End Bosses ngmoco on iPad and iPhone
IGN’s End Bosses interview series offers intimate, candid conversations with the men and women shaping the videogame industry, from executive decision makers influencing the biggest and most important publishers and developers to the creative minds that bring forth and nurture genre-changing and blockbuster software psp games.
This week, we chat with ngmoco’s CEO, Neil Young. If iPhone has a de facto first-party developer, it must be ngmoco (short for next-generation mobile company, if you’ve ever wondered). A former EA executive in charge of Maxis, Young’s company has made a name for itself by creating premium, high-quality titles specifically for Apple’s handset. Games like Rolando and Eliminate — not exactly the type of brand names that will soon give Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto a run in the recognition department, but nevertheless big draws for seasoned iPhone players. But recently, big changes have been afoot at ngmoco and we caught up with the publisher’s leader to learn all about them.
IGN: ngmoco might be the closest thing the iPhone has to a first-party developer given that Apple really doesn’t make games for the system — at least not yet. Have you found as a company that traditional software works on the platform, or have you had to alter the way you create software?
Neil Young, CEO
Neil Young, CEO: Oh, we’ve definitely had to alter the way that we make games and the type of games that we build. When we started our company, we really kind of thought about building two types of games. One class of games we called fast apps — you know, kind of small, more casual games like MazeFinger or Topple that we could build quickly and inexpensively; sort of designed to be played in short sessions. And the second type of games were more premium products like Rolando, which we felt were as good as games on the DS or PSP and that we would price at a premium level, and we expected users to play them as much as they played DS games.
Initially, those types of products were pretty well received by the market, but as there have been more applications that have come into the market space and more innovation, we’ve really changed both the way in which we build games and the type of products that we build. If you looked at our portfolio today, every one of the games we’re building takes advantage of the connectivity of the device, are designed to be played in both short or long play sessions, and have virtual monetization models associated with them. They’re really a hybrid of PSP and DS caliber game mechanics and imagery mashed up with the type of play experiences you might see on the social Web or online.
We’ve definitely had to make a lot of changes to stay at the forefront of the market.
Check out ngmoco’s upcoming GodFinger.
IGN: So looking back to 2009, what would you say ngmoco did really well and what might it have done better? And also, where do you hope to be in 2010 as you look forward into the year?
Young: In 2009, I think we continued to deliver really high quality products. We’re really proud of the games we made and the quality of those games. I think in particular I’m really proud of how we were really able to move the business entirely toward free-to-play, which was a decision we made in the summer, and I think we did a good job of executing against that. I feel really good about the uptake of +Plus as a network — not just our own types; there are over 60 games on the App Store — and I’m really proud of the approach that Simon [Jeffery, head of +Plus Publishing at ngmoco] and the team have taken there to really make sure that the games in that network are really high caliber, high quality games. I’d say those are the things that we did well.
Things that we did poorly, when you’re finalizing games, you can get focused on the minutia and you end up kind of tinkering with the minutia and maybe missing some of the bigger points. I wish in particular in the case of Star Defense we had spent another month or so on that game and thought a little bit differently about user experience. There is some stuff we should’ve done there.
I think the freemium model that we launched with — Eliminate and Touch Pets were the first free games that we launched in reverse of Epic Pet Wars, which is an acquisition that we did — those games were actually never intended to be free-to-play games. They were originally intended to be premium games with Lite applications that promoted them. But when we made the decision to focus on freemium, we looked at our product pipeline and said, “Look. If we can’t make free-to-play, we’re going to stop developing it.” And those were two games we felt could make free-to-play, but the monetization models are a little bit clumsy, I think. They’ve worked out fine, but we think they’re really kind of the the first monetization mechanisms for free-to-play.
So looking forward to 2010, I think the things that we’re going to try and focus on are better game design, better implementations — we’re going to take what we know about building really great videogames and mash that up with the learning that we’ve got in the free-to-play space. And, you know, just always try to be fearless in the products that we make. Try to do things that are pushing the market forward, either creatively from a game design standpoint or in terms of the number of people we’re trying to reach or how we try to run a business.
Eliminate was ngmoco first big freemium game.
IGN: Do you think the free-to-play model will eventually bleed over to traditional videogame consoles?
Young: Yeah, I think those things can work. At the moment that you get digital distribution where the actual cost of making something is nothing — you’re not making physical goods, but digital goods — then you’ve got the ability to distribute for free. And the moment you can distribute for free, that’s when you cross over the threshold of new monetization models and mechanisms. I think as more games get distributed digitally, I think you’ll start to see this things happen and I absolutely believe that you’ll see virtual goods-driven games coming to consoles in the living room — I actually believe that’s inevitable. I think it’s probably the single biggest change that the traditional videogame business has in front of it. You’re seeing lots of large companies really struggling with that transition right now.
IGN: Speaking of that, what is your position on some of the bigger traditional publishers now coming into the iPhone space? Do you fear them? Respect them? Have you had to alter your game plan at all because of them?
Young: Well, I do respect them and I respect the games that they have brought to the platform. I think Electronic Arts is done a particularly good job of prosecuting the premium side the platform. I think they’re in a class above Gameloft in terms of the authenticity of the products that they’re bringing to market and the relative quality of them. So I definitely respect them.
I think the challenge for those companies is, do they have inherent in the DNA of their company the ability to really build things that take full advantage of the device? Or are they looking at the platform as a way to offset the cost of developing the intellectual property on a 360 or PS3? You know, I’m intimately familiar with a company like Electronic Arts and I think the way the company is wired doesn’t necessarily lend itself to building things that take specific advantage of the device. So when you refer to ngmoco as the de facto first-party, it’s really because we’re able to focus on the strengths of the device — overtly multitouch, but more completely, it’s connected to the network, always with you and always on. The types of play experiences that you build to take advantage of those unique facets are really radically different than porting a racing game.
IGN: I think ngmoco pushes the iPhone as hard if not harder than anybody out there. And personally speaking, I really enjoy a lot of your games, including Rolando, of course. That said, I noticed as I researched this interview that ngmoco doesn’t seem to rank on the sales charts. To be specific, as of today’s rankings, no ngmoco games in the Top 50 Paid Apps and the first ngmoco game in the Top 50 Free Apps is Touch Pets at #29. No others in the free charts. And none in the Top 50 all-time grossing through 2009. So my question is, for a company dedicated to iPhone, it appears your games aren’t performing. Is that true, and if so, why is that?
Young: I think that’s false. I think you’ll find that Epic Pet Wars is #16 right now and Touch Pets is #25. Those two SKUs of Epic Pet Wars and Touch Pets were released yesterday. And every weekend since Christmas we’ve had one or two titles in the Top 25 at the weekend.
Touch Pets yesterday had its biggest grossing day of its life — three and a half months after its release. The reason you don’t see that showing up in the Top Grossing is because Touch Pets has about 20 SKUs associated with it and it’s a mechanism we use to keep the product up in the charts. We release a new SKU, provide that SKU to our existing user base, which in turn then introduces it to new people and it moves up the charts. The revenue gets split across a whole ton of products.
If you were to look at yesterday’s revenue for Touch Pets and you compared that revenue to the number the Top 25 Grossing Apps would do, Touch Pets was about the #10 grossing app on the App Store. So you’re sort of looking at the world through the pinprick of the App Store charting system versus the way in which the market is developing.
It’s a common misconception and I’m actually quite happy with it because the last thing we necessarily care about is people dissecting our financials or performance as a business.