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The iPhone’s remaking of the cell phone business is creating opportunities for new start-ups, particularly in the game field. That’s why one of the game industry’s leading executives left his job to create Ngmoco, an iPhone game start-up.
Neil Young was one of the rock star game development executives at Electronic Arts, responsible for games that sold millions of video games, from “The Lord of the Rings” titles to “The Sims 2.” He was the executive in charge of EA’s most important upcoming title, “Spore.” He gave it up a couple of weeks ago to start his own game company in San Francisco.
Today, the 38-year-old is announcing that Ngmoco will make and publish games for the iPhone. Young said the company will try to raise the bar on quality of mobile games.
“We are finally at the place where we can reinvent the experiences and the economics of the mobile games business. The industry has been stagnant for a few years. I feel the iPhone is a real opportunity to change that industry.”
I asked Young if he would tap Bing Gordon, the former chief creative officer at EA who recently left to become a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for venture funding. Kleiner Perkins has set up a $100 million iFund to finance applications for the iPhone. But Young declined to comment on the possibility.
In particular, Young thinks the 3G version of the iPhone will be a much better platform for showcasing high-quality games. Apple’s new Apps Store, a web site where users can go to cruise for new applications, will likely make it easier to discern the bad games from the good ones, Young said.
Young said he’s impressed that the data usage and web usage on iPhones is so high. The iPhone has all of the enabling technology to create new kinds of games that are tuned to the mobile experience. That includes global positioning system navigation, a camera, an accelerometer (which detects which way the iPhone is tilted), an instant-messenger system, email, and other functions that games can exploit.
Ngmoco will focus on creating a new type of game publisher, making its own games or hiring developers to make games under the Ngmoco brand. Young said he has backers and cofounders but he isn’t revealing them now. He remains an advisor to EA.
Young said that he made the decision to leave in April and EA executives tried to talk him out of it. They even asked him if he wanted to run such a group inside EA. But he decided to make a clean break. At the time he left, Young was running an EA division dubbed Blueprint Group. That group included EA’s Maxis division, the Spore franchise (which includes an iPhone game), the relationship with film director Steven Spielberg (whose inspiration led to Boomblox) and a couple of unannounced titles.
Maxis will now be headed by Lucy Bradshaw, and Blueprint will be run by longtime EA executive Louis Castle. Young said he’s been happy with the leadership of John Riccitiello, who became CEO of EA last year, and he believes Riccitiello’s reorganization of the company into stand-alone studio groups will lead to better games.
“It’s bittersweet,” Young said. “I’m so excited about what we are doing. On the other hand, I’m stepping away from 11 years of history and a whole bunch of friendships. Sometimes you have to step out.”
The games that Young worked on or managed while at EA beyond those mentioned above include “Ultima Online,” “Medal of Honor,” “Command & Conquer,” “Boomblox,” and “Majestic.” The latter was a novel X-Files style “alternate reality” game that ahead of its time. Majestic staged a mystery and enlisted gamers to communicate with each other and left clues via mobile phones, instant messages, and web video.
Before joining EA in 1997, Young was a vice president of product development at game publisher Virgin Interactive. Upon joining EA, he became the manager of EA’s now-defunct Origin Systems division in Austin, Texas.
EA’s own mobile group will now be competition for Young. He said that the current mobile game business consists of about 200 million downloads a year with an average revenue per user of $8. That’s a $1.5 billion annual industry. By comparison, games on the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable generated at least $45 per user and billions of dollars a year in revenue. He thinks the iPhone could help mobile games bridge that gap. While iPhone is the big opportunity, Young is also intrigued by Google’s Android platform.
“This is the moment,” he said. “This next 24 months an industry will get revitalized and re-energized. You have to look at this opportunity on the iPhone and ask yourself, ‘What would a company like Nintendo do?'”
The iPhone games that have already shipped, such as “Tilt,” a free game where you tilt the iPhone back and forth to catch items being dropped, represent “first order thinking” and are fun initial distractions. Such games are just the starting point, Young said.
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