Neil Young is back in games, chasing the West's 'Puzzle & Dragons moment'

Neil Young and the rest of the core Ngmoco team are back to games at N3TWORK. The San Francisco-based app developer has pivoted to games, and has a couple new titles in the works. We talk to Young.

Neil Young is back, and he's bringing the rest of the Ngmoco crew with him on a new game development journey.

Young, Bob Stevenson, Alan Yu, and Stephen Detwiler have spent the last couple of years building a video app for mobiles called N3TWORK; it has won acclaim but not success, and the group is transitioning back to the smartphone games space they strove to define in its early days.

Ngmoco made a splash in the beginnings of the smartphone game arms race; but the group sold to Japanese mobile giant DeNA in hopes of major growth. While the Ngmoco gang gained insight into the workings of the business thanks to DeNA's expertise, Young says, it didn't stop them from splitting with the Tokyo-based company.

"We've just been yearning, missing games," Young tells Gamasutra. N3TWORK's San Francisco-based studio has pivoted from app development and is deep into the creation its first game title, with hopes to launch it at the end of the year. It's on the verge of starting a second game project, too.

"Our focus is on building and releasing a range of games that take all of this knowledge that we've accumulated, and pour it into games we love and are proud of," says Young.

Chasing the West's "Puzzle & Dragons moment"

Young sees an untapped opportunity to make a mobile mega-hit for the West, and given his relationship with DeNA, it's probably not a huge surprise he's inspired by the mobile-dominated Japanese market.

"If you think about Puzzle & Dragons, it's the poster child of awesome-performing smartphone games in Japan that the West hasn't been able to fully replicate," he says.

"You could look at the West and say it's had its Puzzle & Dragons moment with Clash of Clans, but it clearly hasn't. The business would be three or four times larger than it is today."

Young says that only a handful of titles across the globe can compete in terms of engagement and refinement with titles like Monster Strike and Puzzle & Dragons. His goal, of course, is to execute that well.

The distraction of "console-quality"

"There is a push in the mobile games business toward 'console-quality' mobile games," Young observes. "That disrespects the nature of mobile games and console games."

It's a distraction from creating "games that have mobile quality" -- games that fit the platform they're on.

Besides, crafting "console-quality" graphics is frequently irrelevant anyway, Young says. "If you think about the best games you've played, the graphics melt away after awhile. You play them when you're not in front of them. The loops are going around, and you're thinking about them."

On top of that, he says, "the top 100 grossing [mobile] games are inversely correlated with 'console quality,'" because there's "a very pure razor on what does and doesn't work on mobile."

A game needs "depth" to win this battle

To that end, Young listed off a litany of common-sense mobile game tenets (games that invite players back, games that load fast) before landing on one that's more surprising: A successful title absolutely has to have "depth," he says.

"I am not sure I really would have appreciated that if I hadn't spent two years at a Japanese game company; the importance of depth is more than appealing to a core audience. It's essential to building to a great piece of software that can appeal in these spaces," he says. "In the West, we undervalue depth. It's not complexity, necessarily. You need something that goes on forever."

Like Puzzle & Dragons -- which is still at the top of Japan's top-grossing charts as it passes the third anniversary of its release.

He says that Candy Crush Saga hit on depth by adding a map to match-3; players stick with it much longer. But he'd like to go further than that: It's "not just a single dimension of depth," that he considers necessary to win the battle for mobile. "Multiple dimensions of depth is going to be really important."

The road to success lies through the hardcore

And while Young thinks segmenting the audience is important, he doesn't want to be shoehorned into going after a target as narrowly defined as "mid-core." Rather, he sees engaging committed players as a path toward building a huge audience.

N3TWORK's approach will be based around "wrapping it in all of the things necessary to try and make that appealing as possible to the broadest audience of people, without comprising your ability to get a group of people who would really stick around for a long time."

"The path to a mass market always goes through the hardcore," Young says. It's a lesson he learned from film director Peter Jackson when working on Lord of the Rings games at Electronic Arts, he says: "It's that hardcore that talks to the next level [of players]... that helps promote and validate the experience."

Young also notes that Puzzle & Dragons has stayed at the top of the charts despite GungHo being generous with premium items. "The criticism of GungHo in the financial markets in Japan is that they're giving away money," Young says.

But he says that's a lesson he learned at Ngmoco -- the most punitive free-to-play games performed worse than the more generous ones. "There is something in the argument that people who are willing to pay will pay anyway. If you can make it as engaging as possible, business opportunities flow from that."

What Young won't do yet is divulge a single detail about either of the games the studio is working on -- not for a few months, at least. By then, it's clear that he hopes that the studio will have been able to synthesize this uber-game: One that has depth, accessibility, appeals to a wide audience and engages them for the long term.

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