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The story behind Ngmoco's new triple-A studio
The story behind Ngmoco's new triple-A studio Exclusive
January 10, 2012 | By Christian Nutt




Last week, news emerged that Ben Cousins (who helmed Battlefield Heroes for EA) has been recruiting experienced talent for Ngmoco's new studio, recently established near Stockholm, Sweden -- he has hired several former DICE staffers. As it turns out, the studio also contains developers who have worked at Avalanche, Grin, Radical, and Crytek as well, among other big name studios.

Gamasutra recently took a trip to the studio -- or at least its temporary work space near Stockholm -- and spoke to Cousins, who is its general manager, and his staff about why they had joined the company, and what their plans are.

"I would love us to be one of the icebreaking teams that creates something that's successful in its own right, but also leads the way and creates the whole market as well," said Cousins.

He pointed to Halo as his inspiration for that statement -- not just because of its massive popularity, but because it solved the problems of control mechanisms for first-person shooters on consoles, opening up these platforms to a genre that has come to dominate the market.

"It's clear we'd be pushing graphical fidelity and production values as well, but I don't think you can map a genre from PC and console onto these devices," he cautioned.

"I was helping finalize Crysis 2, and two things happened," said Senta Jakobsen, former DICE COO and the studio's senior development director. "The first is that I realized I don't like shipping a game with my favorite 200 people all at once, and the second thing is that having worked in the industry for 12 years, I just wanted to find a way to get the people who really get how to make games together into one space."

She was attracted by the idea of bringing together experienced, talented people with broad skill sets but a narrow focus -- and making a game, not managing a massive studio.

"For me, the big thing is that as things get bigger in triple-A, the timelines expand, or the timelines stand still, but the teams get bigger -- so you lose the connection to the game, and then you get a situation where you find you're working with fellow employees more than fellow creatives," says Tony Davis, senior designer -- and originally Crytek's second hire, and the director of its forthcoming Ryse for Microsoft.

He came to Ngmoco to avoid a thought which has plagued him at the end of previous triple-A projects: "That was a big time investment for what, exactly?"

That's "three years of your life that you won't see again," he says.

Worse yet, he says, "People churn out of the company at the end of the process naturally, and I'm interested in making more than one project with the same people, and using the institutional knowledge you build up." He wants to move from game to game, with "the next project being super streamlined based on the learnings from this project."

To that end, rather than hiring junior people to fill holes, says Cousins, the studio will hire only experienced staff members -- up to 15 or 20 by the time the year-long project finishes.


The Ngmoco Sweden staff works in temporary office space


Everyone he's hired on the team apart from one staffer, as of this conversation, has at least 10 years of experience in the game industry.

"I think Valve and Naughty Dog try to keep their teams controllably small, very senior staff, little overarching management and much more broad, self-directed people," says Cousins. His hope is to "become the Naughty Dog or Valve of mobile."

"From a quality point of view -- that may be visual quality or gameplay quality, the art direction, the feel of the game or the tone of it -- we'll get something where, 'Oh, this is another step above'" what's currently being done in the space, he promises.

"Part of what we're going to be doing is pushing that bar, and making it more difficult for people to get away with" low-quality mobile experiences, says Cousins.

And his goal is to match that with "the incredibly high-performing and mature monetization and retention design that they have over at DeNA, which is what really attracted me to the company," he says.

DeNA is the Japanese parent company of Ngmoco, whose Mobage service has some of the highest conversion rates for payment in the social games industry, in its native country.

"One of the things that DeNA do that no Western developers do is that they try to make the monetization fun, so the player gets something positive out of it," says Cousins.

Now, what excites him is "when you get someone like Tony working with DeNA, and you mix those two experiences together," he says.

However, he does admit that even studios like Naughty Dog originally came from nowhere. "These studios that people don't take seriously, iterate and become fantastic," he said, and he expects more competition to pop up as developers come to grips with the devices and the market -- "attacks from below that no one sees coming."

But that doesn't worry Jakobsen so much. "i think the games that the games you are going to get in the end will be nothing short of astounding," she says, of the studio's upcoming work.

It's clear that the studio hopes to become a standard bearer for first-party quality on Ngmoco and DeNA's fledgling Mobage smartphone platform, which launched late last year in the U.S.

In an interview in November, Ngmoco's head of game production, Clive Downie, told Gamasutra that the goal of his organization is to "Make hits. Make great games. The reason why is I want first party to make the defining product on Mobage. I want us to make our Halos. Because the platforms need defining killer apps."

It's clear that this is the goal that the Ngmoco Sweden studio was founded with, and has amassed such an array of highly-experienced triple-A game talent to gun for. And with the marriage of the talent and DeNA's technology, Cousins seems sanguine about his chances to do it.

"I don't think we would be arrogant to say that we want to create our first title as a mobile blockbuster, but I think we definitely see an opportunity to pull off something different than other mobile developers are able to pull off," he says.


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