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Will The Drowning pull console gamers to mobile?
December 6, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

Is it possible to crack the core gamer market with a shooter on iOS? Ben Cousins, founder of Scattered Entertainment, DeNA's Stockholm studio, certainly thinks so.

"There's an opportunity for a company like DeNA to disrupt core gaming, and disrupt the big core gaming companies," says Cousins.

He thinks he can force the hand of the industry by coming out with a high-quality free-to-play game -- and at that point, his expertise with the model will be a competitive advantage. He launched Battlefield Heroes, EA's first Western free-to-play game, over three years ago.

His shot at this is new FPS The Drowning, which will be free-to-play on iOS devices early next year. With a level of polish that rivals current-gen console games but a quick, mobile-focused gameplay loop, he thinks he has the right recipe for disruption.

He presents a scenario: "In an ideal world, people play a game like this for a few minutes a day whilst they're playing their core games, but the amount of time and the amount of money they spend on mobile devices increases to the point where, when a next gen console purchasing decision is being made, maybe they put it off, or they maybe don't make that decision at all -- in the same way that I'm not interested in buying laptops anymore because I love tablets."

Cousins, you see, has stopped using a computer for anything but work. He's all iPad at home, and he can see console gamers going that direction.

The Control Issue

Cousins is particularly elated because he believes he and his team -- formed of veterans from FPS studios like Bungie, DICE, and Crytek -- have cracked the control scheme problems that will allow the genre to be just as fun on tablets as it is on consoles.

"We've struck a good balance between simplifying the things that don't matter, like micromanaging your moment around crates, while trying emphasize the things that do matter, like pixel-perfect shooting," he says.

Scattered spent two and a half months at the beginning of project nailing down the controls. The breakthrough came when the team realized that, "from a high level, let's do everything you do to move around the operating system, and to move around apps," Cousins says.

In The Drowning, you tap to move to a destination, aim and shoot by centering a target between two fingers, and pinch to zoom with a sniper rifle, just like you do to resize a webpage in Safari.

While initially suspicious, core gamers, Cousins says, have come around to the game when it's in their hands. "If you propose this to them, they say, 'That sounds bizarre.' They can't get their head round it. But if you give them an opportunity to try it, they really like it," he says.

Last year, when Gamasutra visited Cousins' new studio in its temporary space near Stockholm, he spoke of being inspired to solve this control scheme problem on mobile the way Bungie's Halo did for consoles.

While it may not be that landmark, the team looks to be close. And just as tiny bacteria evolve faster than humans, mobile games evolve faster than console games. The first iteration doesn't have to be perfect, because the next patch -- and the next game -- is right around the corner.

Constrained Gameplay

Another challenge the team is running headlong at is blending short-session mobile games with console FPS depth.

The Drowning takes place in small arenas. Players have 120 seconds to kill hordes of undead monsters as skillfully as possible -- with score bonuses for multi-kills, headshots, and other tricky maneuvers.

"We don't have any 3D exploration in this game," says Cousins, just a "fast loop" of action. "It's pinball, it's Space Invaders, it's Bejeweled, it's Doom, it's Quake."

The small arenas don't just reinforce quick gameplay; they have the added advantage of letting the Unity-powered game look almost as good as current-gen console games on iOS devices.

The game's depth comes in via a loot-based weapon customization system. Not coincidentally, that's also where the monetization comes in too, though there are few details on that as yet. Players can craft and upgrade to better weapons, which forms the meta-game to compliment the short loop of the moment-to-moment play.

So the game is Rage of Bahamut meets Borderlands? "Yeah, I think you could say that," Cousins says. "In the gameplay, our two biggest influences have been Resident Evil 4 and Bejeweled Blitz."

"We did a lot of research with core gamers that have mobile devices," says Cousins. "Even though they play Call of Duty for eight hours at the weekend, with mobile devices they expect a shorter gameplay loop, and they expect to meter their game session length to a greater degree than they do for a console game."

Building for Longevity

The game, as stated, is free. But Cousins isn't worried about losing money on the title, because he's building for longevity.

"We're starting to see lifetime value on the card battler games that will enable high-end development as well," he says. "Games like Rage of Bahamut [are] engaging a smaller audience but monetizing really well."

He hopes to keep players coming back, but not with "crude gamey mechanics" like other free-to-play games. "We're more interested in, is there a cerebral layer to getting the people back? I'm curious about what happens to the player."

"Every successful free-to-play game is dropping content, they're dropping bug fixes and tuning," he says. "You're coming back for a couple of reasons: You want more fun. You're curious about what's going to happen, more surprises in store. You want to see more of the world." The team has plans to release new content for at a year or two, depending on how things go.

Solving the Console Problem

Cousins thinks he'll win gamers away from their consoles in the long run. Handhelds are already a "solved problem," he says -- just look at the flagging PlayStation Vita.

"In the same way that I've stopped using laptops at home now that I've got one of these" -- Cousins says, holding the iPad he's using to demo The Drowning -- "but I never would have dreamt of that if you had postulated it to me five years ago, when I talk to core gamers... I think there's an opportunity for us to do that."

Clive Downie, the newly minted CEO of DeNA's US division, Ngmoco, agrees. "Yes, I do believe people will migrate away from consoles, and their time away from consoles, if the content is consequential," Downie tells Gamasutra. "I think we're going to effectively pull away at the layers of the onion, if you like, and probably pull away the consumers at the periphery."

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Luis Guimaraes
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"Cousins is particularly elated because he believes he and his team cracked the control scheme problems that will allow the genre to be just as fun on tablets as it is on consoles."

Nice to see somebody else cares about developing controls schemes actually intended for the touch devices.

I developed a system using the same logic, just replacing "consoles" with PC and Halo with Quake. Also in Unity and easy to reproduce.

Let's pitch two players against each other using both schemes and see who wins? ;)

Ian Fisch
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I'm curious to see how strafing and walking backwards will work.

I wish them the best of luck, but for now I'm sticking with the mindset that some genres just aren't meant for touchscreens.

Kenneth Blaney
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From the description it seemed to me that strafing isn't a feature. Rather, there are certain hot spots where the player can stand and then they just touch to move to a different hot spot making this into a sort of FPS/On-Rails Shooter hybrid in terms of the moment to moment experience. A psuedo on-rails experience makes a bit of sense for short snippets of play, that's why they were successful in arcades.

There is very little gameplay in the trailer, but none of that gameplay seems to feature walking backwards or strafing at all. Maybe it is just featured as a sort of "free look" while walking from one hot spot to the next?

Christian Nutt
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Not at all. It's not hot-spot based; you can move to any point on screen that you touch. The spots are not defined. The game uses smart pathfinding to circumnavigate obstacles.

It also does have strafing -- two finger horizontal swipe.

Polygon's piece (being an enthusiast site) concentrates more on the controls than mine:

Ian Fisch
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So single-finger swipe strafes, but what about moving backward?

Kenneth Blaney
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Thanks for the link Christian. I think might really make this work is the "no moving and shooting" mechanic. That way, if a click does register wrong and I start to move (suppose I double click to shoot, but one finger hits before the other) I'll cancel the movement almost immediately through the normal course of the game. The two finger shot also makes sense because now my finger won't be covering the graphical feedback of my attempt to shoot the monster.

Brett Seyler
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++ Luis Awesome to see another team taking a crack at moving away from vpads and buttons. Bladeslinger has taken a lot of heat, and endured mixed reviews for it's unfamiliar control design. People seem to love it or give up on it too early. Will be interesting to see if core gamers with finicky tastes will do the same with The Drowning. I hope not! Developers need to help the touchscreen platform evolve for action games.

Brett Seyler

William Johnson
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Yeah, death to virtual buttons.

Its a touch screen, not a game pad.

I mean, Nintendo already solved most of the problems of touch screen action games with Phantom Hourglass, all we got to do is copy that. Cloning Nintendo games isn't exactly a new concept...and yet I don't know why I don't see more iOS games that play like Phantom Hourglass.

Touch to move. Swipe to attack. Make little loopy gestures to roll. I don't just seems so obvious, though I do realize it is such a different paradigm that players often don't like these controls. But you know what, sometimes we just have to force the players to learn a new paradigm for their own good and for the advancement of the medium.

Juan Mora
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I agree Nintendo did a genius work and showed the world how to do many things with PH. But I think those things work better with a stylus rather than your finger. I personally believe playing with a stylus is immensely better: it's way more precise and it obstructs the screen much less.

Jeff Zugale
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Hey Ben, don't be afraid to have a 99-cent version right out of the gate. We iOS gamers *will* pay you. I've been paying $60 a pop for Halo games for over a decade - if you put out a really great little iOS shooter, I won't even blink at paying $1 or even $3 for it.

k s
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I'm still very skeptical a shooter can ever work well with just a touch screen.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I'm leery of this, but it might be my aversion to hearing that something is "free" and will apparently revolutionize the touch approach to FPS games.