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The Verge of Change: Ben Cousins on Founding Ngmoco Sweden

As the popularity of mobile games continues to snowball, Ngmoco Sweden's Ben Cousins discusses how, in the years to come, we'll see mobile game teams expanding to the size of console game studios.

In the middle of last year, Ngmoco, the San Francisco-based mobile game developer (and subsidiary of Japanese mobile giant DeNA) announced it would be forming a new studio in Stockholm, Sweden, centered around Ben Cousins.

Cousins had made his name at EA, where he launched the company's free-to-play experiment Battlefield Heroes while working at its DICE studio and turned it into a success (and into a studio of its own -- EASY, which later launched Battlefield Play4Free.)

Cousins joined Ngmoco and started hiring experienced developers from studios like Crytek, DICE, Avalanche, and more to build a studio with ambitions of creating an "icebreaker" title, as he put it when Gamasutra visited the team's temporary studio space in December -- one that would be "another step above" the rest of the mobile herd, and open up a new genre, and consequently to new audiences playing in the space.

In this interview, conducted during that December visit, Cousins delves further into the personal reasons he founded the studio, what he expects to happen to the console gaming space as tablets disrupt it, and how Minecraft shows that the industry is ripe for change.

Why did you want to come to Ngmoco? Why did you personally want to start this studio?

Ben Cousins: It feels so incredibly lucky -- since, I think, 2008 was the first time someone approached me and said, "Hey, we will help you set up your own studio in Stockholm." And I'm committed to Stockholm as a city, because my family's here.

There aren't that many opportunities here -- a senior management position in DICE or start your own studio are the only two real options. I couldn't get a job somewhere... Like, Avalanche oros Starbreeze. I don't know, they just... you could be overqualified to be a level designer, or something.

It was clear to me that I would have to do my own thing, and I felt like once I'd done Battlefield Heroes and Battlefield Play4Free, and worked with the guys at Phenomic on Lord of Ultima -- I'd done a few cycles of free-to-play, and within EA we'd kind of created a recipe for success, and it was going to be about repeating that recipe, rather than about exploring new avenues, so...

Well, that's the large publisher model.

BC: Yeah, absolutely. And it's completely fantastic, and the correct business practice to do that.

But also, I was at EA. Digital is a huge priority, much more than any other major publisher, but, still, it's a side project for them, in terms of their revenue. I wanted to work for a company that was a hundred percent digital. I could've walked out and got a job at Activision or Ubisoft or wherever, but for me it was all about finding somewhere where digital was the priority, so that we would be the main event, rather than the side project.

And there were a bunch of people I spoke to but... Ngmoco, DeNA, was really the team, and in San Francisco I just knew. And had previously met [head of publishing] Clive [Downie] and [founders] Neil [Young] and Alan Yu and Bob Stevenson -- I think they're a great team. And also Carol Shaw and Chris Plummer are EA guys, I knew those as well.

And then the possibility of working with the company with the highest ARPUs in the world. How did DeNA do that? And to be able to learn that. At EA, I was one of the experts in the company on digital, and I'm not one of the experts on monetization and retention anymore, from DeNA, so that's an opportunity to learn from them. And also I like working for Japanese companies, and with Japanese people, based on my experience at Sony, so that was kind of why I did this.

Mobile was really just like, "Okay, I've done free-to-play, I'm on PC." Social are interesting, but to compete in the "social" world... You know, we say "social" but we really mean Facebook games, right? Zynga are a key player there, and it's going to be difficult for anyone to get in a big foothold in that space. So mobile feels like there's more to play for, and with Android growing so rapidly, it's just a little bit more of an exciting space, I think.

More variety.

BC: More variety, absolutely. And like we were talking about, I just have this feeling... So, Facebook games are increasing in performance; CastleVille looks a hell of a lot better than FarmVille, but I feel like that increase in performance is happening a little bit slower than it is on mobile.

And I was looking up, yesterday... The fastest smartphone when the Xbox 360 was launched was this HP thing which had a 300 megahertz processor, and now I think by the time the next Xbox is released, we will have like eight core or quad core, unbelievably powerful mobile devices that are going to be more powerful than Xbox 360.

So this arms race for the tablet and smartphone business is driving the hardware performance very quickly, and whenever that happens it's very interesting for developers, right? Your capabilities and the possibilities of what you can build are changing every year.

And what I saw is -- the most interesting opportunity for me is -- can games on phones and tablets start to compete for the dollars and the hours that people spend on consoles? And certainly, from a performance point of view, during this console cycle they will -- if not surpass them.

Like I say, we will have phones and tablets that surpass the 360 in performance, within this product cycle. But beyond this point, if we continue this rapid pace, then it may well be that consoles are always behind. It's an interesting situation.


The Ngmoco team works in its temporary office space outside Stockholm. Members pictured, from left to right: Ben Cousins, Malte Hildigsson, Senta Jakobsen, Dave Simard, Tony Davis, Veselin Efremov.

Things are shifting, too, in the sense that if we take another leap with the consoles -- next Xbox, or whatever. It's going to probably, I think, further stratify things into either giant or tiny games on consoles. The middle is just being scraped out of the industry right now.

BC: And how do you compete with the big titles? You probably can't compete with them for that moment on a Saturday when they're playing for 19 hours straight with their buddies. But you can probably compete for those weekday evenings, or lunchtimes, or BART commutes. You can absolutely beat them when they can't get ahold of a console. When they're in a physical location. And does that become a Trojan Horse, whereby actually you're so into the game that you started playing on mobile that, at the weekend, you start to commit...

Absolutely, for me that's happened to me. I've played iOS games at home on my bed for an hour, the way I would a console game.

BC: In that exact moment of the day when you would turn on the TV and boot up your console. And it's the level of convenience as well; this is like a micro level of convenience. So leaning over and turning on my console, and booting it up, and maybe doing a firmware update, and then playing a game -- or just picking that thing up which is right next to you and playing on it?

I mean, it's kind of like a first world problem, right? [laughs] "Ugh, do I have to press the power button on my console?!" But this is the kind of thing that changes usage patterns. I just gave my wife a tablet. She has a laptop in that corner of the room and a tablet. The laptop's a better experience for surfing the web, no question, but she's started spending much more of her time on a tablet just because 20 seconds, we can't be bothered to reach over there, right?

That should be scary, I think, for the console guys. They've been seen as the convenient, accessible easy way of obtaining content, and they were for a long time. But now we've got something which is close to it, and even more convenient, and even cheaper, and even more accessible.


Yeah, now the question becomes, I guess, becoming richer experiences, and innovative. I don't really think the answer is to make a giant console game on a mobile platform.

BC: Yeah, people are doing that already, and it doesn't get you to the top of the charts. Like Modern Combat 3 from Gameloft is a 10-hour, Call of Duty-style single player game with a persistent multiplayer component, and that's not the answer. It's impressive that they can do it, and I enjoy playing them, but that isn't getting people as excited as something like High Noon.

I don't know if you've played High Noon. High Noon's like this little Western multiplayer shooting game where you draw the phone as a gun, and just shoot random people. These are the games that are hovering around in the top of the chart in the shooter genre, rather than games like Shadowgun or Modern Combat.

That's the fascinating opportunity for me -- in five years' time, what sort of games will core gamers be playing on mobile? I don't think they'll be playing Fruit Ninja. I think that there will be something with a Fruit Ninja style usage pattern, and the price point, but with a very different tone, and feel, and level of gameplay.

Is that where you're headed?

BC: I think so. I think there are three areas where which are going to collide in what we build. It's the social freemium experience at DeNA and Ngmoco. It's the high-end graphics of the games that we've been building. And it's starting to become the established way of structuring content and filling in usage patterns that we're seeing on the fantastic mobile games line.

Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope -- I mean, those are fantastic games, right? What we find when we talk to core gamers is they say, "It's a fantastic game, but it's not Mass Effect, is it?" Whereas I think we can find something which feels like Mass Effect -- feels as high-end, and as dramatic, and as cinematic, with the production values of that sort of game, but that doesn't require you to boot up a console, go through a long cutscene, walk to where the action happens, play the action, and then hit a save point. Great for getting value out of a PC or console usage pattern, but not great for mobile.

Here's a question that I would love to hear your answer to. You talked a lot about the upside of joining DeNA/Ngmoco. Your reasons are Ngmoco having about as much as experience as you can have with these platforms, and DeNA having solved monetization better than anybody on the globe. But what are the downsides, if any?

BC: The downsides are, well, they have a great tech platform, but some of it isn't usable by us. So we have to use either our own proprietary engine or, for 3D ones, someone else's engine. I think in the future ngCore will become a pretty nice high end engine as well. It doesn't fit our timelines.

And the guys at Ngmoco understand this, but from a DeNA point of view, a one year dev cycle or an eight month dev cycle, for them, feels kind of long. Whereas the guys here have gone through three to five year dev cycles, it feels very short, so. We're educating them and they're educating us, and they wouldn't have gone into this and if they weren't ready to learn from us.

It's great to look at the DeNA financial reports and we're bullet point number five of what's important to them in terms of growth, so it's great to have that backing.


Ngmoco's We Farm

How closely do you work with and how do you feel about [DeNA global executive producer Kenji] Kobayashi?

BC: I've met him a couple of times, and we've sat down and had a long conversation over dinner in August, and he's... There's so many super smart people there. And those guys, they have a lot of fantastically valuable learnings, and are incredibly analytical and data-driven.

But also in the way that they present the way they work, it's extremely ordered, and well laid out, and easy to understand. It's so great to come into a company that have it all ready for you, and they're like, "Here's how we think it works."

Whereas a lot of the time if you go into a really successful studio, they kind of have an idea of why they're successful, and they can teach you some stuff, but they don't know for sure how to do it, and they also don't know how the best to communicate it to you.

And it feels like DeNA, the way they're managing expansion, is to institutionalize this knowledge, and share that knowledge in a great way, and also be very passionate about communicating it, and about sharing it.

Is that down to the fact that it's a web culture company, you think? With a different way of looking at stuff?

BC: Yeah, I think so. I think people in the web industry are more open to sharing learnings. I was fascinated by the difference between the web industry and the games industry about four years ago, and I did a talk at Nordic Game about the differences, and it kind of preluded the social games explosion.

And it felt like the web guys came from academia and were therefore more open, and were more willing to sit on the shoulders of each other, and just say, "Here's the software standard, and here's the browser standard, and hey, we're not going to reinvent the wheel. We're going to just create great content and learn from each other."

And this is what we get from DeNA, absolutely. Whereas game developers have come from a different background, and they tend to be more guarded about their learnings. And there's a bit more of a "not invented here" kind of mentality than in a lot of web companies, and we've talked about the siloization in a lot of game companies.

People come to game companies to invent the wheel, right?

BC: Yeah, exactly.

In a way it's interesting to me that you do get people away from studios like DICE. Especially a coder working on Frostbite 2. That was one of the most monumental wheel inventions of the generation.

BC: Yeah, exactly. Obviously, the majority of guys who are working on that project are fascinated by creating new scientific inventions, or however you would describe new technological innovations. But there's also people who just want to make great games. The best engineers have tremendous technical chops, but also think about the end user experience as well, and [ex-DICE engineer] Malte [Hildingsson]'s one of those guys.

Malte wrote the engine for a PS2 game in a weekend -- he's that kind of guy. He does incredibly technical memory management on console games, but also he loves to play games. And the root to getting to that end user experience quicker and more efficiently is what excites him at the moment.

Making games used to be about welding circuit boards, right? Pong wasn't programmed -- it was chips. And then it became about writing assembler, and as the technology becomes higher level, and higher level, and higher level, there's always some people that drop out because they're not interested in doing that anymore, right?

And I think as the tools get more abstracted and more high level, there will be people who'll say, "You know, I don't think I want to just work with scripting anymore; I'm going to go and work in Formula One car chip design," or something, something nice and low level, or even in Hollywood.


The game industry is going through tremendous evolutions and expansions. We've got the Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation Vita, and at the same time we've got iOS versus Android, and then them all against each other. People were saying the 3DS was down and out at the beginning of the year, when it came out to sort of a whimper, and then now it's selling loads. Nintendo really realized that they were screwed if they didn't drop the price -- so they did! So I don't think you can call these battles. It's a very exciting time.

BC: I can remember back in '99 when Microsoft announced they were going into the console business, and all of us in software development at the time, we're like, "This is going to be really interesting. This is going to raise the bar, and what are Microsoft going to do, and what do we get out of that?"

I mean, console games now routinely sell over 10 million units, right? That's been driven by competition between Sony and Microsoft. There were big sellers before that, in Mario and Final Fantasy, and stuff. I'm just astonished that 15, 20 million people are playing first person shooters now, and that was driven by Microsoft's entrance to the business.

So what's going to happen now? Google and Apple -- biggest company in the world and one of the biggest companies in the world -- muscling into the games industry is going to create new opportunities and create the kind of uncertainty that people might, like me, really get excited about.

And we want to be part of that. There's a lot of predictability in the console business now, and there's a lot of unpredictability in the space that we're in, and being on the frontier is exciting for a certain type of person.

The phase that we've been in, though -- especially with the explosion of mobile games -- has been very much a throw-something-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks phase. But I get the sense that you wouldn't bring together this team and spend a year developing a game if you thought you were in the throw-something-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks phase.

BC: Exactly, and we wouldn't do it if we didn't have some degree of confidence in terms of the patterns of success that we've seen in the marketplace, but also internal learnings from Ngmoco and DeNA that would do that.

So you talk to guys about coming to work for us, and they're like, "I want to get back to smaller teams, and slightly less high end assets, and production values, and team sizes."

I think that we're rapidly going to see an increase in performance, and I give it four years' time before the mobile teams are probably going to be as big as the console teams were at the start of this generation: you know, 50, 60 people.

You really think so?

BC: Yeah, I think so. I think that's because the install base for these things is going to get bigger. Everyone who has a feature phone will end up having a smartphone. Everything is going to be to play for.

We'll see some transition of console gamers. Some of the console gamers, or some of the high ARPU kind of people, are going to be playing on console, and on smartphone and tablet. And I think it's going to be a bigger overall economy for these devices, which is going to justify bigger audiences for the hits.

But then there's also going to be an arms race between the big guys, and once monetization is solved, and usage patterns are solved, it's going to be much more about production values, and I think we're going to see a repeat of what we saw on console.

We've been through the arcades, we've been through the home devices, and now we're going through the mobile devices, and in each of those cases a few companies had some lucky hits early on. You remember the arcades in the '90s -- huge, hydraulic, specific cabinets with incredibly high-end 3D graphics.

And then that was dropped down to consoles, and consoles have gotten amazingly cinematic and deeper. I think we'll see that; we've dropped out again to mobile, and then I think we'll see really astonishing -- particularly on tablet -- experiences in four, five years' time. They will be Skyrim-style experiences on tablet.

And you know, this time next year, tablets are going to have high resolution screens -- full HDTVs. So that's already one barrier overcome. Now, if you want pixels, tablets are higher resolution than TVs. And all of this is really interesting. It's fun for us to talk about what might happen, but it's also going to be very interesting to see it evolve over time as well.

Are you taking the long view, or is your brief more to build a game and make it happen in short span?

BC: Yeah, we need to make a game as quickly as we can, given our goals. It needs to be profitable.

We're not a pure R&D group, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's more about... For me it's like, if we talk about a Naughty Dog, or a Polyphony Digital, or whatever, you know, a console game developer who got in there early when it wasn't such a sexy platform and gradually worked themselves up to having a big cultural impact, that would be the long view that I would take.

But the short view is just make great products that are valuable to consumers, and also profitable, and fulfill short-term as well as long-term business goals for the company.

So much of what's happening seems so business-led. But what we know about games really is that there has to be a creative lead to actually move the needle, right?

BC: Yeah, and sometimes, I just think about the Commodore 64 days, when I was living in the UK. There were all these companies that just sprung out of nowhere that were run by cowboys, essentially. They would just make crap games. They'd pay 18 year old kids just tiny amounts of money to produce games and throw them out there. And that worked for a while...

I think now we're at the point where home experiences are incredibly high-end and extremely culturally impactful, right? And that's an interesting turnaround. Where it's all about business, making money, getting good turnover, high profit margins. And as you get towards the end, it actually becomes about making truly creative and unique experiences.

Uncharted 3 is a great example of that, I think. Of all the stories I've experienced, whether it's movies or TV or books in the last year, that's kind of up there with them. And there would never be any reason to do that in the old days. But because the way to get your head over the parapet on console -- the only way to do it -- is to do all of that.

And this is what's starting to begin on mobile, I think. Even little things like Jetpack Joyride. Two years ago, there would be no backstory to it; it'd just be like there's this dude and he's on a jetpack. But they've added a kind of fun backstory. This guy steals a jetpack because he's bored at work. That's the first inklings of what will become the Uncharted-type experience, I think. Give it time.


Though you did speak about that you're still going to have to somehow work within the use patterns of mobile. On one hand you do expect people to take their console time and play on these devices, but I don't think you fully expect people to sit down as you might do to play Mass Effect -- like burn your Saturday playing Mass Effect, right?

BC: I'm very interested in, I think that social and mobile, how they compare to console is very much like the way TV was compared to cinema, and TV had to invent new systems of storytelling. So you know the "previously on"? That was an invention of TV, and the cliffhanger was an invention of cinema serials, and then became used by TV.

So I think we'll see all those interesting hooks of push notifications to remind you to play for five minutes a day, and maybe we'll have a "previously on", or the equivalent of a cliffhanger, to cover these usage patterns. And all of that is an invention that someone will invent, and it's going to be fascinating to be part of that, I think.

And then sometimes you do sit there and consume an entire TV show and you get into it, even though it's not how it was intended to be consumed; you do sit there with the DVD, and shotgun the whole thing.

BC: I guess the thing about freemium, you've got the free players and then you've got the whales at the very top who spend the most money. I'd imagine the guys who buy the box set of The Wire are the whales of the TV world, and then the people who wait for it to be on advertising-supported TV are like the free players. So there's all of these analogies that are kind of interesting to look at.

And they may or may not actually hold water in the end.

BC: Yeah.

I guess part of your job is to figure out what does.

BC: [laughs] Yeah. I did cultural studies at university, and one of the things that cultural studies does is it tries to find analogies between philosophy, and art, and cinema, and literature.

So I'm very much used to stepping back and saying, "In what ways is mobile development like punk rock?", and "Can we find an analogy there?", or how is playing a console game... what's the relationship between usage patterns and business compared to cinema? And working through those abstractions and thought experiments you can sometimes find an interesting conclusion.

People don't think too much beyond the game they're making, sometimes. They're in this microcosm, this sort of tunnel. Because there's a tremendous amount of pressure, there are unbelievable things to do, and there are ship dates that are not going to move. So sometimes a cultural picture isn't being investigated.

BC: One of the things I do is, I don't play everything that comes out. I try and spread my spare time between TV, and movies, and books, as well as games and music, just because I always have done it and it just gives me a perspective. So I miss out on playing... What haven't I played this year that I really should've played? I haven't started playing Skyrim yet; I only just played Halo: Reach; Gears of War 3, I've yet to play. So I sacrifice a little bit of my core gamer desires so I can try and stay in touch with crappy U.S. TV series, and British reality TV shows, and science books, and stuff like that.

What about indies?

BC: When I can, I play indie games. I like to credit myself with being a Minecraft player fairly early on; it was maybe August of last year [2010]. It was before that guy set fire to his house and everyone started playing it -- that YouTube video.

And I dip in and out of playing through some of the games from the Ludum Dare competitions, and various bits and pieces, but I wouldn't call myself an expert in the indie landscape. But I do have a real interest in that space, and it's great.

People used to talk, 10 years ago, about, "Is there going to be an indie music equivalent in gaming?" This was before digital distribution was really viable. And we do now, and that's amazing, and we'll see those innovations bubble up.

Epic have just announced a game which they blatantly say is really influenced by Minecraft, so we'll see a lot more of that happening, I think. And that's very healthy for the industry, and that only happened because the big companies lost their control of distribution, and then these guys suddenly could bubble up, and that's a great thing that's happening.


Ngmoco's Touch Pets Cats

Yeah, it puts some pressure on them. This generation, the first person shooter becomes this huge thing, and we got this sort of pervasive samey-ness. And then we need that kind of external creative pressure to keep things moving.

BC: Minecraft, from a revenue point of view, is going to be below Battlefield 3 for Swedish studios, but maybe by playing hours around the world, it's going to be the bigger game. That would've been inconceivable five years ago. And the unlocking of the power of these young guys in obscure locations, and with obscure backgrounds, is very good for the industry. Even if we're not participating in it, it's really great.

It's also likely to be a bigger game by revenue per employee.

BC: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think you could say that that is by far the most profitable, in percentage terms, game ever to come out of this country. And before BF 3, it was also the game with the highest number of unique users in this country as well, including the free guys and the paid guys.

I've always worked for big companies. I love big companies, but I have a rebellious streak, so I just love the idea that the two big studios in Sweden are one hugely successful and tremendously talented mega-studio, and the other one is like five guys in a little converted apartment in Södermalm.

There seems to be kind of a duality among the people at Ngmoco. There's a bit of a rebellious streak, but people know that they're working for a company at the same time. And I guess the best of both worlds is sort of what you're trying to go for.

BC: Yeah, I think we've happened upon that, just through our hiring process. Everybody meets everybody else, and when we hire someone, there's no one person that has complete control over bringing them in. So we've developed a fairly homogenous personality type in the studio, and I think you've hit on that -- which is like not the rebel that would quit the job and start on their own indie game, but the rebel that would have a slanted view on the mainstream, or have a desire to work within the confines of a more stable environment, but still do something unique and creative.

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