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How Pocket Starships builds retention

By on May 12, 2014
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Deputy Editor Zoya Street recently spoke with Lars Koschin of Spectacle Games, developer of Free-to-Play mobile MMO Pocket Starships, to understand how they design games to hit the elusive ‘midcore’ sweet spot.

Mid-core is a much-loved buzzword at the moment, but what does it take to design a game that appeals to the snacking practices of casual mobile players and the competitive instincts of hard-core players?

Pocket Starships builds complexity in layers by creating play cycles that alternative between a combat-oriented area that CEO Lars Koschin nicknamed the ‘Counterstrike zone’ and a farming-oriented ‘Hayday zone’. All players cycle between these two, but their pace and motivations lead them toward different resource management systems: Koschin calls these the ‘retention model’ or the ‘activity model’.

The ‘activity model’ is focused on personal combat prowess and the competitive urge to dominate. The premium currency economy is closely tied to the behaviours encouraged in the activity model: performing well in a battle earns a player the premium currency, which can then be spent on speeding up the crafting of items that can be used to be even more successful in future. Highly engaged players can spend money for even more premium currency.

The ‘retention model’ is focused on “the social link between players… People will remember you if you help them,” explained Koschin. “Activity people want you to join them because they need support.” Retention model players are drawn back in through the wait mechanics in the game’s farming and crafting areas, and the lockboxes won when playing support in a battle.

The retention player is not earning the same levels of premium currency as the activity player, but they are typically less interested in unlocking the ability to play the game for long stretches of time uninterrupted. “The traditional mobile player is not used to playing for ten hours.” For them, a game that allows them to step back and gives them a reason to return later is ideal. The premium currency earned through high performance in battles allows activity players to enjoy longer sessions more suited to their own preferred style of play.

Pocket Starships is designed to reward players every time they pick up the game by immediately allowing them to get a clear idea of what they’re going to do in this session. Fights are relatively short compared to PC MMOs: 15-20 minutes typically. A shorter play session will focus on harvesting crops and setting up new items to be crafted.

The larger narrative of Pocket Starships is also part of the retention game: an ongoing war between opposing factions. In an earlier build of the game, this war could in principle be won by one faction or the other, as long as they were successful in enough battles. Koschin confessed that they had to modify the game so that the war would never be won, in order to ensure that people could keep coming back to the game indefinitely. Nowadays, a losing side will find themselves supported by NPCs at just the right moment, maintaining a sense of hope for all players.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.
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  • Ply Session

    one player posted this :

    “I’m refugeeOG from: US server, Varians faction, Warpfire alliance. I’m the 2nd-to-top ranked overall player, because I am addicted; I love this game. I have been playing for about a year now,and still going strong. The devs keep adding new content and fixing stuff, so you won’t get bored. You can get to where I am now by either spending nothing, a little, or a lot; the choice is up to you, and it only affects how fast you get there, so the game is very fair.

    The PvP combat is amazing, faction vs. faction, where you fight for control of special regularly moving “storm sectors” that contain rare rocks essential for the crafting of great PvP gear. Also, the game has faction alerts: built-in mini-wars, faction vs. faction, where the dominating faction of those military objectives will win Solar (the premium currency), Keys (to open lockboxes for a nice chance at Premium ships and other awesome PvP consumables), and domination points … DP (which collect daily to give you daily boxes to open, containing nukes, golden (premium) robots and ammo, etc.). Basically, the game gives you great incentives to play and fight, so you never have to sit around at station; you will always have something to do, if you fancy it.

    Combat is a refreshing soft-twitch; none of this “mouse-to-select-and-then- take-a-nap” business. You attack the ship closest to where you are pointing, but enemy ships can also block for their allies and block important objectives, like the sector mining / command outpost. There are fighters (DPS glass cannons), healers (ship repair, EMP-interdiction, support) and tanks (base busters, blockers, damage soakers). Range matters. You have close range blaster weapons, longer range launcher weapons, AOE and single target type weapons, and NUKES … awesome variable range, massively damaging AOE battle-changing packages of pure chaos.

    Players get space in station, which is upgradable, to store their materials, crafting parts, PvP consumables, and ships. You can have many ships, so you have the freedom to choose the ship-type you wish to fly, and then make a change anytime it suits you. Death penalties are mild, just enough to encourage death avoidance, but no loss of anything that you will miss, which encourages players to get out there and take risks and have fun in the PvP. Basically, the only penalty for death is a bit of “red-shield” that automatically heals inside station or you can “speed-heal” it for Solar.

    Players come from all over the world to play; no country or region is locked out. You can play directly from facebook, kong, PC browser from their website, Apple devices (iOS), Android / Google devices, Amazon / Kindle devices … play from PC, Desktop, Laptop, Notebook, Tablet, Smartphone, etc.”

  • EGD74

    They don’t build retention, go look at their forums. They are awful to their community and the game is plagued with terrible bugs and exploits that they can’t fix because they outsource development.

    Some paying customers have had their accounts be nearly unplayable because of some mega-bugs for as long as 3 months. Their accounts are never fixed and support eventually doesn’t update their tickets.

    They let users fun free using exploits that in essence get honest players to waste their resources, thus trying to get them to spend more $ on this “Free-To-Play” game. Again, support does nothing about the exploits, aside from telling you they will look into them. Again, just do a search and find out for yourself.

    Use any software these guys put out with extreme caution; while they seem good on the surface they actually are not that customer friendly at all.