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'A shooter like Bejeweled Blitz': The Drowning's unusual mandate

DeNA's always-outspoken Ben Cousins talks about The Drowning, Scattered Entertainment's attempt to address the evolving mobile space.
DeNA's Ben Cousins has been fascinated by digital games and their business model ever since he left Electronic Arts for Ngmoco -- and to start the Stockholm studio that would become Scattered Entertainment, staffed up with AAA talent from studios like Crytek and DICE. After four years heading up EA's free-to-play initiatives, Cousins was eager to pursue the model at a company that focused on digital 100 percent, not just as a strategy component. Since then he's been regularly outspoken about the decline of the console business, his views on changing user engagement around core games, and the future of free to play. But just-launched The Drowning is Scattered Entertainment's first foray toward what he sees as a major trend: Games for mobile devices that combine the production values, themes and interactions that core gamers are accustomed to, but with the shorter-session play loops that tend to be viewed as casual. "I wouldn't be as arrogant to say that we're going to be the first people that prove this right," Cousins reflects, noting that many game developers aimed to find a hit in the first-person shooter market before Call of Duty became the force it is now. "I'm quite confident about making market predictions, but individual products are more difficult. We're really happy with the game, though." That confidence in predicting the market often makes Cousins the recipient, directly or otherwise, of much anxiety about the extent to which mobile games will disrupt the console market, and player skepticism about freemium business models. People hear about the rise of mobile, he suggests, and presume the trend suggests "you're going to be stuck playing Angry Birds for the rest of your life -- which is a great game, and more people like it than most core games."

Change in the winds

"But to us it's not about the type of game changing, it's about the platform on which the game is played," he says. "People are going to be making games about space marines blowing up aliens on all devices, so that's not something to be scared about. I always see this audience splitting between [mobile] and PC. For developers, that's also a way to think about it: You're not going to be out of a job because you're really good at making a high-resolution gun model." "I rarely get time to step people through this argument," he adds ruefully, pointing to the nature of the internet. The premium market on mobile, relatively less-explored, consequentially has a lot of room for growth -- and sees a lot of support from Apple. But for a large and publicly traded company, data on revenue matters. "The biggest revenue generation games are still freemium," he notes. "Billion-dollar games on mobile are going to be freemium games, and the mode of entry to really big hits is freemium. I still believe freemium is the best model for the majority of consumers, and figures tell me it's the best thing from a business and consumer perspective. I'm committed to it."
Of course, to make meaningful revenue in the free-to-play space, it helps most of the time to be a company with the size and resources to compete and stand out. That's one of the reasons smaller studios and independent developers prefer to advocate for the premium model, and it looks like a better route to profitability for them -- not to mention the average indie's resistance to designing specifically to encourage transactions. Expect things to get more challenging for indies on mobile, Cousins warns, as the quality bar increases and the budgetary cost of entry migrates upward. "I'm a little bit negative on indie games continuing to become big successes on mobile in the future without publisher support," he says. "Either for paid marketing or for production values, you need some capital. On the plus side, a lot of good avenues are arriving for people to fund high-end, relatively-expensive games." Former PopCap exec Giordano Contestabile jjoined newly-announced mobile publisher Tilting Point Studios, motivated by his view that 75 percent of the top games on iOS are independently-developed, and that funding and nurturing indies further is an essential business opportunity on mobile platforms. More companies founded with similar interests can be expected to crop up, Cousins believes. And today's venture capitalists are highly interested in investing in small developers directly -- "that's the first time that's happened," he notes.

Core vs Casual

But with disruption taking place so rapidly, what does it even mean anymore to combine "core" and "casual"? What was once two distinctly separate markets is now part of a continuum, where supposed "casual" games can draw fervent audiences to high engagement, and a so-called "core" game on mobile platforms still feels like a boutique item. Though Cousins admits it's hard to sort out one from the other, the inspiration for The Drowning came from a potentially-odd question: What if you could combine Resident Evil 4 with Bejeweled Blitz? "My team raised their eyebrows at me when I said, 'we're going to make a shooter that's a bit like Bejeweled Blitz," says Cousins. Bejeweled Blitz, for him, disproved a popular myth: "People say 'action games don't work on touchscreens,' but to me, the game is about accuracy and fast decisions," he says. The Drowning foregoes the core game mechanics of exploration, expansive levels, environmental storytelling or cutscenes, and instead focuses heavily on skill-based enemies. "The way you manage the enemies is similar to a game like Doom, or Serious Sam, or Resident Evil 4 -- you're in a constrained environment, managing how the enemy comes at you. You have to be a great shot, get yourself into position, manage and switch your weapons. We're thinking of a usage pattern where you want some FPS action, and have a limited amount of time to do that. The other stuff is about constructing and crafting, and takes place inside the menus, and you can do it at any pace, and with one hand. Or one thumb."
The idea is that players can engage with the game's peripheral, menu-based elements casually and occasionally, with slightly longer sessions ("longer", in mobile design terms, currently means 10 or 15 minutes) for the shooter elements. Cousins' mobile predictions sound reasonable -- having an ever-increasing and diverse selection of high-quality games on mobile devices very well may mean consumers feel a decreased sense of urgency about investing in an expensive console, especially when they can turn to their PC these days for longer, deeper experiences. And there's room to explore and expand who plays mobile games by exploring higher production values and themes that have worked well in existing spaces.

"I wish I could play something with a bit of meat and potatoes."

But on paper it can be a tough sell; the mobile audience isn't necessarily the historical home video gaming audience, nor the Call of Duty sort. And the player that is acclimated to consoles may not be so easily won over on short play cycles and the kind of free-to-play business models that made the success of the Battlefield games under Cousins' prior watch relatively unique. "I think our approach is to try to create a game that's appealing to a core audience -- and there is a core mobile player out there. They're on the TouchArcade forums, and they are people for whom iPad is their gaming device. That's a big audience, and we hope they find out about The Drowning through word of mouth and specialist press. And then the core [console] gamer will maybe find out about the game through reviews, and they maybe don't play games on mobile that often because they think they're all casual and cute. I think Infinity Blade hit that audience, a little." "Although I admit I sometimes succumb to the 'focus group of one' thing, when I'm sitting on the sofa in the evening, and we have the TV on in the background... and I'm on Twitter checking news, and playing mobile games on my iPad, sometimes I wish I could play something with a bit of meat and potatoes, and to me there's clearly an audience that isn't being addressed," Cousins describes. "There is a demographic of people who want to play core games, but don't have the time or money to access them, and that could be anyone from a guy in his 40s with half an hour before he falls asleep, or a student who doesn't have the money for a next-gen console, or a boy whose brother is on the console all the time, but he just gets handed the tablet instead of the controller," he continues. "I think a lot of successful games are honing in on those people." Maybe longer-session, more deeply-engaging tablet games could be on the horizon, Cousins suggests, although his team is currently focused on session lengths that reflect popular trends. "I always look at previous platforms -- arcade games started out simple and stupid, and we ended up with Sega Rally in a hydraulic cabinet, with everything licensed and realistic. Naughty Dog started out making little [Genesis] games, and now they are making enormous, moving experiences that are making people cry within five minutes of starting the game." "I see no reason mobile isn't going to move in that direction, because every other platform has moved in that direction: Bigger budgets, less risk, a more cinematic feel," he adds. "Then the next platform will bring the cute, crazy, inexpensive independent things and disrupt that."

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