Consoles to become “hobbyist” market as tablets take hold

The new CEO of DeNA’s ngmoco subsidiary talks about the 1 billion device market and marrying “Western art with Japanese science”

Downie: Consoles to become "hobbyist" market as tablets take hold

Clive Downie has just stepped into the role of CEO of DeNA’s US subsidiary ngmoco, but he’s moving ahead without pause. Presiding over a showcase of new products recently in San Francisco, Downie found time to sit down with GamesIndustry International to talk about the company’s vision for the future, and what tablets might do with a shooter like ngmoco’s upcoming title The Drowning.

Part of DeNA’s struggle has been to innovate on new platforms while innovating with the business model by creating a free-to-play shooter. Those are two things that each individually would be difficult, but doing them simultaneously makes it much harder. Downie agrees. “You sound like our meetings 18 months ago,” he says. “That’s exactly it; we’re not just taking on one challenge right now, we’re taking on three. We’re making something that looks spectacular, and pushes the envelope of what people are seeing on these devices; we need to make an innovative control system that doesn’t lose players’ immersion in the product. Oh, and by the way, we also need to make something that is free and fits the mobile play patterns which we all know are session times generally between 5 and 10 minutes. I’m sure people will play it for 60 minutes at a time or more.”

DeNA is cognizant of the players’ valuable time, and what it takes to convince them to give up some of their time. “It’s the most valuable thing that we as consumers have to give to people making things, be it games on mobile or any other consumer product,” Downie remarks. “That’s where we come at it, from value; how can we provide product that is a valuable use of time? The inverse is a waste of time, and that for us is the death knell for products. If you make them and people think it’s been a waste of time, they’re never going to come back to it. That’s a mortal blow for free-to-play, which is why we’re so dedicated to making things that are consequential to people’s lives.”

Mobile games have gotten rid of a lot of the extra things that have grown up around games – the lengthy cinematic intro, long tutorial modes, big cut scenes. Mobile games have to convince players to spend time with them, and they can’t afford to waste time on unnecessary things. “It’s what drives us every day, and it’s why you see something like The Drowning,” Downie says. “Right now there are 1.1 billion smartphones on the planet. I’m pretty sure we’ll get to 5 billion, the level feature phones got to in terms of subscriptions. Maybe, who knows, it’ll go beyond. It’ll probably happen quicker than feature phones got to that number.”

“Right now there are 1.1 billion smartphones on the planet. I’m pretty sure we’ll get to 5 billion”


“When you think about the available minutes per day, and you think about 1.1 billion human beings on their phone per day, and the amount of time that there is for them to be wowed and enjoy great content from people like us, I find that fascinating,” Downie continues. “That’s what drives our teams every day. It’s about trying to create the right experience for the right moment in time that people have. The Drowning is the result of that. We thought about the available moments of time on these devices, and we thought there’s an opportunity. People who’ve owned consoles, they have these devices, and they have these spare moments per day that we could deliver the kind of experience they have on console but in a mobile way that suits the mobile device. If we can do that, we can disrupt the time that they’re giving to consoles.”

DeNA’s Ben Cousins has had his studio, Scattered, working on The Drowning, and in the process the team has rethought the design of the shooter thoroughly, not just on creating an interface that works for mobile. The design fits the advantages and disadvantages of the platform. “I absolutely agree,” Downie notes. “It’s why I think we’re in a position of success, because we treat these devices as different opportunities; they’re not just ports of existing kinds of entertainment.”

Downie feels that tablets, especially with games that can appeal to core gamers like The Drowning, can make life difficult for the next generation of consoles and possibly eat into their market share. “I believe their market share will be eroded due to the opportunities that tablets can provide to more consumers all over the world,” Downie says. “I do believe there will always be a console market – my sense is it will become ultracore, almost like hobbyist, in the way that certain genres of entertainment or product become hobbyist over time as people have migrated to other things.”

“You just have to look at the way every subsequent launch of technology in this space has outpaced its predecessor. The iPod Touch came out, which was the first smart touchscreen device, and then the iPhone came out, and it was three times in terms of the adoption rate. Then the iPad comes out, and it’s ten times the adoption rate of the iPhone. That’s because these are wonderful devices for now, for the way people live their lives. They’re on the go, they have restricted time, and they want every single moment to be valuable. And these [gesturing to a smartphone] can do that. They’re actually waste-of-time killers.”

Even core gamers will use smartphones for gaming just because it’s easier to find the time to play than a two-hour console game session, Downie feels. “They suit the speed we live our lives, and the way we compartmentalize our time. Console gaming was, and always is, appointment gaming. You have to set a time to play it, because it’s in one fixed location, and you know that really it’s going to take about 60 minutes of your time to get in, to have a meaningful session.”

DeNA’s lineup of both first-party and third-party titles looked strong, and that’s not just happenstance according to Downie. “When we set out with the strategy to legitimately become the number one mobile social gaming platform in the West, and really deliver the kind of consequential scale we’ve seen in Japan, we knew we were going to have to create a platform in Mobage, but that platform is going to have to have a broad and deep range of content in it that came from different places,” he says. “We really identified four places. The first was our partners in Japan, who had created a scale with Mobage, and who were taking the change from feature phone to smartphone with us, and were taking the journey with us in Japan, and we wanted to say ‘We now have a Western opportunity for you on smartphone.’ The likes of Rage of Bahamut, Fantastica, Deity Wars; they’re all successes in that area.”

“Brazil has 50 million smartphone subscribers already, and it had year-on-year growth of about 35 percent. That’s huge”

Clive Downie

Downie continues, “Our first-party teams in Japan, the studios from DeNA that pioneered social gaming, we want to bring smartphone games from them across. Ninja Royale, Blood Brothers, those are games that personify that, and there’s more coming. Our first-party games from the Western studios, and our five studios there, we want to take all the learning there from our ngmoco days and our ability to make great, consequential products, but marry that with the learnings we were being given from DeNA, our new partner company, and make great entertainment that married Western art with Japanese science. You’re starting to see that with Transformers Legends, Hellfire, Monster Match, that’s happening.”

“Lastly, there are our partners from the West: The Kixeyes of the world, the Massive Damages. We wanted to bring their games to our platform so we could say ‘This is what’s possible.’ We are close to realizing the potential of all those four areas. This is an exciting time for us, because only by having that breadth and depth of those kind of offerings are we going to cover off as many opportunities as possible.”

Downie is not content with the progress ngmoco has already made. “We’re not resting on our laurels, we realize we have more work to do to make our product the best it can be, because the market is moving. As long as we’re having success in terms of reach, and time spent, and ultimately monetization – because people when they’re happy spend money – we’ll always be in a position to be very welcoming to partners who want to be in that environment.”

Downie sees tablets continuing to grow in 2013 and beyond. “I think the tablet will continue to become something in and of itself,” he notes. “You think about the mobile space and you kind of think about smartphone and tablet, but my sense is the tablets is going to become something unto itself. That begs the question, ‘What’s the killer app on tablet?’ The second thing is the scale of mobile is going to mean that more and more people want to get into it. Not more and more people from the games business, but more and more people from the entertainment business. When you’re talking about giving consumers something to spend their minutes on that’s consequential, we’re not just going to be competing with the games makers. We’re going to be competing with service providers and entertainment companies. Mobile is the place to be, and it’s going to become a trend in 2013 and 2014.”

“The other trend is scale, and we’re just at the tip of the iceberg in terms of scale,” Downie says. “Scale brings with it all kinds of wonderful perplexities, like different countries and large pockets of legitimate consumers in in far-flung places.”

Some day targeting a game solely at North America will seem quaint, Downie believes. “Brazil has 50 million smartphone subscribers already, and it had year-on-year growth of about 35 percent. That’s huge. That’s in the top five, and Russsia’s in the top five too. Exciting times. And then you get into specific content for those markets. It’s something I’m very intrigued by. Right now we think about genre, but in the future we can think about country and genre. Why not go after the minutes that exist in Brazil, or Russia? Mobage’s doing that very successfully; we have Mobage China, Mobage Korea. We have very different offerings to our Chinese consumers and our Korean consumers and our North American consumers and our Japanese consumers. We’re already lined up well for that.”

Some have argued that budgets and development times for mobile games will continue to grow like they have for console games. That could lead to a problem in profitability for many titles, the way many console titles are finding it hard to be profitable today. Downie doesn’t agree, however. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he states. “I think it comes down to scale, and you’ve got 1.1 billion people already who have smartphones. Let’s just come up with an arbitrary number; 100 million of them are going to be Xbox and PlayStation 3 owners. You might have to spend 18 months developing a game with a large budget and a large team to hit those consumers, but when you do, the rewards will be very deep.”

“The other 1 billion consumers, legitimately they’re happy with experiences that can be made by smaller groups of people in smaller amounts of time. They’re still well-crafted and polished experiences, but they’re not big-budget experiences. They fit the need of the market. The market is a very very diverse mosaic of different need states, and I think those different need states map to what you have to make to be legitimate to those consumers. Some of them are expensive; some of them are less expensive.”

In other words, we’re moving to a situation analogous to the movie industry where you can have $200 million summer blockbusters or small indie movies, and they can both be profitable because they address different audiences.

Downie sees a bright future ahead, even as the market gets more complicated and more competitive, and changes even more rapidly. “DeNA globally is staffed by great people who all believe that everything we’ve been talking about in all of its intricate detail is possible, and they’re choosing to go after it every day,” Downie says. “We choose to see it as an opportunity rather than a scary beast to harness. There’s far more to do, and we’re excited to do it. One of the things I tell all of our employees is ‘There is far more for us to learn than we have learned.’ If you like that kind of a mission, this is the place to be.”

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