Drowning not waving: Ben Cousins on shooting, money and horror
The Scattered Entertainment head speaks as The Drowning gets its big UK and US release
GamesIndustry International spoke to Ben Cousins as his first title with Scattered Entertainment, a free-to-play horror FPS called The Drowning, was released in the UK and US. The game actually launched in a number of smaller territories, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia, back in April, and since then has also been released in the Nordics.
"We were never really under any pressure to launch the game on any particular fate and we were given a lot of freedom by Tokyo to really wait until the game was ready - we were going to be completely happy with it before we went live," explains Cousins.
"It's a fantastic luxury to be able to do that and that's why we had a much longer beta. I think a lot of companies will go into a soft launch knowing that they haven't really got time to fix anything so they're actually probably just testing their server code, testing their back end and doing a bit of tuning but I think you need to go into a soft launch prepared to change stuff if you're not happy with it. Our longer soft launch gave us the opportunity to do that."
The game is a bit of a first on iOS: a true first person shooter with a horror theme and free-to-play monetisation, with a unique control system designed to try and deliver the speed and accuracy that has been missing from so many of the other iOS shooters.
"Every core gamer who likes shooters on console and had a mobile device and was playing games on it had exactly the same reaction, and I personally had the reaction as well, that I was never really satisfied."
"And we kind of reached the conclusion that we were never going really going to unlock the potential of shooters on mobile until we'd solved this problem."
It wasn't until a market research session two years ago that Cousins watched an angry young man battling with virtual sticks that the seeds of a new control scheme were sown.
"I'd like to see other shooter developers take up the spirit of what we've done and maybe try to innovate a little bit further"
"This guy was expressing his frustration at playing with the sticks and he was saying 'why can't I just tap and swipe and do all of the stuff I do on mobile? Why can't I just control the shooter just using taps and swipes?' And that kind of set a light bulb floating about my head and we went into a fairly involved prototyping phase."
The system does make for a slicker shooter experience, and is an improvement on what has gone before, but Cousins is pragmatic about its achievements, and hopes to see shooters keep evolving on tablets and mobile.
"I'd like to see other shooter developers take up the spirit of what we've done and maybe try to innovate a little bit further. It was good to see the Deus Ex game doing some interesting innovations around the control system, I don't think it was necessarily an improvement of The Drowning but people are realising they need to at least explore this area and hopefully try and improve and innovate on what we've done."
Another challenge faced by the team was to give the player that immersive sense of horror, even when they could quite easily be sat playing the game in Starbucks, rather than in a darkened room in a haunted house located on an Indian burial ground. The solution? Go for the psycho chiller chase feeling, rather than the creeping, there's-something-in-the-shadows one.
"I don't think they're ever going to get the same level of immersion in Starbucks that you would have sitting in a darkened room on an iPad, but what we tried to do with The Drowning is focus on the emotions that can be conveyed in that environment, panic and time management and trying to get things done just at the last moment and overcoming overwhelming odds. That kind of aspect of horror, a lot of horror movies have got that panicking, you're being chased, the enemy is coming at you and you've got to think fast, that's kind of the element of horror that we tuned into with The Drowning."
Of course from a business point of view these days the monetisation behind a game is just as important as, in some cases clearly more important than, the game play. Cousins says Scattered Entertainment has made the most of parent company DeNA's massive experience in the free-to-play market to find a balance that works. The game offers gamers the chance to pay more to speed certain processes up, or to keep on playing when their energy runs out.
"Energy mechanics, if they're done right, can be tuned really carefully, and generally not for monetisation. You're trying to tune the game so that people don't get burnt out on content, and when I first heard this theory or idea it really struck true to me because I'm the sort of person who, when I really love a game, will play until I'm sick of it. And I will down a play a session of The Last Of Us or BioShock until my eyes are literally hurting like I haven't been blinking and I'm sore from playing the game. And honestly I didn't enjoy the last 45 minutes of that four hour session and at some point I understood that maybe there's a value in the game saying 'you know what, you've had enough, why don't you take a break and come back tomorrow?'"
"And that's a very counter-intuitive motion for a core gamer, but when you look at the data it actually bears out quite well that if you control the session length for gamers you will get better long term retention of them. They will play the game for more weeks or for more days or for more months, even if their individual sessions are shorter. And you add monetisation to it simply because you don't want to completely block people from playing the game for 8 hours if they want to - that to me would feel kind of crazy - so generally you will add a small monetisation element to that. Super-engaged players would probably buy the game as a premium product anyway and they're not that bothered about spending a little bit of money to keep playing."
He points, not for the first time in the interview, to Candy Crush Saga, a game he clearly likes and one that uses a similar mechanic through its lives system. When he's playing terribly and is out of lives, the wait for more gives him a break from the frustration, and he comes back to it, happier and with a clear gaming head, later.
"We don't want someone coming in and completing the game in ten hours and just spending their money on energy, actually then in terms of monetisation they're not going to be a big spender really."
Scattered Entertainment also has plans that will help extend the lifespan of the game even further, a job that is slightly more challenging than just adding another 30 confectionery based puzzles onto a technicolor ladder. Here there are special events, an asynchronous cooperative multiplayer mode called Boss Hunt that will require players to work together,
"A lot of our learnings from Japan is that you not only need content in the main game loop you need enough to keep people engaged by time limited events are great ways of re-engaging lapsed players or bringing an extra flavour for people who are in the main game loop," says Cousins.
"We don't want someone coming in and completing the game in ten hours"
"I think ideally you want lots of different stuff happening in the game, lots of choice, so you can play the main game or you can also jump into an event and ideally you want an event running at all times. But building up those different types of event so that it's not too repetitive is actually quite a big job so if The Drowning proves to be a success post launch then we hope that within a couple of months we would be dropping in another type of event."
Now for a difficult question, what if it doesn't prove to be a success? DeNA displays a ruthless efficiency when it comes to cutting games that don't appear to be hitting their targets, even when those games are the work of big names like Suda51 and Keiji Inafune. Does that keep Cousins up at night?
"I think the last thing you want to do as a developer is to continue to invest your time and energy in something which actually didn't hit the target, because people, broadly speaking, aren't playing as much as you want them to and don't like it as much as you wanted them to," he says, philosophically.
"And if that was the case with The Drowning then I wouldn't have any objection to moving on to the next product. Obviously you need to do the products some justice and the audience who have been waiting for it justice, so don't just turn things off after a week. In fact you never really turn things off. But I'm very excited about The Drowning - I think we've done a really good job and I don't think that's going to happen - but I do think you have to be realistic as a developer."
The brutalities of live games won't be a shock to Cousins, his CV mixes old school, AAA development at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and DICE with over two years at EA Games Label working solely on free-to-play titles. He joined ngmoco in 2011, which had been acquired by DeNA in 2010
"If you wanted to make games and to get paid for it [AAA development] was the only thing you could do, and I think its quite telling that as soon as another option appeared there's been this massive influx of developers moving into other platforms," he says of the trend for AAA developers to make the move to smaller, independent development on mobile platforms.
"Believe me on every major AAA game the vast majority of the team wants to be a hell of a lot more innovative than they're able to be, and they're being constrained by the publisher and the executives to play it safe. That makes sense if you're holding the purse strings for a $200 million investment but the initial pitches for all of these big games are a lot more ambitious and innovative than the final finished product and I think you find a very large number of people on these teams frustrated with those constraints."
Scattered Entertainment may be part of DeNA's massive network of developers, but it has managed to mark itself out in two ways, a flat management structure and a team spread across the world.
"There are two things that we do, one is that we have quite flat management and the other one is that we allow you to work remotely. We don't care where you are, you can literally be anywhere in the world as long as you work a certain number of hours," he says.
"That's the biggest area of innovation and that's actually the one that had the least impact on development, it just kind of solved that problem and it's just worked."
The flat hierarchy had more of an impact, allowing the team to have a greater input on the finished game, and while he admits someone still has to have the final say on some areas, Cousins thinks it's a methodology that has proved successful in The Drowning.
"It gave us a very different product to the one which I created the original plan for before. I think if you asked anyone in the company they would say 'a chunk of my personality and taste is in this product and here's where I made my mark.' It's a real collaborative effort and if you know our team well you could look at them and you could see bits of their personalities and their interests in the story or in the UI or in the way the it looks, or in the game play itself. That's been interesting because a lot of products tend to just be the creation of one individual visionary whether its a Cliff Bleszinski or a Ken Levine or a Miyamoto whereas we've created a much more evenly spread amount of influence on the product from the team and it shows."
For now, all Cousins can do is wait and see what the US and UK make of the game. The reviews are strong so far, the game is the Editor's Choice on the UK App Store and is number 8 on the free apps chart, so it seems that he can stop worrying about what the team have served up.
"What the analogy would maybe be is a service based business like a restaurant or a pub, you know, like you've created a new type of cuisine and you've put your menu up and just nobody comes in to the restaurant."