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Set Phasers to Yelling

After leaving BioWare, Henry Smith didn't expect his tiny iOS experiment, Spaceteam, to blow up. It's also not making him any money, but he doesn't care.

A few matches into the storm of verbal chaos that is Spaceteam, and one starts to feel guilty. No one should be having this much fun for free. That’s not how this is supposed to work, right?

Ah, yes, no mistakes have happened yet.

We can debate the unintended consequences of the race to the bottom pricing on the App Store and elsewhere, but it’s undeniably a huge part of why Henry Smith’s experimental iOS game became such a viral success. It’s definitely how I convinced seven people to download Spacteam on New Years Eve without handing out dollar bills as collateral.

It’s hard to argue with free.

Spaceteam only takes a few seconds to grasp. It’s a group effort, and each has an assignment. These tasks, which include anything from flipping a switch to turning a dial, are displayed on a barely-held-together control panel on your iOS device, be it an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. The task on your screen, however, can only be executed on someone else’s screen, so the trick is explaining the concept to the group, and waiting for someone to recognize it on their screen. You have a limited amount of time to pull off the task before the ship takes damage, and if your ship takes enough hits, it’s game over. Complete enough of 'em, and you’re given a brief reprieve, but when you return, you must do it faster.

Part of Spaceteam’s charm is the complete nonsense that’s spewing from your mouth the whole time.

“Increase Coarse Twine to 2.”

“Engage Stringorb.”

“Flood Synchronous Z-loop.”

And that's before you get into the damn symbols.

“I wanted to make a game that felt like a board game, that was more social,” said Smith. “But not social like what people call ‘social’ games these days. I wanted something where you sit around with your friends and play it.”

There is no singleplayer component to Spaceteam, but Spaceteam’s genius is easily it converting friends and family. You don’t have to be into “games” to enjoy Spaceteam, you just have to enjoy screaming at other people. That's universal.

Spaceteam is Smith’s debut on the App Store, though it wasn’t supposed to be that way. He had bigger ambitions for his exploration of Apple’s touch devices, but he wanted his first project out quickly.

Smith left BioWare five months ago, after seven years at the studio. He was a programmer on Dragon Age: Origins (which was originally announced way back in 2004!) and Mass Effect 3 while at BioWare. Due to the acquisition by Electronic Arts, he briefly worked on Dead Space 2 in-between projects, as well.

...and this is when it's gone horribly wrong.

Smith had been playing with side projects much of his life.

“None of them are particularly successful and many of them didn’t become anything, but I always had an urge to do that kind of stuff,” he said “I was working on side projects at BioWare before they got bought by EA, just in my spare time--when I did have free time. [laughs]”

The process was important to him, and he felt the itch to make a bigger go at it. Unfortunately, when EA bought BioWare in 2007, it came with new policies regarding employee games.

“It was harder to work on indie projects on the side,” he said.

He investigated the idea of taking a leave of absence from BioWare, but it didn’t work out. BioWare did, however, offer sabbaticals for longterm employees. Combined with his girlfriend’s blessing, vacation time, and a savings account, this gave Smith a chance to strike out on his own.

But again, Space Team wasn’t priority one. It wasn’t even an idea yet, as Smith realized his original plan would require some real-world experience with Apple’s platforms first.

Smith had long become infatuated with Die Gute Fabrik’s Move-powered Johann Sebastian Joust, a love affair started when creator Doug Wilson came through Montreal. The game stuck with him. As he mulled Johann Sebastian Joust and his love for board games, Spaceteam came together conceptually.

The version you can play now went through several iterations, and was originally much more complicated. An early version had everyone’s instructions on every screen at once, and losing wasn't rooted in taking too long. Instead, the ship would explode if too many instructions were entered incorrectly. Smith observed people would become stuck on an instruction, and start getting bored.

Since the game was being made entirely by Smith, he no longer had access to the massive resources of a BioWare or Electronic Arts, entities that can spend tens of thousands on focus testing a game to learn their likes and dislikes. Smith invited friends and family to his apartment for a potluck. He figured the game might be onto something when those people started coming back to subsequent playtests.

There is a moment in every Spaceteam game where someone hangs their head in disbelief, and realizes they’ll be forced to utter a completely ridiculous phrase. (This happens in every game of Cards Against Humanity, too.) Coming up with this technobabble was some of the most fun Smith had making Spaceteam. You might not be surprised to learn that Smith has watched a lot of Star Trek in his life.

Part of the reason the phrases seem so random is because...they are. There are some preset phrases (i.e. Entertain Dignitaries, Feed Livestock), but much of it’s determined by the game on the fly. There are roughly 800 word segments separated into 10 different lists that are combined in the background, and as the game goes on, it’s choosing longer words and more complicated phrases.

(I don’t think my friends and I managed to make it past round 11 or 12?)

Spaceteam was supposed to a one-month project, but it took Smith, a self-described perfectionist, three months before he was satisfied. During those extra months, Smith added the “upgrades” that are the only way for people to give any money for the game--a virtual tip jar, as we came to call it.

Another set of upgrades went live in an update for Spaceteam this week, but nothing else is planned.

When the game did launch, there was silence for two days, and then an article on The Penny Arcade Report. The game took off from there, and the success has completely surprised Smith.

With the unexpected success, it wouldn’t be shocking to learn he regrets making Spaceteam free for everyone, but that’s not the case at all.

“I don’t regret it at all,” he said. “It was pretty essential to keep it free. I was never intending to make money from it. It was just going to get my name out there, and I didn’t know if it was going to be successful, but it would at least be something to say ‘this is my game, I did this already, now check out my next game!’ Also, if I charged a dollar for it, it would not spread nearly as far. You would have to convince your friend--or three of your friends--to all spend a dollar on it. If they didn’t immediately get that it was a multiplayer game, they might buy it, realize they couldn’t play it on their own, and then have buyer’s remorse and give it a low rating. So, no. I think it was really important that it was free.”

“I noticed in some people in the reviews and comments say ‘Get it before he jacks up the price!’ because they assume it’s going to inevitably get more expensive. But keeping it free is a really good idea. It ensures goodwill, and I was never trying to make money off this one.”

This attitude has maintained as Spaceteam continues to find new players, and cynicism about the game’s pricing has found its way into the reviews on the App Store.

“I noticed in some people in the reviews and comments say ‘Get it before he jacks up the price!’” he said, “because they assume it’s going to inevitably get more expensive. But keeping it free is a really good idea. It ensures goodwill, and I was never trying to make money off this one.”

As of January 22, the game had been downloaded 100,000 times, there were 4,000 in-app purchases, and Smith had made roughly $3,000 from the experiment so far.

If Spaceteam did jack up the price after launch, it wouldn’t be the first. It won't, but that comes with consequences, which include Smith having to move on from working on it. If Spaceteam's not making any money, it’s also not pushing him towards financial independence. He is, however, investigating a possible Android port, which has been one of the most vocally requested features from fans.

As for what’s next, it’s also in the realm of science fiction, but it won’t involve screaming. Smith’s interested in building a space exploration game with a huge focus on ship building. Smith was inspired by a board game called Galaxy Trucker, in which players try to build a ship out of junk parts and keep it going as long as possible. It sounds like Smith’s next game may be along those lines.

Of course, it might not be a success like Spaceteam was. If that’s the case, Smith is okay with returning to BioWare or another big-time game developer. If that happens, he has some new expectations.

“I’ve learned a lot from doing this,” he said, “and even if I get another industry job, I’ll try to get it into my contract that I can work on indie stuff on the side. I’m always going to have new ideas and things I’m going to want to experiment with, and I think that’s really important to have.”

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Edited by TimeStreamer

I hope that Android port becomes a reality.

Edited by JaredA

@timestreamer said:

I hope that Android port becomes a reality.

That would be amazing. I know way more people with Android phones than I do people with iOS devices.

Edited by Focks_MacLeod

Patrick, you put 'Harvey' instead of 'Henry' in your subtitle.

Posted by conmulligan

Smith’s interested in building a space exploration game with a huge focus on ship building

Now we're talking.

Edited by patrickklepek

Swapped that typo, thanks guys!

Edited by Gibbous

"Smith’s interested in building a space exploration game with a huge focus on ship building. Smith was inspired by a board game called Galaxy Trucker, in which players try to build a ship out of junk parts and keep it going as long as possible. It sounds like Smith’s next game may be along those lines."

Actually, Spaceteam sounds similar to Space Alert, by the same game designer who did Galaxy Trucker, Vlaada Chvatil.

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/06/11/not-cardboard-children-space-alert/

Or at least a round of Space Alert is nothing but 10 minutes of shouting at each other. Once you get the hang of the concept it's probably the most active and fun boardgame I've ever played.

Edited by Amafi

It's incredible to me that any developer would restrict what employees develop on their free time. I would have thought more people would have learned from Google and their focus on personal projects. It's not only motivating but it makes for better programmers.

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Posted by Xevabis

@patrickklepek: 4th to last paragraph, you have pushimg instead of pushing.

Posted by stevethomp

Seeing a shout out to Galaxy Trucker (an absolutely amazing and hilarious board game) on giantbomb was bliss.

Edited by GLRockwell

'There is a moment in every Spaceteam game where someone hands* their head in disbelief, and realizes they’ll be forced to utter a completely ridiculous phrase.'

Did you mean 'hangs'?

Great article otherwise though

Edited by Shivoa

@amafi: Some are worried about ownership and separation of work done for the studio and personal work. If your artist has a work copy of Maya at home so they can work outside of the office but it is the company copy then do they need to buy a personal copy for thousands of pounds before they can use it for personal use? Is that inappropriate use of work equipment or even violating the contract of purchase for the software? There are several issues along these lines (along with trade secrets issues) which often make it easier to simply assert ownership of anything created during the time of employment in the field in which the person is employed. When part of what you're paying for is the thoughts of a person then dividing work and independent time gets murky and the industry is well known for trying to get 80+ hours a week from people to work.

I'm slightly concerned that the article seems to point to this being weird or unusual (despite being monetised, the stream seems to not bring in many sales and not the focus of the product) considering the rich history of free games. Is this the real legacy that app stores will provide? That everyone is expected to monetise their creation, to see what the market will offer for their work due to the very easy publishing model with various revenue streams from simply advert APIs to in-app purchase and 99 cent sticker prices?

Are kids raised to expect a store overloaded with everyone trying to be the one success for 99 cents a purchase to make something which many can offer and build so easily as to flood the market going to expect this? Are they going to look at the app repos from years before they were monetised (when it was all making best use of shared libs and building dependency chains for Linux and had no monetisation and even some copyleft areas that prevent future monetisation of anything on the top of the dependency chain) and wonder why all this free code was given away? This free code that has been turned around and is now underpinning the modern mobile apps (many of which are selling an API call to an underlying function which may well be using a lot of that free open source code to do the heavy lifting).

Edited by FrankieViturello

@patrickklepek your assessment that the commands are ALWAYS on other people's terminals is incorrect. In fact, that's one of the great components of gameplay in SpaceTeam - when you find yourself screaming for people to "Caramelize The Onions!" or "Defribulate the Flange Falve!" only to realize that those controls are on your own screen.

No matter how often I play SpaceTeam I find myself continuing to have those "DAMN!" moments where I look to the corner of my own control panel and find that what I'm desperately trying to get somebody else to do was my task all along!

Also, hope you're feeling better!

Posted by GrantHeaslip

A few questionable sentences that jumped out at me:

  • “A few matches into the storm of verbal chaos that is Spaceteam, and one starts to feel guilty.”
  • “It’s a group effort, and each person has an assignment.”
  • “As of January 22, the game had been downloaded 100,000 times, there were 4,000 in-app purchases, and Smith had made roughly $3,000 from the experiment so far.”
  • “If Spaceteam Smith did jack up the price after launch, it wouldn’t be the first.”
Posted by iainfarrell

Spaceteam is glorious fun and I'm delighted to read that the creator seems to be such a thoroughly good egg :)

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Posted by mrsmiley

I have bought, and will continue buying, every "extra" that he includes with this game. I want to support this game because it's absolutely fantastic. The new 8-player mode he added (also for free) is amazing! Played with 7 players the other night and it was crazy!

Posted by Duncecap

Dearly hope this finally makes an appearance on android. Refreshing to see a "social" game that doesn't imply that social = facebook/twitter integration.

Edited by bvilleneuve

It's super terrible that EA prevents people from working on personal projects on their own time. It's unnecessarily restrictive.

Posted by DeathByWaffle

Somehow missed the Quick Look of this back in December, this game looks really cool!

Posted by pupismyname

My girlfriend hated Spaceteam instantly, but I love it and recommend it to people as often as I can. Glad to hear it's doing well. Looking forward to more updates if the developer can spare the time.

Edited by JayEH

really like these articles, keep them coming!

Edit: Yeah, its not uncommon for developers to be forbidden from making games for profit I believe. I know Notch said he could only make games that were free while he worked at his previous employer.

Posted by Sweetz

@jareda said:

@timestreamer said:

I hope that Android port becomes a reality.

That would be amazing. I know way more people with Android phones than I do people with iOS devices.

Same here. All of my friends but one are now using Android phones (and myself as well) - mainly due to screen size and price. I've wanted to play SpaceTeam since the Giant Bomb video, and was really hoping for an Android port.

My concern about this happening is that I don't know how good the Android tools are for making ad-hoc wireless networks (what I presume Spaceteam does to communicate between devices). I haven't seen a lot of stuff (or actually any, but I'm sure it must exist) on Android that does direct peer-to-peer communication between devices.

Posted by Allison

@bvilleneuve: This is more a problem with the video game industry total and less of just EA.

You are expected to work 9-5 every day of the week on THIS ONE video game, and typically working overtime every single day as well. Video game colleges coach you in the ways of working at "crunch time" while you're taking courses so that you're conditioned to this well into working for a company to produce a video game. There's a reason that so many people burn out in their 30's and have to retrain themselves in something far more sustainable.

Independent work? Not so much unless you either teach yourself, or work with programs people have already made.

I guess this is more a rant on how making video games is a glorified factory job.

Posted by Truitt

Thanks Patrick. As someone who played both Spaceteam and Joust on New Years Eve, and as an owner of Galaxy Trucker and other ridiculous board games, this article could not have hit my sweet spot more.

Posted by Gaff

@shivoa: You may be reading a bit much into it? If I remember correctly, Patrick has stated multiple times that Henry Smith, or any developer for that matter (indie or not), deserves to be compensated for the work he put in it and for the fun he has provided Patrick.

On the other hand, other, less scrupulous developers have raised prices when their games have become popular.

And yes, @patrickklepek, that means I'm on to your agenda: campaigning for indie developers by highlighting their games and urging people to pay for them! Keep your politics away from GB!

Posted by HeavyDuty32

I love Galaxy Trucker! Building the ships is great, even when you realize you've left open ports on all directions and forgot to put in batteries to power your double lasers and space pirates BLOW YOU AWAY! Ah, good times.

Posted by MrMazz

Man here I was hoping this was going to be about a new Star Trek Game =( O well this is better

Posted by teh_destroyer

Poor Harvey Dent.

Posted by mnzy

That one line about EA and how it changed his job at BioWare tells you so man things.

Posted by Little_Socrates

Made for a great New Year's Eve party favor. Super-fun.

Posted by Humanity

This is a fun read but I'd really enjoy more articles with developers of bigger games like Ken Levine for example. I don't know if GB or Patrick don't have enough pull for those sort of segments or if its just not his style. While these are some interesting reads I would enjoy a break from all this indy stuff for a while and maybe flip the script, getting some big name interviews in here. Or something akin to that Spec Ops spoilercast - there's nothing more fascinating to me than inside baseball talk with developers.

Posted by Qwell

Just wanted to give a +1 for an android port please. Only my parents use IOS all the rest of my friends and family are on android and I've been wanting to try this ever since I heard about it.

Edited by Bollard

@patrickklepek said:

Swapped that typo, thanks guys!

Also this:

“I don’t regret it at all,” he said. “It was pretty essentially to keep it free."

Not sure if your fault, or sic.

Also also, neat article, thanks. Interesting to hear from a guy who has worked on triple A going to the indie side.

Posted by FiestaUnicorn

Spaceteam now allows up to 8 players. I haven't tried it yet because that number of people scare me.

Posted by Grilledcheez

"You don’t have to be into “games” to enjoy Spaceteam, you just have to enjoy screaming at other people. That's universal." - True dat haha. This game is one of the few reasons I would want an ios device.

Posted by machinerebel

Ah yes, I definitely want an Android version! My house is split 50/50 iphone/Android but I would love it if we could all play.

Posted by bvilleneuve

@allison said:

@bvilleneuve: This is more a problem with the video game industry total and less of just EA.

You are expected to work 9-5 every day of the week on THIS ONE video game, and typically working overtime every single day as well. Video game colleges coach you in the ways of working at "crunch time" while you're taking courses so that you're conditioned to this well into working for a company to produce a video game. There's a reason that so many people burn out in their 30's and have to retrain themselves in something far more sustainable.

Independent work? Not so much unless you either teach yourself, or work with programs people have already made.

I guess this is more a rant on how making video games is a glorified factory job.

You're right, I shouldn't have singled out EA. The problem of fucked up working conditions is something that most of the big video game industry is accountable for.

Posted by ThePaleKing

I would love to see you guys try out Artemis.

Posted by Y2Ken

Interesting to hear from him, Spaceteam is a really cool idea; and one which works so well because it's free, meaning convincing friends to try it is simple.

Thanks for posting this, Patrick.

Posted by forteexe21

Awesome game, lost my voice multiple times. Always die cause of the mistranslation problem.

Posted by smcn

@bvilleneuve said:

@allison said:

@bvilleneuve: This is more a problem with the video game industry total and less of just EA.

You are expected to work 9-5 every day of the week on THIS ONE video game, and typically working overtime every single day as well. Video game colleges coach you in the ways of working at "crunch time" while you're taking courses so that you're conditioned to this well into working for a company to produce a video game. There's a reason that so many people burn out in their 30's and have to retrain themselves in something far more sustainable.

Independent work? Not so much unless you either teach yourself, or work with programs people have already made.

I guess this is more a rant on how making video games is a glorified factory job.

You're right, I shouldn't have singled out EA. The problem of fucked up working conditions is something that most of the big video game industry is accountable for.

Is it any different for other entertainment industries? Life of Pi grossed $583 million and was nominated for best visual effects, yet Rhythm & Hues Studios had to file for bankruptcy.

Behind the scenes people get zero respect in entertainment, and video games are 99% behind the scenes people.

Posted by OriginalYellow

@thepaleking: That game seemed so horribly impenetrable the two times ive played it with a few friends.

On another note, this reminds me i need to add to that tip jar.

Edited by bvilleneuve

@smcn said:

@bvilleneuve said:

@allison said:

@bvilleneuve: This is more a problem with the video game industry total and less of just EA.

You are expected to work 9-5 every day of the week on THIS ONE video game, and typically working overtime every single day as well. Video game colleges coach you in the ways of working at "crunch time" while you're taking courses so that you're conditioned to this well into working for a company to produce a video game. There's a reason that so many people burn out in their 30's and have to retrain themselves in something far more sustainable.

Independent work? Not so much unless you either teach yourself, or work with programs people have already made.

I guess this is more a rant on how making video games is a glorified factory job.

You're right, I shouldn't have singled out EA. The problem of fucked up working conditions is something that most of the big video game industry is accountable for.

Is it any different for other entertainment industries? Life of Pi grossed $583 million and was nominated for best visual effects, yet Rhythm & Hues Studios had to file for bankruptcy.

Behind the scenes people get zero respect in entertainment, and video games are 99% behind the scenes people.

I'm not even talking about respect, I'm talking about basic ethical employment practices, something that seems to have largely eluded the video game industry up to this point. Film actually passed through a comparable period decades ago, and things got way better creatively after the big studios lost their stranglehold and weren't able to control things as much anymore.

Posted by Xavis00

The instant I saw the quick look for this game, I checked the Google Play store and was sad to find it was iOS only... So I really hope he ports it to Android. And if there is some way to make it possible for Android and iOS users play together, that'd be even better!

Edited by bombedyermom

Can't wait till it's on android. This is the single thing that made me briefly wish I had an iphone.

Posted by MormonWarrior

Can't wait to try it out. It's too bad my friends and family all seem to lean more to Android than iOS so...I hope I can find people to play it with.

Posted by Noogy

This is a fascinating story, @patrickklepek. I've loved the term 'tip jar' in reference to the IAP in previous podcast, and applaud his decision to keep the game free. I sadly haven't had a chance to try Spaceteam yet (mainly because it's hard getting a group of iOS-owning friends together), but it's easily one of the most interesting multiplayer experiences I keep hearing about.

Best of luck to Smith, I hope his endeavor turns out to be a financially productive one!

Edited by ms_papercut

Aw man, this is the only time I've ever actually wanted a smartphone. Once this phone that I've had for 6 years finally dies, I will crawl out of the dark ages, buy an iphone and get this game!

Posted by Funkyhamster

This game is wonderful. Just tried it out while hanging out with some friends, none of whom are hardcore gamers, and we had a blast. This is what casual games should aspire to be.

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