Owen Mahoney named Nexon's CEO, wants to make online games good again

By James Robinson , written on February 13, 2014

From The News Desk

Bumped up today from Chief Financial Officer to future CEO of Tokyo-based gaming company Nexon, on March 25 Owen Mahoney will take the reigns of a company with more than $1 billion in revenue and which reported 43 percent growth in annual revenue as his promotion was made public. People have overtaken companies in worse spots.

The San Francisco-born Mahoney’s first job as a kid was selling games for the Apple II. A 14-year veteran of the gaming industry, he has been with Nexon for three and a half years and held a prominent business development position at Electronic Arts.

But when Mahoney assumes the top position, taking over from retiring CEO Seungwoo Choi, he’s upfront that he sees it as his job to bring a little love back to  gaming. It’s an area he feels lost its way with corporate interests trumping creative intent.

In other words, he wants to make it suck less.

“My experience has been that if you’re truly committing to making great art you’ll do great business," Mahoney says. "A lot of the game makers got their voices drowned out in recent years. That’s a tragedy.”

“These days, I go to industry conferences and I look at companies to acquire or partner with and I get a lecture about portfolio theory. I don’t think Pixar or the Beatles ever talked about that term.”

Mahoney thinks Nexon is doing better than some, but he’s frank that he thinks even it can do much better in being more fearless in only pursuing projects that will stand a test of time.

“I want us to only say yes to games that we’re truly in love with,” Mahoney says, pointing to company games like Combat Arms and Dungeon&Fighter that he’s a big fan of as a gameplayer.  “We’re generating a lot of cash and I think that’s great. But on an industry level and from an investor perspective we are considered to be playing in a bad neighborhood.”

In his decade and a half in the industry, Mahoney says that some things have stayed remarkably constant. Namely, that you have to give people something they can love and get addicted to above anything else. When he was breaking in, the simultaneous advent of the Playstation 2 and the Xbox created a lot of hype, he says. But it wasn’t Gran Turismo or Madden football that was the enduring legacy entry into the market, it was the firestorm of Grand Theft Auto 3 that blew everyone away. He says it taught him that while graphics will always be important, the experience of playing the game is the differentiating factor in what determines whether something is popular or isn’t.

The goal for Nexon in the coming year is to try and be the first Asian game company to crack the American market wide open. With a once hyped company like Zynga in the process of laying off 15 percent of its workforce, Mahoney sees both opportunity and peril in America. He says that local gaming companies have developed a free-to-play model laced with relentless paid updates that has become in its essence, pay-to-play.

“I think that’s unhealthy and that it sets us back. My intention is to show Americans what good free-to-play gaming looks like,” Mahoney says.

The American market has also taken an inordinately long time in abandoning its strict adherence to packaged games as the only market opportunity and Mahoney says that the Asian markets have been years ahead in understanding how important online games are. A couple of years ago you couldn’t find an American game executive willing to even talk about online games, he recalls.

If Nexon can overcome a negative perception of the industry and local reluctances to free-to-play games, it could make inroads. “As we say around here, we don’t want to sell kimchi to an audience that wants hamburgers. But I think between the east and west the look and feel of games can be similar. The fundamentals are similar and there are a lot of crossovers,” Mahoney says.

Nexon has a large revenue base and an established history, but while it remains popular the online gaming industry itself is not widely liked.

“Big video game companies are hard to run," Mahoney says. "But we have outstanding live game development, a broad footprint and we can make our lives a lot easier by properly going after what we love doing.”

Gamers in Korea - where Nexon was founded - are more hardcore, Mahoney adds. America’s perception is soured somewhat by the mistepping of a company like Zynga. He would like to be the one to make people fall in love with games online again and whether or not you think he can, he just stepped onto the right platform to attack such a lofty task.