Critical Consensus: The Drowning

Scattered Entertainment re-imagines the FPS for touch devices, but free-to-play gets in the way of the fun

Scattered Entertainment's The Drowning is located at the centre of a vortex of unanswered questions. It is the first release from an expert team specifically assembled to bring AAA console values to mobile gaming. It is a supposedly 'revolutionary' new approach to making that most commercial of genres, the first-person shooter, work with a touch-based interface. And it's the tangible product of a studio led by Ben Cousins, one of the industry's most impassioned advocates of the free-to-play model.

So, a slick, polished, visually impressive mobile game where excitement can be found for the princely sum of absolutely nothing, then? Well, not quite.

"Instead of clumsily fumbling over a virtual stick, you direct your player by tapping sections in a level and the character moves automatically"


At present, the response from the critics has been near unanimous in two areas: first, The Drowning is a great looking game, with the sort of detail and visual effects one normally associates with console releases; second, and rather more important, in its fresh approach to FPS controls Scattered Entertainment has found a unique and engaging way to tackle the genre through touch.

In its 8 out of 10 review - the highest score awarded to The Drowning so far - Modojo is full of praise for a "novel" control scheme that "works incredibly well."

"Instead of clumsily fumbling over a virtual stick, you direct your player by tapping sections in a level, and the character moves automatically. While doing this, you can look around by swiping the screen in different directions, or hitting a 180-degree spin button.

"It's useful to have this functionality, because the soulless oil creatures in the game come out of nowhere. You can shoot baddies on the move using a neat two-finger shooting system that provides better accuracy. The shot places itself between two digits and works incredibly well, especially with headshots."


There can be no doubt that this is Scattered Entertainment's biggest bet. The Drowning's control scheme has been at the heart of every preview, interview and press release since its marketing push first began, but while the majority of critics give credit for a job well done, there are still some dissenting voices. Specifically Eurogamer, which awards The Drowning a lowly 4 out of 10 in a review that struggles to find many redeeming qualities in Scattered Entertainment's debut.

"The Drowning has to tinker with the guts of the genre to make it work without a joypad or mouse but, credit where it's due, the system that developer Scattered Entertainment has come up with is about as close as we're likely to get to something that works through touch alone.

"It just doesn't always work well enough... When monsters do get up close, the system creaks and you end up all fingers and thumbs"


"It just doesn't always work well enough. This is still a clumsy and unnatural way to play an FPS, and while it's more functional and intuitive than many previous touch-screen shooters, it's still inevitably going to be your third choice if keyboard, mouse and joypad are unavailable. Mostly, you'll find yourself running to a distant corner and firing madly at the oncoming horde before running to a different corner and repeating the process. When monsters do get up close, the system creaks and you end up all fingers and thumbs."

For GamesBeat, which rates The Drowning as a 5 out of 10, the controls are, "the most interesting part of the experience." However, Scattered Entertainment's achievements in this area are also misleading, as the experience those controls support can also be, "a chore to play." GamesBeat expresses appreciation for the short, contained missions, which recognise the way people prefer to play games on mobile devices. However, this arcade-like focus is undermined by a fundamental lack of substance.

"The actual game consists of small, timed missions on tiny maps. You either attack a group of zombie-esque creatures or defend a location from them as they try to break through small barriers. Essentially, both modes are the same. You run around and shoot the bad guys until they die."

And progress is tied to the game's free-to-play business model, which attracts a great deal of criticism from almost every review currently available. Destructoid, which awards The Drowning 4 out of 10, lists the approach to monetisation as the single biggest issue with the game, undermining the solid work evident in other aspects of its design.


"Even with some fairly generic enemies and scenery, The Drowning still functions as a decent, [visually] stunning mobile shooter. But here is where the game completely falls apart: microtransactions - and lots of them."

Apparently, getting ahead in The Drowning is a complicated business. Your performance on any given stage is assessed with a star rating, which subsequently dictates the amount and rarity of loot you are given for your efforts. All new weapons are broken as a natural state, and require parts to return to working order. Moving on to the next stage demands the use of a vehicle, which must also be fixed and filled with gas.

"I felt duped on multiple levels, as the game was quite clearly selling me three different ways to pay for a game that should have just been one premium price"


There are three in-game currencies: Black (oil, basically) is the most common and features in most transactions; Gas is used to power vehicles to the next stage; and Flares can be employed to earn better loot in any given round. Needless to say, all of these can be purchased with real-money, and Destructoid - among others - is less than satisfied with Scattered Entertainment's definition of 'free'.

"Firstly, you may find yourself entering a level with 30 seconds on the timer, wasting three precious energy/Gas points almost instantaneously. Then you find out (without warning) that you aren't equipped with the "right weapon" for the job, which you have to either grind for with random rewards, or buy/upgrade through purchasing "Black/Oil" for real-life cash. The Drowning then notifies you that if you buy "Flares," (after you've used up your free allotment of three), you can earn better items in that particular run.

"From that point if you've exhausted all your energy, then you have to wait to get more gas (read: wait to play the game again). You do start with three gas tank replenishment power-ups, but even then I was completely tapped out with roughly an hour's worth of play, waiting for it to slowly fill back up -- and you have to buy more from that point on with no freebies. I felt duped on multiple levels, as the game was quite clearly selling me three different ways to pay for a game that should have just been one premium price.

"Without the energy mechanic and constant drip-fed weapon and item parts, I could easily see myself destroying an entire afternoon blasting apart zombies. But that's not what happened."

Related stories

Traditional games are the real bait-and-switch - Cousins

Scattered Entertainment GM says critics of free-to-play ethics driven by fear and snobbery

By Brendan Sinclair

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

By Rachel Weber

Latest comments (23)

Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital4 years ago
If games like The Drowning are really the future and this kind of F2P is going to be the dominant business model, I think it is time for me to start playing tennis, learn to play a guitar, perhaps even start growing roses... because I will be staying as far from gaming as possible.

It actually makes me sad to read about the The Drowning. That so much talent, energy and money is invested into a product that is basically no different from gambling, or even drugs.

Such abusive F2P should be made illegal. There you go... you can start throwing rocks. I am ready.
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Adam Jordan Community Manager, Ubisoft4 years ago
It's a shame to hear that the only thing holding back the game is in fact the MTX side of things.

I know with mobile gaming that MTX models are essential due to the way mobile games are played but I would have thought for a first game, that Scattered Entertainment would take it slow, show they can provide what they stated (Which so far seems to be the case with stunning visuals and mechanics) then work on the MTX front.

Personally I have always seen F2P (No matter the platform) as an optional mechanic, allow the player to decide whether they want to pay, show them why they should pay by giving them a taste of the game and most of all, have a method where a player can get the same thing for free in order to progress through the game.

Once you force a player to stop progression through the game because they are likely needing to purchase something with real money then you are more than likely going to make them turn away and forget the game. I'm not saying provide the whole game for free but what I am saying is, give the player the option....such as if they need Fuel to continue the game, give them the choice to either pay to continue or have a little bonus game (Such as in relation to The endless horde mode...make the player play for that extra time in the game...the longer they survive in the bonus game, the more chance they can get that fuel they need to progress)
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd4 years ago
I find it surprising that this game is still being described as having production values on par with modern console releases.
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Show all comments (23)
Ruben Monteiro Engineer 4 years ago
Can we go back to older and better paying models and just forget that F2P ever existed?
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital4 years ago
Eric: The more abusive F2P will win. No doubt about it. "Good" F2P is based around the idea that you like the game so much, that you want to consume it as much as possible - purchasing new content, abilities, levels, etc...

Abusive F2P uses a mind trick. The same trick that is used by gambling industry and exploits the people who are receptive to it.

It's not a question what's "good", but what works. Financially, games like The Drowning make all the sense in the world. But they make me want to throw up. They will make a lot of people very rich. Just like selling drugs does.
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Jose Martin Entrepreneur & Financing - Media / Tech / Interactive Entertainment 4 years ago
Jakub hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately, many formerly passionate developers have succumbed to pure economics as their driving force, not saying that makes them bad people, really who can blame them when big publishers have been abusing dev teams for years, employing them for big projects, pushing back breaking schedules and endless unpaid overtime then dumping them like trash when a project is done, even when a released game makes a profit, if the profit isn't "big" enough, successful teams have still been sent to the unemployment line -

So now we see one of the consequences for those policies, devs forming independent mobile outfits and putting out a stream of abusive F2P crap, because the bean counters figured out that it doesn't matter if a large percentage of gamers play and enjoy your game, it only matters if you can lure and snag a small percentage of long term players who have the resources to continuously feed the addiction you have carefully crafted - these players, known as "whales", can easily justify the price of development of any well funded F2P game, on their own, even if most core gamers shun your model and rip apart your ethics, your game will still make a truckload of money if you tap into that obsessive, rich pool of "whales".

Making a game that attracts the largest audience possible and builds goodwill with a majority of the core gamer audience has definitely taken a backseat to the simple bottom line in many game companies playbooks....that is the state of the business, I don't foresee a drastic change until that pool of big spending addicted gamers gets sucked dry - we will see.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jose Martin on 8th August 2013 4:49pm

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Jose A. Gallardo CEO / Lead Developer, Retromade Games Studio4 years ago
I think F2P must follow another model than actual one. i think must be designed with a final price and the gamer must knows the final price. I mean with a game to be focus on "gamers" and not for "casuals". With our game Hell-IX we are following this model. Hell-IX is F2P for smartphones and tablets, however the game will not longer be F2P for computers and consoles. We listen to gamers and what they claim about F2P. We decide to remove the F2P model with PC and console versions but keep it on phones & tablets. But both gamers will pay the same amount even on F2P, there is only a number of items to buy on HELL-IX, if a gamer buys one by one he will pay the same as a player from PC or console who buy the full game from the begining.

After this decision, our project on Steam/Greenlight project got a lot of followers and they are happy. I think developers and publisher must avoid so much greed. "Gamers" are loyal to companies, however "casual" can invest on one product and change to other one as soon is trendy.
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Gil Salvado 3D/2D Artist 4 years ago
There are many F2P titles I wouldn't spent any money on, but there are the few - which aren't abusive - I do spent some money on from time to time. And I don't regret it, whereas I would, if I would've spent money on a game that is supposed to be FREE-TO-PLAY in order to be able to play it continuously.

Back in the days Arcades have been so popular and didn't charged you for playtime, but for failure. I guess, current F2P developers should examine the mechanics of arcade games much more, as they didn't received as much heat and still were very profitable.
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Brian Lewis Operations Manager, PlayNext4 years ago
I am going to ask this question, and I am hoping that someone can clarify this for me. Why not offer both?

This game is standalone (not coop or an mmo), so there should be no issue with simply offering two different options. F2P, with transactions to recharge as it currently has. P2P, where you have to pay upfront, but with a faster auto recharge. Heck, they could even just sell the faster autorecharge as an option for the F2P version (single price point upgrade).

F2P is a good way to get a game to its market, but once you have the game in the players hands, hybrid monetization systems are the best to get their money. Offering MORE options seems like the best route.
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Sergio Rosa "Somewhat-Creative Director", Domaginarium4 years ago
I keep wondering what would happen if a game like this one was instead sold as a premium price (based on mobile standards, so it would be like 7 USD or so). Maybe it wouldn't sell millions but I wonder if players would still buy it because they think it's worth it.
On a side note, I am considering porting my current game project to iOS in the near future (a horror game). All I know is it would not be free to play, and it would not cost 99 cents either (specially considering the PC version will sell for 15USD). The easiest answer would be "it will not sell" but I haven't done enough research to know.
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Dave Wolfe Game Developer, Cosmic Games4 years ago
I downloaded the Drowning a few days ago and I was disappointed by the controls. I never even got to the point where you could make a purchase, the controls are just way too clumsy for a fps. The two-finger tap to shoot works well, but the movement and looking around is really awkward, especially when you are surrounded by enemies and you have no idea how much you need to turn to get at it, or even which direction to turn.

I really don't think this is the future of fps.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dave Wolfe on 8th August 2013 8:30pm

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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ4 years ago
It's a tricky place right now.

I think it's very hard to get people to buy your app, for any price tag.

So free makes a lot of sense, especially if you have no real marketing budget to get hype, and get the game in front of thousands or potential buyers.

Making it free, and giving users a way to spend money in the game seems to me to be the best bet. So I'm making a game which is free for 20 missions, and then you can buy extra seasons of missions (20 missions in each season). and I'm hoping that has some success.

I also want to do a paid version, where you get the first 60 missions all included.

I don't want to nag the player for money, I just want to let them do some IAP's if they want. And preferably to give them actual new content for their money, not just "some currency". Selling players currency as the core of your business model seems a bit weird to me (as an oldschool gamer), because you're just selling them numbers! You're selling them cheats. Seems strange, as I've never liked using cheats when I play games.

But selling currency seems to work.

I'm going to try to avoid ever making a game that simply sells currency, no matter how well it works. :)

Viva le gameplay!
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany4 years ago
Man, was interesting to read you comment since right now I'm working in BlueByte. We do browser-based F2P games which is a business model that I personally dislike. What keeps me going is that the philosophy here is exactly that: "Make a good game so customers will be loyal and pay for stuff on it" and this is working for us. Lot of costumers, benefits and continuous contact with the final user (something that a lot of companies seems to have forgotten.

Let The Settlers Online and Anno be an example of how to do a F2P game that makes money and, at the same time, create a good game that people will expend money into because of its quality.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 9th August 2013 7:45am

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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital4 years ago
To make things clear, I am not arguing against F2P.
F2P is a great model that can work for the benefit of game developers, players and the whole industry. But it must be based around a certain level of "fairness". You must build a monetization system into a great game. Not build a game into a great monetization system.

What I have a problem with is abusive F2P. Games that intentionally lure you inside and then won't let you truly enjoy the game, unless you pay, but the "mental hooks" are already there and your subconsciousness is screaming at you to start buying stuff. I am not saying that mobile audience is a brain-less mass that gets exploited easily. Most people see through that and most people will always select products that treat them fair. But there simply are people who don't have this ability, young kids being a good example.

In the end, everybody is mostly responsible for themselves and their kids. But once people get burned, they rarely come back. Mobile games have already damaged the whole industry in degrading games' value in many player's eyes. 0.99$ is viewed as premium price these days. And now, abusive forms of F2P are about to do another massive damage. That's what upsets me.

Perhaps there should be some kind of rating system, like ESRB and PEGI, that rates the monetization mechanisms and informs about the expected cost of actually playing the game.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital4 years ago
As I wrote, I am not against F2P. I just have this cynical view of the world that money always wins over what's regarded as "good". And if we have too many people going into the abusive F2P meat mills, they will never return to the game industry again and they will be lost. To the traditional game models, as well as the "good" F2P. Parents will cry on TV, complaining that their kids just spent 10.000$ on a single game, public opinions will shift, politicians will act... we all know how this works. The industry is just one angry mother away from being categorized somewhere between porn and hardcore drugs ;-) (joke)

Anyway, I think I said all I had to say. To anyone reading this: Have a nice weekend!
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Christian Murphy Games Programmer 4 years ago
I agree , wholeheartedly
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Christian Murphy Games Programmer 4 years ago
I agree , wholeheartedly
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Christian Murphy Games Programmer 4 years ago
I agree , wholeheartedly
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Bobby Farmer Development Director, EM Studios4 years ago

As an employee of the people who make Kingdom's of Middle Earth you clearly have an angenda.

Any game which, to instantly upgrade 3-4 buidings and skills from level 9 to 10 (forgetting about how much time/money it would cost to get there in the first place), costs about the same as GTA 5 will (plus the hardware to play it on), to me seems to be firmly in the whale harpooning camp.

And as someone else above said, targeting those who have this kind of addiction is not a million miles away from online gambling.

I'm sure in a few years time people will look back at some of the more extreme F2P games and think "Did we REALLY let that happen?"

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bobby Farmer on 12th August 2013 3:13pm

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Bobby Farmer Development Director, EM Studios4 years ago
Wow! I had no idea this would hit such a raw nerve. I'm guessing from 'Here we go again' that I'm not the first person to have made such an assumption?

The Hobbit: KoM is a very nice piece of work, but fundamentally it (and many others) are using very sophisticated techniques to extract as much money from their customers as they can.

I wasn't attacking you personally, but was - I believe reasonably - suggesting that someone who works for a company who adopts this kind of monetization strategy, and then defends it at length, had a vested interest in doing so.

This was not intended as a personal attack at all, I'd never do such a thing, but I have a major issue with this way of making money from games.

There's a reason gambling sites have warnings about 'Gambling responsibly', and alcohol adverts talk about 'drinking responsibly', and that's because certain elements of the population need protected –and legislative bodies have recognised that.

If the industry continues to go down this route, I think we’ll start to get even more pressure from the ‘moral majority’ on this than we do on violence in games.

And finally, and not getting at you, but getting at the game monetisation … I just loaded the game up. My city wall is at level 9. To go to level 10 I need a Hobbit Building Crew and it’ll take almost 3 days to upgrade – so if I want it at all it's £7, and if I want it right away it's 460 Mithril in total – which costs £28 (around $40). This is just one small thing in a game with millions of things to do.

The amount of traditional game you can buy for $40 is colossal in comparison, so how can this kind of monetisation possibly be viewed as reasonable?
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Bobby Farmer Development Director, EM Studios4 years ago
Glad I didn't hit a raw nerve (edited 14 times :-).

And I don't mean to sound condescending here, but you need to get less defensive when someone disagrees with you - especially if you pride yourself in being difficult to troll. I managed to do it and it wasn't even my intention :-)

Believe it or not, this was most definitely not a personal attack, and was purely my view on why monetisation carried out in the way Kabam do it could ultimately be detrimental for the industry as a whole.

Perhaps my assumption that this approach was being defended by a Kabam employee was incorrect, but I hardly think it’s a wild assumption to make.
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Jakub Mikyska CEO, Grip Digital4 years ago
The more and more I read this, the more and more I think that a rating system for monetization mechanisms is necessary...

We put "violence" labels on games even though we know that no kid is going to turn into a serial killer because of games. We put age restrictions on games even though that every parent should by instinct know whether a game called "Grand Theft Auto" is the right one for their 10 years old kid.

And we all know that we don't need to build that Level 10 wall and spend 40$ on it. But some people obviously do so. And they should know in advance that such things await them in a game and they should be able to make the decision whether they want to play such a game, before they may get addicted.
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Bobby Farmer Development Director, EM Studios4 years ago
@Eric, you spend large portions of your extensive posts in relation to me calling me a bully etc etc, when all I've ever done is make an assumption many would - that an employee of Company A defends the products of Company A.

I still have no idea why this has triggered such fury.

But to spend all that time calling ME a bully, and end up claiming the last word, and then using it to say it's not worth speaking to me because I have the wit, dexterity and bowel control of a pigeon is, well, more than a little hypocrital.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Bobby Farmer on 15th August 2013 6:21pm

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