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ngmoco boss Neil Young

On the DeNA deal, Mobage in the West and why Zynga's the competition

Former EA exec Neil Young broke away from the publisher in 2008 to found his own developer, smelling great opportunity in the then-impending App Store. Over ngmoco's short history, he's led it through two dramatic pivots - firstly to free to play, having predicted a collapse in traditional business models, and then last month to focusing on a mobile social network. This latter involved selling the business (for $403 million) to Japanese mobile giant DeNA, which dominates its domestic feature phone market with the Mobage Town social platform.

Last week, caught up with Young at Evolve In London, and quizzed him on plans for Mobage in the West, who ngmoco's competitors in that space were, and whether the now DeNA-owned company would be able to pivot once again if the climate changed. Have you been selling the idea of Mobage to European studios while you've been over here?
Neil Young

To some degree. It depends on who you're talking to. We've got essentially two parts to the business, right? One is the games that we make ourselves and the other is the platform that we're building and the games that we want to have come to that service. So for the games that we make ourselves, we do some of those internally, we do some of those in collaboration externally. So those conversations are much more focused around 'what shall we make together, why do we think that's going to be great, what will we learn, what mistakes don't we want to repeat.

Then obviously around Mobage it's 'what's the vision for the platform, what are we trying to accomplish, and what's the benefit to a developer'. Which I think is at the end of the day, most developers from a business standpoint want audience and monetisation and I think Mobage gives them a great opportunity to get that, and to learn also from the lessons that we've learnt and the DeNA has learnt in Japan. What kind of reaction are you getting to it, given there's a sudden confluence of social gaming layers on mobile - are people clear on how this differs and what the opportunities are?
Neil Young

Well, I think we have a fairly clear proposition and I think there's really two pieces to that. One is target this platform and you'll get carriage on the network, and the network will be the only global network with a lot of users on an aggregated basis. Two, we have some pretty proven monetisation against that audience, both in Japan and here in the West. So when developers get exposed to that it's exciting. Because the big challenge as a developer is how do I make enough money to keep going. I think the expertise and experience that collectively the companies have is exciting to a lot of developers. In general, the reaction is good and we've got a lot of work to do to educate people on what the opportunity is, but it's good. In tandem with that you're pursuing some big licensing deals, like Star Wars Imperial Academy with THQ. How straightforward is it to have the company doing these two quite disparate things, or is it likely you'll start to lean more towards one or the other?
Neil Young

We built a pretty scalable first party product development organisation, which really was the core of the company for a long time. So we don't fear being able to do a lot of those games - great development teams, great producers, the infrastructure required to do those things. The strategy is all around how do you go from an affiliate network to a platform proper, that can be a destination as well as an active community as well as a disaggregated set of applications. There's undoubtedly a lot of work to do there, but the benefit we have is a company that's already done that, and then our own learning on the Plus+ network, which is not a trivial undertaking. The 50+ million minutes a day that I quoted [in a talk earlier that day] are just for ngmoco titles - that doesn't include games that are in the Plus+ network in general.

So operating a service that's doing hundreds of millions of minutes of gameplay every single day is in and of itself a non-trivial undertaking. So the gap between that and delivering a social game network that's a destination is measured in the types of features that you need and the global monetisation methods that you need. So that's at least a discrete set of problems. You talked earlier about how ngmoco's ability to pivot has been key to its growth - does the DeNA partnership, and being tethered to Mobage, affect your ability to do that?
Neil Young

I don't think so. That's just a function of whether you choose to or not. I think we've been able to find a partner in DeNA that has the same... Have you ever met Tomoko [Namba, DeNA CEO]? She's a remarkable woman. In your head, you have a picture of what a Japanese CEO is like - she's the opposite of everything you're thinking of. She founded the company, she's one of the few female CEOs of publicly traded companies in Japan, she's very entrepreneurial, educated in the US, from a consulting background... She's proven, I think, through the life of running DeNA, that she could pivot the company through various transitions. I think we've got a partner with a really like mind. Both sides of the pacific are motivated to build a big, global company. The only way you get there is by continuing to iterate and evolve your business.

Alec Meer avatar
Alec Meer: A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.
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