In the middle of last year, Ngmoco, the San Francisco-based mobile game developer (and subsidiary of Japanese mobile giant DeNA) announced it would be forming a new studio in Stockholm, Sweden, centered around Ben Cousins.
Cousins had made his name at EA, where he launched the company's free-to-play experiment Battlefield Heroes while working at its DICE studio and turned it into a success (and into a studio of its own -- EASY, which later launched Battlefield Play4Free.)
Cousins joined Ngmoco and started hiring experienced developers from studios like Crytek, DICE, Avalanche, and more to build a studio with ambitions of creating an "icebreaker" title, as he put it when Gamasutra visited the team's temporary studio space in December -- one that would be "another step above" the rest of the mobile herd, and open up a new genre, and consequently to new audiences playing in the space.
In this interview, conducted during that December visit, Cousins delves further into the personal reasons he founded the studio, what he expects to happen to the console gaming space as tablets disrupt it, and how Minecraft shows that the industry is ripe for change.
Why did you want to come to Ngmoco? Why did you personally want to start this studio?
Ben Cousins: It feels so incredibly lucky -- since, I think, 2008 was the first time someone approached me and said, "Hey, we will help you set up your own studio in Stockholm." And I'm committed to Stockholm as a city, because my family's here.
There aren't that many opportunities here -- a senior management position in DICE or start your own studio are the only two real options. I couldn't get a job somewhere... Like, Avalanche oros Starbreeze. I don't know, they just... you could be overqualified to be a level designer, or something.
It was clear to me that I would have to do my own thing, and I felt like once I'd done Battlefield Heroes and Battlefield Play4Free, and worked with the guys at Phenomic on Lord of Ultima -- I'd done a few cycles of free-to-play, and within EA we'd kind of created a recipe for success, and it was going to be about repeating that recipe, rather than about exploring new avenues, so...
Well, that's the large publisher model.
BC: Yeah, absolutely. And it's completely fantastic, and the correct business practice to do that.
But also, I was at EA. Digital is a huge priority, much more than any other major publisher, but, still, it's a side project for them, in terms of their revenue. I wanted to work for a company that was a hundred percent digital. I could've walked out and got a job at Activision or Ubisoft or wherever, but for me it was all about finding somewhere where digital was the priority, so that we would be the main event, rather than the side project.
And there were a bunch of people I spoke to but... Ngmoco, DeNA, was really the team, and in San Francisco I just knew. And had previously met [head of publishing] Clive [Downie] and [founders] Neil [Young] and Alan Yu and Bob Stevenson -- I think they're a great team. And also Carol Shaw and Chris Plummer are EA guys, I knew those as well.
And then the possibility of working with the company with the highest ARPUs in the world. How did DeNA do that? And to be able to learn that. At EA, I was one of the experts in the company on digital, and I'm not one of the experts on monetization and retention anymore, from DeNA, so that's an opportunity to learn from them. And also I like working for Japanese companies, and with Japanese people, based on my experience at Sony, so that was kind of why I did this.
Mobile was really just like, "Okay, I've done free-to-play, I'm on PC." Social are interesting, but to compete in the "social" world... You know, we say "social" but we really mean Facebook games, right? Zynga are a key player there, and it's going to be difficult for anyone to get in a big foothold in that space. So mobile feels like there's more to play for, and with Android growing so rapidly, it's just a little bit more of an exciting space, I think.
BC: More variety, absolutely. And like we were talking about, I just have this feeling... So, Facebook games are increasing in performance; CastleVille looks a hell of a lot better than FarmVille, but I feel like that increase in performance is happening a little bit slower than it is on mobile.
And I was looking up, yesterday... The fastest smartphone when the Xbox 360 was launched was this HP thing which had a 300 megahertz processor, and now I think by the time the next Xbox is released, we will have like eight core or quad core, unbelievably powerful mobile devices that are going to be more powerful than Xbox 360.
So this arms race for the tablet and smartphone business is driving the hardware performance very quickly, and whenever that happens it's very interesting for developers, right? Your capabilities and the possibilities of what you can build are changing every year.
And what I saw is -- the most interesting opportunity for me is -- can games on phones and tablets start to compete for the dollars and the hours that people spend on consoles? And certainly, from a performance point of view, during this console cycle they will -- if not surpass them.
Like I say, we will have phones and tablets that surpass the 360 in performance, within this product cycle. But beyond this point, if we continue this rapid pace, then it may well be that consoles are always behind. It's an interesting situation.
The Ngmoco team works in its temporary office space outside Stockholm. Members pictured, from left to right: Ben Cousins, Malte Hildigsson, Senta Jakobsen, Dave Simard, Tony Davis, Veselin Efremov.
Things are shifting, too, in the sense that if we take another leap with the consoles -- next Xbox, or whatever. It's going to probably, I think, further stratify things into either giant or tiny games on consoles. The middle is just being scraped out of the industry right now.
BC: And how do you compete with the big titles? You probably can't compete with them for that moment on a Saturday when they're playing for 19 hours straight with their buddies. But you can probably compete for those weekday evenings, or lunchtimes, or BART commutes. You can absolutely beat them when they can't get ahold of a console. When they're in a physical location. And does that become a Trojan Horse, whereby actually you're so into the game that you started playing on mobile that, at the weekend, you start to commit...
Absolutely, for me that's happened to me. I've played iOS games at home on my bed for an hour, the way I would a console game.
BC: In that exact moment of the day when you would turn on the TV and boot up your console. And it's the level of convenience as well; this is like a micro level of convenience. So leaning over and turning on my console, and booting it up, and maybe doing a firmware update, and then playing a game -- or just picking that thing up which is right next to you and playing on it?
I mean, it's kind of like a first world problem, right? [laughs] "Ugh, do I have to press the power button on my console?!" But this is the kind of thing that changes usage patterns. I just gave my wife a tablet. She has a laptop in that corner of the room and a tablet. The laptop's a better experience for surfing the web, no question, but she's started spending much more of her time on a tablet just because 20 seconds, we can't be bothered to reach over there, right?
That should be scary, I think, for the console guys. They've been seen as the convenient, accessible easy way of obtaining content, and they were for a long time. But now we've got something which is close to it, and even more convenient, and even cheaper, and even more accessible.