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The Drowning Review

The Drowning Review

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The Drowning tries to revolutionize the mobile FPS control system, but only gets it half-right.

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BenCousinsDeNA and Scattered Entertainment’s ambitious mobile first-person shooter spearheaded by former Battlefield series producer Ben Cousins, The Drowning, has finally launched worldwide. After the first hands-on sessions at GDC 2013 the game has been in an international soft launch, but the final, complete version of the game is now available to everyone. I spoke with Ben Cousins about what he thinks this initial “complete” version of The Drowning succeeds at, and how the game has evolved over the past few months.

Cousins says that he’s quite proud of the way that Scattered Entertainment experimented with new control schemes. “…We were unsatisfied with the FPSes on mobile devices, and I think from our research, I think a lot of the potential audience who are really interested in the genre have a phone or a tablet, and they’re not satisfied with what they’ve got out there.” There’s two things that he thinks they have that others don’t; “The first thing that we’ve got which the competitors haven’t is a control system which is designed for touchscreens that you can play with just one hand, with just two fingers in fact on one hand, and one that really fluidly fits in with the way that we hold these devices and the usage patterns of these devices. So we’re really proud that we’ve created a control system which kind of unlocks the potential of this genre on the platform.”

TheDrowning_Shot_01“The second thing we’ve done is we’ve really respected the usage patterns of these devices as well. And we understand that people generally don’t sit down and create time for a four or five hour session of playing a game on a smart device. So we’ve deliberately created a game structure that means within two minutes you can make progress in the game and you can shut down the device, and you can bring it up for a two-minute session at any time, and you’re guaranteed to make progress.

“So we’ve divided the game into these discrete chunks. The gameplay feels very much like an FPS, you’re killing enemies, and it’s high action, and you’re in this 3D world, but the system we’ve created enables you to jump in and jump out in a way which a more console-style mobile-FPS doesn’t really let you do, you’ve got to wait for a save point or for a cutscene to finish or something like that.”

Interestingly, though, there’s a virtual control scheme in there as well, and Cousins justifies it by saying “If you remember back on Halo 1, you could actually opt to play that with the GoldenEye control scheme. Now the GoldenEye control scheme is very different from the Halo/Call of Duty control system. So in the same way that in that transition that Halo had to acknowledge the small numbers of players who were used to the GoldenEye style of controls, we’ve kind of done the same thing, we believe that the touch system we’ve created is the future of controlling FPSes on smart devices, but we also acknowledge that there is kind of a legacy on this platform and a certain number of people want to play with a traditional virtual stick style system.” He does believe that it’s a suboptimal way to play – and that most will switch to the ‘new’ control scheme, just as how console gamers have adapted to the scheme Halo introduced.

TheDrowning_Shot_02The international soft launch helped out in several ways. Cousins states, “So we actually went out with probably, an incomplete game, just because we got to the point where just playing it ourselves and trying got work out whether a feature was working or not wasn’t really helping, and we wanted to get on to the live audience,so that’s kind of what we did, and we’ve been adding a whole bunch of stuff that was in that backlog anyway.” The tutorial got trimmed down as part of the changes, and a stars system was added, which Cousins claims helped player satisfaction: “the game’s about going into these environments, playing for two minutes, getting a score, and then getting parts. Kind of exchanging that score for parts which you find the environment that you can then use to craft more weapons. And we never really had a clear way of showing the player whether they had a good score or a bad score. So players we were thinking were probably going in there and what was a reasonable score and actually they weren’t getting enough score to get that particular part that they need from the environment.”

TheDrowning_Shot_04“So we have a very direct feedback at the end of the round of whether you got a bad score or whether you got an awesome score, and this really helps the game loop because you do two things: you know you either just failed to get a score you wanted to get that part, and you want to play another round, or you’ve just succeeded in getting the score and it’s a fantastic kind of reinforcement moment in the game loop where you’re really excited because you just got that score that you needed to proceed.”

These little things may just make The Drowning a better experience, which players can now judge for themselves, as it is now available worldwide on the App Store.

First-person shooters truly built and optimized for mobile are few and far between. Ben Cousins of Shattered  Entertainment wants to change that with his team’s new DeNA-published game, The Drowning.

The Drowning is built from the ground up for mobile devices. This is thanks in part to the game’s two minute play session structure; players will always have two minutes to take down as many enemies as possible, with the goal being to score as many points as possible. Thus, getting into Frenzy mode becomes important: getting headshots and melee kills is the way to enter this double-points mode, and keeping up the pace is the way to stay in it. Getting lots of points ensures that more scanvgeable items can be found randomly, these items being used as parts for new weapons and vehicles for traveling through the world. The game does have a main story thread running through it, that players can follow as they progress through.

The controls have been the much-ballyhooed part of the game, and in my playtime, I found that they were easy to pick up on. Swiping looks around, but tapping with two fingers fires, with the actual shot going between the two fingers. Thus, the game allows for enough accuracy to let players fire where they want, but still have challenge for headshots and the like. Tapping on the screen moves to that location, and players can execute a rapid 180 turn by tapping on the bottom of the screen, and can quickly turn to attacking enemies by tapping on the red damage indicators on the side. Finally, those things are really useful!

The game will be free-to-play, and the monetization strategies inclue an energy mechanic for traveling to different levels, the ability to get additional scavenge opportunities, and special weapons that can be bought, though these will be broken when acquired, like most of the game’s weapons; the parts to fix them still need to be found. Ben Cousins pointed out that the game will always be about the gameplay – it’s possible to get new weapons and additional scavenge items, but getting to use them is always about playing the game itself.

How well the title will work long-term and how intrusive the monetization will feel will still require some extended playtime, but for now, The Drowning shows a lot of promise toward changing the mobile FPS. The game is nearly done and will be submitted soon.

While a few of the recent games from DeNA’s US wing, formerly known as ngmoco have made a crap-ton of money, they have done little to interest core gamers. Just one example, Rage of Bahamut has kept a near constant top five residency in the top grossing list since release. That’s meant millions in income, easily, for DeNA.. But for core gamers, it’s been a bit… boring.

Well that’s about to change. Ben Cousins has reveled the first game from the new DeNA Swedish studio, now known as Scattered Entertainment. The Drowning is a free to play first person shooter, rethought for the touch screen, and looking damn sexy.

The story is that mysterious underworld creatures have forced their way to the surface through a massive, global, catastrophic event. Unexplained oil spills have caused any creature that touches the oil to turn into a lifeless zombie bird-influenced creature.

As you work your what through this world, assumedly to safety, you craft weapons, trade supplies, and fight off countless of these bird-like creatures.

While the graphics look great, the story is interesting, and the anticipation for this game is huge, the really interesting part of this new game are the innovative controls that DeNA has come up with. While this is all possible to change before release, here’s what we know so far.

One of the main interface design goals is to be able to play with just two fingers. Using one finger or two, with gestures, you can aim, move, shoot, change weapons, and everything else you need to do in an FPS.

The main control element is the two finger aim/fire. The weapon will fire at the middle point between your two fingers. Stretching you two fingers will zoom, as we would expect. A single finger touch will mark a point in the world and your player will move there. It’s innovative, you have to give it that. Virtual sticks just don’t work that great, and this looks, at least in the demo, to be viable. It will take hours of gameplay to verify that, and I’m looking forward to it.

The Drowning is still a ways off. We can expect it in early 2013. Hopefully we’ll get more info in the coming weeks. It’s certainly one to watch.

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