Gameloft's Modern Combat franchise has come a long way in a short space of time.
Originally viewed by many as nothing more than a mobile riff on Call of Duty, the franchise has, five instalments later, forged its own identity.
The series is one of a small circle of games that can truly claim to be bringing triple-A, console-quality, experiences to mobile, with each instalment defying expectations, setting new bars, and pushing mobile tech to its limits.
Modern Combat 5 is the latest chapter of Gameloft's saga, and the development team at Gameloft Romania have pulled out all the stops to make it the biggest, boldest, and, most explosive instalment yet.
Of course, when you're working on a FPS franchise that's five games deep, innovation and originality don't come easy, while refinement and polish become just as important as making sure your game is more action-packed than a Michael Bay wet dream.
So, because we're something of a nosey bunch here at PocketGamer.biz, we spoke to Gameloft's product manager, Valeriu Ispir, to find out more about what goes on behind the scenes at one of the most high-profile mobile game companies in the world.
PocketGamer: When the Modern Combat franchise was first conceived it drew a lot of comparisons with the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. How did you feel about those comparisons?
Valeriu Ispir: When you’re making a shooter, no matter what platform you’re doing it for, it’s only normal that people draw comparisons between your game and others.
We always strive to innovate, and we want to keep adding new and original features to the franchise in order to make Modern Combat stand out. For example, Modern Combat 5 features a unified progression system which is not something you can find in, let’s say, Call of Duty: Ghosts.
Is it becoming harder to keep the franchise fresh now you're five games in?
We have a lot of ideas and we're always open to trying new, innovative, and daring features.
I previously mentioned the unified progression system, introduced in Modern Combat 5, which gives players the ability to earn experience points from both single player missions, and multiplayer matches. The implementation of that system means that the four soldier classes available in the game are also playable across single and multiplayer.
We also added the all new Spec-Ops missions, which are short, fun and objective-driven, and encourage players to work together to cover their allies, clear rooms, and eliminate targets.
Features such as those steered the fifth instalment of the franchise in a new direction, offering players a fresh new experience.
Is the development team under a lot of pressure to keep hitting new highs, or are you more focused on refining specific areas?
There is always pressure on our development team: they have to execute tasks flawlessly while working within a certain timeframe, and that's hard to do, especially when you have to meet certain business objectives.
There is always pressure on our development team.Valeriu Ispir
Sometimes, you’re put in the difficult position of choosing between the product and those business objectives. Of course, the right answer is always the product.
That's why we decided to postpone the launch of Modern Combat 5. We wanted more time to keep our promise of delivering a truly triple-A game.
Ultimately, we strive to reach new heights while also refining specific areas, however, after five instalments, there are fewer refinements to be done.
What challenges did you encounter during development, and how did you overcome them?
Modern Combat games are known and loved for their synchronous multiplayer, so creating a lag-free, rich, and entertaining multiplayer mode was one of our main concerns.
With Modern Combat 5 we took things to a whole new level because of the unified progression system, which brings multiplayer much closer to the campaign mode, and, because the single player campaign also helps you build up your character, has a direct impact on multiplayer.
If you play more single player missions, you unlock more guns and you can perform better in multiplayer. The challenge there was to balance the progression between the two game modes. We also had to make sure that the single player campaign was protected against cheats, which meant requesting a permanent online connection.
We know that's not really a popular decision, but in our particular case it definitely makes sense because it is inherently tied to the game. The online connection also brought some other advantages, such as being able to play the game across different devices.
Roughly how long was the development process and what significant tools did you use?
The development of the game took approximately one and a half years, and we used our own game engine, which we optimised to accommodate all of the great features that we brought forward.
Modern Combat 5 features high end graphics - with a special mention going to the water effects - and enormous set pieces. How hard is it to turn ambitious ideas like those into a reality?
Very hard. It’s no secret that the more spectacles you want to create, the more work you have to put in. We created these huge 3D set pieces with the highest attention to detail, but sometimes even the final result doesn’t reveal all the hard work that was put in.
A set piece doesn’t only look good, but it also serves a gameplay purpose, and that's something you have to invest a lot of time into.
How did you handle the development of the multiplayer and campaign modes? Are they both as important as each other?
Players have different tastes and generally play single and multiplayer in different ratios, but they do play both, so we treat them equally even though most highly competitive FPS games thrive mostly on multiplayer.
The single player campaign is where you ease the player into the universe and wow them.Valeriu Ispir
We can actually say that each mode plays a certain part in the game’s lifespan. The single player campaign is the first touch point, so that's where you ease the player into the universe and wow them.
Then, as the player gradually goes through the missions, multiplayer takes over and starts delivering its magic. Both have a purpose, but they should merge into delivering a cohesive piece of entertainment. This is why we chose to implement the unified progression system: we wanted to bring these parts as close as possible.
Of course, multiplayer is also a long term investment because we’ll continue to expand it, while the single player contains lots of cool features that aren't available in multiplayer, like the bullet time and scanning drone.
Both parts have their own charm, if you want to build something great, you have to give them both an equal amount of time and attention.
Do you think you've mastered shooter controls on mobile, or would you still like to see mobile gamepads become more widely used?
Modern Combat 5 contains some of the most advanced and customisable shooter controls on the market at the moment. We put a lot of work into making them more accessible by reconsidering what was really needed in-game, versus what was not as relevant, such as a manual trigger.
Running, for example, is important, but doesn't really need a specific button for most players, therefore we plugged it directly to the D-pad in the default settings.
We also made lots of tests around the auto-shooting, and it works great, but we didn't push it in the default mode because even if it's great for new players, it's not something our core fans favour.
Other than those fine tunings, we really wanted to offer players a wide array of options to optimise the controls so they can play just the way they want.
Gamepads are something we love seeing, and we think their popularity will grow. We have offered gamepad support on the previous instalments and we intend to do the same with Modern Combat 5.
Right now though, our objective is to make the perfect touch controls.
Shooters are still having a hard time establishing themselves on mobile, largely because of the genre's perpetual struggle with controls. Do you think they'll ever be able to thrive on mobile like they do on consoles?
As long as you create a quality product and you spend time figuring out the best control scheme, you’ll always have a player base on mobile.
It's important to remember that a few years ago there were people saying that FPS games could only be played on PCs, and that it was impossible to have a good shooter on consoles due to control issues.
Look how that turned out. I don't think controls are a barrier, but more of a riddle that we need to crack. It’s always hard to predict the future, but I believe shooters definitely have one on mobile.
You chose to go premium with a $6.99 price point. Have you had any negative feedback from players about that decision, or are most of them happy to pay?
Going premium was a natural choice because it's embedded in the history of the franchise, and the game was developed from the get go with the premium model in mind.
Of course, the advent of the freemium model has clearly influenced players’ willingness to pay upfront for a game, but at the same time, when people know they are in front of a high quality product, they do spend.
Modern Combat 5 has already surpassed the launch performance of Modern Combat 4.Valeriu Ispir
We’ve had players asking to make the game freemium over the years, but our fan-base clearly favours a premium model, so we cater to their tastes.
Games like Infinity Blade have managed to successfully combine premium pricing with IAPs, so why did you decide to forgo free-to-play altogether?
Mixing premium with IAPs can prove a good solution as long as the IAPs are well integrated and don't hinder the players that aren't interested in shelling out more cash.
There are players who can’t dedicate the time, and would rather pay to advance through the game faster, and there are players who enjoy savouring every moment.
A good game should allow the first ones to advance quicker through IAPs, while allowing the latter to maintain their own pace without being at a disadvantage.
We followed a similar model with Modern Combat 3 and 4 , but for Modern Combat 5 we chose not to introduce IAPs at launch.
It was more important to make sure that players acknowledge the huge content offering put forward, and to reassure them that the game will always have a fair, competitive environment.
What elements of the game were you most pleased with?
We are very proud of the single player campaign, which represents a turning point in the history of the franchise.
In Modern Combat 5, we really galvanised the solo campaign with shorter, more dynamic missions, which are better adapted to the mobile ecosystem.
We also have to mention multiplayer Squad Battles, because they're such a cool feature for a mobile shooter. Nothing beats a match alongside your friends who all know what to do, and, more importantly, when to do it.
How have you approached emerging markets? Have the game's substantial file size and premium nature put of consumers in territories such as Japan and China?
The game has been localised for all major Asian countries, and, like in any market, we have worked hard to get as much local visibility as possible.
Players have been able to experience the game through trailers, visual assets and live gameplay sessions.
Japan and China are among our top countries in terms of Modern Combat 5 player numbers, so our effort in those territories has definitely paid off, and our situation in Japan, which is known for its disinterest in FPS titles, is particularly remarkable.
Thankfully, the file size and premium model haven’t proven to be more of an obstacle than in other territories.
In general, how happy have you been with the reaction to Modern Combat 5, both in terms of initial downloads and long term monetisation?
Modern Combat 5 has been incredibly well-received by players around the world and has already surpassed the launch performance of Modern Combat 4. That really gives us a lot of confidence, and, at the same time, makes us eager to enrich the gaming experience through more updates.
What plans do you have for the franchise going forward?
We have lots of ideas on how to develop the franchise, and we're also listening to our fans to see what direction they'd like to see the game take.
For the moment though, Modern Combat 5 has the spotlight, and we are focused entirely on its update plan.