GDC 2009: ngmoco’s Neil Young Talks iPhone Dominance

We just stepped out of Neil Young’s keynote speech at GDC Mobile, which the founder of iPhone games publisher ngmoco spent systematically extolling the virtues of the iPhone as a games platform and running through his company’s publishing blueprint. Several interesting new stories came to light during the talk, which touched on topics like ngmoco’s schedule for releasing the next two Rolando games, a new collaborative project with Zen Bound creators Secret Exit, its platform strategy, and its acquisition of iPhone information aggregator Apptism late last year.

Young opened his talk by placing the iPhone and App Store in the larger context of mobile gaming, which he called a “lame experience” (quite rightly, in our view) due to carrier-controlled access to mobile storefronts, device fragmentation, poor device capabilities, and bad usability and content discovery mechanisms. Young contrasted this sad state of affairs with the iPhone, which has set each of those issues straight and turned the App Store into an industry development “as important as the NES, the Game Boy, or XBox Live.”

Young recounted his first experience with the iPhone in reverential tones, saying that his “love affair with the iPhone started simply by touching it,” and remarking that it “quickly became the most important device I ever owned,” for Web browsing, email, and media. It wasn’t long after that Young founded ngmoco in June 2008 with $5.6 million in funding from Kleiner Perkins’ iFund. Young also divulged that ngmoco had closed an additional $10 million in second-round funding today, just before he started his keynote speech.

The four major ways in which the iPhone has changed video games, explained Young, are in terms of the market, the games themselves, game development, and game publishing. According to sales metrics, the install base for iPhone OS devices over its first seven quarters has easily eclipsed that of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP at the same stage in their life cycles, suggesting that the iPhone is destined to outgrow the portable consoles (it’s currently at 50% of the PSP install base, and about 33% of the Nintendo DS). To be sure, neither console can keep up with the App Store’s prolific software growth rate, which now averages about 165 new Apps a day; Young acknowledged that this is a double-edged sword, however, due to the related problems of “clutter and pricing pressure.”

On the other hand, 60% of the Top 100 Apps are games. This confirms that the iPhone is a superior gaming device “despite what the haters are telling you,” remarked Young with a chuckle. He then displayed slides of Nintendo DS games and iPhone ports side-by-side to demonstrate the latter’s graphics horsepower, following up with a short video from ngmoco’s upcoming 3D Tower Defense clone Star Defense to drive his point home. But Young gave Nintendo its due for having an exceptional grasp of its own hardware, which allowed the DS to overtake the technically impressive PSP over time. “If Nintendo made the iPhone, what would they focus on?” Young asked the audience, enumerating iPhone-only functionality, progressive game designs, and connectivity as the three major points.

“Social gaming is going to become a huge feature” with the advent of iPhone OS 3.0, said Young, calling out such features as online multiplayer, micropayments VOIP, and push invites as revolutionary new ways to take advantage of Web connectivity. ngmoco’s upcoming FPS LiveFire has been designed to take advantage of all of these capabilities, allowing for in-game calls for help and micropayments for new weapons. “It’s important that our games leverage every surface of the device for gameplay,” he told us, from the Contacts list to the photo album.

Young then launched into a discussion of iPhone games development. He said that “there’s never been a better time to be an indie dev” because access to the App Store only costs $99. There are now 10,000 registered iPhone developers, so Apple has to be doing something right! Of course, this volume causes visibility problems, which is why ngmoco is interested in building “long-term relationships” with talented developers like Secret Exit; the two companies are working on an as-yet-unnamed game together that is to be released later this year.

Simply releasing an iPhone game isn’t enough, though. You have to continue to support it on the App Store, because the “game lifecycles of iPhone games are very different than what we’re used to.” According to Young, ngmoco has a long update roadmap already planned out for its flagship product Rolando. The first free five-level update has already been released, and there will be three more through May. Rolando 2: The Quest For The Golden Orchid is due out in June, and it will be supported with four free updates as well before Rolando 3 is released in November 2009. “That’s 40 hours of gameplay plus in less than a year, for less than the cost of a DS or PSP game,” Young pointed out.

The ngmoco boss closed with a quick overview of his company’s publishing strategy, which starts with the basic precepts of quality and accessibility: “How do we make these games appeal to as many humans as possible?” ngmoco has spent serious resources on its publishing platform, which provides sophisticated analytics on players’ in-game behavior, while also allowing for live tuning of levels and cross-game linkage through a promotional engine. In a bit of a surprise, Young revealed that ngmoco acquired Apptism last year to boost its market analytics capability even further. The second iteration of the ngmoco platform–due out this summer–will blend new social media features like referrals and rewards, social goals, and followers into the mix. Further, ngmoco will begin to allow non-ngmoco published partners onto the platform at that time to expand the network.

We found Young to be an excellent presenter, and his company has certainly seized our attention over the last four or five months with its high-quality offerings; we only wish that he had offered up some details about the new Rolando games and the Secret Exit project!