Learn to Swim: Ben Cousins Brings 'The Drowning' to Mobile Gamers

According to mobile game developer Ben Cousins, consoles are headed the way of the woolly mammoth in the not-so-distant future. Make way for a more sophisticated mobile experience.


Console and PC games are too frequently time-intensive for mobile players. Mobile games oftentimes aren’t engaging enough for console fans. Enter The Drowning. A first-person zombie shooter debuting later this year for the App Store and Android devices, the post-apocalyptic free-to-play game seeks to provide a console-like experience for gamers on the go. That means rewriting the rules of mobile, from control systems to graphic elements, says Ben Cousins, general manager of DeNA’s Scattered Entertainment studio, the Swedish game developer that created The Drowning

Starting as a quality assurance tester for N64 and PlayStation games back in 1999, Cousins has since served as lead designer on PSP games such as Beats and Fired Up, creative director for Sony Computer Entertainment, and senior and executive producer on the Battlefield franchise for PC. The Drowning marks what Cousins hopes is the beginning of a new era of mobile gaming—one that lures serious gamers to mobile devices and provides more enriching options for those who are already there.

Get In Media: What were the challenges in taking a product as broad and comprehensive as a console game and putting it into a tablet?

Ben Cousins: Yeah, we had to make lots of changes. No one’s played a shooter like The Drowning. It’s completely unique in that sense. There’s a bunch of things we did. First of all is the control system itself. It was two or three months of kind of intensive prototyping to get a control system that works with just one hand, using taps and swipes. We also spent a long time thinking about how people play on mobile devices, the shorter play sessions, and the types of environments that you’re gaming in.

Ben CousinsBen CousinsWhether you’re on the bus or on a train or in an airport or you’re waiting for kids to come home from school or whatever, you have to have shorter play sessions, enable players to progress quickly in short sessions. Quite a lot of the game is menu-driven. The 3-D action is kind of like 3-D action in the experience of a console game, but everything else—navigating around the world, inventory management, all of that sort of stuff that would be done in a 3-D world is actually done in menus and at your own pace. We wanted to do a single-player game, story-based, but it had to be freemium, so there was another bunch of innovations we had to go through to kind of work out how to do that.

GIM: Why choose to make this freemium?

BC: We just determined that the only way to make a consequential game, to reach the numbers of people that we wanted to reach, would be to make it free to play. We looked at the premium shooters on mobile. They don’t really hit the same size of audience that you would have for a console shooter, tens of millions, that kind of number, and we just realized that the only way that we could have a chance or a shot to be as mainstream as those games was to be free.

GIM: There’s an argument from the other side who fear that with freemium, they won’t be compensated for their work. Is there validity to that claim?

BC: No. If you look at the grossing charts for mobile, the top grossing games are free to play. Freemium is about getting return on investment at the end of the day and the reason I’ve been in freemium games. This is my tenth freemium game I think I’m working on now. The reason I’ve been doing freemium for seven years or whatever is because I identified that a big chunk of the audience was going to be moving down to the bottom and playing free games. It’s a matter of survival more than anything.

GIM: When you’re setting up that kind of business model, how do you decide what’s going to be free content and where you’re going to make money?

BC: The most important thing to consider is making sure that there is a lot of free game. The majority of the content, in fact, all of the levels and all of the modes and all of the story in The Drowning is completely accessible to free players. What you’re trying to do is create a game loop where there are enhancements that can be made if you want to spend money and those enhancements are appealing to a really passionately engaged player. So you make a great game that you can play for free, then you add extras which a really passionate person for whom The Drowning will be a hobby, their main hobby, will be spending money on—faster progress, a better chance of getting high scores, better opportunity of getting the good content in the game.

“The new iPads have far, far higher resolution screens than an HDTV, so you can get a lot more crisp details and high-quality textures even if you can’t necessarily have the amount of geometry in the environment or the amount of transparency in the environment you could have on a console game.”
GIM: You’ve stated in previous interviews that you believe the console will be dead in five to ten years. Do you think that it’s all going to mobile?

BC: By “dead,” I mean the majority of revenue. The biggest market share internationally will be on mobile. We’re getting pretty close to that now I think. There’s probably a parity now between the size of the console business and the international mobile business, taking into account China and Japan as well. I don’t think that every single gamer in the world will end up on mobile.

Console is being attacked from two angles at the moment. The very, very hardcore gamers are getting really good experiences on PC now. Steam would be a great example of a platform that has made PC gaming faster and cheaper and easier and more accessible. I think the more Steam-focused boxes that we keep hearing rumors about would be an area where I think a lot of very hardcore gamers will end up. I think that the mainstream of gamers, the kind of people who buy two games a year … console is the just most convenient platform for them at the moment. I think we’ll see a lot of those gravitating over to smart devices, playing games on tablets, future smart TVs, and iOS-enabled TVs.

GIM: You spoke on a South By Southwest a panel on how indie game developers have to evolve or die. How so?

BC: It’s about publishers really rather than developers in this new world. In the olden days, publishers would be a company that had big cash resources and that have a supply chain network of manufacturing and distribution and relationships with stores like Wal-Mart. Publishers nowadays are really important, but they have to have a different set of skills. It’s a different type of marketing. It’s a relationship with Apple and Google rather than a relationship with Wal-Mart and Electronics Boutique. It’s the ability to build web publishing platforms and monetization design rather than to have supply chain management capability. You’re advertising on different platforms and you’re advertising in different ways. Publishers are very important. If you want to have a really, really big hit, you’re more likely to do that if you go through a publisher. But publishers themselves, it’s very different than how it used to be ten, 15 years ago.

GIM: The tablet is certainly more limited than a console would be. Where did you have to make compromises on The Drowning?

BC: What we found is that to get the graphical detail that we wanted, to get parity with console games, we had to have slightly smaller environments. We couldn’t have big, expansive environments with the level of detail we have. We had to have smaller arenas, but the level of detail within that arena is really, really high and is comparable with console games. The esoteric things about mobile hardware, you have to worry about the amount of objects that you’re drawing rather than the detail of those objects. It tends to be the CPU that’s working harder than the [graphics processing unit] on these devices, so there are lots of quite serious differences in the capabilities of a mobile and console device, both positive and negative. The new iPads have far, far higher resolution screens than an HDTV, so you can get a lot more crisp details and high-quality textures even if you can’t necessarily have the amount of geometry in the environment or the amount of transparency in the environment you could have on a console game.

GIM: You recruited people from Far Cry, from Halo, from some major, expansive games. Did that present any challenges for them switching to a much smaller environment?

BC: They were ready for it. The people who came to us and responded to us positively when we approached them were the ones who were ready for a new platform and a new set of learning. There is a lot that can be carried over, but they wanted to learn a new platform and do something fresh and work on smaller teams and have faster iteration cycles. A lot of these guys have been promoted to managers on 200-man teams and they feel very separate from game development. We gave them an opportunity to not take a pay cut and to be able to go back into real development, working the tools and making an impact on the game rather than doing it through managing others.

“Whether you’re studying a traditional game development course or computer science or art or something, be working on other projects. Be publishing games, be making games, because that’s where you really learn the important stuff.”
GIM: For somebody who wants to move into your position, what would you recommend?

BC: I would always recommend that you have a good, rounded education, but one thing I always say to people who are looking for a job in the industry is hobby projects are so important. Nowadays, a hobby project can become a multi-million dollar business as we’ve seen with Minecraft. Whether you’re studying a traditional game development course or computer science or art or something, be working on other projects. Be publishing games, be making games, because that’s where you really learn the important stuff.

GIM: You’ve also spoken about how 3-D is really coming to video games. What skills do people need to break into that?

BC: It’s becoming more and more important, across mobile in particular, to get good skills in 3-D modeling and animation, etc. The position that we’re in now is so much better than when I was younger. We’ve got free tools like Unity and Unreal Development, which enable anyone to get accessibility to really good tools. Again, it’s not really about the best learning. It’s just to get into the deep end and start creating content, getting hold of these free tools and finding out where your skills are rather than hoping you’ll get an easy move into a games company where you’ll learn on the job. It’s more likely that you’ll be learning at home.

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