Eric Johnson

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Q&A: The Drowning’s Creator Ben Cousins on Making a Console-Like FPS Viable on Mobile

BenCousinsBen Cousins is the general manager of Scattered Entertainment and the producer of The Drowning, a mobile-only free-to-play post-apocalyptic first-person shooter (phew!), released today for iOS devices.

The game has been heavily tested and tweaked since it soft-launched in six smaller markets in April, and, as a work of new intellectual property, stands to be an interesting test of just how hungry for “serious” console-like play mobile gamers are.

Among the game’s most heavily touted features are touch controls that purportedly match the speed and depth of a console FPS, even though one control setting requires only one hand to play. Scattered’s parent DeNA was most heavily involved in The Drowning’s business design, borrowing heavily from free-to-play mechanics originated in its home country, Japan.

Before leaving in 2011, Cousins executive-produced four titles in EA’s lucrative and popular Battlefield franchise, and then headed up the company’s free-to-play division, Easy Studio. Here, he answers some of our questions about The Drowning and its design:

AllThingsD: What does the landscape of mobile games look like today? Does “mobile” connote a certain type of game play or a certain level of quality?

Ben Cousins: I definitely believe it’s a mistake to look at mobile as a static phenomenon and attach a certain quality level or genre to it conceptually. However, I believe that we are starting to see some trends. Mobile games are making more money, they are hitting a bigger audience, they are improving in polish and graphics, and they are becoming more complex. Even a “casual” game like Candy Crush Saga is extremely difficult and strategic relatively soon into the experience. This tells me the market is maturing.

TheDrowning_Shot_01How is The Drowning different from what’s already out there?

The Drowning was derived from us anticipating this trend toward mobile freemium games with polish, production values and complexity a couple of years ago, and seeing if we could make a shooter that would slot into this model. I believe that we’ve done a really good job of creating a game that is competitive with the benchmarks out there in terms of visuals, and which also still respects the differences mobile has with other platforms like console and PC. We are, however, focusing on a different audience than most mobile games by trying to create a game that pulls in the core gamers in significant numbers. It’s a big, fascinating experiment.

What sort of limitations had to be overcome to make an FPS “work” on mobile devices?

The hardware limitations in terms of GPU, CPU and RAM are nonexistent. You can easily make a game with the scope and breadth of a console game on modern mobile devices right now. I wouldn’t call them limitations actually, but the differences we addressed with The Drowning are:

  1. Touchscreen controls rather than mechanical controllers meant we had to create a new control system using gestures and taps. We are really happy with what we created. We’ve matched and often surpassed mechanical controls, and our system only uses two fingers on one hand.
  2. Differing play patterns on mobile. Game sessions tend to be shorter and more easily interrupted, so we had to boil down the shooter to just the action parts, and deliver them in discrete two-minute chunks.

How does multiplayer fit into your plans for the game?

We launch with an asynchronous multiplayer mode called Boss Hunt, which we will turn on for weeks at a time as time-limited competitions. Players work alone and in ad-hoc teams to find and take down large creatures in the world, sharing rewards as they go.

How does The Drowning compare to other FPS and action titles currently available on mobile devices, consoles and PC?

FPS games on mobile tend to ape console shooters in the way that early cinema felt compelled to ape the theatre with curtain calls and wooden sets. In that sense, the differences between The Drowning and other mobile shooters are the same as differences between The Drowning and console shooters. We set out to redefine what shooters mean on this new platform -– changing both the control scheme and also the game loop, as well as, of cours, making it freemium.

So, how will this game make money?

Our monetization design all comes from Japanese DeNA expertise. We have no real in-game store where players can buy weapons. Instead, the monetization is integrated into the game loop –- giving players the opportunity to advance slightly quicker in the story if they spend money. There are also rare and powerful weapons available for cash, but there is no easy win –- you purchase a chance to find a broken weapon. You don’t know what you are going to get, and you need to play the game to find the other (free) parts to fix that weapon. Monetization is always linked to game play, and you can’t simply spend to win.

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— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”