The mobile games industry is forever changing and not many people can speak to its turbulent history like Simon Davis. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Mighty Bear Games, a Singapore-based studio with a focus on mobile-first online multiplayer games with universal appeal.
Butter Royale was one of the studio’s first projects. As you might have guessed from the title, it’s a battle royale game with a twist. There are no guns, swords, or violent weapons, only baguettes to hit each other with and tsunamis of butter from all directions. Simon and his team are currently working on Mighty Action Heroes, another cartoony battle royale game that’s set to be the first in the ‘Mighty Net’, a sort-of Mighty Bear Extended Universe.
In his more than 15-year career in the industry, Simon worked for huge companies like King, Ubisoft, and Xbox. Alongside other industry veterans, he started Mighty Bear Games in 2016 with the aim of using his experience for good. The studio is committed to a strong set of values, and we wanted to know how Simon’s prior industry experience shaped this decision.
“I’m gonna sound like a boomer,” he said, “But the world was a very different place then. Especially when it comes to the games industry, some of the stuff that went on was really not okay and would never fly today.”
“I wanted to start a studio that embodied a different set of principles and demonstrated that you could be at least moderately successful by doing things the right way.” These principles are front and centre on Mighty Bear’s website, outlining clearly what Simon and his team believe to be the ‘right way’ to do things.
Alongside innovation and execution, the ‘Mighty Bear way’ involves trusting their employees, showing empathy, and being open with each other. Seems simple enough, but you’d be surprised at the number of companies in any industry that don’t see the value in these principles.
Simon summarised Mighty Bear’s core values as, “Treating people like people, putting the team first, and believing that if you take care of the team, then the team will take care of the players and the players will take care of the profits. That’s the philosophy we always follow.”
Following on from this, we asked Simon about the company’s focus on employee wellbeing. Given the number of horror stories that circulate the internet about developer crunch, unpaid overtime, and mental health issues in game studios, it’s nice to see a studio putting in the work to combat these common but solvable problems.
“[Improving wellbeing] is not a one size fits all solution,” Simon told us. “A few years ago, we implemented what we call the wellness allowance. The company was doing well enough that we could start thinking about benefits and everyone wanted very different things. So we basically took the approach where we just give people an allowance that they can claim against, they just pick what works for them.”
Simon explained that this flexible approach was born from witnessing the various different situations his employees come from. One person said they were fine without health insurance because they were covered under their partner’s, but another employee would have really benefited from Mighty Bear offering this perk.
Physical health isn’t the only important part of maintaining employee well-being. Simon told us that mental health issues are something that he’s personally struggled with over the years which gave him extra motivation to provide support for his team. “One of the first things we did when we had money was we said, ‘Okay, we have to have mental health support.’ And so anyone at the company can see a counsellor as often as they want, we just pay the bill. No questions asked.”
He pointed out the importance of taking breaks, not just as an individual but as a full team. “We also shut the studio for a minimum of two weeks a year – last year it was actually three – so that people can fully disconnect because they don’t feel guilty about not working because their colleagues and their mates are working.”
Naturally, employee well-being and empathy go hand in hand with accessibility, diversity, and inclusion. We wanted to know how the company’s philosophy translates into these areas, both within the team and for the players.
“We try to foster a very inclusive and diverse team and leadership team and I’m proud that the most senior part of the company has men, women, and people who identify as non-binary as well. I think it’s a pretty representative sample of wider society rather than the average games company, which has a lot of dudes who look like me,” he said, motioning to himself and laughing.
Simon then went on to talk about accessibility in Mighty Bear’s games. “In terms of providing things like colour blind support and audio cues, that is something that historically we haven’t been as good as I would like.” He referenced the sheer number of disabled gamers out there – in 2021, Steven Spohn of AbleGamers told Wired that there are 46 million disabled gamers in the United States alone – and how it’s something his team is prioritising in their upcoming games.
“We’re trying to find ways to really integrate these features in a way that is quite seamless because no one wants to have to go into a menu and turn a bunch of stuff on just to have a normal game. The game should be designed so that anyone can pick up and play without having to think about the menu settings ideally.”
Switching from one huge topic to another, we asked Simon’s opinion on the best approach to monetisation in free-to-play games. From ads, to paid boosts, to cosmetics, there’s a range of ways the games industry makes money from ‘free’ games, and during his career, Simon’s seen it all.
He told us, “I think that monetization can actually enhance the experience [of a game] by creating those moments of friction. Say someone has a hero that’s more powerful, right? And I beat that player and I haven’t spent it feels really good. But it has to be done in a way where the difference is actually not that great. It’s quite marginal.” We can’t say that we disagree. Clearing Genshin Impact’s Spiral Abyss with a F2P-only team or ranking up in Marvel Snap without the latest broken season pass card can feel far more rewarding than winning through spending money.
Of course, we can’t talk about mobile games in 2023 without touching on the growth of cryptocurrency in the genre. A large portion of gamers are sceptical about blockchain games and NFTs, and Simon thinks they have the right to be. “If I’m being honest, the games industry doesn’t have a fantastic record of treating its players with respect. So if you take that into account, I’m not really surprised that people are naturally quite defensive or cynical. But as creators, it’s on us to show them that hey, there are many different ways to build a mobile game or free-to-play game with a player-owned economy.”
We also brought this up because Mighty Action Heroes, Mighty Bear’s next game, is partially a blockchain game. “So Mighty Action Heroes is a free-to-play game. Some parts of the game are on chain, so players can trade collectibles with each other. It’s not that we’ve built a crypto project and slapped the game on top. We do have some elements that players can trade and it’s a player-owned economy effectively. We’re seeding a lot of control to the players.”
Simon also thinks this is part of a necessary change to keep mobile free-to-play studios like his afloat. He told us, “I think in the next 12 to 18 months, you’re going to see a lot of small and midsize free-to-play mobile studios either shut or basically sell on the cheap to larger players, because they didn’t adapt. It’s quite sad, but it’s also just part of the business cycle, you know, something else will come along. There’ll be new opportunities.”
Cross-platform free-to-play games are getting more and more popular on the Switch, so we asked Simon if he has any plans to bring Mighty Bear’s titles to our favourite console. He said, “I’m a Nintendo fanboy. With the exception of the Virtual Boy, I’ve owned every single Nintendo machine that’s been made. So I would love to do something on the Switch. I think for us there have been some business challenges around that, but it’s definitely something that I’m open to.”
With all the heavy topics covered, it was time to ask the exciting question – what’s next for Mighty Bear Games? The joy on Simon’s face was evident as he started talking about the studio’s plans for the future. He said, “For the last year or year and a half we’ve been really heads down and now we’re getting to the point where we can start to show off what we’ve been building. I think a lot of people are gonna have fun with it.”
Mighty Action Heroes is out later this year on mobile if you’re looking for a new multiplayer experience that sees you “fighting for your rights to not have trash pizza”, aka Hawaiian pizza. Simon’s words, not ours! We’ll be keeping an eye out for more entries in the Mighty Net in the next few years as well.