You’ve heard the story so many times that it’s hardly worth repeating: A few buddies get together to start a gaming company. They begin as a work-for-hire studio, land a big-budget deal, grow by 400 percent and then collapse when the deal falls apart. Enter anger, bitterness, regret and shame, and sprinkle in a dash of despair. The team dissolves, the dreams are dashed and that unique combination of talent and know-how swirls away like water down the bathtub drain. This heart-breaking scenario has played out hundreds of times before. The great sea of game development is littered with the rotting hulks of sunken teams.
Boo-hoo. Epic failure is just part of the game of games. In fact, many will tell you that it’s an essential part. Any seasoned gaming vet will tell you that great studios sometimes do emerge from disaster to become something better than they might have been had they not suffered early adversity. Spacetime Studios, the makers of Arcane Legends, is just such a phoenix, having risen from the ashes of its own demise not just once, but twice in the span of four years.
Cinco Barnes, Jake Rodgers, Anthony Sommers, and Gary Gattis were the principal actors in this drama. They started Spacetime in 2005, jumpstarting the studio with a sweet deal from NCsoft to build a large-scale MMO. The four were close friends who shared a dream that many of us can relate to. They were just hoping to build a great game for someone else, and to eventually make enough in royalties to build their own IP. In the words of Gary Gattis, “This plan did not work.”
After staffing up to seventy-five people under the auspices of NCsoft, their funding was pulled and Spacetime was set adrift. Fortunately for them, they were able to retain the rights to the technology and the intellectual property so though they were cut loose, they were cut loose with a very high-powered MMO client/server technology in their pockets. But nobody likes a second-hand bride. They shopped the IP around to “everyone on the planet,” but no one wanted to take on an expensive, large-scale MMO that had already been cancelled. The Spacetime staff dwindled down to fifteen people and survived on work-for-hire gigs. In 2008, they signed another big deal that allowed them to scale back up, but that project was cancelled too and they were now reduced to six employees – the original founders plus two core developers.
It was looking bleak for Spacetime. Their cash reserves were dwindling. It was time for something new and bold. At that time, they were all riding in a van on their way back from yet another failed publisher meeting. The whole team was playing games on their iPhones when the spark hit: Why couldn’t they be playing together? They began to brainstorm. These devices were all connected, they were powerful enough to run serious software and people were used to making micro-transactions. Just because no one had done it before did not mean that it couldn’t be done. It was the perfect storm. Pocket Legends was born.
“We wanted a pick-up-and-play MMO,” says Gary Gattis. “Something that you could play in line at the movies, or in the dentist’s chair.” Production went on as planned for the first five months, but then Apple saw the game just before it shipped and thought it would be perfect for a mysterious “larger-screen device” they were working on. So Spacetime modified the game significantly to launch with the iPad debut on April 3rd, 2010. Pocket Legends became a hit.
“Our vision then was to build the world’s first 3D mobile MMO”, Gattis says. This particular plan did work, and it worked so well that Spacetime then launched three more highly touted MMOs – Star Legends, Dark Legends, and their most popular title to date: Arcane Legends. It’s a formula that so far seems to be working very well for a studio that suffered what Gattis calls the “soul-crushing” experience of having that first NCsoft game cancelled. “In retrospect, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us. Funny how life works sometimes.”
In addition to a penchant for coming back from the brink of death, one of the things that sets Spacetime apart from other studios is their approach to crunch time and office hours. They strive to eliminate the need for working long, grueling hours altogether. “Mandatory overtime is a blight on the game development industry,” Gattis says. “I can’t understand how it is still an acceptable practice. It is a fundamental management failure, a sign of over-promising, or under-planning, or poor development practices, or inefficient pipelines, or any number of things that the people that crunch are not responsible for.” It’s remarkable how Spacetime has managed to release hit after hit without the obligatory long hours. And it’s a formula that seems to be working. Gattis says, “Do your eight hours, and then go home. Spend time with the family. Relax. And come back tomorrow refreshed and at the top of your game.” According to Gattis, that’s a law the studio lives by.
Spacetime also seems to have figured out a crucial technology hurdle. The Spacetime Engine is a remarkable piece of technology. It was built for mass-production of content to be delivered continuously on a global scale. They have continued to build on it as the environment has evolved, so they now have a platform where iOS, Android, and desktop users can all play together, in the same server, all around the world. And they can play on extremely slow connections as well, so they are seeing deep penetration into foreign markets with high latency networks. It truly is play with anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Spacetime has pushed the mobile MMO envelope pretty much as far as it can be pushed, and is now working on something they feel will appeal to fans of RTS fans on mobile. With the success of the Legends games, they can finally afford to experiment a little and enjoy the fruits of their labor. When asked what one thing they’ve learned from all their near-death experiences, Gattis had this to say: “Once you are out of cash, you are dead. Manage your burn.”
You can bet that Spacetime Studios will do just that moving forward. Third chances are rare and fourths rarer still. But this is a studio that has been tempered by flame and has emerged wiser, humbler and more grateful. If they can hold onto to that, Spacetime will be around for long, long while.