Mobile Mavens

Firing blanks: Is there any hope for the FPS on mobile?

Our Mavens debate

Firing blanks: Is there any hope for the FPS on mobile?

This week we took a question from's editor-at-large Jon Jordan, who wanted our experts – better known as the Mobile Gaming Mavens – to give their take on the role of first-person shooters on mobile and tablets.

He asked:

Given the 'failure' of touchscreen FPS, how should Activision rethink Call of Duty for mobile? And if so, how?


Jon Jordan Contributing Editor A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

As this is 'my' question, I thought I should perhaps give some context

Years ago, I remember we would write endless rumourmill stories about Blizzard bringing World of Warcraft to mobile, or that it was looking to hire someone with Java experience, or even that we wanted to play World of Warcraft on a mobile.

Years later, we have Hearthstone, which looks like it will be build to be a solid performer for Blizzard, and a great first step in terms of bringing the World of Warcraft universe into a mobile play session experience

So, given that asides from Nintendo, Activision remains the main core gaming company that's not done anything significant in mobile, whilst having a key gaming IP in Call of Duty, what's our thinking about how Activision could or should bring Call of Duty into the mobile/tablet space?

And yes, I know there have been Call of Duty-branded touchscreen shooters, but let's face it, to-date these have been pale imitations, while in general, FPS on touchscreen have not been commercially successful at all. (In fact, the opposite).

Or, in other words, should Activision just do a strategy-branded Call of Duty for mobile?

Scott Foe Chief Product Officer Ignited Artists

History's bestselling gaming console and history's bestselling gaming handheld in terms of lifetime sales are, respectively, PlayStation 2 and Nintendo DS. They both sold roughly 150 million units each, yet tablets outsell them annually.

Cynics among you might say that KitKats don't always gel with Jelly Beans, and that is fair: The bottom-line is that the tablet market is out-scaling the console market by ridiculous numbers, and roughly seventy-percent of all time spent on tablets is spent gaming.

Console sales will fall; the number of hardcore gamers will not fall.

And headshots, my friends, are never going out of style.

The Drowning was by no means perfect, but it was a start.
Scott Foe

How do you make that shooter experience satisfying on a touch screen? Tablets are beyond the thirty-to-ninety second, high-latency experiences that mobile provides, and they lack the fidelity of control that consoles and personal computers offer. Tablets are different beasts entirely.

There is this guy named Ben Cousins who not only did pioneering work with free-to-play shooters in the west with Battlefield Heroes, he also has done some pioneering work with first-person-shooting on the touchscreen. The Drowning was by no means perfect, but it was a start.

I am shocked that Activision, Zynga, Tencent, et al are not pulling Ben Cousins apart like a wishbone: The guy is years ahead in thought leadership and experience than any other individual working in touchscreen shooters in the west.

Again, headshots are never going out of style.

Oscar Clark Chief Strategy Officer Fundamentally Games

Oscar Clark has been a pioneer in online, mobile, and console social games services since 1998. He is also author of the book, Games As A Service – How Free To Play Design Can Make Better Games.

Head shots never go out of style. Damn right. As is the fact that the tablet is a different beast.

As much as I'm an advocate for cross-platform games I have always said how important it is to create relevant experiences specific to each device. A 7-inch tablet serves a slightly different need than a 10-inch tablet; but it's not just size which matters. It's about the mode of use.

Trying to replicate the first-person shooter is more than just a question of controls. We've know that virtual thumb-sticks don't work for several years now; yet too many designers slavishly reproduce them.

Scotts right about Ben being far ahead of the curve here. The Drowning's "two-fingers" to the genre was actually a great mechanic. Really imaginative and had some profound positive consequences; sadly the movement mechanic was a bit of a compromise in my honest opinion. The patenting of the idea was a little frustrating, but I guess the opportunity is to evolve from that.

Just as the Tower-defence game offered a simpler, differently paced experience to the real-time strategy game, I believe it would be useful to think about how the FPS pace and intensity can be adjusted to suit the mode of use of these devices.

And it's been happening. Personally I've been enjoying FPS games on mobile for a while. Since 2004 to be precise when Lock'n'Load was released on the Motorola A1000. Okay, that's a long time ago and hardly a decent comparison but the point I'm making is that there is a long tradition of these games. Most recently I've been playing a lot of Dead Trigger 2.

It has a nice pace, a sense of danger, a great warning system which helps compensate for the difficulty sustaining spacial awareness on a smaller screen with lower fidelity controls, etc. it just works.

Using the Call of Duty mobile game as a example of why FPS doesn't work is simply the wrong comparison. The game had some pretty obvious flaws. I tried to play it several times. Actually enjoyed the ability to switch between 1st and 3rd person but what stopped me enjoying it was that the game required me to complete all of the 20 mins or so first level in one session. If I was interrupted (as I always am) I had to go back to the tutorial. That was stupid. A complete misunderstanding of the mode of use.

On mobile/tablet that kills games because they are inherently more interruptible than a console; no scrub that its just bad game design and has stopped me playing Killzone on PS4 too.

There are good FPS games on mobile, but they don't dominate the charts because these devices aren't just hardcore experiences. More than that too many try to be console games and too few try to imagine how the mobile/tablet experience can better than console for the mode of use these devices perfectly fulfil.

Wilhelm Taht Executive Vice President, Games Rovio

Echoing what Oscar and Scott say here; "Don't dismiss it" and "It ain't easy".

Respawnables by Digital Legends/Zynga has probably been one of the best examples so far, and is still enjoying a decent player base and revenues, when looking at App Annie data.

There's another interesting one in silent release at this moment by CMUNE (the guys behind the game "UberStrike", which has over 10 million players on Facebook), called Bullet Rush. See: . It's looking interesting and it is making some impact.

Nevertheless, I think the big point here is what Oscar also says. Free-to-play is so dominant on mobile and tablet, and the big areas are "casual" and "mid-core" (like it or not). FPS is traditionally a hard core experience, where the big tablet and mobile audiences aren't downloading and spending en masse.

Both due to psychographics and the device itself. The minute someone creates a more casual experience, that really fits the medium, I believe it will fly. Think the "Mario Kart of FPS".

Harry Holmwood European CEO Marvelous Europe

A 20-year veteran of video games and online space, Harry is European CEO of Marvelous AQL, a Japanese developer and publisher of social, mobile and console games, known for console games like No More Heroes and Harvest Moon, but now highly successful in the free-to-play mobile and web space in Japan and Asia.

A games programmer before joining Sony’s early PlayStation team in 1994, he then founded developer Pure Entertainment, which IPO’d and launched a free-to-play online gaming service way back in 1999.

He was also a director of pioneering motion gaming startup In2Games, which was sold to a US group in 2008.

Along the way, he’s been a corporate VP, troubleshooter, and non-exec to a variety of companies and investors in and around the games sector.

I think people succeed when they make the best possible games they can - genres emerge because they're well-suited to a certain device, or audience.

Everything I've seen suggests FPSes just aren't a great use of a touchscreen.
Harry Holmwood

I sincerely hope someone comes up with a mobile FPS experience that is compelling, but everything I've seen suggests it's just not a great use of a touchscreen. Trying to shoehorn a genre, which exists because it works well with one control scheme, into another, is like trying to make Angry Birds into a dice and paper role-playing game.

FPS a genre that appeals to a hardcore audience, and they don't want a dumbed down experience with a lesser control scheme when they own (and will likely continue to invest in) devices tailored to the games they want to play.

That a lot of people also said that about the transition from mouse/keyboard to console, and that problem was eventually solved, suggests there may be a solution that works one day, but I think it's a tough one.

Jon Hare Owner Tower Studios

I agree with Harry. New genres tend to fall out of hardware change inspiring different thinking. Retrofitting old game styles to ill-fitting platforms and monetization models is not the best way to achieve the best possible products.

However I don’t think being creatively great is that high up on anyone’s agenda right now, most people are just focused on making relatively pitiful money, which is all a little dull.

Dave Castelnuovo Owner Bolt Creative

I actually think Activision did an amazing job with Call of Duty: Strike Team. They showed some great creativity with the brand and found a way to make it work on mobile devices.

Andreas Vahsen CEO / CCO / Game Economist MachineWorks Northwest

I think the FPS genre is simply going through a learning curve that hasn't crested yet. The current smartphone player hasn't been exposed to enough titles of this genre to be comfortable with the controls.

Between these two issues, the FPS genre is still being quite suppressed - that will change.
It's a niche, but it is growing. I agree with Dave that the Call of Duty games are quite good.

It also an issue that the control setups need tweaking on a per player level. There is no fire and forget solution. It is the brand or the game's strong points that make the player want to accept the touchscreen controls and have him fiddle with the controls until they are just right.

Also, there are quite some successful FPSs out there - Epoch, N.O.V.A, Dead Trigger etc. In a year or two the whining will stop. The tap-this-tap-that, crush saga this and are just blanketing everything
 lse in a fog of "casual numbness" - that's what I call it.

Machineworks always wanted to "blow stuff up". We simply can't get an adrenalin rush out of Pet Rabbit Paradise Cove or Farm Hero Killer - wait - slip of the tongue here - that would actually be a good one,
done FPS - style!

As Scott Foe said (it worries me that I agree with him two weeks in a row:) - headshots will never go out of style.

John Ozimek Co-founder Big Games Machine

John is co-founder of PR and marketing company Big Ideas Machine. Also an all-round nice guy...

We’ve been doing some work with Wikipad, which is a 7” Android tablet which comes with a twin-stick controller that the tablet slots into, and where it really comes into its own is with FPS games as it’s a genre defined by a fast and fluid control scheme which allows for very fast reaction times - so the more control the player has, the better the experience.

The fact that it seems to take a controller add-on to get the very best out of these games on mobile does suggest that there needs to be further evolution in the design of mobile FPS, to compensate for less instantaneous control.

That said, I did enjoy Dead Trigger and found it relatively easy to play on an iPhone - partly because the ’twitch’ aspect of many console FPS designs had been diminished as part of the design.

But do we really have to have every gameplay genre on every device? We marvelled at the Wii when it was first introduced because it so perfectly married a control scheme with certain games. Mobile it absolutely brilliant for so many styles of gameplay, I’d happily leave all the Call of Duty hardcore screaming into their headsets whilst I play any one of a thousand amazing games created just for touch screens.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.