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When will journalists stop whinging at successful companies for “not making games that I like”

By on October 14, 2010
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Pocketgamer has an interesting debate going on.

In the blue corner is Jon Jordan, writing about the rise of ngMoco, impressed by its commitment, its ability to pivot and its successful exit for up to $400 million after barely two years in existence.

In the red corner, Tracy Erickson pens the kind of sad elegiac commentary you expect from a GamaSutra commenter.

He complains that:

“the company abandoned its core vision in early summer 2009 in aggressive pursuit of success”

He claims that:

“ngmoco was forced into shifting to a freemium social game structure because it had failed to follow through on its pledge to deliver a varied portfolio”

He concludes:

“If ngmoco is to rise again, the focus on the gaming experience – not pricing models – must be restored.”

The ngMoco that Tracy describes is not one I recognise. It is probably the most successful company in gaming history (by the measure of speed to massive valuation at exit). It has transitioned its business model twice(from high prices to Lite/Premium to Free + Microtransactions), dominated a new niche and sold out for $400 million within just over two years.

Tracy argues that the premium model must work because otherwise “EA Mobile and Gameloft would have long ago exited the iPhone games business”.

I don’t agree. I believe that EA and Gameloft have the advantage of a) deep pockets and b) huge existing brands. It is perhaps no surprise that in 2009, 9 out of 10 of the top-grossing games were brands (the only exception was Flight Control). What the data doesn’t tell you is where were the most *profitable* games. Those top 9 games could be top grossing games and still lose money for all we know. And ngMoco, with a limited supply of VC money, needed to find a route to profitability fast.

No, Tracy’s point seems to be: the iPhone had some premium games for us – the hardcore gamers and self-appointed guardians of the craft. But then, when we decided we didn’t want to pay premium prices, ngMoco stopped making hardcore games. Ergo it has “fallen”.

I genuinely can’t get my head around the idea that ngMoco has declined in any way.

Can you?

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • Nick McCrea

    It’s just standard cultural snobbery, manifest in the latest medium. Tiresome.

  • SirStuie

    Free games removes one of the reasons for videogames journalists existence, to tell us where to spend our money. I can understand why some are beginning to turn against them as with marketing driven blockbusters and no entry barrier freemium they will become less relevant in years to come.

  • Anonymous

    Nope.

    With all due deference to ngmoco’s success, the iPhone as a platform is really hard to establish in terms of a publishing platform because publishers have very little control over presentation of their content, and this in turn limits their ability to cross promote. As a platform it rewards single-development way more than a spread of products, in otherwords. One single Angry Birds is much more preferable than a dozen titles.

    Ngmoco in their early days lacked a killer app. They never managed to create their own Angry Birds, and a portfolio approach to publishing is actually the best way to make sure that that doesn’t happen because it creates too much distraction.

    So it was much smarter of them to follow the SGN model and go freemium. As a model, freemium works because it nets a whole lot more downloads than any other method, and those eyeballs can in time be converted to some paying users. It works better than a pro-upgrade model also because the user does not have to go and download a second app (creating a number of points along the journey where they may decide not to) and that’s just simpler for users to understand.

    So, fair play to them. They realised how the market could best work for their approach and they went for it. I think it’s somewhat romantic to get misty eyed for what might have been but actually wasn’t. They never were really setting the agenda of games on the platform because they were more interested in publishing that dev. So figuring the optimum publishing strategy was right for them.