This March, after more than half a decade spent working on the Spore
franchise, longtime Maxis employee Caryl Shaw left the Electronic Arts-owned developer for iPhone publisher Ngmoco.
Founded in 2008 by fellow ex-EA employee Neil Young, Ngmoco quickly established itself as a premiere developer and publisher on Apple's quickly-growing mobile platform. Earlier this year, the company shifted all its game development to the free-to-play business model.
While at Maxis, Shaw was most recently an online lead, and she has taken on a seemingly similar role at Ngmoco. But, as we discovered in our interview with Shaw, that title means different things at both companies.
What made you decide to move to Ngmoco? Was it planned, or were you part of the Maxis layoffs?
Caryl Shaw: I wasn't part of the layoffs at Maxis. After spending about five and a half years working on the Spore
franchise, I felt like it was time for a change, so it was my own choice to leave the studio in March. It worked out that I was between projects, and leaving when I did meant I wasn't leaving mid-project, which is something I don't like to do to my teammates.
I had worked with [Ngmoco CEO] Neil [Young] when he was at EA, and had been keeping an eye on him and the games coming out of Ngmoco for the last couple years. I was really impressed with the quality of the games and the agility of their business approach. And I'm a total iPhone fangirl, so I had a keen interest in game development for the platform.
How does your role differ at Ngmoco?
CS: It's different in some ways and not so different in others. My title is live producer, and that means I'm working with the games once they're live, which I also did when I was at Maxis as the lead of the online team. I live for launch days. There's nothing more exciting to me than shipping a game and watching customers play and talk about their experiences, and that's something I loved at Maxis and already love at Ngmoco. We Rule
launched globally for the iPhone two days after I started at Ngmoco, so I got a good taste of launch right from the start.
was a classic PC boxed product, and the online features didn't generate any additional revenue after the game was purchased by a customer. At Ngmoco the games are free to download, and we generate revenue from in-app purchases. So now my job will really need to revolve around how to keep our customers happy with the game by creating new content and features that they can easily see the value in. I'll have a great opportunity to contribute directly to the success of the company now, and that can be really hard to experience at a big company like EA.
What do you hope to accomplish within the company?
CS: I've been doing online development for the web and video games for 15 years, so one of my personal goals was to be able to step into a job and be able to hit the ground running. While I definitely have lots to learn about iPhone game development, I wanted to be able to really contribute from day one, which I think I have been doing. With a company that moves as fast as Ngmoco does, we need to have solid online systems to support almost instant scalability if a game takes off, so I'm hoping to be able to contribute some of the learning I have in that area.
Oh, and I want to help the company make money! The potential for success is pretty great, and I want to help contribute to that in any way I can.
Is there any similarity between the prototype style approach of Maxis on Spore and the small game creation style of Ngmoco?
CS: The Spore
team made over 100 unique prototypes for Spore
and spent over a year doing them. I think it worked for that kind of game development. Creating so much complicated tech from scratch just needed lots of time for trial and error and most of all for exploration.
Ngmoco game development seems to move much faster. So far, I haven't seen much in the way of prototyping. What I do see is people spending time thinking about, talking about, and doing live tuning of the games. Talking to the Eliminate
guys about live tuning experiments feels a lot like talking to the Spore
engineers about using prototypes to understand player behavior. And with live tuning, I like the instant feedback you get from customers who are actually playing your game. It feels very real.
Some people have said in the past that once you move into mobile games, it's difficult to get back into the traditional industry. Do you think that's changed now?
CS: I think if it hasn't changed yet, it probably will in the next few years. With the growing availability and development of new platforms for games, and with studios trying to get their franchises onto as many different platforms as possible, I think that different experiences will provide information and inform development.
Sure, you can outsource your mobile game for your triple-A franchise, but you'll have to go the extra mile to manage the project to make sure you retain brand fidelity. Why not just find someone who loves the franchise and brings the experience to do it in-house? Devs who want to go back and forth will just need to learn new ways to sell themselves.
What would you say to someone who has lost their job and is looking at the social or iPhone space?
CS: Well, I guess I'd tell them to not expect a lot of stability. These are platforms that are young and bound to have lots of ups and downs before they stabilize. But to me that's part of the excitement.
And do expect to work your ass off. You'll have to figure things out along the way and you'll have to try stuff, make mistakes and learn from them. And then try again. Like I said, part of the excitement.