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.
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."