Former Call of Duty man Bowling on mobile's 'terrifying' but 'proven' free-to-play future
On this score, there are few, better summations for the current state of the video game industry that the career turn of Robert Bowling.
Call of Duty is the triple-A series. It represents everything about the mass market video game industry which the boom of indie and mobile developers seek to question if not repudiate.
Bowling is the former creative strategist for the Call of Duty franchise at Infinity Ward.
Bowling left Infinity Ward in March of 2012, citing his frustration with the slow evolution of Call of Duty, and a month later announced the creation of Robotoki, a self-funded indie studio.
PC meets mobile
Robotoki is currently working on two new IPs - a survival game titled Human Element and a side-scrolling platformer called The Adventures of Dash - but at PAX East this year, Bowling was in the expo hall to promote a mobile game he's producing with Gun Media called Breach and Clear.It's a project best described as a cross between the original XCOM and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six series.
Breach and Clear
Wes Keltner, Gun Media's founder and creative director pitched Breach and Clear to Bowling shortly after he left Infinity Ward.
Bowling liked the idea enough to fly to Kentucky where Gun Media is based, and during their discussions became enamored with the idea of melding old-school PC game designs with mobile technologies.
"What I liked about Wes and the team that he was forming with Gun was it was just a bunch of guys coming from a bunch of different backgrounds who just wanted to work on something they were passionate about. And at this point in my career, that is all I care about," Bowling told us as PAX East.
"I need to work on stuff that I absolutely love, that I want to play at night, and this felt [like] that. They were doing it for the right reasons, you know? They didn't come to me and say 'I have a million dollar idea.' Everyone has a million dollar idea. I'm not looking to make a million dollar idea.
"I'm looking to make a fun game. And that's what they wanted to do."
The spice of life
Bowling founded his own studio in part out of a desire to break from traditional game development.
But why, then, did he chose to work in such familiar thematic territory so soon after founding Robotoki?
"It's actually been pretty nice, in the sense that it's traditional [in] that it is based in that military world, but the fact that it's all about the tactical and planning rather than the high speed action I think is refreshing enough," Bowling said.
Whereas previously he was only working on military games, now Bowling has enough variety in his development projects that working on another military title doesn't bother him.
"What I love about where I'm at right now is that just like I wake up every day and I'm in the mood to play a different game, like I get burned out on first person games so I go to platformers, so I get burned out on platformers so I go to RPGs, now I get the same experience making games as I do as a player," Bowling said.
"It keeps it fresh, and the big benefit to it is you get little nuggets of ideas or feature sets or mechanics that you're building for another game that spark inspiration for something else.
"When you're pulling in different genres [together] that's when you make something special, something innovative, something new.
"When you're taking RPG elements and pulling them into a shooter or you're pulling puzzle-solving stuff from a platformer into a tactics game, that's when it gets really interesting."
Just like working on different kinds of games can lead to cross-pollination of design ideas, working in mobile development is giving Bowling some ideas about development on consoles.
"What we've learned with Breach and Clear are some things that we take for granted on controllers, because [on] controllers you have face buttons and you have sticks and you can trial and error easier on what you have to do," Bowling said.
"With iPad and touch screen it's a lot more about people will just come up and they will instinctively play a certain way.
"The intention of pick up and play that mobile has, I think is definitely valuable in the console and PC space. There's a higher barrier to entry for some console games, and we accept that because [console players] have to commit more time to sit down on the couch and play a console game," he added.
"We expect them to commit the time to learn how to play it and get over that curve, but with mobile games you have to eliminate that barrier to entry.
"People want to be able to pick it up and have a good time instantly, and I think incorporating a lot more of that into the [console] experience would benefit it in a lot of ways."
Bowling also feels that his experience working in console development enabled him to bring a different, beneficial perspective to mobile development.
"I think in the old mentality of mobile development it was a lot of 'Let's just get it up and running on this device', and now we're at a stage where the devices are powerful enough that we can flesh [games] out with stuff that isn't necessary for the core gameplay," Bowling said.
"You bring in all the great environment art and the little polish stuff and little cinematic flairs with camera and things that you can do, which is the stage we're at now in Breach and Clear," he added.
"I feel like a lot of times in mobile [development] you're focused just on the mechanics and you kind of lose the rest, and now we're trying to bring the rest in."
The F2P question
Perhaps the biggest change Bowling has had to adapt to is working with a free-to-play monetisation model.
He's morphed into an executive vice president role on Breach and Clear and now holds equity in Gun Media, so this isn't just an academic question.
"I'm an American developer who worked on big-budget retail games, so the free to play model, in my gut it's terrifying," Bowling said, but as a player he loves the idea of free-to-play and as a developer recognises the benefits in terms of design quality.
"It's a scary thing, but I mean obviously it's a proven model and it's been really eye-opening to jump into that scene and see player behaviours and see spending habits and what people like," Bowling said.
"I am now a subscriber to [the philosophy of] 'If it's a good game, people will pay for it.' It really forces you to make a good game, and I love it."
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. You can follow him on Twitter at @DennisScimeca.