CEO in Focus: David Darling CBE

Employment & Skills | Interview | Technology

David Darling CBE is one of the key faces in the UK gaming industry, having co-founded Codemasters with his brother, spawning some of the most memorable British games in the process.

He is now CEO and Founder of Kwalee, the country’s leading hyper-casual game publisher. David’s work in the industry spans decades, and with Kwalee growing rapidly, he is still helping to create titles that are played by millions of gamers around the world.

Can you tell me about your history within the industry prior to Kwalee?

I’ve had a long history in the games industry, which started in the 1980s, when myself and my brother started coding games in Vancouver, Canada, where we lived. Then, upon returning to England, we launched Galactic Software when I was just 16. Our games were sold via black and white adverts we placed in Popular Computing Weekly for around £70 each, before things started to grow and they were being sold through shops such as WH Smith.

After developing games such as Galactic Software for companies including Commodore, Mirrorsoft, ACE and Mastertronic, we took things a step further in what turned out to be a big moment for the UK games industry, and launched Codemasters in 1986.

This presented a change in strategy for us, and was a real catalyst for our success. With Galactic Software we were creating games that we or other game developers wanted to play: games that were themed around space, that didn’t have mass appeal. With Codemasters, we flipped this on its head and focused on making games that people outside of the game development community were interested in, with pre-existing popular themes, such as sports and driving games. This really helped to take our work within the industry, and gaming in general, to new heights.

Now, some 30-plus years after starting out, Kwalee is nearing its 10-year anniversary, and the company is going from strength-to-strength, as we’re still growing, even in these uncertain times. I set up Kwalee as it presents a logical next step for those thoughts around ‘what would a wider audience want?’.

The advent of smartphones has meant that the ‘gamer’ has completely changed. People of all ages, genders and cultures download and play games, with many desiring fun, bite-sized experiences. Kwalee is aimed at this huge and ever-growing global games market, using digital distribution and digital performance marketing.

Can you give an overview of Kwalee?

Kwalee is a publisher of mobile games, with a focus on the ‘hyper-casual’ market. Hyper-casual means games that give fun, free bitesize experiences that are easy for anyone to pick up and play, but challenging enough that they are hard to master. The genre can take in sports, driving, puzzle, arcade, drawing, or almost any subject, but distil it down to one core mechanic that the player wants to keep playing. These are games that fit in with our busy lives and provide the player some fun, whether they’re sitting at the bus stop, waiting for a plane at the airport, or during the few minutes while their coffee is being made! They promise lots of fun in a short time slot, but in the end, you may play them for longer.

We’re a key player in this space, having to date released 19 number one titles, and games that together have amounted to over 400 million downloads worldwide. This has come from games we develop in-house and games developed by external developers, that we take on and publish for them, with the genre requiring big budgets in terms of ad spend, marketing and monetisation.

What products and services do you offer?

Our key product is, of course, our games, which range from the likes of Draw It, a fast paced game where you’re up against the clock and others to draw an object first, to Jetpack Jump, a rocket-fuelled version of triple jump where the player is aiming to send the character far across the horizon.

Beyond our games though, an extremely key service we offer comes in the form of the publishing side of the business. As developing these fun, quickfire gaming experiences has become easier, there are a lot of one man developers or small teams that are creating some incredible games, but aren’t able to get them seen by a mass audience, and therefore profit from what they have made.

We work with developers like this to publish their games and help them receive what can become an extremely healthy return for their efforts. Our team helps with everything from expert game design tweaks to the all-important marketing, user acquisition and monetisation, that a small dev team would never be able to replicate. This side of the business has gone from strength-to-strength in the past year, and we’re working with some amazing developers.

What was the inspiration behind it and why is it different to previous companies you were involved in?

I was inspired by the fact that it was a global, digital market and smartphones had the potential to completely change the gaming world, and that made gaming more accessible to everyone. While my previous companies made particular types of games and focused on certain genres, Kwalee has enabled us to come up with all sorts of ideas, whether it’s a fishing game, a drawing game or a shooting game. I was inspired
by the huge opportunity in this space and it’s something that still inspires me nine years on.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I’ve learnt through my time in the industry that great ideas can come from anywhere, so made this a core aspect of what Kwalee is about. Each Wednesday, we stage what is called ‘Creative Wednesdays’, where anyone from the company, no matter the role, can pitch an idea for a game, and if the rest of the company likes it, get it made. If the game goes on to success, they will profit from this, as a part of our profit-sharing scheme.

I know that anyone can have an amazing idea, and have made sure to hire creative, likeminded people so that this happens. This also means that I fully trust the team. A company is only as good as its people, that’s all it is really.

What future trends do you see happening within the gaming sector?

I feel the COVID-19 pandemic will have a knock-on effect in the gaming industry, as it has with many others, in the form of where we’re all working. I’d always been a great believer that a team’s best work is done when all together in one studio, and many other games companies held this belief too. However, being forced into a remote setting has definitely changed my perspective, especially as while in lockdown, we have developed and released a new game, Bake It, that has already been downloaded over 10 million times.

With this in mind, we have already changed our stance on remote work, and are offering multiple positions on a permanent, remote- working basis. So, long after the pandemic comes to a close, which will hopefully be as soon as possible, remote-working will now be a part of Kwalee, and I can see many other gaming companies following suit.

What are the future plans for Kwalee?

Our aim is to continue to grow and make great games for our players. We are currently in the process of opening our second studio in Bengaluru, sometimes called the ‘Silicon Valley’ of India, that will work extremely closely with our headquarters in Leamington Spa, so it’s a really exciting time for Kwalee.

In short, our plans are to continue our amazing rate of growth and to release even more games than we currently are, from both our internal teams and the publishing side of the business.

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