Ngmoco’s Doug Scott on Japan-meets-U.S. mobile games, life after Lionside

Under the guidance of Ngmoco, DeNA’s Mobage platform is gaining ground in the U.S. with a slew of new game releases in the past month — including Rage of Bahamut, Skyfall and Ninja Royale. Doug Scott, VP of first party studio operations, describes the challenges of marrying Japanese mobile games design to Western game design.

First, a brief history lesson: DeNA bought Ngmoco in 2010. Back then, the company was known for releasing a range of top-performing titles on iOS, including one of the first-ever first-person shooters on the platform. Around that same time, Scott was CEO and co-founder of Lionside, a sports-oriented developer making games for Facebook. In July 2011, Ngmoco quietly bought Lionside and absorbed its team both into the product development side and into the engineering branch developing Mobage for the U.S.

Inside Mobile Apps: How do you get from developing NBA Legends for Facebook to developing mobile games in just nine months?

Doug Scott, Ngmoco VP of first party studio operations: When we came in, there was a tremendous opportunity in establishing the Mobage platform. It was integrating the data-driven learning from DeNA Japan into Western gamemaking. Both of those were interesting to different parts of Lionside. Most of our engineering group ended up on the platform side; they were really excited to work on that because we had a couple of super hardcore platform engineers. Then on the other side, we had game designers and developers excited about making mobile games — which is slightly different from [making games for] Facebook. So we sort of split and I was on the game developer side and the engineers went to the platform side.

IMA: So now you’ve reached the point of releasing games on Mobage U.S. — like massively multiplayer role-playing game Skyfall or citybuilder/collection game DragonCraft. What are these games like?

Scott: The games that have recently come out have a lot of that knowledge woven into them and are starting to show some positive signs. [They are] a realization of something that’s been underway for a long period of time — marrying the knowledge gained on Mobage in Japan with the game development qualities of Ngmoco.

So, Skyfall, DragonCraft… both of those have systems. They’re most easily thought of as common human behavior that can be integrated into gameplay. So there’s the game — a thematic shell, in some ways — and a set of mechanics which are tried and true [from previous video games in history]. The innovation comes form putting together new mechanics in ways that blend with new insights on how people like to spend their time and what motivates them.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of insight that’s been rigorously, ritualistically tested in Japan and we’re finding that [the insights] are truly global. They don’t just work in Japan. I think that that was a hypothesis many people had [entering] the Japanese gaming market, like, “That’s great that it puts up huge numbers in Japan, but people play games differently in Japan and they’re just into different kinds of content and they interact with their mobile devices on a different level and they have different carrier relationships.” Those things are all true — there are a lot of differences at the cultural and systemic levels. But some of the things that motivate gamers in Japan to interact with games are the same things that motivate gamers here to interact with games.

IMA: Can you give us an example?

Scott: I’ll call this the “concept of positive outcomes.” In a game, you can have negative outcomes; your character dies or something like that. But you can have environments where no matter what the outcome is, it’s positive. An example would be some of the battling card games that come from Japan like Rage of Bahamut. When you get a new monster, you get a new minion — it may be a really rare one or a run-of-the-mill one. You’d think you’d be disappointed if you got a run-of-the-mill minion. But because there’s this thing called fusion in the game that lets you combine the stats of that minion [and build] a rare minion, there’s really no negative outcome. It might not be the most positive outcome, but both are positive outcomes.

That’s a small observation — humans love positive outcomes — that you can leverage into a game mechanic. You can think about that when designing a game and have a much more enjoyable experience at the user level. The cool thing about all free-to-play games is that you have the cleanest vote ever. [Players] spend time and or money and [developers] can see that explicitly. That’s how we know that these things work.

IMA: On Mobage U.S., you’re running first-party games from both the West and Japan. You also have games that come from other studios in the West or in Japan, like Cygames. Is there a differentiation between first-party games and third-party games on the platform?

Scott: I think to have a successful platform you have to create an even playing field. You can’t favor first-party games. That’s good discipline for first-party teams — they have to compete. You don’t get an unfair advantage. It comes down to making great content.

IMA: To play a Mobage game in the U.S., you have to be online. Is that a handicap because Western smartphone users are used to downloading an app and “owning” it forever?

Scott: I don’t really see it as a question of ownership. I would definitely think that being able to play [a game] offline in addition to in a connected state is a plus from a user standpoint — and we intent to provide that capability. But I don’t believe that only being able to play in a connected state is a dramatically negative user experience. It just means that there are times when you can’t play it. Which is annoying. But it’s not a blocker to a successful adoption of games.

IMA: Where do you picture the average Joe mobile game player sitting when they play Skyfall?

Scott: I see the average Joe consuming games out and about on a smartphone — although tablet consumption makes tons of sense. But this is [a question of] how do we put a compelling core RPG in a user’s hand and give them a great experience? I do definitely see players occasionally [playing a game on a phone while also watching TV], we’ve definitely seen a longer session with this game. But it’s predominately a short-burst session. It could be at work, it could be on the can — any number of places where you want that fix, but firing up World of Warcraft isn’t what you’re looking for.

IMA: We see a nice mix of genres with the latest batch of Mobage U.S. games — card battles, quick session fighting, crafting, role-playing. So what’s Ben Cousins working on over at Ngmoco Sweden?

Scott: He’s seeing an opportunity to disrupt the console industry. And I think that’s all I can tell you without giving it away.