It went a bit unnoticed, perhaps because it was around the time Devolver Digital launched Gris and announced Ape Out, but late last year the company doubled down on mobile games.
Emboldened by the incredible success of Reigns, which has since branched out into the Game of Thrones world, Devolver hired Mark Hickey, its first VP of mobile publishing, in December. And with his impressive record of mobile experience, he looks to be exactly the right person to help the publisher take the next step.
“I started working in mobile games way back in 2002 in Canada working for Gameloft where I was responsible at first for business development because none of the agreements or infrastructure to really distribute mobile games even existed,” he starts explaining. With a medium as young as mobile games, it’s impressive to have experience dating back so far.
Hickey continues: “In 2007 I relocated on behalf of Gameloft to San Francisco and became responsible for the relationship with Apple… To do games on the iPod click wheel, thank you very much,” he laughs. “And then of course in July 2008 the App Store launched and that completely changed my life and certainly changed the world in terms of mobile games and what’s possible on mobile devices.”
After experiences at startup Kiip and Canada’s biggest work-for-hire studio Behaviour Interactive, he joined Apple in November 2013.
“I first started with the worldwide developer relations team as a partnership manager and so I was responsible for a whole host of partners – everyone including EA, Activision, Blizzard, Epic, Square Enix, 2K, the list goes on,” he says. “There was a whole bunch of medium and small size companies – one of which was a very special company called Devolver Digital.”
Hickey continued to climb the ladder and became the App Store business manager for games in 2015 – then the opportunity to work with Devolver arose.
“So I’d been at Apple for five years and I had a really wonderful time working there. But that being said, while I was empowered to do things that had a meaningful impact on people’s lives, I always felt that it was more pronounced within the indie space because when an indie or small team has success you know that is really meaningful, not only for them personally but for what becomes possible for their careers.
“So Devolver brought a couple of really awesome games to us: Downwell, Reigns – and subsequently after the success of those games, those developers have gone on to have very meaningful careers. Ojiro [Fumoto, Downwell’s creator] went on to work at Nintendo. So if you take that impact, combined with my own tastes and interests as a consumer… There was kind of a perfect storm. I had done five years, I was looking at new opportunities, Devolver was really near and dear to me both in terms of the relationship that I have with them but also the products they were doing and the icing on the cake was that they were also interested in looking at mobile as a more serious opportunity. And so that just allowed the stars to align. And now here I am.”
EYES ON CHINA
Even if Hickey doesn’t name it per say, it sounds quite clear that Reigns’ success has quite a lot to do with Devolver’s newfound interested in mobile.
“I think it’s off the back of initial success that’s been had with some partners,” he replies mysteriously when asked about why now is the right time for Devolver to take more interest in the mobile space. “I’ve been sitting in the mobile industry my entire career and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of different talented and creative teams that I think in some cases could do very well under the Devolver flag. And so for those reasons it just felt like the time was right.”
However, Devolver is still mostly known for its PC and console releases and Hickey is keen to highlight that his appointment is not going to change that approach.
“It’s going to widen the lens. My joining the company doesn’t signal Devolver changing focus from PC and console: that continues to be the company’s primary focus. But with the success they’ve found in mobile and given that there’s 2bn devices out there in the world and growing, the market opportunity is undeniable.
“So in the same way that Devolver has been able to bring games that have a unique, fresh, kind of funky vibe to the PC and console space, that has been true with some of the titles that they’ve done in mobile and adding me to the team is going to make it possible to bring more of that kind of cool, original, Devolver-style content to more customers.”
Hickey adds he’s leading mobile publishing globally, “which includes China,” he emphasises.
“My main responsibility is the management of Devolver’s existing catalog of mobile games and developers, as well as finding new games from talented teams who have fresh and new ideas. In addition I’ll be focusing on unique ways in which Devolver can help developers get their games out to larger audiences. And as I mentioned China is going to be a more important focus for us going forward.”
With China’s mobile market having generated $23bn in 2018 (out of $37.9bn for its gaming market in general), the country is certainly a place that any mobile developer or publisher should be eyeing.
PARTNERS IN CRIME
So let’s say you’re a mobile developer with a cool game on your hands, waiting to find a publisher: you may wonder whether or not Devolver is the right fit for you. So we ask Hickey what he’s looking for in a mobile title?
“Is saying: ‘We’ll know it when we see it’ an appropriate answer?,” he grins. “I say that because if you look at the games that we’ve done so far on mobile: Downwell is about this cute character that is forever falling down a well with guns strapped to his boots which he uses to kill enemies. That is very different from a game like Spaceplan which is about potatoes,” Hickey laughs. “Which is again very different from a game like Reigns which employs a Tinder mechanic to a choose-your-own-adventure type of narrative gameplay.
“So you have these three kinds of games that are vastly different but that are special and unique in their own ways. And so as we communicate more broadly to the community that we’re interested in mobile, our hope is that we’ll be seeing developers approach us and certainly us approaching them to see what they’re working on. As ideas come to the surface, it will be made more clear which ones have us excited and that we think are fresh and new and are worth pursuing as new products.”
Developers wanting to pitch their ideas to Mark Hickey and his team are “more than welcome to email email@example.com to submit their ideas,” he says, before giving a few tips on what you should and shouldn’t be doing.
“We’re open to looking at everything but if it’s a developer’s first time making a mobile game, maybe there’s some high level things that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that it’s important to understand that the behaviour in mobile is different from PC and console.
“Mobile gaming tends to be a lot more five minute sessions throughout the day rather than a single session of multiple hours so designing for that reality is important. I think it’s also important to be mindful that the App Store and Google Play are global stores. The App Store is live in something like 166 countries. So localisation is important to start; culturisation in certain cases is even more important. And then lastly Apple and Google invest billions of dollars in making these devices an operating system. So when cool new features, either hardware or software or both, are introduced it’s important to think about how those can make a game better. I’m not talking about shoehorning a feature just to say that you’re doing it. But in Reigns Game of Thrones they started making use of the iPhone X TrueDepth camera to employ facial recognition so that when a character you can trust is looking at you they’ll make eye contact with you. But a character who is trying to deceive you or lie to you will look away. That’s a real benefit and a differentiating and cool feature that they were able to leverage.”
In terms of business model, Devolver’s mobile titles have historically been premium experiences, but Hickey is not closing the door to free-to-play.
“All options are on the table,” he says. “It’s true that Devolver games up to this point have been premium and they’ve been remarkably successful with over 2m copies sold lifetime for Reigns alone. We’re more interested in the kinds of original and unique game ideas developers come up with than business models.
“Some games make sense for premium others make sense for free-to-play and we’re open to both models. But especially when it comes to free-to-play, we want to do it in a way that’s both fair to customers and to the developers’ creative vision.”
If the type of mobile game Devolver is going to publish remains to be seen (with Hickey saying ports are also on the table), his ambitions for mobile are very clear.
“One way of measuring success for me personally would be to have mobile contribute a significant portion to Devolver’s overall business,” he says. “But there’s a second kind of soft goal which is to also increase the number of developers who’ve come away from working with Devolver with a positive experience.
“If you look at some of the partners we worked with in the past, like Dodge Roll, who made Enter the Gungeon, or Free Lives who did Broforce, they’ve been very successful. One could argue they don’t need to work with a publisher anymore but they choose to continue to work with Devolver because there’s such a solid relationship there and there’s such a camaraderie that they’ve kind of become partners in crime.
“And so I hope that the mobile partners with whom we’ll work will come away wanting to have a long term relationships with us as well.”