The ngmoco you and I knew has ceased to be.
Compared to its early days in 2008 as a premier publishing house for iPhone and iPod touch games, ngmoco - now a social gaming company - is hardly recognisable.
In one of the most striking transformations to occur in the mobile gaming industry, the company abandoned its core vision in early summer 2009 in aggressive pursuit of success.
Regardless of how you feel about ngmoco, it's a company that will be discussed for years. The announced $400 million acquisition by Japanese giant DeNA ensures that debate will continue, if not intensify, as ngmoco prepares to renew its social gaming push under new parentage.
Today, we know ngmoco as the purveyor of the oft-maligned freemium model, but in the company's early days it supported nothing of the sort.
In an October 2008 interview CEO Neil Young proudly touted a diverse development strategy that would see the release of all kinds of games. "Everything from traditional games to progressive things – we're doing it all."
While Young would no doubt contend that traditional games can fall within the social gaming sphere - first-person shooter Eliminate and its pending successor arguably support the claim - practically speaking ngmoco's portfolio of games is weighted heavily toward the casual gamer.
There's nothing pejorative in that claim: casual games have a vital role to play on iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.
However, casual content along the lines of GodFinger and We Rule undercuts any argument that traditional games are a significant part of the freemium family. Investing in social games might be "progressive," yet reducing the number of traditional games released is a move away from the "do it all" approach.
The notion that ngmoco simply honed the casual part of its diverse business strategy is false. On the contrary, the company swung wildly from being a premium game maker to a freemium lightning rod.
Young explained in the 2008 interview that he wanted a carefully constructed catalogue of iPhone and iPod touch games that offered both premium titles and cheap, casual fare. The company provided an excellent mix of both in its first six months: premium platformer Rolando was joined by quick-hit casual games like Mazefinger, Dr. Awesome, and Topple.
In 2009, however, there was an unexplained and rather fateful abandonment of that strategy. Instead of releasing a healthy mix of premium and casual games, ngmoco focused on high-end titles.
Exemplary tower defence game Star Defense and sequel Rolando 2: Quest for the Golden Orchid dominated a thin release schedule. Only two casual titles - Word Fu and Topple 2 - were released in the first ten months of 2009.
From a ratio of one to four premium hardcore titles to casual quick-hitters, the company released one high-end game for every casual title. After March 2009 when Word Fu and Topple 2 were released, the next six month period saw the release of only premium titles.
Premium is a valid strategy
Many factors contributed to the troubles ngmoco had with Star Defense and Rolando 2, yet it's clear that the decision to reduce the number of titles released in 2009 - in particular cheap casual games - played a significant role.
Lower than expected sales of Star Defense and Rolando 2 had nothing to do with a general failure of the premium pricing model. If that was true, then publishers like EA Mobile and Gameloft would have long ago exited the iPhone games business.
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.
The individual troubles suffered by Star Defense and Rolando 2 as part of a bias toward high-end games in mid-2009 led to uncertainty at ngmoco, which in turn prompted the decision to bite hard on freemium gaming.
Rise against or rise up
This dramatic change ensured that ngmoco, which had once been affectionately labelled "Apple's first-party game developer," would no longer be recognisable to gamers who had become fans of the publisher. We City is a far cry from the enjoyable gameplay of Topple and Rolando.
The challenge for ngmoco and DeNA will be in convincing consumers that their games are worth playing. A string of underwhelming games and Plus+ Network problems have eroded goodwill in the publisher.
Freemium isn't the issue here, it's about quality and consistency.
The game development talent at ngmoco has been overshadowed by the company's business model. For too long the spotlight has been on business matters and not on game design. If ngmoco is to rise again, the focus on the gaming experience - not pricing models - must be restored.
For an alternative view on the activity of ngmoco, check out PocketGamer.biz's Opinion: The fall and rise of ngmoco.