When his first and second playtests goes awry, Smith scrambles to right Spaceteam’s course before he crashes and burns at trade shows.
Everybody Shake! The Making of Spaceteam
Written by David L. Craddock
Table of Contents
Chapter 3: Supernova
Henry Smith drummed his fingers anxiously on the panel of his door. His car mates, fellow designers Ben Cummings (who had worked on Mass Effect 3 alongside Smith at BioWare) and Nicolas Barrière-Kucharski, seemed oblivious to his nervousness. It was mid-August, and the trio had agreed to carpool to the 2012 Boston GameLoop, the fifth annual occurrence of the meetup that Boston Phoenix described as an “un-conference” by reason of attendees being encouraged to suggest ideas for panels at an open meeting of show organizers and game developers. But neither the road trip nor the impending unveiling of Spaceteam were the source of Smith’s anxiety.
As they flew down the highway, he took a deep breath and asked if Cummings and Barrière-Kucharski would mind putting Spaceteam through its paces and giving him some honest feedback. They happily obliged. They were designers, too; doubling as early testers for friends and colleagues was part of the job description.
Content, Smith settled back and replayed the events of the past few weeks in his mind. He’d arranged his schedule into blocks: two weeks to build a prototype in Unity for the purpose of experimenting with Spaceteam’s central tenets, namely generating randomized control panels for each player and responding to instructions quickly by turning knobs and flipping switches on the screen; another two weeks to convert the prototype to cocos2d, a more streamlined engine than Unity, which Smith believe was “overkill” for such a straightforward project; and three weeks of development time during which to nail down Spaceteam’s core concepts and build upon its foundation.
So far, Spaceteam was on schedule. Provided things stayed that way, Smith’s goal was to incorporate a few new features and tie up loose ends, and then submit Spaceteam to the App Store in just a few weeks. From there, the game’s fate would be temporarily out of his hands. Apple’s certification teams typically needed a couple of weeks to either approve an app and push it to the storefront, or reject it and send fixes the author must make before they will reconsider it.
His contentment dwindled when Cummings and Barrière-Kucharski took Spaceteam for a test flight. “At first, they didn’t understand, and part of it was because of the user interface, because it was more confusing than it needed to be. I hadn’t added the timeouts and all that stuff. But I got a lot of good feedback just from watching them. I don’t remember exactly what they said, and we only played very briefly, but I remember getting the sense that it was a bit too confusing.”
Criticism always stings, but Smith took it in stride. Back at home, he put Spaceteam under the microscope and evaluated its many components. Some objective consideration revealed that, as he’d suspected, the game’s UI was partially to blame. One issue had to do with how he’d chosen to communicate instructions to large groups of players.
“I wanted to get across the idea that, in a four-player game, there were four instructions people needed to follow simultaneously, but you only had one of them. So I would show four lines of text, but I’d gray three of them out, or I’d show them as classified so you could only see one. The idea was that as other people completed their instructions, you’d see some of the hidden instructions get crossed off or go green, and you’d start to realize then that you’re all playing the same game together.”
Specifically, it seemed printing out multiple instructions confused testers into thinking there might be a way to get a jump on hidden instructions, those commands tucked away just under the most recent line of text at the top of the screen. Smith wisely opted to keep things simple. Rather than cluttering the screen with multiple directives, he’d relay one at a time to each player. That way, players could focus on either executing the single instruction printer on their screen, or—assuming they couldn’t find the component on their control panel—shout it into the hubbub of the group so that other players could check their panels.
Still well within his self-appointed time limit, Smith continued refining Spaceteam. It was during this time, the final weeks of August, that he added random disasters, as asteroids, electrical storms, and wormholes. Two other additions made later, in September, included the use of sound, as well as a constant event, the supernova.
Early builds of Spaceteam lacked any sort of aural effects. Smith had consciously elected not to include a soundtrack during gameplay, anticipating that each player’s music would fall out of sync with the others and become so much meaningless, ear-grating noise. Another strike against a soundtrack was that the main object of the game was to frantically shout instructions; music would only distract from that interaction. Sound effects seemed more appropriate. Acting as extensions of the UI, an array of clicks, alarms, and zaps helped communicate occurrences like control panels swinging loose and electrical storms wreaking havoc, and added to the delicious chaos inherent in the gameplay.
The idea for the supernova, a growing storm that could be seen chasing the team’s spaceship, developed out of a playtest with some of Smith’s friends. Players completed levels by performing instructions quickly and accurately. Slower, bumbling responses mounted and, eventually, resulted in a loss. The (space)team’s progress was measured by an icon of their ship moving across the top of each screen. To galvanize stragglers, Smith incorporated the supernova: Take too long, miss too many instructions, and the expanding supernova would consume the ship.
“That came as a result of playtesting because the games were just taking too long,” Smith says. “Without a global time limit, people just ended up with their spaceship in the middle of the screen, getting a few things right and a few things wrong. It would take too long and be too exhausting. The chaos, the crazy stuff that happens, was almost always a win-win: it looked great and it felt right.”
Smith was quick to attribute the supernova to one of his testers. “The playtesters helped a lot with the design of the game as a whole. It certainly wasn’t a solo effort.”
Appeal of the Mundane
With kinks worked out and new events added, Smith scheduled his first large-scale playtest for Sunday, September 30th. His fiancé, Sara, who had been encouraging and supportive of his dream to create his own games since before he’d left BioWare, pitched in, working with him to cook their contributions to the inaugural Spaceteam potluck.
As of early that afternoon, everything was going swimmingly. The doorbell rang often, friends greeted them warmly and placed their dishes on the table before taking out their iPhones—or borrowing one of the spares Smith kept handy for just such an occasion—and trying to form a team in the waiting room. And trying, and trying, and trying…
“It was a bit of a bust,” Smith admits. While Spaceteam’s game design was tighter than ever, its network code was in a state of disarray. Out of dozens of attempts to connect, only two or three panned out, and none of those progressed past the lobby. “I think we ended up playing Cards Against Humanity instead.” Then Smith brightens. “But the second playtest was where I got the most awesome feedback from people about things to add. That’s where I got the idea to add the mundane actions like ‘Feed Fish’ and ‘Entertain Dignitaries’ and ‘Sweep Kitchen’ and stuff, the stuff that’s not actually technobabble, but seem like things to do around the ship. I was really happy with how that [playtest] turned out.”
Mundane actions have a humorous bent. Feeding fish, for instance, is inarguably an important activity rendered absurd within the context of things one is expected to do when one’s spaceship is ripping apart at the seams. In the middle of our interview, I share one of my favorite mundane actions, ‘Eulogize Crew,’ and Smith laughs.
“I’m pretty proud of that one. Once we got the idea [for mundane actions], it was just so easy to come up with new phrases. You just need a verb and a noun, basically. I had one which was ‘Consider Purchasing Upgrades.’ The base game is free, but you can buy upgrades to support me, so when that comes up, people are actually shouting at each other to buy my game, which I thought was pretty creative.”
Coming up with mundane actions was simple: type them into a growing list in the code, and compile a new build of the game. Smith does just that for every new release, rolling in ten or so new mundane phrases.
Generating and displaying technobabble, the made-up components like “oxygen gridprism” and “sulfur D-grinder” that litter control panels and that sound ripped straight from an episode of Star Trek, is more involved. Although Spaceteam’s instructions boil down to verb-noun configurations (set Airbucket to 1, trigger Pi-snorkel, enable Gas Claw), many are composite words that possess a prefix and a root. Those and other factors determine which technobabble components can and cannot be displayed on a player’s control panel.
“The very first level starts with a 3×3 board of controls, and then it goes to 4×4, and it fits different-sized control panels in there. So a single panel might be a 2×2 square, or a 1×3 square. That will determine not just what kind of control can fit on it—like a slider if it’s a long skinny panel, or if it’s a square panel, it could be a button, a series of buttons, or a dial—but it also determines how long the title can be.”
Even the length of a component’s name carries its own set of logic and rules that Spaceteam’s algorithms take into account. Longer names may have, say, two components, a prefix and a base, while a shorter name can (but need not) be a single word. Smith’s code is loaded with countless prefixes, suffixes, nouns, and verbs, as well as symbols that appear under certain conditions, such as symbols that populate control panels when translator malfunction, a randomized event that replaces all text with iconography, occurs.
Generating control panels correctly necessitated lots of manual editing and massaging on Smith’s part. After a short time, the algorithms reached a stage where they worked as intended. Still, he wasn’t satisfied. Just because apparatuses sported names that were technically correct according to his rulesets, didn’t mean he cared for them. Some were boring, some were stupid, some were funnier than others—but were they legitimately humorous, or did they just sound humorous because their vowels and consonants happened to adopt a configuration that tickled the mind and tongue?
“This is what I’ve discovered from localizing [Spaceteam] into four other languages,” he says. “English is extremely fluid and permissive about how you can combine words together. In fact, there are a lot of words in English you can use as an adjective, a verb, or a noun without any change to the word at all. It can be used in all three cases, and that’s just not true in other languages. You need different word endings, genders, accents. It made translating the game pretty difficult.”
Of all the elements that Smith put under the knife multiple times during Spaceteam’s snappy development cycle, its free price point never changed. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t tempted. Near the end of the project, after Spaceteam’s UI and underpinnings had undergone countless revisions, he realized that the game was finally as fun to play as it had been to develop. Maybe charging a nominal amount would be justified, he thought. He decided against the notion almost as quickly.
“But I knew making it free was going to be important for spreading it around and sharing it with people. It’s multiplayer only, so if you had to convince four of your friends, ‘Hey, check out this game! But you all have to pay a dollar for it’—that’d be a real hurdle to people instead of just downloading it and playing it. Some people would just so, ‘No, I can’t afford that,’ or ‘I can’t remember my App Store password.'”
Pragmatic concerns comprised only half of Smith’s reasoning. The other was his mindset, which had been fixed since the project’s beginning. Above all else, Spaceteam was supposed to be a warm-up. A trial to learn how to develop mobile games, after which he would return to Shipshape, or Peregrine, or some other design much larger and more ambitious in scope.
“That was the only reason I could have possibly made Spaceteam,” he explains, “because I didn’t have any expectations for it, and it wasn’t intended to make money. I’ve said this before: if I’d needed to make money from the game, I probably wouldn’t have made Spaceteam. I’d have made something else, because it’s very difficult to sell a game like that—that’s multiplayer only, and that has a strange concept. It’s kind of hard to describe it to people in terms of other games because it’s a bit unusual.”
Smith had trouble articulating a concise description of Spaceteam, and so, it turned out, did most everyone else who tried it—not because it was too complex to put into words, but because describing such a wild and unconventional experience turned out to be half the fun.
By mid-October, Spaceteam had entered the final phases of development. Smith had added achievements, as well as assorted outfits and ship skins to customize the look of a player’s ship and control panel on his or her screen as optional in-app purchases (known as IAP) for players obliged to show their appreciation and support. His artists, Jérémie Benhamou (another ex-BioWare chum) and Julian Smith, who helped him refine the game’s visual style, had submitted their final assets, and freelance composer Philippe Lachance composed a short track that plays during the credits. Other changes, such as going out of his way to accommodate environments where players might try to connect through different online protocols such as WiFi and Bluetooth, were less fun for Smith to tackle, but increasingly necessary.
His self-appointed deadline for finishing was October 17, the deadline for submissions to the Independent Games Festival. Making the festival was paramount; developers and press would be circulating the show floor to play the games on hand, and a nomination for the show’s best-of category would guarantee him a free pass to the Game Developers Conference in March. As much to chronicle his indie journey as to hype Spaceteam, Smith updated his blog and Twitter account diligently, created a website, Sleeping Beast Games, as a portal to promote the game and keep fans and press updated on its progress, and passed out free copies of Spaceteam to industry friends in the hopes they might help generate buzz.
His grassroots campaign paid dividends. “I think the first wave of exposure was to other game studios. It spread from there. Those people were all connected in their own circles, so I think that was a huge help, having that existing network. I also submitted to a bunch of festivals and competitions just on a whim; luckily, I was selected for a lot of them, so I was able to gain exposure not only from the website or award they were involved with, but they also invited me to show the game at conferences.”
The 2012 Independent Games Festival, held in late October, was only one of his many stops. He performed well enough to score his free pass to GDC, and traction continued to build as he showed off and talked about the game. By mid-November, he’d flushed out a few last bugs and, jittery with nerves, uploaded Spaceteam to the App Store in mid-November.
For one interminable week, the game’s status sat at Waiting for Review. Then, suddenly, it changed to In Review, and stayed there for the next couple of hours. Smith refreshed the page obsessively until it underwent a series of rapid-fire updates: from In Review to Processing For App Store, and then—after eulogizing a few crews and ratcheting the four-stroke plucker as high as it could go—to Ready For Sale on November 29, 2012.
Smith was giddy, but knew he hadn’t crossed the finish line yet. He and Sara downloaded copies of the game, played a few rounds to ensure they could connect to one another, checked to make sure in-app purchases worked. Then, he sagged with relief. Spaceteam was out in the wild, and more than a few people had taken notice.
“Being on a #spaceteam is the most rewarding thing about owning an iPhone,” wrote one user in a review posted to the App Store in December 2012, which concluded with a 5-star rating.
“The most incredible game I have ever played,” wrote another. “3 of my friends just sat in a coffee shop yelling.”
A third, the most succinct yet: “Spaceteam is so. F*cking. Good.”
Reviews and downloads poured in. Three days after its release, Spaceteam had amassed 3,730 downloads and 241 in-app purchases. Momentum accelerated faster than a ship streaking away from a supernova: members of the games press wrote enthusiastic previews and reviews, and Smith, who attended GDC and PAX (Penny Arcade eXpo) in 2013, held within a week of one another, saw a huge spike in traffic when Spaceteam was featured in the PAX Omegathon, a multi-day elimination tournament where players compete in games from numerous categories. The proceedings are broadcast on a giant screen at the site of the conference, and players can watch from home by logging on to popular streaming services. Two teams played competitively, and despite the game crashing often due to network problems caused by the glut WiFi and Bluetooth signals in one location, the spirit of the game shone through.
Smith presumed the boost in attention Spaceteam received from the PAX Omegathon would be the largest he’d get, until a popular YouTuber by the name of Jenna Marbles, who has over 15 million subscribers, mentioned the game in a video she made with her boyfriend, Julian. Their resulting exchange serves as perhaps the perfect advertisement for Smith’s self-described “cooperative shouting game:”
Julian: Deactivate nuclear waste! Jenna: What? Julian: What? Jenna: Fuck! Expel this thing! [points to screen] Julian: Turn on 'People Playing Cards!' Jenna: [laughter] Julian: What is happening? Asteroid! SHAKE! Jenna: Set the baby to zero! Set the fucking baby to zero!
Smith hadn’t heard of Marbles prior to digging for the source of the traffic spike she brought him, but then, he readily discloses that much of his coverage has come from corners of the Internet far outside typical gaming haunts like IGN and Game Informer magazine. “I’ve kind of learned to just accept that press is going to come from wherever it comes from. That’s not to say I do nothing; I do as much as I can to spread the word. But the biggest influx is from people who just find out about it naturally from their own friends or wherever they find out about these things. I usually don’t get too worried if the press I’m doing doesn’t have quite the effect I was hoping it would.”
Far from slowing down, Spaceteam picked up speed through 2014. When we spoke in July of that year, Smith reported that the game had been downloaded over two million times, and had made over $25,000 in in-app purchases. “I was pretty comfortable. I was happy, and I honestly expected that I wouldn’t make any money, and that after a year I’d come back, and I was definitely okay with that. Little did I know that Spaceteam would be so well-regarded, and that, instead of just releasing it and getting on with the next game, I’d spend the next year and a half traveling around North America, showing it off and publicizing it. I had no idea that this is what my life would turn into, but it’s been great.”
Since launching Spaceteam for free on phones and tablets, Smith has been experimenting with other ways to support himself as an indie developer. During the spring of 2014, he launched a Kickstarter, The Admiral’s Club, that encouraged fans to chip in donations that would help him continue to develop free games in exchange for rewards like creating words to include in Spaceteam’s technobabble soup, membership cards, a character designer, and a fully customized edition of the game to share with family and friends. The Kickstarter failed to meet its funding goal, gathering only 81% of its funding goal.
Once again, Smith’s grit and drive propelled him onward. He relaunched the Admiral’s Club a year later and succeeded by offering new rewards that sweetened the pot, such as a global Spaceteam tournament (the first of its kind) and early access to his two upcoming games: Blabyrinth, a local co-op game, like Spaceteam, where players work together to solve clues and find treasure; and Shipshape, off the back burner at last. This time, the Admiral’s Club met and exceeded its goal. He also supervised development of a card-game adaptation in the fall of 2015.
Perhaps most gratifying to Smith is the fact that Spaceteam stands as a shining example that some players—at least two million—still derive pleasure from finding and feeling their way through new types of gaming experiences without the aid of long-winded tutorials.
“That’s part of why we like challenging games. The best games don’t just have arbitrary challenge; we’re learning how to play the game, and we become better at it, and we feel like we accomplished something or discovered something. And it was us. We did it.”
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 In the interest of transparency, I reviewed Spaceteam for Touch Arcade in 2013, and awarded it 5 out of 5 stars. The review, which recounts one of my fondest gaming memories in addition to presenting a critical analysis of the game, can be found here: toucharcade.com/2013/04/03/spaceteam-review/.
* that Boston Phoenix described as an “un-conference”: ” Boston GameLoop 2012: Making your own.” The Phoenix. http://blog.thephoenix.com/BLOGS/laserorgy/archive/2012/08/27/gameloop-2012-making-your-own.aspx.
* He’d started in early August and had broken up his schedule: “Breaking the Code.” Sleeping Beast Games. http://www.sleepingbeastgames.com/blog/spaceteam-schedule/.
* Smith scheduled his first large-scale playtest for Sunday, September 30th: “The First Big Test.” Sleeping Beast Games. http://www.sleepingbeastgames.com/blog/the-first-big-test/.
* Being on a #spaceteam is the most rewarding thing: “The First Week.” Sleeping Beast Games. http://www.sleepingbeastgames.com/blog/2012/12/. (All review quotes come from this blog entry.)
* Three days after its release, Spaceteam had amassed: Ibid.
* despite the game crashing often due to network problems: “PAX East.” Sleeping Beast Games. http://www.sleepingbeastgames.com/blog/pax-east/.
* until a popular YouTuber by the name of Jenna Marbles: “What’s On My iPhone/iPad.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1iSeIU_Mpk.
* During the spring of 2014, he launched a Kickstarter: “Spaceteam Admiral’s Club.” Kickstarter. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hengineer/spaceteam-admirals-club.
* He relaunched the Admiral’s Club: “Spaceteam Admiral’s Club **Relaunch**.” Kickstarter. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hengineer/spaceteam-admirals-club-relaunch.