Nexon’s new CEO wants creative devs, free-to-play to be fair — and cloners to take a hike (interview)

Owen Mahoney is a gamer. The chief executive of Nexon, the Tokyo-based online gaming giant that pioneered free-to-play games, is unhappy with the state of the industry. He says that for the past five years, creativity hasn’t been rewarded.

Companies that clone other titles or figure out how to rip off gamers with free-to-play scams are getting rich, while those that are truly creative are getting lost. That’s one reason why Mahoney, who became CEO of Nexon in March, has been seeking out seasoned game creators. He has invested in Western game comapnies such as Rumble Entertainment, John Schappert’s Shiver Entertainment, and Brian Reynolds’ SecretNewCo.

Rather than backing console games, Mahoney is putting money into digital games such as mobile or online game startups.

We caught up with Mahoney at the Electronic Entertainment Expo video game trade show in Los Angeles last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney.[/caption]

GamesBeat: What’s your view of E3?

Owen Mahoney: I want to see more games that blow my mind with their differences. I love multiplayer games — we make multiplayer games exclusively — but every once in a while, I’ll see a single-player game that I really love. I was playing Transistor the other day and really just — I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It’s by the guys who made Bastion. It’s just beautifully done. It has great art, great music, great sound design, original gameplay. I didn’t like everything in it, but I liked most of it. I wish our industry would do more of that.

That’s what we’re trying to do. We continue to do different things. You’ve seen our announcements. We’ve done more investments and publishing arrangements of the kind we did at the end of last year. We want to keep pushing that. The stuff that you’ll see us put out in the next few months—We’ve been fairly quiet. But it’s going to start to see the light of day in the last couple of quarters of this year, and into next year.

You may have noticed Legion of Heroes, one of our mobile games, doing very well in Korea. It’s in the top 10, which is a big deal there. It’s one of the only top-10 mobile games that’s not on Kakao. The only other one is FIFA Online Mobile, which is through our partnership with EA.

You’ll see us do more of those types of things. They won’t always be successful. When you push the line creatively and try to do new things, it won’t always resonate, but that’s what we’re trying to do. It comes from a consensus in our organization that we want to be fun and different. Those are the big things for us.

That’s the viewpoint from which we look at E3, which I’d say is very much as a consumer. I just wish we would try things that are very different.

Nexon has invested in Brian Reynolds' SecretNewCo

Above: Nexon has invested in strategy designer Brian Reynolds’s SecretNewCo

Image Credit: Brian Reynolds

GamesBeat: The investment strategy looks, from the outside, like putting money into Western developers that people will recognize. The names are familiar names.

Mahoney: That’s not the strategy per se. Not all the companies that we put money into or partner with are well-known companies. We’ve passed on some that are well-known. Our desire is to look at what they’re working on, look at the philosophy that guides them, and ask if that philosophy is consistent with ours. If it is, we’ll want to lean into it.

Again, our philosophy is that if you’re trying something different from what’s out there now, and if the gameplay you’re going for is fun, then we get interested. From there, we go through an iterative process that simplifies down to asking ourselves, “Is this a game we’re going to care about in five, 10, 15 years?” If the answer is yes, we’ll invest and want to make it happen.

Jon Osvald and John Schappert of Shiver Entertainment. Nexon has invested in them.

Above: Jon Osvald and John Schappert of Shiver Entertainment. Nexon has invested in them.

Image Credit: Shiver Entertainment

GamesBeat: With the investment timing, it looks like you can do this with a little more confidence, knowing that something good will come out. For a while mobile seemed a little too much like the Wild West. It seemed unpredictable where the hits were going to come from. Some things have stabilized now. The top 10 grossing companies on mobile are staying the same. The top downloads are changing, given certain viral successes, but who’s making money is becoming more static.

Mahoney: That may be the case. We’ll see how that goes over the upcoming months. My belief is that we’re coming out of what I’d consider to be five very bad years in the games industry. The bad years started around 2007. There was this false dichotomy in the business. You had the big established publishers – not just in the west, but also in Japan – where they had a hard time understanding what the impact of online would be on their business. Even when they were forward-thinking and pushing into online, they had a hard time learning a new set of skills and how to make a synchronous online game work. To way oversimplify what happened, they put a lot of resources into graphics fidelity.

On the other hand, you had a lot of people coming out of the Facebook world and into the mobile world who didn’t care about games at all. They were on record as not giving a damn about gameplay and game quality. The founders of these companies were not game players themselves. We all know who those were. What they never tried to do was ask themselves, “What’s a good game? What inspires me? What’s fun to do?” They might have asked, “What’s addictive?” But that’s different from what’s fun.

Then they thought that they could reskin the same gameplay into five different games. They thought they could copy someone else’s game and bring a large audience to it. They found that their revenues skyrocketed, but they were hitting the afterburner the whole time. They fell to earth when people got sick of dumbed-down games. In private conversations they’ll admit that those are the kinds of games they made.

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Founded in Korea in 1994, Nexon is the worldwide leader in free-to-play games. Nexon pioneered the free-to-play business model with the concept of microtransactions, revolutionizing the online video games industry by offering users co... read more »

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Chris Wells
Chris Wells

Big ambitions is an understatement, however, as I consider Nexon a lost cause(in terms of what this guy wants to do, he's attempting the impossible), I will be pleasantly surprised if he tries..and I'm eager to see what progress he makes in 6-12 months from now..and, for the ranting, I'll surmise it in three words: "Ban paying hackers"..done.

Steve Oredan
Steve Oredan

f2p affects game design and korean vg companies are known for their derivative games.  chase all the whales you want but you'll never be known a games company; you're just another company exploiting it's customers.

Bob Bill
Bob Bill

But does he want a functioning customer support department? Nexon is much reviled for their complete lack of customer support across the internet, and I've dealt with it first-hand. Had my account breached in Vindictus (only account despite it using the same credentials as some other F2P game accounts, which is also shady since shortly after they implemented a secondary pin code system) and it took well over a year and a half for their CSR's to make any progress on my ticket. All that time to be told they could do nothing but give my highest level character some temporary gear, which I had no use for as I was playing a lower level character then, and then be told they couldn't send my lower level character anything.

Utterly shameful and disgraceful, which is why I won't be giving Nexon any money again. It's a damn shame too, because I find Vindictus to be a fantastic game (probably the best example of a true action psuedo-MMO on the market) and I've been looking forward to the sequel. I'd love to support the devs, Devcat, but I do not want to financially support a company that appears to have no concern for their customers.

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