Ngmocoâ??s Alan Yu interviewed

Conversation with an Ngmofo

It’s not just the App Store’s birthday this week. Celebrating its one year anniversary is ‘spiritual first party’ iPhone publisher Ngmoco.

The firm has funded and help bring to market for some of the biggest titles on iPhone, including the UK-made Rolando, and has released over 10 games for the format in the space of a year.

We caught up with co-founder and former EA veteran Alan Yu, vice president, artist & repertoire at the company to find out more…

Can you remind us what the story is behind the founding of Ngmoco?

The company was founded by four of us – Neil, Bob Stevenson, myself and Joe Keen. In short: we love the iPhone.

Like a lot of people, I waited in line on day one to get mine. Neil tells the story when he does talks about the wait that day, and I was right there with him. It was hot, irritating, but it felt like it was going to be big. Even then, before all the software came, we knew iPhone was going to be huge – just interacting with it was different. Then, when the SDK was out we realised what a great device it was to make games for. We left our jobs, formed a company in July 2008 and got it incorporated in August.

The great thing about it for many of us, especially those in the company that game from much bigger organisations, is that it’s a refreshing change from the two or three year production cycle needed for most other games. And it’s such a difference from managing a studio of around 400 people working on one or two products; we released eight games – a mix of free and paid-for apps – in the space of just seven months. A year later that number is 11.

Creativity, the iPhone has reinvigorated me – and Neil and a lot of other people.

Why did Ngmoco have to be an independent company? Why couldn’t you just do this within the EA business?

The market moves so fast that we felt we needed entrepreneurial focus – and it was a risk, a risk we were willing to take. EA is a great company, I love it and the people and I learned so much while I was there. But you can move faster when you are independent and not a part of those larger organisations.

And if you look at even the trends in the game making space for iPhone, a great democratisation has taken place. It’s $99 for the SDK, you need a Mac to program on… and that’s it, you’re off. That’s reflected in the types of games we’re seeing in that space and the kinds of developers making them. Instead of 80 person teams working on a game that they hope will be a hit, you have two to three man teams – or in the case of Rolando, one guy – working on a release schedule that covers just a few months.

But Ngmoco describes itself of a publisher of these smaller games – how does that work?

We do a range of things. We have no internal development, but there are concepts we come up with internally – such as Topple, Maze Finger, Dr Awesome and Word Fu – which we then find developers externally to move into production under our direction. Then there are games we publish and go and acquire such as Rolando and Star Defence – these concepts come to us from other developers. We also do marketing and other platform development stuff in the form of our Plus+ platform.

What do independents get out of working with you rather than just submitting the game themselves?

I think it’s a misnomer that you can self-publish on the App Store. You can self distribute – but it’s like someone gave you the key to GAME or Virgin Megastore. That’s great, because you can go in and put whatever you want on the shelf, but it’s bad because 25,000 other people can come in and do the same thing.

So any competent developer will have financing and marketing to get a product in front of as many people as possible. And marketing in this space is really different, it’s not about getting a game into stores or buying TV ads; it’s word of mouth and more socially driven.

In working with us developers get capital, financing and marketing – plus we are game makers ourselves. Neil, Bob, myself and the rest of the team have worked on games that have sold in the millions and millions of units. So the power is creative management and feedback to developers. [Rolando studio] Hand Circus plus Ngmoco is better than Hand Circus or Ngmoco on its own; there are real benefits for all of us by working together.

A lot of people have positive things to say about the iPhone, but in what ways do you personally see how the format has changed the games industry?

One refreshing area is talent. I’ve been in the game industry a long, long time, and I used to run GDC and then worked at EA. I realised that through all that time I was really talking to the same people – great friends, but no new blood. But here on iPhone with a $99 devkit and a Mac Mini, so many more people can move into this space. For me it’s been reinvigorating and awesome to speak to people like [Rolando creator] Simon Oliver, and people from outside games who are now coming in by making an iPhone game. Of course, that has meant a lot of people, and a bigger cast of characters – which allows for more orthogonal thinking, it’s changing the echo chamber that is the games industry. So it is very exciting to be able to not only speak with new talent all the time but help them realise their dreams.

Another great thing is the rise of the microstudio. You can now get a game out there with just a few people. That’s one of the major changes we are seeing. There are no great bands that are more than a couple of guys – and when you have that kind of rock star-style development you aren’t talking about managing a huge budget or all the other trappings you’d have in a larger organisation, and it’s a lot easier to get up and running.

Will the encroachment of EA and Gameloft into iPhone upset the kind of model you have established?

I think there’s lots of room for all kinds of companies in this space. Our advantage is that we are focused entirely on the iPhone, that’s all we do. I think comprehensively understanding the features of the hardware is a great benefit – especially when it came to understanding the great features in 3.0 and what that enables us to add to games.

But the other advantage we have is understanding the user space and knowing how people use their iPhone. It’s a benefit to us to solely focus on this device and not be distracted by other things the way bigger games publishers might.

Plus there is our publishing platform, which gives us an advantage over other companies.

Tell me about the Ngmoco platform.

Basically, inside our games is a very powerful analytics package. We call it our eyes and ears. In that I can tell how many Maze Finger mazes you have completed, where you might get stuck in Topple – it was level four, by the way – where people touch the screen in Rolando.

Or even the average play session, which is around 22 minutes – that’s something which, as an aside, shows that this really isn’t just a casual platform, that’s a core gamer-style stat.

So our platform talks back to us, gives us a relationship with the consumer and means we can live tune the software seamlessly for the user without an update. That stuff is invisible to the user.

Our system also includes in-game ads which we don’t sell – we just use to cross-promote our games – plus an achievement system, friends list, social referalls, push notifications, asynchronous multiplayer, live multiplayer and in-game currency.

All those features get battle tested in our games – once we’ve written them for Star Defence, for instance, it gets fed back in to the platform, so it is trusted and proven.

The thinking is that these new independent developers coming to this space don’t want to write all that stuff from scratch. That’s another answer to that question about the value we as a publisher can offer to developers.

There’s still a discovery issue around iPhone games in terms of telling users about them – and as you say the marketing requirements are different – does that mean games need to be designed differently to ‘traditional’ games?

I think so. iPhone is moving very close to the social gaming area and pushing the boundaries on what we typically expect of a game. One game we are working on is Touch Pets, our pet simulator – you can have a pet and even send them on play dates with other players. That takes the game beyond just the device and builds a social canvass for players to paint on. In all, consumer expectations have been fundamentally changed by the new functions the phone allows and the games have to match that.

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