really cool style of gameplay, as opposed to asking the mobile community, “Hey, you guys want to play a really extremely deep game that gets you involved with relationships with other people?” They might not know. We love it, and so bringing it to the mobile market means that we spark that interest among the Angry Birds crowd and among the Ragdoll Blasters of the world. And now we’re hearing from a lot of people that Pocket Legends is the first multiplayer cooperative experience that they’ve really ever had, and to see the contrast when they feedback to us, the differences between Pocket Legends’ casual accessibility and the difficulty of some of the PC MMOs that are out there on the market, the one consistent factor is they can still play with people that they care about, and that to me, that’s the MMO.

Finally, where do you see the mobile MMO space in five years?

Cinco Barnes:

I think it’s an excellent question. I think from my perspective I really really earnestly believe that deep but casual multiplayer experiences like the Pocket Legends MMO and other MMOs that Spacetime will be developing, this is obviously going to be considered the first tier, and then beyond, what we expect is much more deeper and richer game mechanisms, game mechanisms that probably reach out in a social fashion, in a physical fashion, in ways that the PC really just simply cannot.

You have to realize that in order for mobile games to be effective they need to do things differently and in some cases better when they can when compared to the really awesome experiences you have by default on say a PlayStation or an XBOX or your PC. And so my expectation is that things on mobile will continue to challenge what you conceive of as an MMO, and it’s gonna do it in some pretty interesting fashions, because these products that survive will survive because they pull it off, because they do something you are not experiencing in World of Warcraft, or they pull off something that you wouldn’t expect in a game like Rift, or in a game like DCU, all of them great games, but the mobile stuff is still going to have to do some different stuff in order to be noticed and in order to be successful.

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined as the site's Community Manager.
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