The Drowning: How to make a touchscreen FPS not suck

If you've ever played a touchscreen first-person shooter, I'm sorry.

Games like Modern Combat and N.O.V.A. aren't bad ... they're just severely limited by the platform. There's simply no way that a digital analog stick is ever going to feel as consistent and accurate as a physical analog stick on a controller. And since first-person shooters live and die by controls, touchscreen FPS games are instantly hamstrung. But Ben Cousins thinks he's come up with a solution.

You may recognize the name. Cousins was the executive producer behind Battlefield 1943, Bad Company 2 and the free-to-play Battlefield Heroes. For the last few years, though, he's been working on mobile games. His latest gig is as general manager of Scattered Entertainment and head of European Studio operations for the massive mobile publisher, DeNA. And it's in that position that he believes he's come up with a way to make an FPS work on a touchscreen.

"The biggest problem," says Cousins in an interview with Polygon, "is that people have been trying to make the console control scheme work on mobile."

Digital analog sticks are the manifestation of this, as developers try to replicate the versatility of a physical controller.

Scattered's next game, The Drowning, tosses this out the window. Here's how it works:

Instead of using a left and right digital analog stick to move and aim, The Drowning is controlled by just two fingers on one hand. Shooting an enemy is as simple as tapping your two fingers on the left and right side of the enemy. Basically whatever is in the middle is what you want dead. For up-close attacks, a single finger tap on an enemy will yield a melee slash. As for looking around, swiping with one finger left and right will turn the camera in that direction.

But what about movement?

"Movement is the one area we compromised a bit," Cousins admits. "You tap to move where ever you want on the screen, but the A.I. handles most of the work. If you see a spot you want to go off in the distance, you can tap there, and the pathfinding will lead you around any boxes or debris in your way."

You can, at any point in the middle of moving, shoot enemies around you, but this will cause you to stop moving.

We tried to make this game feel more like Resident Evil 4 than, say, Halo

"You can't move and fire," says Cousins. "We tried to make this game feel more like Resident Evil 4 than, say, Halo. The 3D action is about getting to a location where you're safe. Once you get there, you're trying to hold your ground for as long as you can."

That combat takes place in a handful arenas, where you're trying to survive against mutated creepy bird creatures. Each round lasts about two minutes and at the end of the game, players are rewarded with points they can spend on scavenging the environment for parts. Cousins equates this to flipping over cards, hopping for the stock of an AK-47, for example. This is how players will unlock new guns in the game.

It's also how The Drowning will make money.

See, The Drowning is free-to-play. All the arenas are accesible without paying. What you can choose to pay for are more opportunities to scavenge the environment at the end of a round. Essentially you can pay to increase your chance of finding that part you're looking for. Cousins is serious about making sure the experience is still enjoyable for those who don't pay, but for those who do, it basically speeds up the process a little bit.

Another way to speed up the process is by filling up your "energy" meter. The Drowning will limit your number of consecutive plays, though that precise limit (5 plays every hour, as an example) is still being figured out.

Cousins says that the energy system is not about making money, though. "We find that people are happier if they don't plow through a game for 20 hours in one day. The energy system keeps them from getting burnt out."

It's impossible to say whether Cousins has achieved his goal of making an enjoyable FPS on a touchscreen until we've had a chance to play it. The game is scheduled to release sometime in the early months of 2013 on iOS, with other platforms planned for the future. But, whether it works or doesn't, it's good to see someone trying something new.

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