If you’ve ever played a cooperative board game like Pandemic or Arkham Horror, you’re familiar with the frantic, crazy moments where everything seems to be falling apart. Spaceteam, from developer Sleeping Beast Games, takes that experience, filters it into its purest essence, and delivers it up in a mobile game that’s fun to play with your friends whilst still letting everyone keep ahold of their phones.
We spoke to Henry Smith, the man behind of Sleeping Beast about the experience of building Spaceteam, as well as his transition from programmer at AAA PC/console developer Bioware to full-time indie developer.
Spaceteam is Go
“I’ve actually been making games since I was a kid,” Smith said. “I started by making homemade board games and card games and I published my first computer game in high school.”
This experience in board games would come in handy, but more on that later.
“Then I worked in the industry making big AAA games for about 10 years before going ‘indie,’ again to explore more of my own ideas.” In his time in the games industry, Smith worked at Irrational Games, Electronic Arts, and left his job at BioWare in 2012 to pursue his dream.
Inspired by sci-fi culture like Doctor Who, Red Dwarf, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Smith began work on Spaceteam primarily to transfer his programming skills from console and PC languages to those used in mobile games.
“I decided to make mobile games because it would force me to keep my ideas small (and not get too ambitious!),” he explained. “I just like the physical sensation of playing games on a phone or tablet,” he added.
Since launching, Spaceteam has clocked in over 5 million downloads with only organic growth and glowing reviews (plus some awards!) behind it. Smith said he’s still blown away by how many people are still discovering Spaceteam every year since it launched in December of 2012 — a lifetime in the gaming and mobile spaces both.
Spaceteam is a connected cooperative game for multiple players where the goal is not let a spaceship crash.
Each player is assigned a different control panel on their individual device’s screen, with various knobs and dials labelled with a variety of jargon designed to evoke the feel of a specific station about the ship like engineering, shields, and so on. Once the game begins, differing instructions are given to each player via their device as a task to pilot the ship. One player must then verbally tell the group the order that needs to be accomplished until the person with the relevant control panel activates the order correctly.
At the same time, players have to listen for the orders that are relevant to their control panel and activate them in the right order, or the ship crashes.
Sounds simple, right? It isn’t.
As players succeed, the ship continues along its path and the tasks get harder, and instructions may get jumbled. It’s up to the players to figure out the right solution before the ship crashes. There also are situations that require players to do something three-dimensional with their phones. If you hit a wormhole for example, you have to tip your devices upside down. To avoid asteroids, everyone has to shake their devices.
We’ve played at the AdColony offices, and there’s always a lot of shouting at crisis points, followed by laughter as the ship careens into a supernova and the game ends.
For all the cooperative parts of the game itself, Smith completed the bulk of the work himself.
“My team is basically just me! I get part-time help from friends with art and music, and lots of people helped test the game, but I don’t have any employees and I’m responsible for the concept, design, programming, PR, community management, business development, etc,” he explained.
“I like being involved in everything but I’m starting to wish I had a bit more help with certain things,” Smith continued, “My plan was never to start a big studio, I just had some fun game ideas that I wanted to make and now it’s 5 years later and I’m still doing it!”
That self-reliance has led to Spaceteam’s growth by purely organic word-of-mouth and earned media. “I guess I got lucky with Spaceteam because it got some good press coverage and won some awards, but I never had a marketing strategy for it because it was supposed to be a small practice project,” Smith explained.
Smith credits two events with starting the snowball rolling downhill for Spaceteam — a Reddit thread about “best games you’ve never heard of” that he had nothing to do with, and a mention by a big YouTube celebrity Smith hadn’t even heard of at the time.
With a Patreon for support, Smith has succeeded in the mobile space without a user-acquisition team, or adding all the other methods of monetization that large studios need to support large teams. By keeping things simple and focused, Smith says he can make the games he truly wants to make.
“I just want to make interesting games and share them with people. If they like them, I ask them to support me,” he added. It’s not just Patreon though. “I do also make some money from the ‘tip jar’ IAP in the game and from the external project and commissions,” Smith added.
Like his growth strategy, Smith has kept his engagement tactics simple and straightforward. “Mainly I just make sure the game is kept up-to-date so that people can keep playing,” he explained.
“I also organized a worldwide Spaceteam tournament (with about 15 real-world locations) with physical prizes in addition to in-game rewards. I think that helped keep people interested in the game,” he added modestly.
He also stays open to opportunities and collaborations that might help awareness of the game. In 2014, Smith worked with Tommy West and Matt Sisson to create a card-based tabletop version of Spaceteam, bringing the game back to its roots.
The tabletop game can be learned to play in a little over 2 minutes, and comes with high-quality cards designed for repeated play for hours on end.
True to form, there are no turns; everyone plays and shouts at the same time. If you’re looking for a break from the normal, slowly paced and turn-heavy card and board games, you can’t go wrong with Spaceteam, whether you’re playing on phones or with cards.
Smith has also worked with other partners to create a customized version for teaching English-as-a-Second-Language that has seen success.
“As rewarding as it’s been, too much of my time has been taken up by things that could be done better and quicker by other people,” he explained. Since he’s not running a studio, his advice for other solo developers is to focus on the long term. “If you are a small studio (or one person!), don’t try to do everything yourself. Get help. Focus on your strengths.”
“The economics of small games are very different from big games. Plan for a very long tail,” he explained. Solo developers also have to stay focused. “Don’t say “yes” to every opportunity that comes up. You only have so much time and energy!”
Smith is also keen to make sure other solo developers keep their eyes on the prize – developing things they’re passionate about without falling into certain pitfalls that even get larger studios sometimes. “Read your contracts and make sure they are fair. Just because you are new and small doesn’t give anyone the right to exploit you,” he said.
When it comes to growth and marketing for indie games, Smith will be the first to tell you Spaceteam’s success was a lucky break. “Try a bunch of things. It’s very hard to measure the exact or future impact.”
Inspiration, Style, and What’s Next
Spaceteam’s low-fi retro graphics are charming and pay homage to a lot of older sci-fi TV shows and computer games, but they were also a bit of serendipity, explained Smith.
“The pixelated characters started as placeholder ‘programmer art’ but ended up in the final game,” he said.
That said Smith admits his programming background and focus gives him a lot of flexibility. “The art for my next game will be very different,” he said, “because I’m primarily a designer/programmer I design my games without a commitment to a particular art-style, and then I can give the artist a lot of flexibility.”
Speaking of next games, Smith said he has a new game on the horizon — “My next project is a brand new game called Blabyrith,” Smith explained.
“It’s a cooperative local multiplayer game like Spaceteam but with less shouting,” he smiled. “You and your friends work together to explore a mysterious labyrinth full of puzzles, treasure maps, cryptic codes, secret passages, and strange contraptions. It will feel a bit like an escape room.”
While work on Blabyrinth and keeping Spaceteam keeps Smith busy, he and his wife were also excited to add baby daughter Nori to his family to the family a couple of months ago. We should probably let him get back to that!
Communications Channel, Open!
The man behind Spaceteam himself, Henry Smith, can be following on Twitter @hengineer. If you enjoyed the thematic music in Spaceteam, Philippe Lachance, the composer behind the excellent music in the game, has a SoundCloud and a band called Couteau Papillon that you can follow on Twitter.
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