Ben Cousins has been working quietly in Stockholm for the past year with his team of 20 developers at Scattered Entertainment. Today, they’re taking the wraps off their new game, The Drowning, a high-end first-person shooter game for smartphones and tablets with novel touchscreen controls and beautiful 3D.
Many developers have tried, but first-person shooters — a multibillion dollar console game market — haven’t taken off on mobile. But the Scattered Entertainment team is inventing new ways to control a shooter game. If it works, it could be a big technical and business achievement. We talked with Cousins about the game and his ambitions in an interview. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk.
GamesBeat: What do you think of using a game controller with a tablet to project Android games on a TV, like Green Throttle Games is doing?
Ben Cousins: I feel like that’s a dead end. I feel like there’s something different but uniquely nice about this intimate experience that you have, particularly with the tablet. First-person shooters work really well. You can get this thing really close to your face. It takes up more of your field of view than a large-screen TV. That kind of intimacy is really powerful. So what I’m going to show you now is code running on an iPad 4. This shows you the first 5 to 10 minutes of the game, the opening cutscene and the tutorial. That tutorial enables me to show you the control system.
GamesBeat: Are you going to require an iPad 4 for The Drowning?
Cousins: No. We support the 2, 3, 4, and Mini. On the small devices we support the new iPod Touch, the fifth-generation one, the iPhone 4S, and the iPhone 5. We don’t really give you any preamble. You just jump into the game and suddenly you’re in this boat. That’s how it works. We don’t want to have a big up-front cutscene explaining what’s happening in the world. We know that, on mobile, people want to get to the fun as fast as possible. There’s a nice scenic boat ride showing off the graphics, but then it all turns a bit sour.
[From the game, loud screaming commences.]
Cousins: We’re using the Unity engine, by the way. The player wakes up on the beach, and they’re lying down. This gives you an opportunity to show you how the shooting works. You tap the screen with two fingers, and we fire the bullet at the center point between those fingers. This means you can shoot any pixel on the screen without having to move the camera. It’s a floating crosshairs. If you remember GoldenEye or some of the early PC shooters, they had floating crosshairs.
The reason we do this is because if you have a virtual stick, generally they’ll have both the looking and the shooting on this thumb. If there’s a moving target, you have to move the camera, take your thumb off, find the fire button, and sometimes you miss it because you’re looking at the action. If a target is moving quickly across the screen, you can’t shoot it. In our system, with a few successive taps you can shoot anything moving across the screen. Now we reload. You can shoot anything on the screen, and with great accuracy. Just like shooting with a mouse. That’s something that isn’t possible on console.
GamesBeat: Do any other games use that right now?
Cousins: No. This is actually something we’ve got a patent-pending on. Looking is simple as well. It’s simple swipes. Rather than having a “look area” on one side of the screen, you can swipe anywhere on screen to look. You can reverse the direction, if you’d rather drag the screen than push the screen. We wanted to have a control system that’s playable with one hand. If you look at the most popular mobile games, they’re all playable with one hand. They don’t require you to hold the device and control it at the same time.
Generally, at this stage in the demo, people are asking how we do movement. It’s very simple. Just tap and we’ll walk you to that location. Now, when we researched core gamers, we realized that in first-person shooters, they don’t really care about micromanaging their movement. For them, the exciting thing about Call of Duty is shooting enemies, not moving around a crate. What we do is we automatically pathfind you around objects in the world. If there’s something in the way, we just take you around it. There’s a bunch of things in between me and the other side of the environment, but if I click over there, I automatically find a way there. While I’m moving, I can look.
By chaining these together, with a little bit of practice you can start to move around the world in a way that would look like you’re using a traditional controller. If this were running through a TV and you weren’t looking at my hand, you might be fooled into thinking I was using a controller, but I’m doing everything with one finger.
GamesBeat: Can you shoot and move, too?
Cousins: Yes, you can shoot and move, but for design reasons, in this game we stop your movement at the point you shoot. We wanted a slower-paced horror kind of feel, a bit like Resident Evil 4, more than a circle-strafing kind of system. But the original control system we developed had crouching and jumping and shooting on the move. We have strafing — that’s a two-finger drag — but we don’t strafe too much in this game.
Another thing about touch screens is zooming. In a normal virtual-stick shooter on one of these devices, you’d have to touch a bunch of buttons to zoom. We just use a pinch. All of the OS functions, whether it’s a mail app or a photo app, you’re pinching to zoom. This enables you to zoom on any corner of the screen. There’s a guy over there firing at me. I can pinch in and look over there. When I’m in that view mode, I can shoot anywhere on the screen.
By simplifying things a little bit, we’re also giving ourselves the opportunity to improve things. We give you more accuracy and a higher-quality experience in terms of controls than you would get on a console game. You probably noticed that this is a fairly constrained environment. There is no 3D exploration in this game. You’re not moving through an environment in that physical sense.
All of the gameplay takes place in these arenas, which are about the size of a deathmatch map. The way the game works is, you move into one of these arenas. You play a two-minute round. You try to do as much violence to the enemies in those two minutes. That equates to a score, and your score at the end of that round controls how many drops you get from the game.
If you played a game like Rage of Bahamut or Blood Brothers, you’re getting cards dropped at you or characters dropped at you. In our game, you’re dropping parts. These parts can be crafted together to make weapons, or they can be traded in to upgrade your weapons. This Glock is a broken Glock. If I combine that broken Glock with a bunch of unique parts and take it to a character in the game world, he’ll craft that into a weapon for me. If I want to level up that weapon, I can take a few parts as a kind of currency, give that to a person in the game world, and they’ll level up the weapon for me.
GamesBeat: Is the campaign going to have a big story?
Cousins: Yeah, it’s a single-player-focused game. There is a multiplayer element that we’re not revealing in detail today. It’s a single-player game with a story, with characters, where you gradually move through the game world and find out more about what’s happened in the backstory.
I’m going to jump forward now and show a bit more of how the control system works for using skill to get higher scores. This is an environment from later on in the game, an oil refinery. We’ve turned off the timer so I can show you more of the game, but this would be 120 seconds counting down. These enemies are coming towards me. If I kill one by shooting it in the leg, I get 75 points. Let’s try and get away from these guys, they’re crowding me. … So that’s 75 points. If I shoot one in the head. … There we go. 150 points. Now, if I distract a guy first by melee attacking him and get a headshot after that, I get 300 points. It was a single tap to melee a guy.
If I try to get a bunch of headshots and fill up that headshot meter, now I’m in the frenzy mode. If I kill a guy who’s distracted now with a headshot, that’s 600 points. I’ve gone from getting 75 points for a kill to 600 points, eight times as much. You can see it’s a kind of pinball scoring system. Through skill you can stack up a bunch of different attacks to get more points. If I get a bunch of guys chasing me in a line and shoot them with a rocket, I can kill all of them at once. That gives me a further skill multiplier. There are lots of analogies for this. There’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, where you chain up moves to get more score, but also a game like Bejeweled Blitz, where you’re trying to keep the intensity up as much as possible.
You can see, again, I’m doing a lot of things which are typically done with a console controller or a mouse. I’m doing accurate shooting. I’m moving around the world quickly. I can manage multiple enemies attacking at once. I can use my skill to get more score, which then equates to better progress in the game. I’ll finish the demo by showing you the entrance of one of our big enemies. There’s not just these humanoid characters you’re fighting against. There’s also these big guys in the world.
The trailer starts with these incidents where the birds are falling from the sky. That’s based on real stories. That stuff actually happened. In our fictional world, what happens a few years later is that all of the deep-sea oil drilling rigs in the world start spilling this mysterious new oil. They can’t stop the spill. It’s not normal oil. This oil creeps towards populated places, almost as if it has a mind of its own. When the oil hits landfall, if someone falls in the oil, they disappear, and they come back a week later transformed into one of these monsters. All these monsters want to do is drag more people into the oil. They’re trying to knock me out and drag me in.
That big enemy you saw is actually a bear that’s fallen into the oil and been transformed into a monster. It gives us a breadth of possible enemies. We can look at all types of people, whether it’s a teenager or a bodybuilder or a bear or an alligator that’s fallen in, and create different enemy types. We wanted a kind of zombie feel, because zombies are really popular at the moment, but we didn’t want to have the clichéd zombie where there’s a virus being passed from person to person. We didn’t want an urban environment. We wanted a twist that could break down some of the clichés from the zombie concept.
GamesBeat: Do you see this as bringing console-game quality into the tablet? Did you start out with a different kind of vision for this?
Cousins: No, we always had a vision to bring high-end graphics and the kind of adult tone you get from a console game onto mobile. There’s a reason for this. There’s a lot of core gamers who have mobile devices, and you know what core gamers are like. They want to play on every device they have. But the kind of games that are available for them on mobile don’t really match their tastes. They don’t have the kind of game world and feel that they love. But also, the kind of core games that are available often have a premium price point. People playing games on mobile expect freemium nowadays. That’s the predominant model. So we always wanted to make high-end games, targeted at core gamers, on tablets and on phones, and with a freemium price point.
GamesBeat: Twenty people is still a smaller team than you might have on console.
Cousins: Yeah. For mobile it’s a big team and a big budget, but if you compare it to a console game, it’s much smaller. We’ll have much better profit margins, if we’re successful, than we would on a console game.
GamesBeat: Do you ever worry that you might be too early with this idea? That you should wait a while to make the leap?
Cousins: For a company with deep pockets like DeNA, there’s an advantage to being the first mover. Let’s just say we took great solace from the success of CSR Racing. They approached making a driving game in a similar way to how we approached a shooter. They created a game with a short game loop and compromised controls, but which had the feel of a console game. We felt like this was a much bigger risk before CSR Racing was a success. Maybe we are too early. I don’t know. We’ll see what consumers think. From a device point of view, we have the devices that can support these visuals and this gameplay.
GamesBeat: Most of the shooter games we’ve seen on tablets fall short. They try to do touch-screen controls that don’t work. The alternative has always been to plug a controller into the tablet. You didn’t like that idea either?
Cousins: I used to work at Sony, on the EyeToy team. One thing we saw is that as soon as you force people to buy a peripheral in order to play a game, you dramatically reduce your potential audience. It was clear from the start that we didn’t want to require some kind of controller. After a few weeks of experimentation, we realized that it was going to be possible to create a pretty good control system without a controller, so we feel pretty confident.
A lot of the shooters on mobile make a few mistakes. First of all, they use the virtual stick system, which has proven not to work. They have a premium price point, which doesn’t fit what people expect on mobile anymore. Their game loop is very long. They expect you to sit down and play the game like you would on console, where you play for several hours at a time. They have these long, in-depth, scripted environments. We don’t see that as working so well as what we have. We’re trying to solve or improve on those three mistakes that usually get made by existing shooters on mobile.
GamesBeat: So the smaller arena — that seems like a solution to dealing with memory constraints.
Cousins: Exactly. Although these devices do have quite a bit of memory. We wanted to get really high-end visuals, and that’s easier to do in a smaller environment. Load times are shorter as well. You don’t need to deal with things like streaming. Also, if your game loop in its entirety is only three minutes, you don’t need to build this big environment.
GamesBeat: How much memory does it take up?
Cousins: We run on the devices with 512 megabytes of RAM.
GamesBeat: But you can’t, say, download it over the air?
Cousins: No, the download size is about 700MB. It’s not as big as the biggest games, which are about one to two gigabytes, but it’s much bigger than the average casual game. That’s because of the quality of the textures and so on.
GamesBeat: It’s not a problem if it’s a premium game, though. People will wait for the download.
Cousins: Yeah, if they’ve already spent money. … [Laughs] Exactly. That’s one of the big experiments that we’re exploring here. What happens if you have a very high-end freemium game? How does it change the consumer’s behavior?
GamesBeat: How long of an experience is it intended to be?
Cousins: It depends on how much you want to get out of the game. To unlock all of the weapons, probably 30 or 40 hours. To unlock and level up all the weapons, to get everything in the game, it could be hundreds of hours. By the time people get to that point, we’ll have already dropped in more content.