NaturalMotion continues its push for graphical dominance in the mobile space with Dawn of Titans, a new competitive online strategy game that released globally on December 8th. In its quest to bring console-quality visuals to mobile devices, the studio hopes to convert astounded players into evangelists and spread word of the game through natural word of mouth.
“We try to wow people,” says NaturalMotion CEO, Torsten Reil. “This is the most important pillar for our company. We want to make products that people haven’t seen before. That they love playing, but also want to recommend to their friends. That’s our vision.”
A reduced marketing spend thanks to proliferation through word of mouth means that more money can be funnelled into the game itself. In this way the gameplay experience can be the best it can be, further increasing the chance of players telling their friends. In theory, this one-two punch of impressive graphics and gameplay could almost entirely mitigate the need for a marketing budget.
“If you wow people and you invest in the product, your players become the people who recommend the game,” Reil continues. “That means that you don’t have to spend as much money on marketing. Always been the case for us at NaturalMotion and hopefully that will continue to be the case. If you invest in the product, the commercial success will follow.”
But the graphical strength of Dawn of Titans isn’t just intended to impress. “We’re doing it to create believability more than anything else. If you look at another of our games, Clumsy Ninja, which was technically extremely challenging, because we have a full simulated character with AI controllers, controlling muscles in a simulated body, that was all about believability too. The graphics aren’t realistic, they’re stylised, but it was still very believable and you felt it was real. That’s how we get the ‘wow’ across. It’s believability and immersiveness.”
The good news is a focus on high quality graphics on mobile devices doesn’t have to mean you’re limiting your audience to those with high-end phones and tablets. “This has been a big focus that we’ve had for the last few months,” says Reil. “To really focus on making the game work across all devices. Now we are able to go all the way down to iPhone 4S. Yes, we won’t have all the effects switched on, because you just can’t do that on those devices which aren’t as powerful, but what we’ve been trying to do is protect the framerate, so that when you’re playing the game it still feels as responsive as it does on a high-end device.
“But then we found ways to kind of fake some of the high-end effects on low end devices, so it still looks pretty similar, it just doesn’t look quite as good. That’s true for iOS and for Android. We’ll be supporting all devices down to the equivalent of a 4S on Android. And obviously on the Google Pixel, at the top end, it looks awesome.”
The reason NaturalMotion is able to do this is largely down to its proprietary engine, the Echo Engine. It’s built for purpose specifically so that they can make these scaling optimisations, but the strength of the development team is also a huge boon.
“We have a very talented team here,” explains Reil. “A lot of them come from the console industry, quite a few of them come from the mobile industry, with experience in highly optimising on mobile devices. But if you look at the actual algorithms that we use, just to pick one up, we have used flocking algorithms for the troops. You will notice that some of the troops are quite chaotic, the way they run, while others are actually quite organised.
“But when they actually start running and particularly when they have enemies coming in, they start to disperse and they do so in a natural way, but they’re still following pathfinding AI and, on top of that, they will follow what you are telling them to do by tapping somewhere. They use pathfinding to do that, together with the flocking algorithm. This took us a long time to get right and one engineer in particular did an amazing job just really making it feel realistic and natural and still giving you full control over everything, because it’s quite frustrating when you have those functions and algorithms, and they don’t do what you want as a player.”
On top of all of this, gamers are always looking for something new, which NaturalMotion is keen to deliver with all of its games. “We always try to innovate,” Reil says. “If you look at Dawn of Titans, no game has this kind of numbers of units on the screen. Games don’t usually have unit-vs-unit attacks either, it’s usually tower defense, or very often it’s just statistics. The other thing is the way we visualise the world. Starting from your home, but also going towards the alliance and the league view, and the ways alliances are clustered together and you can see them on the horizon, that again is new.
“In our experience, when you try something new, it takes a bit longer and it is a bit more difficult. Sometimes a lot more difficult, because you don’t have anything to fall back on. You can’t look at another game and see how they’ve done it, but when you get it right you have a real competitive advantage. Yes, commercially, but also because you’re giving the user something that they haven’t seen before.”