At a glance, SGN doesn't really stand out from the rest of the mobile game publishers out there with a casual focus. It has a portfolio of match-three games involving sweets (Cookie Jam), jewels (Genies & Gems), bubble-shooting (Panda Pop), and CG feature films (The Book of Life: Sugar Smash). Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco last month, president and COO Josh Yguado acknowledged the company's reliance on genre standards, but also defended its track record of innovation.
"Mobile games could be much more social and much more interesting than they are right now."
"I think whatever we do over time, there will be a component to those games that you've seen before, and there will be things you've never seen before," Yguado said. "I think we'll never do something that's 100 percent brand new, and we'll never do something that's 100 percent established and proven. Getting the right mix between the two is what makes for really good portfolio management."
For SGN, the key is social, Yguado explained. The company has been putting an emphasis on social functions inside its games, whether they be leaderboards or weekly challenges where players compete for the title of "king of the island." Still, he knows those features aren't exactly exclusive in the casual space, and he sees a massive opportunity in expanding on them in SGN's future titles.
"In our next generation of games, we are going to have much more social collaboration and competition that you've seen in the midcore space, but you've never seen in the casual space before," Yguado said.
While Yguado wouldn't divulge specifics, certain things could be inferred from his views on underexplored areas in mobile gaming at the moment.
"We have all these wonderful social APIs and plug-ins and capabilities on a phone than we ever had on a desktop in terms of connection to friends and location and movement, and I think they're way underutilized right now," Yguado said. "Mobile games could be much more social and much more interesting than they are right now. We're just beginning to see some synchronous multiplayer and some games that use social in a much more interesting way than just sending lives or helping someone get unstuck on a level. I think we're just on the cusp of something, and there should be more and more investment and more innovation in the social and mobile-specific features than there has been to date."
"From an IP perspective, there hasn't been in our opinion a ton of risk-taking in the industry. There have been some very established IP tropes that people hit on again and again and again."
Fortunately for Yguado, SGN has a bit of investment to throw around. Last summer, the company raised $130 million from Korean online game publisher Netmarble.
"That was because we made an active decision that the space is consolidating, and we either needed to sell or raise capital to allow us to be a consolidator, and we chose the latter path," Yguado said. "So we're really focused right now on finding great studios to buy, expanding our genre capabilities and expertise, and continuing to staff our teams throughout the United States.
"We acquired two smaller studios this past summer, and those studios are making different types of games than we've ever made before, but they still focus on pretty casual, female-skewing audiences. We're looking at several other, much larger acquisitions right now that would enter us into very different types of genres with very different users."
That means SGN's portfolio may be in for a shake-up that would make it stand out from the mobile crowd a bit more.
"From an IP perspective, there hasn't been in our opinion a ton of risk-taking in the industry," Yguado said. "There have been some very established IP tropes that people hit on again and again and again. With puzzle games it's frequently candies or cookies, and we've been part of that. With midcore or hardcore games, it's fantasy or modern combat armies. There's an opportunity here to do something very different from a story and IP perspective. We're going to bring out some very quirky casual games, and we're going to have a male-oriented game with a very different IP approach than I think people have seen before. Hopefully people think it's fresh and different and interesting."
"The global community has been brought up on American content, American aesthetic and American storytelling... there are many global universal concepts we could come up with that will be very accessible to anyone in the world..."
One factor that led to the Netmarble funding was SGN's desire to expand its business in Asia, so it's a safe bet that whatever new IP tropes SGN uses, they would appeal to audiences in Korea, China, and Japan. But Yguado--who has previously worked at MTV, Fox, and Univision--said it's really not that big a trick finding a theme with global appeal.
"I think you'd be astounded by how much Western content, specifically American content, is consumed around the world," Yguado said. "Major US Hollywood films succeed in Asia. Major US television series succeed in Europe. There's precedent for not only US, but specifically West Coast content being successful throughout the world. The global community has been brought up on American content, American aesthetic and American storytelling... there are many global universal concepts we could come up with that will be very accessible to anyone in the world, and television and film content has proven that for the past 100 years."
That's not to say localization in mobile games isn't challenging. But it's not so much about localizing the games themselves as it is about localizing the marketing and distribution methods for each region.
"Someone in Korea may typically access their games through Kakao, and someone in China may prefer a messaging platform like WeChat, and in the US we may access our games through the App Store," Yguado said. "I think it's more figuring out the viral channels, the right marketing channels that keeps us up at night. That's something we really invest in and really affects our business more than, 'Will the IP work in Asia?'"