“There are about 7,000 characters on screen, all moving in real-time with real-time lighting, real-time shadows, and all controllable by tapping on them and saying where you want them to go. It feels like an epic movie battle, but it is over in 30 to 60 seconds...”
Dawn of Titans is a long way from FarmVille and the other casual games that made Zynga the first giant of the social games industry, but didn’t stop it being overtaken by the publishers of games such as Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans.
It is an ambitious attempt to marry epic warfare-waging with quick, casual gameplay mechanics, to pass what NaturalMotion chief Torsten Reil calls “the Starbucks line test” of mobile gameplay.
Sorry, the what? “It’s a really important metric for us,” he says. “You need to be able to start and finish a session while you’re waiting for your macchiato to arrive. It’s a huge challenge with these big battles, but I’m really happy we’ve managed to solve it.”
NaturalMotion is one of the firms that sits between the console and mobile parts of the games industry. Although its own games have been focused on mobile in recent years, its engine technology has been used for the Grand Theft Auto series among other console games.
Although that technology shined in the floppy-bodied physics of Clumsy Ninja, Dawn of Titans looks like being an even better showcase, charging players with expanding their kingdoms, raising armies and sending them into battle complete with the massive titan monsters that give the game its name.
“The appeal needs to be blockbuster appeal. That’s really important to us: anyone who goes to a big Hollywood movie should also like this kind of game,” says Reil, in answer to a question about whether Dawn of Titans is for hardcore or mainstream gamers.
“That’s how we position it. We do expect quite a lot of people who are hardcore players to really like the game, as you can go really deep: the PvP [player-vs-player] can be as competitive as you like. But you can also play occasionally and still enjoy it.”
The risk with a game like Dawn of Titans, with its particle effects in the clouds and real-time waterfalls and lighting effects, is that it ends up being more about the graphics than the gameplay. Reil says NaturalMotion has been working hard to avoid that.
“We’re not doing it because we want to be part of some kind of graphics arms race. We want to do something special for the audience and wow them. That’s quite different to the console industry, where it was a graphics arms race,” he says.
“People would talk in public about particular shaders and frame rates. We don’t do that. If you look at a Pixar movie, the technical background to those films is immense, but the audience shouldn’t care about that. They should care about the characters being believable and the world being rich.”
NaturalMotion has been trying to find the line between ease of use and deeper military strategy in Dawn of Titans. One example is the option to tell every single unit before a battle where you want them to go, versus a “Starbucks button” option to give them automatic orders.
Once battles are underway, fast thinking will be key. “You might see your militia being lured away from a particular point by a troop unit that’s coming up, so you can tell them to stand their ground. Those kinds of inputs really make a difference,” says Reil.
“We wanted skill to matter, not to a point where only the skilful can enjoy and play the game, but to a point where it makes a difference. That happens during the battles. So it’s not about paying to win and throwing as many troops in as possible.”
Paying to win? That’s a sensitive topic around freemium games, with Dawn of Titans making its money from in-app purchases. While players will be able to buy new titans and decorative upgrades, Reil says the game will not be unfairly weighted in favour of those who pay.
“People who do a bit of thinking have a bit of an advantage. We don’t monetise that. When we released CSR Racing, we got quite a bit of feedback: ‘You need to pinch the audience early to monetise them’. We felt that’s not the right thing to do,” he says.
“Quite a few games are aggressive about monetising early on, and that backfires. To monetise a game, it works much better to retain people with a world that they buy into, and then become prepared to pay if there are certain areas they’re interested in.”
Dawn of Titans will be released for iOS and Android, with a pipeline of new titans and other features planned not just for months ahead, but years. That is based on NaturalMotion’s experience with CSR Racing, released in 2012 but still going strong on the app stores, with new features and cars added regularly.
“It’s now had 120 million downloads,” says Reil. “We realised last year just after the acquisition that the ceiling of the game going down slowly in revenues was something that we could change.”
Dawn of Titans will be soft-launched in the near future, with a global release to follow later in the year. If it catches on, given the huge money being made by mobile games like Clash of Clans and Game of War, it could make that £317m acquisition look like a bargain.
Not that Reil is thinking in those terms: “Honestly, the way we started was ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could recreate the epic battle scenes we saw in movies on an iPad?’. It hasn’t been done before, so it’s a real technical challenge, and a design challenge too.”
He adds: “What we didn’t do is look back at games with similar mechanics on PC or console, and try to translate that to mobile. It was very much trying to turn the blockbuster movie approach into an action-strategy game that everyone can play.”
This article was written by Stuart Dredge, for theguardian.com on Monday 9th March 2015 11.49 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010