June 2019 marks the tenth anniversary of Devolver Digital, one of the most famous indie game publishers with hits like Hotline Miami, The Talos Principle, The Messenger, Mother Russia Bleeds and many more.
Devolver is one of the few that is guided by the principle that the developer comes first, not the publisher, leaving its customers creative freedom and not claiming ownership of their intellectual property.
Such an honest approach, of course, has borne fruit, and for ten years the company has earned the love and trust of not only developers, but also players.
Gathering of Developers
Before founding Devolver Digital, Mike Wilson, Rick Stults, and Harry Miller worked together on numerous occasions at other companies. Wilson generally worked side by side with such well-known industry figures as Warren Spector and John Romero. By the way, it was he who came up with the very resonant «Suck It Down» advertisement for Romero’s Daikatana shooter.
In 1998, Wilson, Stalts and Miller founded Gathering of Developers, which even then promised not to twist the arms of developers, as large publishers often do.
“GoD was our first foray into publishing, and at the time we were inspired by 3D Realms, who used their fame to dictate the rules themselves,” Wilson recalls.
Things were going pretty well for GoD from the very beginning, given that their first game was the hit Railroad Tycoon 2. However, the problem was that one of the founders of GoD was Take-Two Interactive, which soon decided to completely buy out the company Wilson. It is interesting that this happened shortly before the legendary Max Payne came out on behalf of GoD.
Despite the fact that most of the GoD games have achieved great success, Wilson still considers the project a failure, because the main goal of its authors was not money, but the freedom that they wanted to give developers.
Gamecock Media Group
“Miller and I founded Gamecock in 2007 before this wave of indie games. Then there was the opinion that the PC is dead, and that every game should be released on all available platforms. For us, this meant that we needed a lot more money to promote each title, ”said Wilson.
The founder of Devolver was irritated by the situation in the industry and called the company «Gamecock» as a symbol that he would never take things dryly and seriously.
Unfortunately, Gamecock didn’t last even a year. Miller and Wilson were able to bring in a bunch of investors, but that’s what killed them. Most of them wanted to make a profit as quickly as possible, forcing Gamecock to quickly build a portfolio without paying attention to quality.
“Almost immediately, the realization came that we in this company act only as middle managers who, for some reason, carry the title of CEO and president of the company,” says Wilson.
“Our experience in the industry has been reinforced by the development of digital content distribution. We wanted to further develop the idea of GoD, according to which all the glory goes to the authors of the game in the first place. Plus, we realized that no one else would hire us anyway,” laughs Devolver Digital co-founder Graham Struthers.
For the successful launch of Devolver Digital, perhaps, we can thank the Croteam studio, known primarily for its Serious Sam series.
Working with GoD, Croteam developed The First Encounter in 2001 and retained all rights to the franchise. The studio decided to release an HD remaster of the first part and turned to their favorite publishers for help, as a result of which Devolver Digital was born in 2009.
At first, Devolver worked exclusively with Croteam, until one day the studio announced that it would need an additional year to develop Serious Sam 3. Devolver did not want to waste time and decided to advertise the future game in an original way, asking three small indie teams to develop a small title during Serious Sam universe.
It can be said that at this moment Devolver Digital found its own style. At the same time, it is worth noting the courage of Croteam, which was not afraid to risk the brand by agreeing to this venture.
The most successful of the three indie games was Serious Sam: The Random Encounter by Vlambeer, who would later rise to fame with games like Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne.
“We absolutely loved working with these tiny teams who are able to create something amazing in a short amount of time and without a huge budget,” Wilson said.
Later, it is Vlambeer who will introduce the talented Swedes from Dennaton Games to Devolver Digital. Soon Dennaton released Hotline Miami, which became a big hit and made famous both the developers themselves and their publisher.
«Pitch Fork Parker»
“When we started working with other developers like Dennaton Games, we decided that we needed to tell the industry about ourselves. Where else to do it, if not at the GDC Developers Conference, right? ”, Devolver co-founder Nigel Lowry recalls.
Devolver immediately realized that it was not their style to make presentations in suits and ties, and instead set out to create a comfortable atmosphere for potential partners in which the developers could relax and talk about their game.
They did this with GDC’s 2012 «Pitch Fork Parker» event, in which developers boarded a dedicated Devolver bus where they chatted with the publisher to showcase their ideas. «Pitch Fork Parker» was such a success that Devolver simply didn’t have enough time to listen to everyone.
At one point, Devolver even toyed with the idea of turning Pitch Fork Parker into a reality show that chronicled the entire game development process from pitching an idea to a publisher to launching a title.
Within a year, Devolver Digital has gone from «the guys who produced Serious Sam and Hotline Miami» to a publisher that produces some of the most interesting games on the market. Now their portfolio includes more than a hundred titles, many of which are well known to every player.
“Early in the beginning of our career in the industry, we realized that the main hall of E3 was not for us,” Wilson said. “It’s like a special form of torture that you also pay millions of dollars for.”
According to the publisher, the premier gaming expo, like the industry itself, is geared towards big and well-known companies, and there’s very little room for a bunch of guys handing out their business cards to everyone.
No, the guys from Devolver prefer to take the fans in their bus parked near the main action of the exhibition, arranging parties near it. However, this does not mean that they will leave fans without the traditional conference that almost every major publisher in the industry holds at E3. But instead of long monologues of company representatives interspersed with game announcements, Devolver has been making comedy films for three years in a row, making fun of modern trends in the gaming industry.
Devolver’s Approach to Developer Selection
Members of Devolver are notorious for not following strict rules, but at the same time, according to their own assurances, they work only with those games that they would like to play themselves. The publisher insists that the secret to Devolver’s success lies in the developers themselves. Therefore, he tries to build long-term relationships with studios instead of deals for one game, choosing those partners that he can trust.
“First of all, we are looking for developers who clearly know what they want to implement in their game, who have thought through every element of it. It is very important that the authors of the title treat its creation as art and want to offer players something unique, ”Lowry explains.
And, as a rule, Wilson and the company does not care about the genre of the game at all. For example, when the publisher first heard about Hatoful Boyfriend, they had no idea that they would be promoting this game. However, after a conversation with the developers from Mediatonc, everything fell into place.
“It may sound strange, but we never build expectations about the sales of a particular game. We understand that it is impossible to predict the success of the pigeon simulator (Hatoful Boyfriend). So why pretend it isn’t?» Struthers says.
Of course, Devolver is not going to underestimate the contribution of the fans.
“Without the support of game fans, we would have disappeared immediately. Therefore, we have always considered it important to appear with the developers at various events and exhibitions as often as possible, helping them to establish contact with the public, ”says Struthers.
Secret of success
Another important point for Devolver is the definition of success by the developers themselves. According to the publisher, the ambitions of game designers are very different. Someone wants to be famous. Others wish to leave a legacy in art. Others simply hope to get rich. Not every game can satisfy all the ambitions of the authors, and therefore Devolver asks them to decide in what way success will be expressed for them.
Even when it comes to money, Devolver notes that it’s always important to look at context. While AAA monsters like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto make millions, only a small fraction of that money makes it to the creators of the game, while a few hundred thousand copies can make a huge profit for a small independent studio.
According to Devolver producer Andrew Parsons, a game’s initial sales rarely represent its overall potential, as high-quality games «will always sell.» Parsons is sure that every sensible game will get its finest hour, even if it is short-lived and does not come immediately.
“It’s not up to me to decide which game is bad and which isn’t, but titles developed without the proper level of quality and integrity tend to be at the very beginning of the food chain. It’s not about budget or meeting technology standards. We have seen time and again how games that did not cost the authors millions of dollars to develop achieved phenomenal success, because it was created by people who gave themselves completely to the process, ”says Parsons.
As for the future of Devolver, Wilson doubts that the company can seriously grow without losing its fundamental principles and creative freedom.
“It is very important for us not to lose control of what is happening, and that is what will happen if we become a major publisher. Everyone asks us about our ambitions or back-up plan. However, we like what is happening now, and we are not going to change anything.”