Like all great stories about the founding of companies, I like to imagine the genesis of Devolver Digital began in an old bar shrouded in equal parts mystery and dense smoke. Between drunken shouts from patrons and the slosh of alcohol, a torn and crumpled napkin atop a rickety old wooden table would be the founding site of Devolver Digital, one of this decade’s premier publishing outfits in the independent gaming scene.
The napkin would be scribbled upon by the likes of Mike Wilson, Nigel Lowrie, Graeme Struthers, Harry Miller, and Rick Stults, outlining the hopes, dreams, and diabolical aspirations for the company that was, at the time, nothing more than the remains of Gamecock and Gathering of Developers—two formidable publishing houses in their own right.
That’s what I like to imagine, at least. The reality is actually much more grounded and involves equal parts luck, hard work and savvy. But if you’re familiar with this company and their games, you can’t blame me for thinking that.
FROM THE ASHES OF COCKS
Devolver Digital wasn’t created by accident. A lot of factors went a certain way, sure, but it involved a whole lot more experience and savvy positioning than you’d think. Particularly, it required the amicable dissolution of similar ventures.
Before Devolver, there was Gathering of Developers (G.O.D.) from 1998-2004 and Gamecock from 2007-2008—both game companies that focused on enabling, publishing, and supporting the indie development community. And, interestingly enough, both of these companies featured the same five people at the helm.
After selling G.O.D. to Take-Two Interactive, a massive multinational game publisher, the founding members of G.O.D. secured some new investors and were doing great with Gamecock, their next venture. Pretty much exactly what they wanted to do, in fact. Then 2008 rolled around and the economy tanked, forcing them to once again find buyers and abandon ship.
“The economic downturn took away Gamecock, because that had investors backing it,” explained Nigel Lowrie, one of the leading partners at Devolver Digital. I say leading partners, because no one at the company really has titles. They all wear several hats at all times. “So what happened is we all found ourselves with a lot of experiences, and a lot of drive still, but when the money went away to fund the company, we found ourselves without jobs.”
Despite the lack of money, any real business plans, or a licensed copy of PowerPoint, there was a sense that we would get Devolver airborne.
What does one do with drive, passion, and experience, but no creative outlet in which to employ those virtues? Well, you make a creative outlet. Since the third time’s the charm as they always say, Nigel and the rest of the team decided to once again build something for themselves, but this time it was entirely independent. This time it was Devolver Digital.
“We saw what the landscape was like in video games and it was changing,” explained Lowrie. “Now the trend towards smaller games and digital distribution were helping developers not only make progress early in development, but also helping them bring games directly to market. So, we started another label.”
Fortunately for Devolver, their past relationships are what helped jumpstart the entire company. When Croteam, the folks behind the ridiculous yet venerable first-person shooter franchise Serious Sam, wanted to make another game, they turned to their friends from G.O.D. and Gamecock—friends that they trusted. Suddenly, in addition to the drive, passion, and experience, they had a business opportunity to go along with their plans for a new company.
“Despite the lack of money, any real business plans, or a licensed copy of PowerPoint, there was a sense that we would get Devolver airborne and Croteam, the creators of Serious Sam who we go way back with, seemed to feel the same,” said Graeme Struthers, another of the primary partners at Devolver Digital. “For the first little while of Devolver in the very early days, we had day jobs to pay bills and Devolver was the evening or weekend and a vacation-time side gig. It also felt that with the arrival of [digital PC game marketplace] Steam in a big way there really was a chance to make a success of it. No more pandering to retailers or wondering if anyone would ever pay you anything.
“With Devolver, we knew we wanted to do something small, stay small, own our own destinies,” Struthers continued. “We had a lot of experience at this point with what we did and did not want out of Devolver, and I think we all knew it without having to say it.”
Devolver published Serious Sam 3 to critical and commercial success. That springboard resulted in not only that game franchise experiencing a rebirth, but Devolver’s vision of being a force for good in the indie community as well.
BUILDING A BETTER BUSINESS
From that point forward, they shopped around the Serious Sam IP to other developers and got to publish some truly unique and inventive takes on the property. Serious Sam: The Random Encounter from Vlambeer, for example, is a ludicrous game that takes the setting of the previous games and adapts it from being a shooter to an old-school roleplaying game with turn-based combat, similar to the old Final Fantasy games.
“That really established this kind of foothold, if you will, in the indie game world,” said Lowrie. “We got to see what it was all about and meet a lot of these developers. And through [Vlambeer], and through kind of hard work and really going to shows [industry events like E3], we got to meet people like Denneton.”
Denneton is the studio behind Hotline Miami, one of the most renowned and respected indie games of the past five years. It combines a retro-pixelated aesthetic with a sophisticated story, wrapped up in a brutal and gory world. For all intents and purposes, it helped lay the foundation for the quirky humor and dark undertones that now define what it means to be a “Devolver Game”—a term that even the founders of Devolver aren’t sure how to define, given their track record.
“Just go to Steam and type in Devolver,” said Lowrie. “You’ll see a whole variety of stuff.”
From Hotline Miami and Broforce (two violent pixelated games) to The Talos Principle (a philosophical puzzle game) and Hatoful Boyfriend (a pigeon dating simulator—yes, you read that correctly,) Devolver’s menu of games caters to eclectic tastes.
The artist creating the game is left alone to create.
It’s a difficult line to walk because, as a publisher, Devolver wants to make a name for themselves and be known for something that they’re good at, but they have to avoid painting themselves into a corner as well. Lowrie told me he’s met with several developers of games that he loved, but they told him they never pitched Devolver because they didn’t think their game was a “Devolver Game.” Falling into a comfortable routine can sometimes be detrimental to a company’s growth and overall perception.
The best way to proactively get ahead of those sort of mishaps is for Devolver to seek out game developers just as often as game developers seek them out.
“I go through everything from TIGSource to IndieDB and Steam Greenlight, just browsing through to see what might be neat out there,” said Lowrie. “I get probably five to ten emails a week on pitches for games of varying sizes. But honestly, we’re still out there grinding. We walk through events, we cold call people, we do whatever we can. If we see something we really like and we think there’s something special there, we’ll do whatever it takes to get there. We don’t have a sales team; this is all us.” And that independent mindset—the tenacity to own decisions from cultivation to conclusion—is at the core of what makes Devolver so special. They’re a 100% independently owned and operated company helping other independent creators realize their visions. While they technically take on the role of a publisher with most game developers, that isn’t really the best way to define Devolver. They have much more personal relationships with their developers, relationships that resemble partnerships more than they do the traditional publisher-creator conflict.
“The artist creating the game is left alone to create,” as Struthers put it. “We are happy to be as involved as they choose us to be, but in the end it is their project. The reason we get involved with a game is because we want to see it happen and we have faith that the team can do it.”
Struthers and the rest of the founders at Devolver are so opposed to the concept of corporate culture and oversight, they’ve even created a fictional CFO for the company: Fork Parker. It’s a fictional persona that’s designed to specifically parody other people and publishers, as you can tell from the tweets.
By maintaining that independent mindset for not only the companies they work with, but Devolver itself, the company has established a trusted reputation. Lowrie explained that most company decisions are made in a matter of minutes via group text messaging, rather than setting corporate meetings to roundtable discussions on conference calls. They fire from the hip and they keep moving.
THE BURGEONING WORLD OF INDIE HITS
There used to be a time way back a decade or so ago (which is a century in internet years) when making an indie game meant making a small, potentially successful, but not commercially viable, experiment. There were exceptions, but it wasn’t really a sound business model to be an indie game developer.
In 2016 that’s no longer the case. Things like Kickstarter have laid the groundwork for more people to put their creative ambitions in the spotlight. With the evolution of digital distribution and social media, those things have become top priority for developers—blockbuster and indie alike.
As the line continues to blur between indie and “triple-A” games, the gray area in which Devolver sits gets wider and wider. When I asked Struthers if he could define for me what makes an indie game, he told me, “I am not really sure I could. The term itself seems to mean different things to different people. I know I could not define it by the game itself, which sort of leaves only the creators. In that sense maybe it is the state of mind of the creator. I guess the people we work with are not in a relationship where they face choices or compromise on their vision. Maybe it is simply an independent nature.”
Now, games like Elite: Dangerous and No Man’s Sky are actually indie games, despite their enormous size and scope to expand across the cosmos. The indie Axiom Verge feels like a more authentic classic Metroid game than even Nintendo itself can muster. And games like Devolver and Vagabond Dog’s Always Sometimes Monsters tell real, human stories you don’t often find in mainstream video games.
We would’ve shut down our studio in 2008 if it weren’t for [Devolver].
Being an “indie game” used to simply mean you didn’t have a publisher. Things are different now—indie gaming is nothing like what it used to be, and that’s a very good thing.
Devolver is a big part of that transition. Of all of the different developers I spoke to who have worked with Devolver over the past few years, there wasn’t a single negative thing to be said. “Due to bad luck and circumstances at the time, we would’ve shut down our studio in 2008 if it weren’t for them. We’ll never forget that,” said Damjan Mravunac from Croteam. That’s a common sentiment held by the developers Devolver has worked with.
According to Jordi de Paco of Deconstructeam, the folks behind Gods Will Be Watching, a dark and sobering adventure game set in a post-apocalyptic world, the game would have never been finished were it not for Devolver. Because of Devolver’s influence, the creators of Game Maker, the development engine that Deconstructeam was using to create their game, sent the team a specialized build that removed the memory restrictions that were bottlenecking their development process.
Dave Crooks from Dodge Roll Games, the creators of the frantic, retro smash hit Enter the Gungeon, speaks to their marketing prowess. “We would probably have run out of money, and been forced to release the game too early,” admits Crooks. He credits Devolver for them not only releasing a better game, but being able to present onstage at E3 for the PC Gamer Show, getting better trailers and promotional art work, creating plushies of characters in the game, ordering a vinyl soundtrack, and even placing trailers and demos in Best Buys and Gamestops around the country.
As such a flexible and dynamic publisher, Devolver is able to tailor their services to specific developers’ needs. For studios like Deconstructeam, Devolver helped them with everything from correcting spelling mistakes in the game’s dialogue to playtesting every build of the game. Vagabond Dog spoke to the publisher’s financial support, which allowed them to hire more artists and dramatically speed up the development process.
Then in the case of developers with over a decade of experience like Croteam and the Serious Sam franchise, Devolver tends to take a very hands-off approach and trust that they’ll deliver good stuff on time. Sometimes that approach is so hands-off that it has hilarious (but fortunate) consequences.
“[A while back] we were wondering how things were going with [Croteam’s] development of Serious Sam 4 and they kind of set us up, sending along some beautiful screenshots of environments, mentioned a few of the potential settings, but at the same time were really, really sketchy on details,” said Struthers. “This went on for a while I guess—back and forth. We’d ask how it was going, get some crazy environment screenshots but no actual gameplay details and then like boom, they dropped The Talos Principle on us.”
The puzzle game was famously created more or less accidentally when Croteam began building challenges they felt wouldn’t have fit in a Serious Sam game, but it’s amazing to hear that the publisher was as surprised to learn about The Talos Principle as the public was.
“I mean, Talos is pretty much as far as you could get from a Serious Sam game and I had no idea what to think,” Struthers continued. “I even wondered if it was all an elaborate joke. It worked out though, that game is beautiful and did really well critically and commercially, as did its expansion pack. Also, I still have no idea what’s going on with Serious Sam 4.”
FINDING THE EXQUISITE GEMS
Devolver has been around long enough that people know the brand and they appreciate what they’re doing, but it’s far from the peak of the company’s potential. In their quest to continue helping awesome people make cool shit, growing pains happen, but so too do opportunities present themselves.
“We’re always looking at how we can not redefine, but refine ourselves,” said Lowrie.
By taking what they’ve learned working on both smaller projects like Downwell and larger ones like the Shadow Warrior reboot and Serious Sam games, Devolver is aiming to continue growing and striking out onto more ambitious releases, while still maintaining their intimate focus on cultivating those crucial relationships.
“We want to do this big, big game, and we want to do it with the developer we’ve worked with before,” said Lowrie, alluding to Flying Wild Hog and Shadow Warrior 2. “While it’s a small team, I don’t think anyone considered it an indie game. We think it’s on par with AAA games in a lot of capacities. So it was like all the work we’ve done is really leading up to this: how we interact with fans, how we capitalize on things like Twitch and social media, how we market things, the spirit of Devolver, of what we do and who we are, everything is kind of going in the direction of making Shadow Warrior 2 as good as it can be.
“It’s our magnum opus, right? Lowrie continued. “It’s what we hope to be a grand entrance into not a new Devolver, but rather a Devolver that can run the entire gamut of the game industry, whether it’s something small to something that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the titans of video games.”
In a nutshell, they’re evolving into Devolver Digital 2.0.
Luckily, Shadow Warrior 2 is looking to be the perfect coming out party for this evolution. It’s visually stunning. It maintains the brand’s iconic violence and intensity. There are dozens of weapons to choose from. Environments are endlessly, automatically generated in a way that remains cohesive. Open-ended levels encourage exploration and replayability. Location-based dismemberment and gore amp up the blood. And did I mention four-player co-op throughout the entire game?
“This is not just Shadow Warrior 2,” explained Lowrie. “This is the graduation of Flying Wild Hog, this is the graduation of Devolver, and this is the graduation of Shadow Warrior.”
But one of the side effects of this type of growth could be a loss of focus. As Devolver grows and their revenue increases, that could lead to expanding, opening new offices, hiring more people, and diluting not only the brand, but the vision as a whole. Buy according to Lowrie, that’s not going to happen.
“We don’t need to ask how to blow the whole thing up and make it bigger, but we need to instead ask how can we refine Devolver Digital,” he said. “I think the answer is that we have partners like Croteam and Flying Wild Hog that can make these big games and then make something not just big, but special, and stand among these titans.
“I think two, maybe three of those games every eighteen months, maybe two per year could be great, and that’s probably maxing out, but we always want to make sure that we look at that road map and have games that we think are important,” Lowrie continued. “Not even necessarily important on a commercial basis, just games that we think are important to get out there. Like the Always Sometimes Monsters of the world, or the Dropsies of the world. Those are games that us and the developers know aren’t’ going to sell a billion copies, but are definitely very special. And that’s part of our DNA.”
That passion and commitment to the developers under the Devolver umbrella is infectious. According to the publisher not a single game they’ve published has lost money—they’ve all been profitable thus far. That’s a remarkable statistic.
For having such a successful track record, you’d think the definition of a Devolver Game would have worked itself out by now, but it hasn’t. They take everything on a case-by-case basis.
“We’ve tried to define that, because we think we should, but we can never really do it, because things always break their own mold,” said Lowrie. “When we see a game, the thing that usually jumps out—it has some kind of inventive, innovative aspect to it. It might be the way it tells the story, or the visual style, or the reliance on music, but a lot of times we see games before they’re fully prepared, so we have to look for what I call the ‘exquisite gems.’”
They’re looking for that “magic” element, the “it” factor that you can feel and know when you see it in action. They’ve been pitched in crummy bars, swanky nightclubs, and in the hallways of convention centers or in the tents of their E3 tailgate parties. There is no right, wrong or improper way to present an idea. They’ve even found developers by simply browsing the internet and finding something they enjoyed. To hear them tell it, they’re a company that’s more focused on helping great ideas get out into the the world than having meetings. Devolver wants to enable creativity.
The language of creation is universal and Devolver endeavors to be a multicultural lexicon of creative possibility.
“One of the things that draws me to this industry is the endless creation of ‘something’ from 'nothing,'” said Struthers. “There’s a kid, right, and he or she has this idea about a game or a story he wants to tell. And they can’t think of doing anything else except getting this thing, this story or game or whatever, out of their head and into the world. That’s an almost magical thing, right? And in games, the industry just keeps doing this exact thing—creating things from nothing on a daily basis. It’s really incredible when you look at it that way.
“Working with artists or creators—whatever you want to call them—and being able to have an impact in their lives and help them bring their project to life. That’s a really special thing I get to do for a living.”
David Jagneaux is the Games Editor at UploadVR and is a freelance writer who has an unhealthy obsession with buying games during Steam sales that he never actually plays. You can read more of his work in other outlets like IGN, Polygon, and Motherboard. It’s dangerous to go alone, so follow him on Twitter @David_Jagneaux.
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This article was amended once post-publication for factual corrections.