Spacetime Studios Carves Out a Name For Itself in Hardcore Mobile MMOs

Casual games may dominate the top-grossing charts, but a handful of companies are starting to build out respectable businesses catering to mid- and hardcore fans on smartphones.

Austin-based Spacetime Studios is a company that’s seemed to pique a lot of investor and acquirer interest, anecdotally speaking. The company has built up “hundreds of thousands” of daily active users on Android and iOS for its two hard-core massive multiplayer games Pocket Legends and Star Legends. Both have received rave reviews from consumer-focused mobile gaming sites, which have essentially called the titles miniature versions of “World of Warcraft.”

Like mobile success stories for other developers like Rovio, this took years in the making. Originally, Spacetime was founded as a development studio for South Korea’s NCSoft. The company poured $25 million into a project Spacetime was building — an epic massive multiplayer title that came complete with a state-of-the-art gaming engine.

“It was supposed to be everything and the kitchen sink,” said chief executive Gary Gattis. “It was supposed to have next-generation ground combat and artwork. It was to be World of Warcraft scale.”

But when a similar project that NCsoft was funding called Tabula Rasa tanked, the company decided to shut down Spacetime’s game.

“It was a soul crushing experience for us,” Gattis said. “We put a lot of heart into it.” However, Gattis negotiated to get the intellectual property rights for the game back and the company managed to hold onto the technology behind the stillborn title.

At around the same time, the iOS platform was starting to take off with several game developers building mom-and-pop sized businesses off paid premium apps. Spacetime switched directions to capitalize on this opportunity.

“When we realized we could play globally over 4G, 3G and Edge networks with no latency,” Gattis said. “We set off to build what became Pocket Legends.”

Over the years, the company had invested about $10 million into building a cutting-edge gaming engine so the 3D gameplay is still advanced relative to what’s available today for iOS and Android games.

“It’s like putting a Ferrari engine into a Go-Kart. Nobody could touch us on the tech side,” Gattis said. The company soon picked up funding from Insight Venture Partners, but didn’t disclose the round size.

The game launched in April of last year on iOS to rave reviews and then on Android about 12 months ago. It doesn’t necessarily rank at the top of the charts because of it’s more hardcore audience, but the company is profitable and supports 35 employees. They see about 1 million play sessions per week and are getting about 10,000 downloads per day organically. (Like we said, perhaps not so much compared to big casual gaming companies, but hardcore MMOs tend to be more lucrative per user. This is not a strategic play for scale.)

Like a handful of other developers including Storm8 and Gameview Studios have told us, Spacetime is seeing better monetization per user on Android than on iOS. Pocket Legends monetizes through the sale of a premium currency called Platinum that is sold in packs starting at $0.99.

“Android players had been waiting for something like this with bated breath. They’re a more hardcore audience,” Gattis said.

As for the next year, Spacetime is mostly focused on rolling out new titles on its gaming engine. The company seems to have shied away from earlier talk of licensing its technology to third-party developers.

“When we were considering licensing, we realized we didn’t know anything about it,” Gattis said. “Unity’s there. It’s a big world. There are a lot of engine companies that are a lot better at building or licensing technology than we are. We’re game developers.”