How a classic Counter-Strike map led to the innovative controls of the iOS title The Drowning
Ben Cousins was a producer who worked on the Battlefield before he formed Scattered Entertainment, a studio currently working on a first-person shooter for tablets. One of the game’s hooks is the control scheme, which seeks to marry interactions we already use on tablets with the movements and actions needed for an FPS.
“I wanted to do a shooter on tablets specifically because I played some of the other shooters on tablets, and what was compelling about them was that you had this high-resolution, quite big screen that I can hold close to my face, and that really suits the first-person shooter feel of looking through a window into another world,” Cousins explained. “There is something about the intimacy of holding a tablet that just works for shooters. But I was just staggered by how badly they controlled.”
This is how Cousins and his team came up with new solutions to old problems.
“All of the gestures we use are things you would use normally on iOS or the Android operating system. It’s just taps and swipes,” he said. You tap the screen with two fingers, and the bullet goes between your fingers. You don’t need to physically aim, you can tap anywhere on the screen to attack the enemies. “It requires skill, it’s quite difficult to know exactly where that bullet is going to land, and it’s a skill you have to learn,” Cousins said.
They tried having players simply tap on the targets to fire, which seemed to be the obvious solution, but that of course obscures the target with your hand. “If you can’t see the impact point of the weapon, much of the sensation of playing a first-person shooter is gone.”
They adjusted the particle effects so you could see them around your finger, but then realized that the two-finger tap allowed them to show the entirety of the animation. You get to see the results of your shot, and there is skill in terms of finger placement and accuracy. It may sound odd on paper, but it makes sense in the context of the game.
You look around by swiping the screen, and movement is handled by tapping where you want to go. Cousins likens it to playing games such as Diablo, where you tap multiple times to have more control over where you’re going, but you can also just tap once and let the character move to the destination by themselves.
The pathfinding system handles moving around obstacles and not getting stuck, but you can also micromanage the movement by tapping multiple times along the path. You can strafe using a two-finger swipe, but there is some discussion on how that will be implemented in the final product.
Mastering the controls with an old friend
There were ideas that didn’t pay off. They tried gestures for reloading your weapon and changing guns, but they weren’t reliable. Changing guns is now a virtual button, and reloading is done automatically. They tried to handle looking around as you would when looking at a web page on a touch-based device where you put your finger on the screen and pushed up to scroll down, but it didn’t feel right.
They went through many design ideas and failed experiments before settling on the current control scheme.
The testing of these commands and the movement ideas was done in an interesting way. Cousins and his team made a mock-up of the classic Counter-Strike map de_dust, and used that environment as a test bed while the controls went through multiple iterations.
“I’ve spent hundreds of hours on that map. I wanted to be able to move around that map as I did when I played with a mouse and keyboard,” Cousins explained. “That’s how we’ve added strafing, crouching, jumping, and all these other functions.” By testing the controls in an environment they already knew so intimately, it was much easier to figure out what worked, and what didn’t.
To lead off what is sure to be the first comment, the game will be coming to Android devices. “Android is definitely planned down the line somewhere, it’s going to be a few months after the iOS launch. There’s no reason for that other than we wanted to focus on one platform to polish up for our initial launch, and we picked iOS because we were making the best progress on that platform at the time we made the decision.”