Spacetime Studios chronicles the making of 3D iPhone, iPad MMO Pocket Legends

Online gaming gurus tell us the challenges in creating the first true portable MMO

Spacetime Studios chronicles the making of 3D iPhone, iPad MMO Pocket Legends
| Pocket Legends

Pocket Legends breaks open a genre on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad that has been the ambition for developers and gamers since the App Store first appeared.

Unlike the scores of menu-driven social networking games that have cropped up in recent months, the fully realised 3D world of Pocket Legends offers the real deal.

While any 3D MMO would be cause for interest, developer Spacetime Studios has crafted a game that does more than just throw up servers and statistics. Instead of simply aiming to launch an online game, the Austin-based team sought to deliver a compelling role-playing game that also happens to meet that elusive MMO goal.

Doing the improbable

Making the fantasy world of Pocket Legends a reality was an enormous undertaking, explains executive producer Gary Gattis. Having worked on MMOs in the past, he described years spent developing the game's core. "We're leveraging four years of technology including AI, animation, and more.

"The main thing we had to do was get over the fear of what could go wrong and push aside the notion that this was a bad idea."

Developing an MMO meant ignoring the common criticism that such a game couldn't be done on iPhone - much in the same way shooters were descried ahead of the release of Eliminate and N.O.V.A. "We started with what we could do - not what we couldn't."

For Gattis, that meant identifying what would work for a portable online game that differs from MMOs created specifically for PC.

"Breaking down the MMO to its essential parts was among the first things we did. Those things that weren't part of the core experience were cut at a very early stage. The approach was definitely different than a PC MMO."

Rethinking the interface

While the iPad version of Pocket Legends obviously has copious screen space, making a complex interface work on iPhone and iPod touch was one of the earliest challenges for art director Jake Rodgers.

"It was tough putting everything on the iPhone screen," he says. Only the most vital elements - health and magic gauges, currently equipped weapons, and inventory hot-keys - were included in the heads-up display to ensure that the screen wasn't cluttered with buttons and indicators.

Similarly, the social networking components have been streamlined to ensure ease of use and speed. The ephemeral nature of portable gaming meant Pocket Legends had to enable quick, hassle-free connections. "There's an in-game friends list that you can use to instantly join up with buddies," says creative director Cinco Barnes. "Facebook is in there too for sharing accomplishments and such."

Social interactions

Parties can be formed for dungeon crawls with a maximum of five players, while towns can hold upward of 25 at any given time. Future updates will introduce player-versus-player combat and guilds.

Beyond being social, the incentive to play with others is high. "You'll level up faster when playing with other people because you can take on tougher missions," explains Barnes.

"Of course, you can still play solo and do fine. The game dynamically scales the difficulty based on the number of players in your party, as well as level of each character. Combo abilities enable you to link individual attacks together."

He provides an example: "The enchantress's freeze ability can be linked with a hammer strike for big damage." Since each character class has access to an array of unique skills and weapons, the combinations are many.

Getting to the core

Associate art director Jason Decker points out that this variety also guarantees personalisation of your character - one of the biggest components of any MMO. "Our fundamental goal has been to provide deep gameplay that allows you to customise your character, unlock abilities, and acquire cool items. Like any role-playing game whether online or off, it's really about developing your character."

Decker is right to identify character development as central to the experience. Moreover, it's what ultimately defines any role-playing game. Pocket Legends might draw attention for its ambitious massively multiplayer design, but the strength of its gameplay will determine whether you keep coming back for more. And from the looks of it, you're sure to come back often.

Pocket Legends is available for iPad for free, with the iPhone and iPod touch version expected soon.