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Nexon, the Asian online gaming giant, is known for free-to-play online games like MapleStory, KartRider, and Dungeon Fighter Online. Those are popular titles, but they haven’t made Nexon into a household name in the West. To accomplish that, the pioneer of free-to-play titles has turned to well-know Western game developers.
Tokyo-based Nexon is working on its own internal online, social, and mobile games. But it has also cut publishing deals with prominent external developers, including one with Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski (you can read about why he choose Nexon here), who recently started a PC first-person shooter game at his new studio Boss Key Productions. Nexon is also funding titles from Splash Damage, whose Dirty Bomb first-person shooter for the PC arrives this fall. It is also working with Brian Reynolds, creator of Rise of Nations and former chief game designer at Zynga, on a new mobile strategy game at his SecretNewCo.
And Nexon is fronting money to United Front Games, Robert Bowling’s Robotoki, and John Schappert’s Shiver Entertainment. All of these indie dev studios have seasoned and well-known developers. We talked with Nexon’s new chief executive, Owen Mahoney, about these deals and the crossover between East and West, which is a major theme of our GamesBeat 2014 conference. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: So tell us about your latest publishing deal with Cliff Bleszinski. How did you make that happen? How did you two meet?
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Owen Mahoney: This goes back several months. Cliff is one of those guys we have a lot of respect for. We’ve been watching him closely. We’ve played his games in the past and liked them a lot. As he was getting ready to do his next thing, he made contact—Actually, I’m not sure who contacted who first. I think we did. But we liked what he had to say about where he was going. As you know, he’s very vocal about the types of games that he likes to make and what he believes. We found that our general philosophies were very much in line.
I hadn’t met him before, and I didn’t meet him until a little later in the process, after we’d started discussions. But we really hit it off. He had a lot of suspicions about free-to-play. He wasn’t that knowledgeable about the types of games we’re doing. We were able to talk about where we’ve been and what we know and where we’re going. A lot of our discussion resonated with him, and his vision of what he wanted to build certainly resonated with us.
GamesBeat: He’s certainly vocal. I don’t know if he’s often too vocal sometimes for the tastes of some publishers. Did that give you any pause? Or was that something that made him more attractive to you?
Mahoney: Anybody who cares deeply about art and the games business is going to be pretty opinionated. Certainly I am. If you care about games as an art form, the natural outgrowth of that is to have big opinions about what is and isn’t good. Not only does that not scare me personally, I find it refreshing. The things he’s opinionated about happen to be things that I and everybody else at Nexon feel opinionated about as well.
GamesBeat: What about Cliff’s category of games? How ready is the mobile market for that kind of shooter, the quality of game that he’s been known to make? (Bleszinski’s game is a PC title).
Mahoney: From a technology perspective it’s pretty ready, and it’s getting more ready every day. You and I have talked about that. The platform itself is getting very powerful. It’s harder and harder for me to tell the difference, from a technology perspective, between my Macbook Air and my iPad Mini. There’s strong graphics processing capability in a mobile device. There’s strong networking capability. They’re getting better every day.
There are questions about input and output – the glass input and the screen size on output. But a lot of innovation can happen. Under the hood we have devices getting stronger and stronger. I see a convergence happening between what we currently call mobile devices and what we currently call PCs. When you talk to Apple, Google, and Samsung, they’re heading in the direction of a convergence of devices.
GamesBeat: A lot of your deals are very interesting. You have Brian Reynolds and John Schappert as well. But they’re also pretty new. What sort of experience do you guys feel like you’ve gained so far from some of these high-profile relationships?
Mahoney: It’s too early to say, I think, what we’ve learned yet. We haven’t launched any games as a result of those deals, although they’ll be coming over the course of the next 12 months. What we’re finding is that if you take the perspective that the number one most important thing is fun, and you combine that with our knowledge of free-to-play, you end up having interesting conversations, and very productive conversations, about what kind of online game you can make.
We’re finding that at the working level, on the production and creation side, we have a lot of nice creative synergies happening. From each of the several deals that we’ve done over the last 12 to 18 months, those teams have been over to Korea. Our teams have been over to their offices. We’ve done a lot of cross-pollination of ideas. People who come from the perspective of game quality can have interesting and fun conversations. I’d say that at a working level, we’re finding it very energizing. We learn. They learn. It’s fun for us to be creating games with people like that.
By contrast, just as a side note, it’s when people over-focus on how to make a lot of money that the conversations start to break down. Fortunately, we haven’t had any conversations like that. We’ve been very happy and satisfied so far. Everyone’s attacking it from the perspective of how to make a really good game.
GamesBeat: When we were at E3, you mentioned how there were probably something like five bad years in the games business, from a creative perspective. Connecting with Cliff, I wonder whether you guys talked about that, whether you feel more optimistic now.
Mahoney: At least for us, we’ve been able to find the types of people that we want to be building games with. That’s made me happy. Cliff is a great example of that. But then again, United Front Games, Splash Damage, Shiver, John Schappert, Robert Bowling, they all have the same perspective that we do. They were all feeling many of the same trends that were frustrating me personally, and us as a company. It was hard, a few years ago, to talk about games without getting overwhelmed by things that didn’t have much to do with game quality or fun.
I’m more optimistic than I have been in several years now. The people that we’re finding, at least, are emerging and saying, “Let’s go back to our core. Why did we get into this business in the first place? We did this because we love games as an art form. We like to have fun. We want to create fun experiences and find a big audience that agrees with us on that.”
We’ll see how it turns out. When you’re focusing on creating a really fun and different game, you have a very high bar creatively. It’s hard to make really good games. It’s a lot harder to make good games than it is to push making a lot of money in the near term. It holds us to a higher and harder creative standard. But that’s what we’re here for. That’s what’s inspiring to us.
By being very clear about what we’re interested in and not interested in, we end up finding more people who have the same interests as us. That’s been helpful as well.
GamesBeat: If I looked at Hearthstone and Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans, it still looks to me like, in mobile, the best-designed game doesn’t necessarily win.
Mahoney: You don’t think Hearthstone is a good game?
GamesBeat: I think it’s a great game design. I think it’s better than those other two I mentioned. But it’s not making as much money yet.
Mahoney: What we’ve learned is that it’s a long game. What it happens to be doing this month is a lot less relevant than how long people keep playing this game. One of the interesting things about Candy Crush is it’s stuck around for a long time. So has Clash of Clans. With Hearthstone, my personal prediction is that it’ll be here a very long time. It’s going to retain people really well. As we’ve learned, if you have a game that sticks around for a few years and people want to keep playing it for years on end, you’ll do a very robust and healthy business over time.
You and I have both seen the app charts where you have a game that explodes on a scene and goes away the next month. That happens not just on mobile, but also on PC. That’s not an area where we tend to focus. I don’t think it’s a good business when you have a flash in the pan. Our creative focus on building games that we’ll want to play for years on end. We also think that’s very good business.
GamesBeat: It seems like, with Cliff and the others, that what Nexon’s has to offer has a lot to do with monetization and some other important non-game-design areas.
Mahoney: Yeah, but those are all design-related areas. Game balance is extremely important in any online game. Game balance in a free game is even harder and more central to what you do. You can create items in a game that will drive users away — users who are paying and users who are not paying. You want to avoid that. That’s up at 30,000 feet, but really, when you get into the nitty-gritty, that’s where the art is, and it’s very hard to do. That’s where years of experience help. We’ve been through all that brain damage in the past.