Kwalee CEO David Darling CBE talks fighting toxicity in the workplace and his soft spot for cryptocurrency

UK studio set to launch more games than ever in 2020

Kwalee CEO David Darling CBE talks fighting toxicity in the workplace and his soft spot for cryptocurrency

Founded in September 2011, UK games developer Kwalee has changed a number of things throughout the yearsMost noticeably, it not only shifted to the hypercasual market, but managed to make a name for itself in the genre with hits such as Draw It, Big Battle 3D and Looper.

Spearheaded by CEO David Darling CBE, known for co-founding Codemasters among other contributions over the last two decades, the move has helped push the company in a new direction which seems to be yielding results. However, like any busy sector, nothing ever just stays the same – double that for games.

To find out about the decision to move into the hypercasual space, we spoke to Darling regarding the move, as well as the increased expansion of the company and what the outlook holds for the Kwalee in 2020 and beyond. How did you find 2019 was for Kwalee? What were the highlights and lowlights you encountered?

David Darling: 2019 was a breakout year for Kwalee, where we saw massive growth in the downloads for our games and therefore revenue. This also had a big impact on the growth of the Kwalee team itself, with the company almost doubling in size, which included the launch of our third party publishing division and its first big success in Rocket Sky. The game reached number one in all apps, across multiple countries.

With a year like that, it's difficult to find lowlights but the growth of the team has brought about office moves and multiple desk moves (we’re amidst yet another desk move right now) and be it house, office or desk - nobody enjoys moving!

How do you expect free-to-play to develop in the future? Is it here to stay?

In 1982, when I didn't want to go to college and instead wanted to make games for a living, my Dad asked "are games here to stay or is it a fad like Hula Hoops?" and I answered that games will be around forever. I would put free-to-play in the same category. It is definitely here to stay.

People like games and are reluctant to part with more money than they need to. Free-to-play enables them to test quality gameplay without spending. If you're not already paying, why would you start? Free-to-play will continue to grow.

What other monetisation mechanics do you see an increase in growth over the next couple of years?

Currently, our main source of revenue is through advertising, however we're always open-minded and will continue to experiment with other methods. For example, in-app purchases, subscriptions and micropayments could grow, but it's a case of constantly testing and learning.

I personally have a soft spot for cryptocurrency, so this may be something we look at, but as I say it's all about regular research and moving with what's working.

What is hypercasual to you? The genre has exploded over the last year but the term has been expanded into many different meanings.

Our main source of revenue is through advertising, however we’re always open-minded and will continue to experiment with other methods
David Darling

To me, hypercasual is all about really fun games with a great gameplay mechanic that is extremely easy to understand. They're games that anyone can pick up and play but are hard to actually master, which keeps you playing and become hard to put down.

Hypercasual games come with the promise of short, enjoyable play sessions to entertain you when you have free time, no matter how short or long.

How many people are now employed at Kwalee?

We have over 70 members of staff and currently over 25 vacancies. If anyone is interested in roles that range from game development to marketing, it's definitely worth visiting our careers page to see what we have available, and where you could fit into the team!

With toxic work environments in the games industry coming to light more and more, can you tell us how Kwalee looks to combat this?

We're very mindful of how jobs in the games industry can be viewed because of the stories that hit the news about long working hours, employees getting burnt out and major crunch periods. Things are a bit different in the world of hypercasual though, as we don't have crunch. The games take a few weeks to make and are made in a much more fun environment, with the team thinking of ideas and then being able to make them quickly.

That's not to say we don't have anything in place to ensure against a toxic workplace though. We've taken many measures against this, and are looking to do even more in 2020.

To start, we offer flexi-time to all employees, meaning that staff can pick and choose when they come into the office and when they leave, ensuring that they can get a happy work-life balance. In addition to that, we make sure that staff are taking breaks away from their desks.

On the other side of things, toxic work environments in the games industry can also come from inequality in the workplace. Again, at Kwalee we're happy that this absolutely isn't the case, with a great amount of diversity in the team, including a growing number of women across a range of roles, and team members that have moved to Leamington Spa for the role from multiple countries. We find this really helps to eliminate any potential toxicity at Kwalee.

Is there a place for employees to raise any issues in confidentiality without fear of repercussion?

Being an IP-based company we fully respect confidentiality, so make sure that there are many opportunities for employees to raise issues in confidentiality. To start, all employees have regular catch-ups with their line managers where issues can be raised, however the likes of myself as the CEO and Jason (COO) also operate an open desk policy and discuss various things with all members of staff.

We feel that through multiple avenues, we've created a culture where people are free to say what they want and don’t have a workplace that feels hierarchical. Helping any issues to be raised in confidence.

Can you tell us about your thoughts on video game addictions? Mobile is coming under scrutiny more and more for this, so what is Kwalee doing to help make sure users are playing/paying for their content for the right reasons?

I find some discussions around 'gaming addictions' to be difficult because games like the ones we create are a form of entertainment - just like books or films. If someone was to spend an evening reading books, they might be celebrated, however if they spend an evening playing games it can be seen with a certain stigma and viewed as a 'negative' addiction.

If someone was to spend an evening reading books, they might be celebrated, however if they spend an evening playing games it can be seen with a certain stigma
David Darling

When it comes to our games and hypercasual, the playing style of this isn't harmful. Our games are created to be played in micro time slots, not for long stints. We always seek to entertain and not to addict.

How many games are currently in development at Kwalee? How many do you expect to launch in 2020?

While we don't have a set number of how many we expect to launch, we will launch more than we did in 2019, and as I mentioned, 2019 was the biggest year yet for Kwalee. We want to expand even further, and with our internal development alongside our growing publishing department, we're constantly on the lookout for the best and most exciting games, so expect a big 2020!

Is there anything you can tell us about any upcoming games?

Good question but no. As you know with the world of hypercasual, upcoming releases need to be kept close to your chest. You're just going to have to keep your eyes on the App Store or our site.

Any new figures or stats you can share surrounding the company?

There are some stats we're really proud of when it comes to the growth and diversity of our staff:

  • We have a fully female talent acquisition team, meaning that diversity is front of mind in all of our hiring
  • Exactly half of our marketing team is female (something we're looking to reflect across all departments in the future, striving towards a more equal and truly diverse company)

Plus beyond that and for a bit of fun, we also love looking at insights from our games. Here’s a few from 2019 that stood out to us:

  • In Go Fish! there were over half a billion fish caught
  • There have been 2 billion planks dropped in Plank
  • In JetPack Jump, there have been 600 million Jet Pack Jumpers smashed
  • There have been over 10 million trains derailed in Off the Rails 3D.

What does 2020 and beyond look like for Kwalee?

Earlier I mentioned that 2019 was a breakout year for Kwalee - 2020 will be significantly bigger.

The mobile games market is expanding at a dramatic rate and is now the largest segment of the games industry and is forecast to keep growing. Our aim is to improve our position and continue our growth alongside this industry trend, and that will continue way beyond 2020.

We recently spoke to Kwalee talent acquisition manager Verónica Miñano as part of our Women in Gaming series and why she believes awareness needs to start at schools.

Deputy Editor

Matthew Forde is the deputy editor at and also a member of the Pocket Gamer Podcast. You can find him on Twitter @MattForde64 talking about stats, data and everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes.