Devolver Tumble Time is the latest mobile title from indie publisher Devolver Digital. It's a unique match3 game with physics elements. Players match a minimum of three icons (toys) based on Devolver’s catalogue of characters, stringing together additional bonuses to increase their score and meet a target. Get stuck and you can “tumble” the toys to try and make new matches. It’s simple, addictive and fast-paced. With pleasant, simplistic graphics and cheery music, it’s the perfect match3 game.
So what makes it different? Mainly its “satirical” take on the mobile genre. The jokes come quick and easy as Devolver CFO “Fork Parker”, a fictional board member, drops humorous notifications to you such as demanding that you complete challenges to pay for a “Special Project” (which turns out to be buying him a new solid-gold couch).
Sarcastic comments in descriptions and more abound, including the game’s gacha mechanic listing the most basic tier as a literal “Trash Pull”. The last notification I received called me a “Valued Customer” before giving me a single loose sock, one of the game’s six currencies.
The perceived jabs at devious monetisation techniques are praiseworthy. Likewise the digs at many elements of modern mobile gaming such as gacha, weeklies, dailies and more. But there is an underlying, and devious reasoning behind it all because, as you’ll notice as you play, all that monetisation is still right there in the game…
Although Devolver Tumble Time does poke fun, it’s by no means discarding familiar means of making money. Watch an ad to get a free daily reward, watch an ad to get an extra 10 seconds on the clock. While the former is purely optional, by the time you start hitting level 20 onwards, the latter often becomes a necessity to secure the score and number of toys needed to continue progressing without restarting the level.
It can also feel a little unfair at times, as that extra 10 seconds is also rarely enough to keep progressing. And with the other currencies (everything besides coins) being used for that saving grace as well, it heavily incentivises you to spend your time on an ad to avoid using up your loose socks, apples or rings (donuts…?).
Speaking of currencies, you have six in total. Coins are used for gacha pulls, while everything else is either converted to coins or used to gain an extra 10 seconds on the clock when you fail at the main game. Don’t fret however, because for the low, low price of £4.19 you can get a generous 1000 of each currency.
I admit, I may be falling for Tumble Time as some avante-garde masterpiece when in reality it's doing exactly the same thing as many other games. Only while nudging and winking at you. But when the game still happily takes your money, the claims that this is all some masterful joke are somewhat diluted.
There’s also the question of exactly whom this game will appeal to. Of course there’s Devolver’s usually savvy (so they’d say) players. But what about someone who stumbles across it organically? Sure, it’s not exactly angling to take all your money, but Devolver aren’t likely to refuse the occasional spree of purchases from someone who unironically enjoys the game.
But let's not get too negative. In real terms, the monetisation itself can be seen as a joke (albeit one that costs money). Hearts, which are needed to play levels, refresh frequently enough that being without them is never really an issue. So long as you’re not replaying levels. However, for only £2.59 you can buy unlimited hearts for “999 years”. Which by any metric is fairly generous.
Monetisation is a necessity in gaming, no matter how unsavoury it may be. And there’s no 'right' way to do it. You need only look as far as popular PC military simulation game Squad and their decision to integrate relatively innocuous gesture packs as DLC (for the explicit purpose of supporting the continued operation of the studio) and the uproar that followed to see the vociferous reaction any monetisation receives.
Tumble Time is presenting itself as a “free” game where it encourages you to shell out a small sum of money to bypass any waiting. Again, not very different to other games, except in how generous it is with the currencies involved. But what Devolver has done is create a match3 game with a very solid core gameplay loop, that excites all the animal instincts and hits many of the marks that developers need to hit.
The “Strategic Brand Integration” they describe for the game also isn’t just a joke. In the main screen your chosen player character lounges on a couch, while an innocuous poster in the background leads directly to Devolver’s merchandise store. Devolver certainly aren't pulling any punches when it comes to advertising their other games either, with a stacked roster featuring many recognisable characters from Serious Sam, Hotline Miami, Ape Out and more.
So, genius or devious? Well I’d say it definitely errs on the side of “devious”, but it looks good and plays well while doing it. It’s a great way to make players feel smart, by lampshading the outrageous elements of modern mobile gaming, but at the same time it still feels a bit backhanded. Surely if the game was meant to be solely humorous it shouldn’t be taking your money at all?
However, at the same time, from a purely subjective standpoint it’s a great game. And there are many “serious” developers who likely wish they could lift many of the aspects Tumble Time does half as well. But it can still leave a sour taste in the mouth when the game sarcastically admits that many of its elements are there to exploit the player.
Whether or not you think this is the start of a slow slide into Devolver becoming the evil corporation they often joke about, or just an all round fun game with a generous monetisation aspect is ultimately up to you.