A little while ago, I said here on TUAW that the Ngmoco brand was "effectively done on the App Store," with the company's biggest games finally being shut down at the end of next month. And that hasn't changed at all -- the Ngmoco name just plain isn't being used. Ngmoco's parent company, DeNA, is still chugging along. A few years ago, DeNA, under the banner of Ngmoco, picked up former EA developer Ben Cousins, a veteran of both the Battlefield franchise and EA's "EAsy Studio" division, which specialized in free-to-play, casual browser-based games. Cousins' studio, which started out as Ngmoco Sweden, has now been renamed Scattered Entertainment, and he's set to release, with the help of DeNA, his first mobile free-to-play title, called The Drowning, sometime in March.
TUAW got to see an early version of the game running on video, and chat with Cousins earlier this week about what it's been like working with Ngmoco/DeNA, and just how he put together his first mobile free-to-play title.
What's probably most interesting about The Drowning, right off the bat, is just how different it is for everyone involved. DeNA (and Cousins, to an extent) has basically made its name on mainstream, casual experiences: It runs a very large Japanese social network called Mobage, and has found its first big hit in the US with Rage of Bahamut, a fairly casual social card game. But The Drowning is dark and atmospheric, and makes use of the much more hardcore first-person shooter genre.
"We wanted to make a zombie game, but we didn't want it to be like every other zombie game on mobile," says Cousins. The Drowning is about "the apocalypse happening in the modern era. Overnight, completely unexpected and synchronized across the world, all of the deep sea oil rigs in the world start leeching this new oil and they can't stop it. And that oil seems to be creeping across the ocean towards populated places." Workers fall into this oil, disappear and then a week later return as monstrous zombies, trying to bring more and more living things under the water.
It's creepy and strange, and it also sets up a solid premise for the other thing that's different about The Drowning: It's a first-person shooter designed not with virtual controls, but with controls meant to work best on a touchscreen. You can see the video below for a full rundown of how everything works, but Cousins says the idea for the controls came just out of constant "testing and prototyping and experimenting and trying out different things."
"During one of the market research sessions," recalls Cousins, "I was sat behind a one-way mirror," watching a tester play with the game. The tester became frustrated with the virtual controls he was using, and expressed his frustration to Cousins: "Why can't I just tap enemies to shoot them, or tap the world to go there? Why can't I use these gestures to control a shooter," asks Cousins, "because that felt like the most natural thing to do." So the team worked to take the gestures we normally use on touchscreens like the iPad -- pinch and zoom, swipe, tap and so on -- and plug those into the usual shooter inputs.
The result seems very fluid -- you can swipe around the screen to look, tap one finger to move through the 3D environment or tap two fingers to fire, with the point of attack coming in between your two finger taps. "With a single finger tap you were obscuring the contact point, and a lot of satisfaction of shooting these enemies in the game was kind of lost," says Cousins. So the team had the idea to use your two fingers "as an iron sight," and that worked well. "I can do it all in one fluid motion and I can shoot moving targets and things like that."
Originally, the controls also included moves like jumping and crouching, but as the gestures became more streamlined, those actions got removed from the code. And Cousins says they weren't needed, though he does say the team built out one prototype using an actual Counter-Strike map, "where you can do everything you need just using the standard gestures."
The actual gameplay isn't just killing zombies, however, says Cousins. The game's player character is originally based in Seattle, but is eventually forced out of the city by the invading creatures. He flees to a fictional nearby island, and there meets Charlotte, a mechanic/welder who can help him make weapons and other gear. From there, the game is basically a series of areas that open up in sequence, with the player going out to collect scrap and explore, and returning to Charlotte for upgrades and new weapons. Eventually the player will unlock vehicles, but these are essentially just keys to new places to play, like a boat that will deliver you around the island, or a helicopter that can climb up to a new area.
The game is free-to-play, but Cousins says even he had things to learn from how DeNA runs their business models. At EA, he was considered the "F2P expert," but at DeNA, "it was evident in the first week that I was one of the least knowledgeable people in the company about free to play." In Japan, says Cousins, "the free-to-play market is so much more mature."
As a result, there isn't an IAP "store" in The Drowning. Rather, Charlotte's upgrades take time, so if you want to progress faster through the game, you'll be asked to pay. She also has a scrapyard where you can find new rare recipes and other upgrades, and it'll cost IAP currency to visit, or to make sure you get an extra rare (but still random) item from her.
In the game itself, there is no multiplayer mode. But as you go through the game, you'll sometimes come across larger boss creatures that are way too strong to beat on one run through. Those creatures will also appear in your friends' games, and together, run by run, you'll be able to take them down for a chance at a rare or better item, says Cousins. So there's a sort of asychronous multiplayer game at work. But it's basically skippable, he told us -- you can ignore the larger creatures if you'd rather not deal with them.
Cousins says Apple has changed his life three different times -- with the iPod, the iPhone and then the iPad, and he's very happy to have to chance to give back to the platform. I have concerns about The Drowning's business model for sure. While Cousins and DeNA seem more than convinced that Western audiences are ready to pay for random chances at items and time savers (as they're already doing with Rage of Bahamut and its ilk), we haven't seen a model like that show up in a more hardcore first-person shooter.
The Drowning does look like a very different take on what DeNA, and even Cousins, have delivered in the past. The setting looks very interesting and well-done, and those controls do seem like a very smart take on first-person shooting for the touchscreen. The Drowning should be available to the public sometime this March, so we'll know for sure then if all of the work on this game, back since June of 2011, has been worth it.