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Nuclear Division counting on "tectonic shifts" in mobile

Social casino exec Larry Pacey and Respawn's Vince Zampella do the math on their new startup

Last week, Respawn Entertainment's Vince Zampella and former WMS Gaming chief innovation officer Larry Pacey announced their new venture, the mobile game developer Nuclear Division. And while they find themselves joining efforts to break into an increasingly crowded market, they are arriving at the endeavor from very different perspectives.

Zampella has spent his career in the traditional PC and gaming space, co-founding both Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward as well as Titanfall shop Respawn. For him, Nuclear Division is a first step into the mobile market. Zampella told GamesIndustry International that it's a different world in mobile and a tremendous learning opportunity, but he's still looking to contribute all he can despite the lack of experience in the area.

"The focus for me with Nuclear Division is definitely different," Zampella said. "Even though my primary focus is still Respawn, I get the chance to be in a more advisory role, which is something I haven't done much of in the past. I've been in the gaming industry a long time, so getting to expand my responsibilities feels very rewarding."

"The art of subtlety and publicity are paramount in casino products, and it's something that's been honed within my brain. How simple something can be that also has meaningful impact to a consumer."

Larry Pacey

Pacey is coming to the endeavor from WMS Gaming, best known for its slot machines. However, in the dozen years he spent at WMS, he oversaw the company's expansion into online and mobile platforms with efforts like the Facebook/iOS/Android hit Jackpot Party Social Casino. Before WMS, Pacey was a developer in the traditional gaming space at companies like Segasoft and Atari, and even worked with Zampella at various points, so the pair should know what to expect from the working relationship. Pacey sees their skillsets as separate, but complementary.

"Vince has a very specific eye for products, what a player would expect and what a player would be excited about," Pacey said. "I have a history of experience creating completely new, differentiated player experiences that have been successful. It's a productization effort--bringing consumers in on something new and walking them through it...It's something that is a high art in the casino gaming space. The art of subtlety and publicity are paramount in casino products, and it's something that's been honed within my brain. How simple something can be that also has meaningful impact to a consumer."

The common ground between their careers has been delivering innovative, exciting experiences to players, Pacey said.

"If you look at our products, there's always something really important that probably players wanted but didn't really know they wanted," he said. "That's what's going to be important for our products. We're going to build on things everybody is familiar with, but there will be new concepts inside of this product that will innovate, that will bring that 'a ha!' moment of players saying, 'Wow, I didn't know you could do this.'"

To start with, Nuclear Division will have two game development teams and a technology team. While there are plenty of common services to provide analytics and the like (some of which Nuclear Division may use), Pacey said some of the key ideas behind the company are innovations "beyond a game or a game client."

"There are a few ideas we feel are ready to come to life," Zampella teased.

It's too early to reveal what those were, just as it was too early to say whether Nuclear Division plans to keep them as a competitive edge or license them out to other developers.

"Our biggest challenge is we have a series of what we would call innovations, new concepts, that are going to have be vetted out through a series of betas, alphas, and soft launches to figure out what parts have value and what parts don't," Pacey said. "We've got great ideas, but until these are all proven out, they're just ideas."

Those ideas aren't exclusively on the technological side. Mobile gamer preferences are also changing at an incredible rate. Top grossing app lists contain some entrenched games from genres that were pretty much non-existent in the mobile market just a few years ago. And Nuclear Division doesn't expect that evolution to slow down anytime soon.

"There are a few ideas we feel are ready to come to life."

Vince Zampella

"To be honest, we see these tectonic shifts in player behavior that occur when an innovation in gameplay occurs that consumers can understand and value, and the technology can actually execute on," Pacey said. "We think the industry is going to see these tectonic shifts occurring every year. We're going to see a new genre or category or play style come out. And more than anything, I think that's where we want to be. We want to be bringing products to market that maybe try to be just that."

The rapid advancement of mobile hardware may be alleviating the technical restrictions that kept some genres from achieving mobile success in the past, but Pacey said there's still a lag effect at work. Even if today's newest phones could realize a developer's wildest ambitions, not everyone has those new phones.

"We're always going to have this n-1, n-2 platform where you're going to have to support product a couple generations back just to reach a large enough player base," Pacey said. "You're not going to be able to say 'I want to make a product for the latest device.' But I think there's a lot of robustness even in what's out there today. We're seeing benchmarks indicating that the latest chips are desktop class, and that's exciting. But I do think there are constraints, still. There are memory constraints, storage constraints, and I don't see those numbers radically changing as fast as I see computational power growing."

But beyond those challenges, beyond the rising costs of player acquisition, the difficulty of retention, and getting noticed in a crowded marketplace, there's an even more immediate problem that Zampella and Pacey both identified for Nuclear Division: work force addition.

"We're still out there looking for the right talent," Pacey said. "There's a lot of people playing in this segment, but I would say we have very specific things we're looking for in people. We're not just popping out a puzzle game here. And I'm not belittling puzzle games, but we've got some fresh ideas and we're not going to make another of what's exactly out there. So we're looking for those people who have that fire in them to innovate and create this original IP, this original product. There's still this undiscovered country of making great mobile products we want to pursue."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.