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Interview: Ngmoco Acquires Touch Pets Developer Stumptown Game Machine

Mobile developer Ngmoco has acquired Stumptown Game Machine, developers of its successful iPhone title Touch Pets Dogs, and Gamasutra speaks to them about the deal and the many new projects in the works.
Mobile developer Ngmoco has acquired Stumptown Game Machine, developers of its successful iPhone title Touch Pets Dogs, and multiple new games in development. Andrew Stern is the original creator of the Petz series, which Ubisoft continues to publish (without his input). He is also known for co-creating experimental conversation game Facade before he began work on Touch Pets Dogs. Stern will now oversee Stumptown's projects for the San Francisco-headquartered Ngmoco, which will continue to operate the Stumptown Game Machine studio from Portland, Oregon. Touch Pets Dogs, an iPhone game, was one of the first launches under Ngmoco's new free-to-play business model. Costing users nothing and supported by in-game purchases, it has been downloaded over 5 million times. Bob Stevenson, one of Ngmoco's co-founders, says that the move to release the game for free "worked out really, really well." The acquisition of Stumptown, he says, reflects the Ngmoco's management team's belief that Stern is "a great collaborator" and the realization that "this just has to be a long term relationship. We have a great working relationship that we wanted to solidify." This move also allows Stumptown to pursue new projects -- on which Stevenson is bullish. "We felt like the combination of some titles, [which] we're not announcing today, but are being brainstormed and in production, being able to build our resources around Andrew... Given that kind of commitment, it allowed him to queue up some collaborators... really key talent." Some of these notable collaborators include Richard Evans (Black & White, The Sims 3) who has joined the Stumptown team. Like Stern, he's an AI specialist. Describing the process of meeting with developers after the acquisition of Freeverse as a "warm experience", Stevenson says that "we're highly collaborative and try and break new ground." Stern agrees, saying that the company "is at the forefront of taking risks and trying new things." "Ngmoco is very supportive of allowing us to keep our mode of creation, and independent spirit, and give us a lot of freedom to innovate exciting new product directions," he says. He also says that the acquisition was an idea that he'd always considered a possibility at some point for the company's future, and both agree that this timing made sense. The New Games Stumptown was already working on new projects with Ngmoco, but the companies decided to pull the trigger on the acquisition to make sure that the resources were there to fully pursue them. Says Stern, "The idea of getting acquired just clicked and made sense. It gave us the resources to grow more and do even bigger, more exciting, innovative products together. The vision that Ngmoco has, and I have, for the project I want to make is very well-aligned, so it just made sense to join forces." Says Stevenson, "There are a couple of very ambitious games that we've been talking to them about, and this deal allowed Andrew to feel very comfortable to staff up his team and being able to secure a long term relationship with people like Richard. It allowed those puzzle pieces to be put into place." When it comes to the social games market, Stern sees major room for evolution in the types of games. "I see there's a lot of potential for deep, more sophisticated characters and narrative situations combined with social networking. Richard and I and the rest of the Stumptown group are planning big things." "All of the products I have worked on have been mass-appeal, mainstream characters and situations, and that's really good fit for mobile and social networking," says Stern. But social doesn't mean simple, he suggests, though often developers of these games shy away from depth in a quest to keep games accessible. "This guy's a really thoughtful talent, who really gets how to do deep interaction but keep it mainstream, which is a really unusual mixture," says Stevenson of Stern. The drive to make casual games "just aligns personally with my own personal taste in games," says Stern. "Just like many busy people, I don't have more than a few minutes a day to play games, and I'm one of the many who fell in love with the iPhone. I'm excited to really build the kind of games I'd want to play." He adds, "I'm also just interested to have games be more about people's real lives, and everyday experiences. I think games can be more relevant to people, in that way." While he can't discuss the game specifically just yet, he does say that "the idea of having your friends as characters in your games, possibly playing themselves, even, is really compelling." "I think the rise of social networking games suggests that people are looking for gaming experiences that can integrate more directly into their daily lives," says Stern. The Free-to-Play Experiment Touch Pets Dogs was one of the two launch titles, last year, for Ngmoco's new company-wide move to free-to-play, pay-for-content -- or "freemium" -- games. The transition wasn't always easy for the company, as it has discussed, though Stevenson says that eliminating all but free-to-play products from the company's portfolio is "by far the best thing we ever did." When it comes to Touch Pets Dogs, Stevenson is aware that "most people aren't paying for the game," but says that "they add to the community" which helps create "a much larger, richer ecosystem" for all users of the title. So far, says Stevenson, "We did some things right and we did some things that we definitely learned from, and evolved, in games like We Rule, where I think we've really understood what type of items people are willing to spend money on." When it comes to Stumptown, he says that the team gets how to make free-to-play attractive for users, and rather than being "cynical", instead has a "really authentic" approach. "They really want to make things the very best that they can be." For his part, Stern is extremely enthusiastic about Ngmoco's business model. "I think they're right on, and this is the future of how to make successful games that will monetize, especially in the iPhone market, which is a challenging, ever-evolving market." Touch Pets Dogs was originally going to launch as a premium purchase title, but changed during development to a free download with in-game transactions. "I was really excited when the game switched to a freemium model," says Stern, citing a bigger audience as a primary reason. The iPhone, says Stevenson, is "truly mass market" in a way even the Nintendo DS isn't, and that necessitates this business model. However, he admits, "there's a lot more work to do, and we're not complacent. Everyone is learning." And when that's the case, he says, "there's a great energy."

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