Devolver Digital Mobile Games Interview – Mark Hickey on Premium Ports, Subscription Services, the Importance of Exclusives, and More

I’ve been covering and enjoying Devolver Digital games for a long time now. Many of my favorites like Gris or the first Hotline Miami are published by them. Devolver Digital has released many games on mobile across the years ranging from premium titles, Netflix Games releases, Apple Arcade games, and more. Poinpy from Devolver Digital was our Netflix Game of the Year for 2022. I had a chance to talk to Mark Hickey, head of all things mobile at Devolver Digital, about all things mobile and also the state of the industry. Mark also worked at Gameloft and Apple prior to joining Devolver, so I wanted to cover those parts of his career in this interview.

TouchArcade: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do at Devolver Digital.

Mark Hickey: I’m originally from Montreal, Canada and have been working on mobile games for about 20 years. I got my start at Gameloft in 2002, running an online store for downloadable games on Palm Pilot and Pocket PC (RIP We pivoted to Java games on mobile phones in 2004 and since Gameloft was a sister company of Ubisoft, we had access to IPs like Prince of Persia, Rainbow Six and Splinter Cell, which were among the first mobile titles we shipped. Back then mobile games were discovered on wireless carrier “decks” (aka mobile storefronts) and delivered “over the air”. So I developed partnerships with Canadian telcos like Rogers, Bell, Telus, and Fido and shipped a lot of games with them.

In 2007, I moved to the Bay Area to work on games for the iPod click-wheel (true story), which brought us closer to Apple. Thanks to that relationship we were able to be part of the first wave of titles to ship on the iPhone when the App Store launched in 2008 and released 80 or so more games in the next 3 years. I left Gameloft and after a two year stint at Behaviour Interactive, I joined Apple in 2013 and managed several key developer partnerships like EA, Activision, Blizzard, Microsoft, Epic, and the big cheese, Devolver Digital. After all those other companies said no, I joined Devolver in 2018 and moved back to Montreal. At Devolver, I lead mobile operations, managing partners like Apple, Google, and Netflix, overseeing release management, contracts, and working with new and existing development partners.

TA: You began in the gaming business over two decades ago at Gameloft. You then went to Apple in 2013 before joining Devolver Digital. As someone who has been in the industry since before the App Store launched, how do you view the state of mobile gaming now compared to back in the early 2010s?

MH: It’s gotten a lot more challenging for a variety of reasons. Discoverability problems, rising UA costs, privacy improvements (a good thing), intense competition and staggering amounts of consumer choice across every screen have all combined to make mobile games a complex business. In order to cut through the noise it’s often not enough just to have a good game anymore. There is no sure fire recipe for success but a great game has much better chances when supported by some combination of compelling IP, live service, cross platform play (where applicable), smart marketing and strong business partnerships.

On the plus side, it’s never been a better time to be a gamer. There are a dizzying number of games available on practically every screen with some kind of store or service to suit consumer tastes.

TA: What made you want to join Devolver Digital back then?

MH: Great games worked on by great people, both inside Devolver and among the amazing community of developers we get to partner with. That and Fork Parker is holding my cat hostage so here we are.

TA: Devolver Digital has gotten a lot bigger over the years, with more games hitting multiple platforms. What is your goal with the mobile side of the company?

MH: The mission on mobile is the same as it is on any other platform. We want to help indie developers turn their unique, beautiful, bizarre, and sometimes bloody visions into (digital) reality on every platform in the hopes of making them (and us) fabulously rich. And repeat.

TA: Having worked on the App Store and now publishing games there, what learnings from within Apple did you bring to elevate Devolver Digital’s portfolio on mobile?

MH: Certainly having contacts within Apple helps when needed and they are great partners. Beyond that I have a decent grasp of the platform features, processes and policies that aid in having strong launches. I also have some insight on what works well, and doesn’t work well, on mobile devices though I am by no means a game designer. That said, the thing that elevates games most, be it in the eyes of Apple or anyone else, is the quality of the games themselves. So I/we are very fortunate to work with so many talented developers.

TA: Gameloft and Apple are definitely the biggest from the places you worked at before Devolver Digital in gaming. What do you think of Gameloft and Apple’s current gaming outlook as someone who worked there and saw how they operate before?

MH: Apple and Gameloft, while vastly different companies, have very smart people working there who are passionate about games and I have no doubt they will continue making valuable contributions to the industry for years to come. Devolver Digital on the other hand, well, who knows.

TA: Devolver Digital now has over 20 releases on the App Store across premium games, subscription services, and free releases. Do you see this mix of monetization methods continuing for the publisher’s releases on iOS and Android?

MH: Yes. Yes I do.

TA: Devolver Digital has a Reigns game exclusive to Apple Arcade and one exclusive to Netflix Games on mobile. The series is amazing, but do you think decisions like this fragments the fanbase?

MH: Exclusives are a reality of the business, regardless of the platform. The truth is, Apple and Netflix are making premium games a viable business again with their subscription services, and they have been pretty cool about letting these titles onto other platforms after some period of time. So while audiences might be somewhat fragmented as a by-product of signing exclusives, it’s certainly a better outcome than the game not getting made at all – which is what would happen in some cases. Plus, contract terms don’t usually last for eternity. Terms end, and our goal is to get our dev partner’s titles onto as many platforms as we can. So if you don’t see a particular Reigns game on your phone today, our hope is you will, one day.

TA: Back to Netflix for a bit, Poinpy was our Netflix Game of the Year for 2022. I still see a lot of discussion around it. Are there plans to bring it to more platforms?

MH: I think the answer to this question lies in between the lines of my previous response.

TA: Devolver Digital launches games across price bands on PC and consoles, but we haven’t seen many of the bigger titles from the publisher hit mobile. Do you think subscription services would allow these to shine on mobile, or are you just waiting for the right hardware or for sales to slow down on other platforms to bring games like Trek to Yomi or Return to Monkey Island to mobile?

MH: There’s a few reasons for this. The simple one is some games just don’t make sense for mobile, period. Either the controls wouldn’t work, the performance demands are too high, the install footprint too big, whatever. Some games are just a bad fit for pragmatic reasons. When talking pricing, for sure mobile game shoppers are more price conscious, as you rarely see anything sell for over $10. There’s a reason for that. It makes business sense to get those full price sales on PC/Console first before shipping on mobile where market forces require you to discount. And even then it’s a tough go. All that being said, you will continue to see some of our PC/Console titles make their way to mobile when it makes sense.

TA: It is always interesting seeing the response to games being announced for mobile alongside other platforms versus the reaction to what clearly is a mobile game only releasing on other platforms. What is your take on how some perceive a multiplatform game that includes mobile as a “lesser" release?

MH: I think the obvious answer is there’s a lot of salt and cynicism about the mobile games market being flooded with ad/gambling/mtx driven skinner boxes designed to extract maximum value from players and have little or nothing to do with good game design. It’s definitely true there are a lot of games out there like that and the reason why is because lots of studios have made ungodly amounts of money with that model. But I think there’s a sort of popular/mass allergic reaction emerging to these kinds of products, and rightly so. You’re not going to see us put something like that out, unless of course it’s Devolver Tumble Time. In that case, it’s ok and I retract all my previous statements on this topic.

TA: Devolver Digital has had a ton of games over the years that I’ve enjoyed playing, and some feel like a perfect fit for mobile like Inscryption. There are also others I’d love to see hit mobile like Ape Out or The Red Strings Club. How do you decide on what premium game to bring to mobile, and when to do said conversion?

MH: Thanks for the support! The calculus for shipping on mobile is pretty simple, if not unromantic. Our job is to help our partners be successful. If putting their game on mobile isn’t going to contribute to that success, then we shouldn’t do it. Conversely, if we have a great opportunity for a partner via a mobile release then we will do it so long as our partner agrees we should and it’s going to be a good experience on the target device.

TA: As a publisher that has premium games and also games in both of the most popular gaming subscription services on mobile, how has it been working with both Apple and Netflix? How much support do they give with the aspects beyond porting to mobile?

MH: There isn’t a lot of detail I can go into there other than that Apple and Netflix have both been great partners and created opportunities for their respective customer bases to enjoy some of the kick ass titles we have had the good fortune to be able to publish.

TA: Devolver Digital has been doing premium ports priced quite a bit lower than PC and console over the years. Will there ever be a day one simultaneous mobile, PC, and console release from Devolver Digital charging the same price point on all platforms or do you see simultaneous mobile only possible through subscription services now?

MH: Again, it’s all about how we can contribute to the success of our partners. If a “one price point to rule them all” situation arises and it makes sense in context of working well on a touch device, then sure, why not? If we are going to drive better results for our partners via a subscription deal, then the path is clear. As we navigate these waters, helping build success for our partners is our North star, and how we stay afloat. So we will always try to steer the ship in that direction. Whether you choose to infer from these statements that we are working on some kind of nautical themed game is up to you.

Thanks to Mark Hickey, Andy Kelly, and Devolver Digital for their time here.

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