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?
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.”
“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.
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.”