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Interview: Ngmoco's Cousins, Jakobsen Talk Broad New Frontiers At Stockholm Studio

Something unusual is happening at Ngmoco's new Sweden office. Former Electronic Arts exec Ben Cousins and former Crytek director Senta Jakobsen, now at Ngmoco, talk to Gamasutra about attracting top-tier talent.
Something unusual is happening at Ngmoco's new Sweden office. Former Electronic Arts exec Ben Cousins is general manager of the studio and former Crytek director Senta Jakobsen is its development head, and the pair of longtime collaborators have what they feel is a unique vision in mind. Cousins left EA after 4 years working on their free-to-play initiatives. "I really wanted to move on and start working with a company that was 100 percent digital rather than 30 percent, or 60 percent," he tells Gamasutra of the new frontiers afforded by the social space. "I worked with Senta a lot at DICE, and I needed someone as organized as her to help me set up this studio," he continues. At Crytek, Jakobsen oversaw six different studios; her sort of expertise is to Cousins indicative of a trend they hope to capitalize on at their studio. "The kind of people we're talking to now are generally very senior people who are looking for an opportunity to get back into the core face of development," Cousins explains. "There are a lot of people in the industry who've been promoted to management positions, and they really miss the days when they were building games and being creative." The AAA industry's ever-increasing budgets and team sizes have led to many of the business' creatives being promoted gradually out of development and into corporate roles, Cousins says. "We've got this arms race in the console and PC space," he suggests. "The quality is getting better and better, games are getting deeper, longer and more complex. Inevitably, if you've been in the business for a long time, you find yourself being offered nice senior positions with lots of power, and it's difficult to turn down those roles." "You have a little bit of a moment where you realize this isn't why you got into the business," he reflects. Furthermore, the experience of those senior developers invests them with new insight into how to address a particular gap in the mobile and social space. "What we found through our research is that [core gamers] have got smartphones and tablets and they play games on them, but the games they play... don't really correlate to the kinds of games they play on console or PC," Cousins says. There has to be some middle plain between the traditional console game and Fruit Ninja on iOS, he reasons. "I'm not suggesting we start creating 40-hour space adventures on phones or tablets; we've got to address the times and places that they use those devices." What Ngmoco's newest studio will focus on is "freemium AAA-quality titles which really appeal to that core gamer and hit the same emotional notes that games on PC and console hit." And the rapidly-growing mobile market makes a great invention space, in Cousins' opinion. "We've been doing quite a lot of research with consumers about gaming on these sorts of new devices," he says. "People are much more forgiving... they were giving us permission to take chances and be creative, almost the exact opposite of what's happening in the packaged goods business." Senta Jakobsen says that the new Ngmoco studio will be best poised to take advantage of the experience of senior talent if it is prepared to work with their goals in kind. Most veterans have side projects, she says, and many employment contracts prohibit people from owning independent IP while working with a larger company. That's not going to be the case at the Stockholm studio, she says. "It's good learning; they're exploring different avenues, and it's another way in which they can stay fresh in their own creativity," Jakobsen says. Another way to attract top-tier talent is oddly simple: "I want to hire adults," she says. "Adults who are young at heart, because obviously we make games, but people who have a lot of experience generally don't need to be managed." When everyone's expectations and goals are clear there's no need for an omnipresent watchman or a robust management structure, Jakobsen believes. "If I hire a senior artist, why would I, someone who doesn't have a background in art, tell that artist what to do?" She says. "It's time for me to listen to what they suggest." A more self-directed development team feels more invested in the outcome and is more motivated to commit to a project and to innovate, she says. Both Jakobsen and Cousins hope it'll be a welcome return to a grassroots feel for many experienced developers who have gotten fatigued of overlarge or overly-structured studios. "We both worked on studios with very big teams," says Cousins. "You never get the impression that anyone wants it to get this bad, with this many managers and this much rigidity within the development process. We've been forced into that position by the quality arms race." Many of the new studio's staff will even work remotely -- Jakobsen says that it would be impossible to get everyone that she most wants to hire at the studio to move to Sweden, so the solution is to figure out a remote work structure. Some, though, will be centralized at the Stockholm location. "The beautiful freedom that freemium gives you is you can produce less content up front, manage risk and let the consumers define a little bit more of the experience," Cousens says. "We'll have a vision for our first game, but it won't be a vision for the 100-percent completeness of it. The rest of that vision will come from the consumers."

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