Founded in 2008, ngmoco was among the first companies to make an impact in the flourishing iPhone market. The company was acquired by the Japanese online portal DeNA last year for a cool $403 million, and since then has been busy developing and populating Mobage, a social network and gaming portal for Android phones.
We sat down with co-founder Alan Yu to talk about the shifting sands of mobile developing, making sense of Android, and what E3 isn't saying about the games industry.
Q: Your job involves finding new games and new developers to work with, which is an interesting role, and one that must have changed quite a lot over the last few years.
Alan Yu: I think you're right, but fundamentally, while the people I talk to have changed, it's still the same. When you go out and you're looking at ideas and looking at developers, what you're measuring is a couple of things: capability, and chemistry. We're doing less funding of ideas, and more bringing developers on to Mobage, our platform: we've got Zombie Farm, we've got Pocket Frogs, we've got Command Games, who do social card games, we've been launching our own games - we've got about 100 games now, in the pipeline.
ngmoco's moving from being a developer with an affiliate network to really being a platform, with first-party production with our own games, and world class third-party games.
Q: So in terms of who you want to work with, are you looking at studios with a more pragmatic eye? Studios who you feel have the culture to last, rather than having one idea or one hit game?
Alan Yu: For our third-party programme we're just looking for games that we think will benefit from access to our audience, and I think that's a slightly different vision. There are proven developers in the marketplace, like our partners at NimbleBit or PlayForge. It's less, er, less mysterious, y'know, those guys are known quantities.
Q: We've seen a lot of new mobile and social developers rise from the ashes of studio closures, and the market is so much more crowded now. Has pedigree become more important to you?
Alan Yu: I think what's really interesting and disruptive about this is...one of the first games we published was Rolando, which was made by a guy called Simon Oliver at Hand Circus, and he'd never made a game before. You're seeing a kind of a..a..blooming of creative expression, because all you really need to do is buy a $99 SDK and a Mac Mini and you can start developing. That's good, and very healthy for the games business.
The interesting thing is that E3 used to represent the totality of the game business, but not any more
Alan Yu, ngmoco
In the console business, you're probably talking to the same 10 to 15 developers out there, everyone's talking to the same guys. I'm exempting internal development, but for third-party indies it's probably the same 15 people you're talking to. There's very few people you're going to trust with $25 million.
Q: When you look at a show like E3 it's regarded as a platform for an entire industry's products, but generally it's only a small handful of games from the same small crop of studios - and there's a lot of crossover in terms of content even then.
Alan Yu: The interesting thing is that E3 used to represent the totality of the game business, but not any more. Zynga wasn't there [this year], DeNA wasn't there, a whole bunch of people were not there, but I think that's healthy for the business.
Q: Isn't that, to some extent, a bit of a lie? Talk to Phil Harrison, who's involved with London Venture Partners now, and he'll tell you that all of the movement in the industry is in the areas that don't attend E3.
Alan Yu: What venture capitalists want to do is bet on disruptions, so he's right about that. I just think that console games will always be around, but they aren't the totality of the business any more, and that's healthy.
Q: Would you like to see a show like E3 coming around to that idea, and giving mobile, social, and these new spaces a representative share of the limelight?
Alan Yu: I certainly hope so. I don't have any grand insight on what they're doing, but I think it would be illustrative of where the industry is today and how much change there is going on. And again, change is healthy, change is good. It makes people adapt, keeps them intellectually honest, keeps them creatively fresh.
Q: Going back to HandCircus, they gave a talk yesterday where it was mentioned that they were moving towards PS Vita because they feel it has become too difficult to get noticed working on iOS due to the sheer volume of games and developers.
Alan Yu: Well, that's certainly an issue, and that's what we're trying to do with the Mobage partners programme - give developers access to a high quality audience, and bring that audience high quality games, whether they are ours or those of our third-party partners. The games won't just be in there with everyone else.
Q: Does quality breed success in the marketplace in this area?
Alan Yu: Absolutely. Quality will always be recognised. Do I think we need better discovery tools in the space? Absolutely. Mobage is our attempt to try and do that.
Do I think we need better discovery tools in the space? Absolutely. Mobage is our attempt to try and do that
Alan Yu, ngmoco
Q: Does Apple need to step up and take some of that responsibility too? Should it be up to third-parties?
Alan Yu: I believe Apple when they say they are protecting the user experience. I wholeheartedly believe it when they say they are going to do that. In the end, every game maker and business person has to take responsibility for how they get their game noticed, how they're going to make sure it reaches the market in the way that they want, and I think it's a bit unfair to put it all on Apple.
Q: Another issue widely discussed at Develop is monetising Android, which doesn't quite offer developers the same ease of turning a profit. What's being done there?
Alan Yu: Going back to Mobage, that's what we want it to be: the button that you press when you want mobile-social entertainment. Obviously, other people are going to things to change the ecosystem for the better, too, but it's still fairly early days, and you can't ignore the sheer size that Android has now and will have in the future. It's basically the size of the market, right? Our bet is that Mobage will be the consumers brand that people can go to to discover these games.
Q: ngmoco was acquired last year by DeNA, who wanted to expand their operation into the West. Has that been successful so far?
Alan Yu: It's going really well. We share the same vision as DeNA - this cross-border, cross-device network. Right now it's in a limited field test in Canada [Note: Mobage was launched in all English-speaking territories yesterday], and it will release soon after we work out a few things. That's an exciting prospect for us, and there's so much we can learn from a company like DeNA.
We're working very well together. It's very collaborative. They're not like a typical Japanese company. They're quite entrepreneurial. They have a really great image they use: there's a sphere, the DeNA sphere, and no matter how big or small your piece of the sphere is, it is your piece, you are the piece that's showing to the rest of the world. There's nobody behind you. You have to represent that piece, because if you don't it's like a hole in the planet. I find that a really interesting metaphor for how they work.
Q: Has the relationship changed the way ngmoco operate, or was it purely additive for DeNA?
Alan Yu: It's both. You can't help but learn a a lot of things from a company that big and that successful, but they also know that for DeNA to be a global company it needs to recognise other viewpoints. We, ngmoco, DeNA International, or whatever you want to call it, are in charge of 190 of the world's 192 countries, so basically everything outside of Japan and China. It's a very, very interesting time, and there's a lot of work to do.