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Are console-quality graphics the key to mobile user acquisition?

NaturalMotion's Torsten Reil says Dawn of Titans' visual sheen will be key to efficiently adding new customers

You don't have to look at NaturalMotion's new mobile action strategy game Dawn of Titans for very long to realize a lot of effort went into maximizing its visual punch. And you don't have to talk to NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil for very long before he'll confirm any suspicions you might have had on that front.

"We want people to feel like these Titans are real," Reil told GamesIndustry.biz in an interview last week. "We want people to care about them, the way they animate, the way they have different personalities. And for that we're really pulling out all the tricks that are possible right now on mobile. And I think in many ways, we're able to get to the quality of consoles, or even beyond that right now."

In some ways, that emphasis on visuals might seem ill-suited to the mobile market. After all, the free-to-play model all but demands the largest possible player base, and anything a developer does to raise the technical bar risks cutting people with older, less powerful phones out of the market. And while graphically impressive mobile games have found success before--NaturalMotion's own CSR Racing series would be one example--it's not exactly unheard of for polished but technically unimpressive titles like Candy Crush to get by.

Reil isn't concerned about either point. On the former, he notes that Dawn of Titans' level of detail will dynamically scale to the user's hardware, cutting out things like high-end particle effects if the phone would have an issue with it. Dawn of Titans, he noted, still runs "very well" on the iPhone 5, which was introduced in 2012.

As for devoting resources to flashy visuals in a market that doesn't demand them, Reil sees it as an investment in cracking an entirely different part of the equation for mobile success.

"The thing that is very expensive potentially is user-acquisition costs," Reil explained. "For many games, those UA costs dwarf actual development because the UA costs are so high. What we try to do at Natural Motion is make games that people will want to show to their friends. We've always tried to do that; it's a systematic approach. We invest in a compelling experience that people want to show to their friends because they haven't seen anything like it. It's worked incredibly well for us for CSR, Clumsy Ninja, and CSR2. We have a very high organic download rate so we're actually able to be very efficient with our user acquisition spend, I'd like to think much more efficient than any of our competitors. This strategy of investing in the content to make something awesome to have a disproportionately lower UA cost we think is a very compelling strategy."

And even if he thinks Dawn of Titans has matched the quality of console visuals, Reil isn't worried about the cost of mobile development likewise matching that of its console counterpart.

"What is different from console is that the escalation of content requirements on console is actually much higher than it is on mobile," Reil said. "On mobile, a big focus of gameplay for any elder game, and Dawn of Titans is no exception, is really deep social gameplay, for people to play together and for stories to unfold and develop through the interaction between the players. [That's opposed to the] very-long single-player campaigns you might get in whatever first-person shooter on console, where you run through all kinds of environments very quickly but you don't really see much of it. That costs a lot, and it's not really the same on mobile."

"If you don't [protect people a little], you only end up with those super hardcore players that monetize extremely well, but they don't quite fit our aspiration of being a mass market company."

Reil pointed out one example of how social gameplay works in Dawn of Titans. The basic premise of the game has players assembling armies and leading them into battle against other players' armies with one of numerous Titans, a powerful leadership unit that players can level up over time. Keeping with the focus on visuals, there's a nice interface through which players can sort through potential lands to invade, seeing who controls them and what sort of defensive force they've left to guard it. But there's also an option to pin specific lands for the other people in one's alliance, which Reil described this way:

"If this particular enemy was someone who consistently bullied you or harassed you, consistently attacked you, you can actually tell your alliance, and you can do it in a very easy way."

If the player pins an enemy's profile, it flags them for the rest of your alliance and they can go straight to that person and start a fight.

"This is something where we have been trying to innovate because we know that our players wanted this feature," Reil said. "They wanted to be able to show their friends very quickly who was harassing them so that as an alliance, you can work together to push back. It's one of the many things we learned through our soft launch, and it's a feature we think is going to be very cool."

When asked if that isn't just encouraging and enabling harassing behavior, Reil said, "Only to a point. We have other mechanisms that avoid this. What we don't want is to have someone rage-quit because they've just been attacked over and over again and they lose all their resources. Some games allow that, and they allow that intentionally. We don't. "

After any such attack, players will be exempt from attacks for a few hours, or until they decide to attack someone else, whichever comes first.

"If you don't [protect people a little], you only end up with those super hardcore players that monetize extremely well, but they don't quite fit our aspiration of being a mass market company," Reil said. "That's why we've tried to find a sweet spot between those two. It's not entirely safe, but there's a safety net if you get attacked really quickly.

"If you're a constant attacker, and someone is attacking you at the same time, then you have the ability to tell other people, 'Can you stop this guy from attacking me because he's cramping my style?' Now the other person has the same ability. They might tell their alliance, 'Actually these guys are homing in on me. Can you come back into the game and help me?' And they might come back and there might be an all-out short-term war going on between these alliances. That is where some of the attraction of games like this lies, obviously. We want to have that kind of social tension. We want people to write their own stories when alliance A declares war on alliance B, or alliance C has a pact of peace with alliance D."

He added, "It's not just a playground. Yes, you need to feel safe to some point, but this is a PvP game."

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Latest comments (2)

Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games6 months ago
If they are proud of their graphic work, it would be nice if they posted in-game screenshots. The only in-game art I've seen so far are some in-play scenes from the Launch Trailer.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gary LaRochelle on 9th December 2016 3:43pm

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Anthony Chan6 months ago
I have had the opportunity to play the game as it has soft launched in Canada. The graphics are amazing, however the gameplay is something else. The gameplay is to a point which I am not sure graphics will necessarily make this game the hit it should be.

The curve to attain anything early in the game is extremely steep, and often if you play it safe by grinding easy battles, you will run out of 'energy' too soon. While I understand many freemium games would love it if players paid in, I honestly think they need to be more generous at the beginning to hook new players in.

You spend too much time waiting for your time to play again to 'refill', even the graphics can't save that.
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