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How NaturalMotion is leading Zynga's quest to be #1 on mobile

Torsten Reil discusses his newest game Dawn of Titans, and the improvements in live ops his studio has learned from Zynga

Zynga has been struggling to return to the kind of profits it was generating when social games were riding high several years ago. After bringing in EA and Microsoft veteran Don Mattrick as CEO, Zynga purchased developer NaturalMotion, which had established itself as a very successful tools developer and as a mobile publisher. The intent, obviously, was to help Zynga in transitioning from being primarily a social game publisher to a mobile game publisher. Zynga has come a long way towards that goal, ending 2014 as primarily a mobile game company. "Our mobile bookings now account for 60 percent of our bookings, up from only 27 percent since the time I joined the company," CEO Don Mattrick said during the company's last earnings call. Their goal is to hit 75 percent or more of the revenues coming from mobile by the end of 2015.

Key to that strategy is the company's stated plan to publish from six to ten new titles this year, and be a leader in multiple categories of mobile games. Leading the way in that attempt is the new game from NaturalMotion, Dawn of Titans, which is heading to iOS and Android platforms in soft-launch only a few weeks from now, with general release to follow.

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"In Dawn of Titans, players are immersed in a breathtaking, high fantasy world as they lead Titans into epic battles with thousands of soldiers," said Natural Motion CEO Torsten Reil in a blog entry today. "Players build their kingdoms to fuel their army, raise Titans and fight battles at epic scale to capture territory. The Dawn of Titans experience is set within a kingdom that looks, feels and sounds real. Our team has designed every element of Dawn of Titans - from the trees, to the waterfalls, to the Titans, to the battles - to push the edge and create an entertainment experience that we believe supersedes anything found today in the Action Strategy category."

The game is built using NaturalMotion's expertise with graphics and their very capable tools. "Echo, Dawn of Titans' proprietary engine, enables the game to feature thousands of units on-screen to achieve epic battles and run smoothly on mobile devices. In addition to Echo, Titans and troops are brought to life with our Morpheme animation engine, giving in-game Titans and characters dynamic and unique, lifelike movements," Reil added in the blog post.

"We challenged the team with the following: Are you able to create battle scenes with thousands of characters on-screen at the same time, in real-time, with you having full real-time touch control over all of these troops, and make all of these battles resolve within thirty to sixty seconds?"

GamesIndustry.biz previewed the game while chatting with Reil at Zynga's headquarters this week. Even on a big screen, we appreciated the beautifully rendered details, lighting effects, clouds, and detailed landscapes. Still, despite all the beauty, the game appears to have enough strategic depth to keep and hold the attention of gamers. Like other popular mobile strategy games, you'll build up territories and use resources to better equip your fighting forces. Once on the battlefield, there are plenty of tactical choices to make, with positioning, use of different units against the best targets, and adroit use of special attacks being key elements to success. The game's attention to detail looks to extend to strategic depth as well as surface beauty.

In our meeting, Reil stressed that "Dawn of Titans is there to redefine action-strategy as a category." Bold words indeed, but NaturalMotion has the track record to back up such an attempt. From My Horse to CSR Racing to Clumsy Ninja, NaturalMotion has produced a string of hit mobile games. "CSR Racing now has 120 million users," said Reil. "Some two percent of the world's population has played that game."

It's also interesting that each game NaturalMotion has created is something completely different than previous games. This is clearly not a developer that likes to rework previous game designs slightly. Instead, NaturalMotion seems to like tackling tough problems. "We challenged the team with the following: Are you able to create battle scenes with thousands of characters on-screen at the same time, in real-time, with you having full real-time touch control over all of these troops, and make all of these battles resolve within thirty to sixty seconds?" Reil recalled. "And they said no, that's not possible." He laughed as he launched into the game. "Eventually we managed to get it to work."

How did the team accomplish something they themselves said couldn't be done? "This was possible because we have a super-passionate, very talented team in London," Reil said, "but also because we have our own real-time, high-performance game engine."

"There isn't necessarily a graphics arms race [in mobile] for the sake of it; there are improvements in visuals that are very specific to giving essentially a blockbuster appeal to the general public"

The team had to overcome difficulties not just with graphics, but with input as well. "We found that if the input frequency of the game is too high - if you constantly have to do something - it is just not that playable," said Reil. "You want to get it down to a cadence like I showed you. You tap, do something, and wait a few seconds, and it's reasonably permissive, so if I don't just get the timing right, I'm probably still going to be OK. It's that kind of balancing that was one of the really important things to get right for this game."

Looking at the quality of the graphics in Dawn of Titans, you do have to wonder if this a continuation of the graphics one-upsmanship that has consumed the console and PC games sectors for decades. Reil, for one, thinks that the situation is different.

"There isn't necessarily a graphics arms race for the sake of it; there are improvements in visuals that are very specific to giving essentially a blockbuster appeal to the general public. That's a big difference," Reil asserted. "The same way as amazing big movies have a lot of complex visual effects in there, it's there to really get everyone excited about something, everyone bought into a world or a vision. That's why we're doing it. That's why we're not saying that this game is running at this resolution or this frame rate, which used to be very important on console. Our audience, which is hopefully everyone, they won't care about that. They will just care about the fact that they can believe the world, and that's what we use the graphics for. I think that's the center difference between this and console."

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The game was already in progress when NaturalMotion was acquired by Zynga, and it seems pretty clear this must have been one of the reasons the purchase happened. The partnership between the two companies appears strong. Reil said that NaturalMotion has benefited from its acquisition by Zynga. "We are able to create games with the sizzle that are combined with all the live ops and social expertise of Zynga," said Reil. "If you look at the current performance of our games like CSR Racing, for example, they've climbed quite a lot in the charts, and the reason is that we've learned a lot from Zynga on how to run live ops, and that is what's been happening."

One can never predict how well a particular game will do, especially in the long run, but Dawn of Titans has all the elements that help make a game a hit. Zynga can really use that now in order to demonstrate what it's been saying to investors about its ability to be patinet and put out quality games that can be leaders in a category. It's an encouraging start to a year of multiple product introductions for Zynga, and if the rest of the titles are anywhere near this level of quality Zynga could well have the return to solid success it's been striving towards.

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