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Q&A: EA Vet Young Reveals iPhone Publisher Ngmoco

Electronic Arts veteran Neil Young has revealed his <a href=http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=19100>post-EA departure</a> project - iPhone-focused mobile game publisher Ngmoco, and talks in-depth about his enthusiasm for Apple's handheld and his mission to bring 'entrepreneurial focus' to mobile development.

Eric Caoili, Blogger

June 30, 2008

14 Min Read

 Following his recent departure from Electronic Arts after 11 years with the company, former EA Blueprint head Neil Young has announced the formation of Ngmoco, a new iPhone-focused studio that plans to bring 'entrepreneurial focus' to mobile game development.

EA's Blueprint studio was headed by Young and colleague Alan Yu with a charter to assist smaller teams with strategic funding and project management on both original IP and extensions of EA brands -- including Facebook games like its version of trivia title Smarty Pants.

Prior to his work with Blueprint, Young helmed a number of high profile projects at Electronic Arts in design and executive roles, including its early foray into alternate reality gaming Majestic.

Other notable projects included oversight on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Sims 2 and recent Wii-exclusive Steven Spielberg collaboration Boom Blox as part of his former job heading Electronic Arts LA.

In this interview, Young offers further details on his thinking behind the new enterprise and why he's so excited to work in this new market for phone games.

Can you tell me a little bit about your new venture?

Neil Young: Sure. I'm leaving EA to found a new type of mobile games publisher that is specifically focused on games for the iPhone and beyond -- that class of mobile phone, a more open mobile platform that has the type of capability you see in a device like the iPhone.

It feels to me like the time is right to really innovate, both in terms of the business and the games that can get made for mobile platforms. I'm leaving Electronic Arts to focus on that.

Is that something you felt you couldn't do at EA? What is your motivation behind leaving to found your own company?

NY: It's the type of thing that requires real entrepreneurial focus. When you're working for a large company - and Electronic Arts is a great and wonderful company - especially after you've been there for a long time, you have a lot of responsibility.

Not just for the products you're making, but also to the organization as a whole. To some degree, that dilutes your focus on going after a single business. So this really warranted, for me, entrepreneurial focus.

When EA Blueprint had been announced, we got the impression that it was the "out there" space at EA, but I guess it just wasn't compatible with what you wanted to do after all. Do you have any comment on that?

NY: We never really talked about Blueprint. There was a lot of speculation about Blueprint, you know? Really, Blueprint is designed and is now under the leadership of Louis Castle, who is a wonderfully creative entrepreneur and intrapreneur inside Electronic Arts. He most recently produced Boom Blox, and before that oversaw getting the RTS games onto the console. Before that, back in the day, he founded Westwood Studios.

The purpose of Blueprint was really three things: one, focus on creating new intellectual property under a new development model; two, taking other intellectual property and moving it across media type in a really well-coordinated way; and three, attracting new talent to Electronic Arts. That was really the hope, the purpose, and the focus of Blueprint.

There's no better place to do that than inside Electronic Arts, and I still support that venture and that idea. I want to make sure it's successful. I wouldn't try to do EA Blueprint outside of Electronic Arts.

This is just a different type of opportunity, and honestly, if it wasn't for the advent of the iPhone and the advent of the App Store and the SDK, I would probably still be at Electronic Arts focusing on making Blueprint as successful as it could possibly be.

What is so attractive about the iPhone, to you?

NY: There are a couple of things. The first is the usage of the device. What I mean by that is more than half the time the average iPhone is in use, it's being used for something other than making a telephone call. If you think about that concept, that is a fundamental shift.

I think with this device, mobile phones have crossed a threshold of usability that is really changing the patterns of usage. That really opens the door to a whole bunch of different things that you can start doing with the device. That's the first thing.

The second thing is capability. The iPhone, from a performance standpoint, is pretty close to a PSP, but unlike the PSP, it's got a touchscreen, accelerometers, a camera, it's location-aware, it's got all of your media on it, it's awake with you, it's always on, and it's always connected to the network. So if you think about the types of games and entertainment experiences that you can build on a platform like that, it's got to get pretty exciting pretty quickly.

And the last thing is the way in which Apple is reinventing the relationship between developers and publishers of software and the customers themselves. In the existing mobile games business, if you want to publish a game, you publish it through the carrier and the carrier deck.

They have tiers of pricing that you need to conform to, and they pay you a royalty, and if you've got enough muscle, like Electronic Arts has, you can get placement on those decks at a preferential position.

Yeah, I understand that carriers are quite restrictive and sort of unpleasant to work with, basically, and don't really understand gaming that well.

NY: Yeah. So if you think about what Apple's doing with the App Store, they're really turning mobile on its ear. They allow you to control the pricing yourself. They're taking a distribution fee for distributing your software, but they're really allowing users to choose what to put on their phone and how they want to enhance their device. And that is a fundamental shift.

The opportunity from my standpoint is that we've now got the device and a business environment that is favorable to us closing and filling the vacuum in average revenue per user between what currently exists in the mobile phone space and what exists in the handheld gaming space. In mobile phone, it's $7.50 or $8 average revenue per user. On PSP, it's $45, and on the Nintendo DS, it's $62.

We're at this moment where there's an opportunity to lead both in terms of the type of software they we make and give to people in mobile phones, specifically, starting with the iPhone. And from a business standpoint, there's an opportunity to lead in the growth of the industry. And not incremental growth, but dramatic growth. And that's, from a business standpoint, why I'm excited about the device.

Are you actually going to be developing the applications and games yourself with an internal team? What is the structure of your enterprise?

NY: Yeah, the company is a publisher. We probably won't do a lot of internal development ourselves. You're probably as in tune with the development community as anyone, and you can feel the excitement around the iPhone and the opportunity for small teams of people to build really interesting things for the device. What we will be doing is essentially commissioning the development, which you can think of as first-party.

So commissioning, financing, and producing titles ourselves, that's the first party. Then there's the second party, which is looking to the independent developer community and asking ourselves, "What great ideas are out there that need to be funded and financed?"

And lastly, it's a third party for people who don't necessarily need our producing experience or our financing, but the opportunity to work with us within an ecosystem that gets enabled by some specific technologies that we're developing and providing.

Obviously, the thing with the iPhone SDK is that people can work directly - they can put things on the store themselves. What are the advantages of working with your company?

NY: We're not going to speak specifically about those things today, because I think that would foreshadow the strategy of the company. One thing that I will say is that when you're in any type of publishing business, one half of the equation is the quality of things that you make.

Quality comes from having the right teams with the right experience, really trying to focus on creating the right types of titles that are built to specifically take advantage of what the device has to offer. On the other side of the equation is distribution strength and marketing muscle.

I think it's important to try and think about things like: what are the new types of methods and mechanisms for marketing and distribution in the online space? How do you create the types of channels or systems or enabling technologies that give independent developers access to more customers, to be able to stay with those customers longer and to be able to build an ongoing relationship with them that they're able to modify?

Often, when you're a small team of three or four people and you're focused on just trying to make that one piece of great software, you don't necessarily have the bandwidth or the perspective to be able to build those other pieces of the puzzle.

My sense is, in the App Store, you're going to see thousands of applications coming into the marketplace fairly quickly, and it will become very difficult, I think, for developers to differentiate themselves in that landscape. Undoubtedly, some will, and undoubtedly some will create hits.

Those are obviously things that we would like to be associated with, but I would imagine that we're probably not going to be able to associate with 100 percent of those things. But I think at the end of the day, we will work hard, not only to create hit titles that we're commissioning and making, but also find ways to work with those who have their own ideas to create hits.

Who do you see as the audience for iPhone game apps? I think the obvious thing that people are going to go for fairly quickly is more casual games, like PopCap-type stuff. But there's an opportunity also, as you said, to create an almost PSP-quality experience on the system, but the traditional PSP-type game may not appeal to that audience. Who do you see as the audience for iPhone games?

NY: I should be clear. I don't think that taking games that would look good on the PSP and then moving them onto the iPhone is the right strategy. I think that the great leader in this particular space has been Nintendo. What Nintendo does better than any other company is build hardware that has specific features that can be serviced well in games.

Then, as a game maker, they make games that really showcase and leverage those features, whether that's petting a dog in Nintendogs or drawing on a map in Zelda or doing rapid number writing in Brain Age. Those are all examples of how they made touch relevant to a play experience at its very core. The same thing is true on the Wii, with the Wiimote.

I think it's incumbent upon anyone who wants to be a successful creator and publisher of games on the iPhone to ask yourself what kind of experiences you can build that take full advantage of what the device has to offer, with the touch screen, the GPS, the connection, the accelerometers, the fact that you have a camera, your media - your photos and pictures that exist on the device.

I don't really think the right path to go down is to immediately start thinking about how to build bigger, better, higher-end, more traditional gaming experiences. Rather, not to obviate or ignore those things, but rather try to take true advantage of what's in the system. So if you saw a game on the iPhone, you'd say, "Wow, this is only a game that can function on this platform."

To answer your question about who the customer is, I think at the end of the day, you can really think of three groups of people with varying degrees of overlap.

There's the hardcore customer - and I don't necessarily mean a hardcore gamer, but someone who is probably male, are probably fans of the system, and definitely grew up gaming - the early entertainment and technology adopters who are deep into not just the software itself, but the details about the story and the making of the software. I think that's probably the core that we're going to have to pass through.

Then there's what you think of as the primary customer. These are the people who grew up with gaming, but potentially grew out of gaming. This is the audience of people that the Wii and to a lesser extent the DS has been able to unlock.

These are people who, at one point in their life, might have finished Zelda, but right now, are trying to figure out how to have social entertainment experiences, either in their home or on the network, that aren't occupying more than 30 minutes to an hour of their time.

And then you can think of the last group of people as what Nintendo calls the Touch Generation. It's basically 8 to 80-year-old gamers, and essentially anyone with the device. I don't know about you, but I finished Zelda on the Wii. I play Wii Sports, and I play Guitar Hero.

If you look at that and said, "Wow, okay, he's finished Zelda. He must be a hardcore gamer. Yet he has a little fun playing Wii Sports, and he has a lot of fun playing Guitar Hero."

Why should I get bucketed into the third type of consumer? I think we should be offering a framework for people to essentially define their entertainment experiences in the ways that they define it. If they want a PopCap-type game and an RPG-type game and they want to play those on their device, then we should be offering them the opportunity to at least access those, and in some cases have those to all buyers.

There's not necessarily clear stratifications or sharp divisions, necessarily, between what people are actually interested in, which makes it difficult, but it's a challenge that I'm sure you're interested in facing.

NY: Yeah. I think where we're going to start, is we're going to say, "Okay, what are the three to five games that we're going to commission that really showcase what the device can do?" and "What's happening in the independent developer community that is a work in progress that might need financing or taking to the next level, or are great ideas from great teams of people who just want to get started on the iPhone?" We're going to look to those to get to a similar end. What's really going to showcase this device?

Have you started any development or even started any talking with developers? What stage are you at right now? Can you talk about that?

NY: Barely, right now. We literally announced last week that I was leaving Electronic Arts, and that had been something that was in the works from the preceding couple of months, so we had a transition plan in place that would make sure the things that were in my responsibility set would be handed over smoothly.

We do have some conversations going with some developers - really small, core, independent teams of people - and we have a clear picture of the first five things that we would like to commission and finance. But beyond that, we're not really at super-earnest development on these things, so it's a great opportunity for ideas from the outside to influence things.

[The preceding article by Christian Nutt originally appeared on Worlds in Motion sister site Gamasutra.]

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About the Author(s)

Eric Caoili


Eric Caoili currently serves as a news editor for Gamasutra, and has helmed numerous other UBM Techweb Game Network sites all now long-dead, including GameSetWatch. He is also co-editor for beloved handheld gaming blog Tiny Cartridge, and has contributed to Joystiq, Winamp, GamePro, and 4 Color Rebellion.

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