Former Battlefield executive producer Ben Cousins has unveiled The Drowning, a free-to-play post-apocalyptic first-person shooter for iOS devices due out early next year.
The Drowning is in development at Scattered Entertainment, the new name for Ngmoco Sweden, the Stockholm-based studio owned by Japanese publisher DeNA. It runs on the iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad 2, iPad 3, iPad 4 and iPad mini and the iPod Touch 5th generation, with an Android version planned “further down the line”.
The story begins in 2011, when a mysterious new oil starts leaking from deep sea drills across the globe. The oil creeps towards populated areas, and those who encounter it disappear only to return a week later as monsters hell-bent on dragging people into the oil. You play as one of the survivors of this catastrophe.
The game is set in a fictional series of islands off the coast of Seattle. You're a scavenger who is cornered on a jetty in a harbour. You escape on a boat, but crash on these islands, losing all your equipment. You then explore and build up your equipment while uncovering the story behind the catastrophe.
In an interview with Eurogamer, Cousins said the story will last about ten hours or so, but it will take hundreds of hours to unlock and level up all of the weapons. “I would liken it to a single-player RPG where you complete the story but then continue to level up and increase your skills,” Cousins said. “It's not quite as complex as that, but that's the analogy I'm making.”
There is no deathmatch or capture the flag multiplayer modes because research showed gamers who liked those modes on PC and console were not ready to play them on mobile. There is, though, a social multiplayer mode that is asynchronous. Players won't play together but will cooperate to complete objectives, with unique content unlocked from them.
Of course, first-person games on touch-screen devices have been criticised for their control schemes, with the dreaded virtual joystick often singled out as being particularly cumbersome.
The Drowning takes a different approach.
“We have the same conclusion everybody does if they play a first-person shooter on the touch-screen, and that's that the virtual stick system just doesn't work,” Cousins said.
“It feels a bit strange to me that developers of FPS games on touch-screens are harking back to the previous platform. It reminds me of how early cinema used to stick the camera in front of the stage and there would be curtain calls at the end of the movie. You need to create a new paradigm for a new platform.
“We did some research. We put these games with virtual sticks in front of core FPS players on console and PC, who were really skilled players, and they just hated the controls.”
Scattered Entertainment has created a system that means The Drowning is playable with just two fingers on one hand. Rather than use virtual sticks, it uses the standard gestures used to navigate apps on, for example, an iPad.
You shoot by tapping the screen with two fingers, with the bullet fired to the centre-point. This means you're able to shoot any pixel on screen without having to move a camera and line-up a crosshair.
Cousins called it a “highly accurate and fast” shooting mechanic. “You can pop headshots off guys who are a really long way away, and that's something that's almost impossible to do with a virtual stick.”
To look around you swipe the screen. To move you tap the location in the world you want to move to and the game takes care of the rest, using an intelligent path-finding system that moves the player character around the objects in your way.
Cousins said this one-handed control system lets players do anything they can do in a console or PC shooter, “and in some respects it's better than playing with a controller because we've got more accurate shooting and faster aiming”.
There are some concessions, however, and Cousins admits it's “simplified” compared to a complex shooter control system. Reloading is automatic, and there are virtual buttons for switching weapons. You pinch, as you would with a photo, to zoom.
“We realise we have to make concessions because of the interface of the device and how people play the game,” Cousins explained. “We needed to create a control system you could use with one hand so if you're on the bus and you're holding on to the handle you can still play the game a lot easier than you would if you were using a virtual dual stick control system or even playing a PS Vita where you've got two thumbs required.”
The Drowning is described as “console quality”, but when it comes to the graphics, what, exactly does that mean?
“It's a difficult one because mobile devices are different from consoles in the architecture but also in the screen,” Cousins said. The Drowning runs at four times the resolution of Call of Duty on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, he said, “so in that sense we're surpassing current-gen consoles”. On the iPad's Retina display The Drowning runs in 2048 x 1536 at 30 frames per second.
“The other aspect is these devices have got more RAM than current-gen consoles, so if you bundled up all of our textures on the characters and the environments together, then you would see higher resolution stuff than you would see on a console game.
“These devices, however, draw fewer polygons, and they're not able to do all of the post-processing effects you would have on a high-end console game. So it's swings and roundabouts. In some aspects we're surpassing current-gen consoles, but in some aspects we're halfway between the previous gen and the current-gen.”
As with past DeNA games, including Blood Brothers, there will be in-app purchases. You can't directly buy a gun in the game. Instead, the monetisation is around improving your chances of finding parts that enable you to create weapons. In the game world you need to find parts through gameplay and craft them together to build weapons. There are 50 weapons in the game, and each one can be upgraded and levelled up.
“Even if you're a paying player you've got to play the game to get stuff,” Cousins said. “There's a vast amount of content available to both free players and paying players.”