Devolver’s first proper free-to-play mobile game has a suitably ballsy theme – free-to-play mobile games themselves.
Tumble Time dropped worldwide today, and is an action-puzzler in the same vein as Disney Tsum Tsum. All the game’s characters are pulled from the Devolver-published multiverse, from Hotline Miami through Serious Sam, Minit and recent Netflix exclusive Poinpy.
With six deliberately confusing in-game currencies and some knowing gags about pay-to-win and game balancing, Tumble Time shows Devolver trying to have its cake and eat it in mobile.
Can you credibly poke fun at mobile monetisation techniques while also using them? Sure, says creator Folmer Kelly.
“It’s interesting because Devolver has no experience with this aspect of mobile games,” he tells us. “We make fun of things, but the danger is that you’re making fun of something evil, but then you’re also evil as well, so it doesn’t really work.”
“So how we went about it is that we were just like super kind, monetisation wise.”
You can purchase 999 years of free lives for a few dollars, for example, and there’s a literal pay-to-win IAP that pops up during the daily challenges. “Whenever you reach that boss, we pop up a thing that says like, ‘Hey, do you just want to beat the boss for a dollar?”
There’s more: “Every once in a while an option shows up where you can buy everything and completely break the game, level every character up beyond belief. It breaks the UI,” says Kelly. “And it’s like $100. So probably no-one is ever going to buy it.”
The thing is, anyone in mobile will tell you that a surprising number of people will buy it. (And let’s be honest, Devolver knows that too.)
Tumble Time has been in soft launch since December 2021, a period used by most developers to tweak for long-term engagement and monetisation.
But Kelly says Tumble Time spent its soft launch being finessed for other purposes. “It was for balancing reasons, not necessarily to optimise how to extract the most money from players. It was really just difficulty balancing and pacing, most of all.”
Kelly is a self-taught indie game developer who started making Flash games before moving into mobile. He worked with fellow indie creator Colin Lane on oddball sleeper hit Wrassling, alongside several other titles, before going it alone.
As Nopopo, action-puzzler Yo! Let’s Up was followed by several other ‘Yo!’ games and other retro-themed titles, including the delightfully-named bubble shooter Dang! I Got Too Many Dang Gems.
And it turned out that Devolver co-founder Nigel Lowrie was a big fan, particularly of stacking game Yo! and Friends.
“He sent me a DM and was like, this is awesome, can we please work together?” says Kelly. The relationship grew from there, with the occasional pitches and conversations continuing over several years.
“I was working on a mobile game that was kinda poking fun at free-to-play and the concept in general. And then I was like, oh, maybe this is one that Devolver would be interested in, even though it’s a mobile game. So I just like threw that their way and they were very excited immediately.”
Kelly pitched a game called “something like Devolver Free-To-Play Mobile Rip-Off,” he says. And Devolver loved it.
Development began in earnest in January 2020, and later what was meant to be a six-month project turned into a much bigger one, taking in more and more Devolver characters and later getting a reveal trailer during the publisher’s bizarre E3 presentation in June 2021.
But still Kelly had doubts, especially as he was using other game studios’ characters in his game. “There’s a lot of people there [at Devolver] that make PC games and console games that are really anti free-to-play games. So I didn’t know how that was gonna land.”
Fortunately his fellow devs were cool about it. And with new Devolver games arriving all the time, there’s a ready-made conveyor belt of new characters and content to add into the game post-launch.
So can Devolver have its cake and eat it in mobile? Maybe.
It’s not exactly the upstart indie label it once was – its November 2021 IPO valued it at nearly $1bn, though its current market cap is $237m. This is a serious business with targets to meet and shareholders to please.
So someone, somewhere within Devolver is definitely keeping track of Tumble Time’s numbers. But Kelly is not, it seems – he jokes that this game was signed before Devolver went public, so maybe he’ll get away with it not being a roaring financial success.
“If it lands, then we can keep going with it,” he says. “We don’t want to do like the ‘evil free to play thing’ but the ‘evil free to play thing’ is where the money is…”
He tails off a little here. What does City-listed Devolver consider a success in mobile, ultimately?
“That’s more a question for Devolver,” he adds. “I don’t know how much I can really speak on that. But yeah, [Tumble Time] is also a way for them to start exploring this space and seeing if they want to be in it.”