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Winds of Change: Ben Cousins on Today and the Future

The big publishers are in danger, the console market is in decline, and the tablet is an ascending game platform -- the evidence is all around you, but infrequently is it presented with such clarity as by Ngmoco's Ben Cousins, studio head of Scattered Entertainment, in this interview.

Ben Cousins has been a staunch advocate of the free-to-play and freemium models for quite some time, and he's not shy about his prediction that F2P will eventually sink the traditional console market.

His studio, Scattered Entertainment, has bet the farm on core-oriented mobile free-to-play, so it's no surprise that Cousins is all-in with the idea. And he has an answer to my every challenge. What of precision issues? Cousins says mobile is potentially more precise than consoles. What about regressive monetization schemes? Cousins says we're beyond them. What about browser and Facebook games? Cousins says their time has passed, along with Flash as a platform for building games. And the traditional publishers get no love, either. Cousins says a new model will rise to take their place.

We spoke with the always-firey Cousins about all these issues, how how he feels they may shape our industry in the years to come.

Sometimes I wonder how some of these free-to-play games make money. Jetpack Joyride, for example, is a well-designed, contained experience that I can just keep playing through, beating challenges and such.

I've never once been compelled to spend money; I get enough in-game money through playing to buy items and whatnot. How is it consistently a top grossing app? It doesn't make any sense; there's no need to spend money.

BC: When you look at those types of mobile games, the more casual mobile games, a very, very small proportion of the audience are spending money. It's a tiny bit of portion of the audience, and they're spending like 20 bucks a day or something like that. So there are these outlying players whom, for them, their entire hobby, their main hobby in life is Jetpack Joyride. There are these kinds of people with a real passion, and it's unusual from a statistical point of view maybe, but it actually drives the whole game, kind of.

What you see in core freemium games is a much higher rate of people converting to spend, and those people are spending a lot more money. So it's a lot more analogous to a traditional model, where if you're playing the game, you know a lot of people who've spent money, and it's much more acceptable and normal to spend money. I think for games like Jetpack Joyride, Temple Run, a lot of the iOS games, they are not doing a great job of monetizing, because they've got great user volume, but they're not concentrating on adding monetization in a way that really adds value to the game, in my opinion.

So for me, one of the big goals with freemium is to get the user volume that you get on social games and mobile games, but with the monetization rates that you get on core games. And at that point you can basically start spending a hundred million dollars a year, like on Call of Duty. If I can download a game for free, which is as high quality as Gears of War, then I'm more likely to monetize it. But it's not that -- you can't really start to spend that money until people are monetizing it. And when I talk about monetizing, this is consumer-driven behavior; we're past that stage of cynically manipulating people, I think.

I would say the better games are. Some companies are still definitely trying to manipulate people.

BC: Don't get me wrong -- when I say "we" I'm talking about those of us that have been doing it for five years. We're past stage 1, 2, 3, and 4 of monetization, and we're thinking about how we can really create a positive value out of the experience for players. The game that we're working on, you can't directly purchase any content in the game -- you have to play to get the content -- and the monetization is around speeding that up and making it more convenient. And that would be one of the stages that we're getting to.

Yeah, time and convenience certainly seems like the thing that people have been doing, but I'm not a big fan of that, so I hope there will be a next stage beyond that as well.

One thing I've been watching... core games have traditionally been about control and ability. You know, "I have the reflexes and the foresight to do this move at this time," and it's been very difficult to replicate that on mobile so far, Super Hexagon aside.

What I've seen when people do is games with a core-oriented graphic style andsimilar mentality, but they don't have the mechanics that a core player might expect. How could that be achieved in something that is as imprecise as gesture and touch?

BC: I actually think that, in some respects, gesture and touch is more precise than a joystick. You've got a very -- I don't know the exact resolution of the touch grid on an iPad -- but if you think about any shooter, being able to shoot almost every single pixel on screen with a single touch if you were doing a tap-to-shoot mechanic, that's much more precise than having to use a spring-loaded joystick to kind of drag a gun over to the top left hand corner and shoot.

So it's kind of roundabout; there's a balance between a lack of precision on one hand and then an increase in precision on another. I just think that we're at the stage where people are still learning how they're going to do this, and I think that we're realizing that virtual sticks -- and to a degree virtual buttons -- are not the correct way to do it. I think that something like Infinity Blade is a starting point; definitely not a perfect implementation of how you do that, but it's definitely a starting point.

One of the things that we're doing on our project is trying to do exactly that. And it's a skill-based game, so we are betting a large degree on the ability for us to pull off a skill-based scenario used to describe the sort of thing that you could post a video on YouTube about and people would be extremely impressed by it, by just using touch. I think it's just not been done; no one's done it yet.

And the analogy we always make is around shooters on console, that shooters on console were not very successful, apart from GoldenEye, until Halo. But GoldenEye still controls really fantastic, and Bungie made a big investment on R&D and also in usability testing in order to create a control system for shooters to ensure that product would be a success.

And everyone else has stolen, maybe not the button mapping, but the way that the relationship between stick movement and camera acceleration and sticky aiming and all those other things; and reduced field of view, only two weapons, rechargeable health. And I think that we're going to see some tent pole titles on mobile which define how you do shooters, how you do Diablo-style games, how you do RTSes, et cetera.


Sure, there's that precision potentially, but with touch you necessarily have to block what you're doing -- you have to get in your own way. And it can also be quite taxing on your fingers if you have to do a lot of dragging and that sort of thing; it can actually dry up your fingertips really quickly. It's halfway more intuitive, but also more difficult.

BC: Yeah, exactly. There are great advantages -- you get direct manipulation of things, but your hand is in the way. And on console or PC you've got this disconnected interaction with things via a crosshair or via a mouse point, but you're not obscuring things. When people move from product to product there's always a tradeoff, right?

It's a case of, when you add and subtract everything together what's the best experience? And I think that the convenience of mobile and the low price of mobile, and the ubiquity of the content and the connectivity kind of makes up for some of the issues around control and also the slightly lower power in the device.

Moving on from there, earlier you mentioned that you feel like Facebook is decreasingly a viable platform for browser games, as Zynga kind of has that tied up. What do you think is the alternate platform? Is it serving games yourself, or what?

BC: Browser? I don't know if there's anyone serving up something which is interesting in terms of growth. If we compare... for the same development costs you can make a game on mobile, or you could do a game distributed through Steam. I don't see anyone offering a viable alternative.

For me, Facebook Connect integration is extremely valuable, especially as user acquisition becomes more expensive on mobile. Facebook as a social graph and a viral method is going to be very useful for mobile and perhaps console games in the future, but I mean, who's setting up a browser game startup at the moment? There are very, very few people doing that.

And you know, Kongregate were bought, Bigpoint haven't really grown, sites like Miniclip haven't really grown that much, and probably are declining. Jagex haven't had any success since Runescape, Runescape's diminishing, and then you've got Habbo Hotel and the issues that they've had. So I don't see a lot of buzz or interest or excitement around browser games, or anyone really able to offer a viable alternative to Facebook.

Right, though I could foresee individual games being served that way.

BC: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Like if you play World of Warcraft in your browser, then that's a compelling thing. But I do wonder how network and internet caps are going to affect that sort of thing. Do you think that Apple is eventually going to have to or want to give up its Flash ban? Because I think as Facebook grows on mobile -- especially on iOS -- if developers want those games to be served they need Flash, essentially, or porting houses. Unless HTML5 really takes off.

BC: Yeah, and I think if you look at what Apple do when they abandon any proprietary technology -- like they abandoned floppy disks or they abandoned CDs -- I mean from a hardware point of view, Steve Jobs was talking about this a couple of years ago. It's difficult to know whether it's happening with Flash, but they seem to make the right bets when it comes to abandoning things that then become...

Obsolete.

BC: Obsolete, was the word I was looking for. So I think it's more likely that's just the influence of Apple not allowing you to access Flash on these fast-moving devices. But also the halo effect, the negative halo effect that that gives Flash, is more likely to just sweep Flash to one side and make HTML5 kind of standard. And we're already starting to see startups doing mobile games, or doing HTML5 games focused on mobile usage that run quite fast on iPads.

There was a bit of a one-two punch with Apple not allowing Flash, and then Adobe being like, "Flash... don't really know what to do with it! It's kind of here; we're not really going to support it that much. But you guys can take it!" It's been like one of Adobe's best, most used things that's not Photoshop, and yet they've never known what to do with it. You know, it's not a platform; it's not precisely a language. It's this weird thing that if they don't keep pushing it I could certainly see it going away.

BC: I mean look at Flash Video -- who is serving Flash Video now? Probably a small minority. And I browse the web on an iPad most of the time, and I very rarely come across video that can't be played. Even on all of the web sites, all of the gaming web sites that you assume are mostly being touched by a PC or a Mac, and I think that that transition will probably happen with games. I wouldn't make a game in Flash, even if I was making a browser game.


What do you see as the future landscape of games? Five years ago, it was pretty straightforward -- you had publishers funding things, then those games came out on consoles or PC, and that was pretty much the way you did it. But that top-down model doesn't work so well anymore, and it's much more bottom-up but with a threshold. Because we have all these great technologies, but if Apple takes a chunk, Unity takes a chunk, your other middleware all take a little piece, that limits your success in a different way. So with that in mind, what do you see kind of like the development map of the next five to ten years to be?

BC: I think, and the other cost that you missed there -- which is vital and is invisible to people that don't realize it -- is acquisition cost, where you have to pay companies for users, right? And the majority of the games that do well on Facebook, on mobile, have had their users acquired by on a cash basis, where that installation costs you X amount of dollars.

I think that we will, if I think about how the industry was structured in the '90s and early 2000s I think we'll have something similar, where there will be lots of independent developers and of a medium size of like 20 to 30 people. And their route to the consumer is basically curated by some platform companies, medium-sized platform companies, and these will be companies like Facebook, like GREE, like DeNA, like Valve, right?

And then sitting on top of that you're going to have these big, kind of powerful, conglomerated companies like Apple and Google and Tencent. In recent years the console business became very much about exclusivity, first-party games in a kind of vertically integrated business, right? Where you make the software, it runs on the hardware and it goes all the way up to the top and it's all complete in the end by Microsoft or Sony, so that's like Naughty Dog or Bungie or whatever. And then things will spread out again, and they'll probably end up being vertical again at some point in the future.

But I think the next five to ten years will be these Mojangs and Halfbricks, these companies will expand to be 20, 30, 40 people. And they will do deals around distribution with social networks or digital distribution organizations, and then they'll be running their hardware on these high-end devices.

So it's much more like you'd have a Lionhead and then you would have an EA, you know, you'd have a small developer and then you'd have an EA-style publisher, and then you'd have Microsoft as a hardware manufacturer, kind of '90s, 2000s model. That's kind of how I see things. That was kind of a fun time to be working on games, I think, and there was a lot more freedom of experimentation, and less autocratic rule from the top down than there is nowadays in the console business.


Scattered Entertainment's The Drowning

It has been interesting watching these older companies trying to turn around. And EA has tried really, really hard by buying up these companies and doing these things to try to get into the digital space, but they've had to spend a lot of money to do it, and it's not yet very profitable for them.

How long do you think that kind of publisher is going to exist in the world? Personally, I feel that their relevance is decreasing rapidly, as their value add is really being boiled down just to money now. If console goes away, their value add of quality assurance and doing all the TRC stuff is going to be diminished, and it's really just going to come down to money and marketing. What do you make of all that?

BC: When I was at EA, the public view -- and it was also used internally -- was that they would transform EA from a packaged goods business into a digital business, and they would always talk about higher margins on digital. And for me that was never really going to be viable, I don't think, just because of that cost of transformation. For me, the best case for a company like EA is just to survive it, at the moment. And you look at how the traditional revenues are declining and digital is increasing, but the top-line revenue is basically staying static.

I mean that's not a profit growth, right? The digital side of the business has outpaced the packaged goods decline in order for them to get growth out of it. I think EA are in the best place of all the traditional publishers to survive, but we're not talking about big players. I don't think that any of the indie publishers at the moment will be big players in 10 years' time; I think there will be either companies that have just emerged or whom haven't been founded yet. Ubisoft, I think are in a really dangerous position, and Take-Two are in a dangerous position, THQ obviously aren't going to be around for much longer I don't think. [Ed. Note: this interview was conducted immediately prior to the ultimate shutdown of THQ.]

Sega also.

BC: Yep.

Well, most of the traditional Japanese game publishing business has decreased.

BC: Yeah. I mean, what we see are the smart Japanese companies like Square Enix are actually generating most of their growth from partnerships with companies like GREE and DeNA, actually, in the mobile space where they take their IP; Final Fantasy Brigade would be a good example of a game from Square Enix which has been successful.

But again, it's that transformation. The first order of business is to maintain your revenues, and then after that you can start to think about growth. But you know, the cost, just getting EA to whatever it is now -- 20, 30 percent digital revenues -- is sort of a cost in that growth; it's extremely expensive.

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