A Publishing Haven for the Offbeat and Irreverent

A Publishing Haven for the Offbeat and Irreverent

Until it was canceled for good last year, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, was the video game industry’s big week of exaggeration. The presentations by major game companies were highly corporate affairs and always upbeat about the industry.

Devolver Digital, an indie game publisher, took a very different approach at E3 in 2017. For 15 surreal minutes, its frightening (and fictional) chief synergy officer threatened viewers with “tomorrow’s unethical business practices today.” She asked an audience volunteer to try a suspicious new gaming device and did not flinch when it appeared to amputate his hand. By the end of the show, the stage was awash in fake blood.

From then on, anticipation was high for Devolver’s marketing presentations, which have doubled as scathing satires of the industry’s excesses: loot boxes, microtransactions, cynical A.I. gimmicks.

“The horror that is wanting to make video games for a living is lessened slightly when you know that Devolver’s got your back,” said Dave Crooks of Dodge Roll, whose game Enter the Gungeon was a big hit for Devolver.

The publisher’s taste is at the intersection of art house and grindhouse. One signature title, Cult of the Lamb, is both a dungeon crawler and a caricature of fringe religions: You battle heretics while also keeping your disciples adequately brainwashed. A Devolver game is tight, visually stylized, mechanically clear and also straightforward in how it wants to use your time, in contrast to the bloated games that major studios often produce.

Certain games seem distinctly Devolver — bright, pixelated, sardonic, visceral — but it has also increasingly published titles that are completely different: the operatically melancholy platformer Gris; a remake of the pigeon dating simulator Hatoful Boyfriend; Reigns, which brings royal intrigue to a Tinder-like interface.

Devolver, which turns 15 this month, is “the only really, truly subversive video games publisher that exists,” said George Osborn, who writes a newsletter, Video Games Industry Memo. “Yet they are consistently capable of publishing some of the best video games that come out.”

For several years after the company started, its five founders kept their day jobs. Devolver used the birdseed store that Rick Stults owned in Austin, Texas, as its mailing address, which necessitated an awkward explanation after a PlayStation executive looked it up on Google Maps.

“We couldn’t do anything for Devolver on a Monday because Rick was hauling birdseed,” said Graeme Struthers, another founder and now the chief operating officer.

The company’s breakout hit came in 2012: Hotline Miami, a hyperviolent puzzle box drenched in neon and guilt, designed by two press-shy friends in Gothenburg, Sweden. Devolver’s rise delivered a boost of energy, investment and publicity to the growing indie game scene.

The 2010s were a “golden age for independently developed video games,” Osborn said, “and Devolver played quite a significant role in defining their spirit.”

One of the first developers Devolver worked with was Rami Ismail, who was then half of a duo called Vlambeer. “There was no such thing as indie publishing,” Ismail said. “There were two outcomes of being an indie game developer. You were dirt poor, or you suddenly became filthy rich.” Devolver’s approach, he said, opened up a middle path: making indie games as a steady career.

Game developers do not necessarily need a publisher. It is possible to self-publish directly to a digital storefront like Steam or Itch.io and find an audience (although most never do). But a publisher can offer many forms of assistance: marketing, testing, translation, media relations, porting games to consoles. Most important for many developers is funding, which can allow them to make much more ambitious games.

“We developers are really dreamy people,” said Davor Hunski of Croteam, which is known for the maniacal shooter Serious Sam and the philosophical puzzler The Talos Principle. “And we need to have somebody who is righteous and fair on the publishing side.” It is a luxury to work with a publisher that is not trying to control you, he said, adding that Devolver does not waste developers’ time.

Devolver has often been compared to an indie music label, an analogy its founders embrace. One of them, Nigel Lowrie, who is now the chief marketing officer, likens the developers that Devolver works with to garage bands. “We consider these people artists, and we get the opportunity to help them find their audience,” he said.

Daniel Mullins, a solo game developer, had mostly self-published his work before deciding to team with Devolver for Inscryption, a mysterious genre-hopping card game that topped many best-of-the-year lists in 2021. “They get eyes on the game in a way that most other indie publishers wouldn’t be able to do,” he said.

The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, the most recent game from the small studio Deconstructeam, explores relationships through tarot cards. Jordi de Paco, the studio’s founder, was skeptical when Devolver approached him because all he had ever heard from fellow game makers was that publishers were evil.

But Devolver seemed straightforward and transparent, so he took a chance. As they worked together, de Paco was taken aback as Devolver repeatedly asked how it could make the studio happier.

“They told me something that I will remember forever: ‘You know how to make the games, and we know how to sell them,’” he said. “‘Our job is to make sure that you are as happy as possible, because happy creative people create quality, and we cannot squeeze quality out of people.’”

Unlike some publishers, Devolver does not take intellectual property rights or sequel rights from outside studios it works with. “We believe if we do our job well, the relationship continues,” Struthers said.

This approach has earned the company good will in the industry. “Devolver is a beacon of light in a crowded marketplace,” said Jonas Antonsson, the chief executive of Raw Fury, one of Devolver’s most direct competitors. The worst thing he could say about the company, he said, was that “they think of so many cool ideas before we do.”

Discoverability has long been an issue in indie publishing, Antonsson said, but Devolver’s games are hard to miss because of its high-visibility campaigns.

Last week the company announced a slate of upcoming games in high Devolver style: a promo video in the form of a psychological thriller about an unstable fan. Titles included Tenjutsu, which blends martial arts and urban planning, and The Crush House, a candy-colored reality-show simulator with a lurking horror.

“It’s really simple,” Struthers said. “These are the games we want to play.”

Not that they always agree on which games to publish. “We argue constantly,” Lowrie said.

“It’s been a 15-year argument,” Struthers said. “I think arguing is our resting position. But once we’ve made a decision to do something, you’ll never hear a dissenting voice again.”

“The responsibility is now for us to help that developer,” Lowrie said.

There have been regrets. Nine years ago, Devolver passed on a game called Astroneer. “We didn’t quite understand it,” Lowrie said. “And they went on to sell millions and millions of copies.” Whenever he subsequently ran into the game’s developers, he said, he took the opportunity to mock himself for skipping a game “that has now dwarfed everything we’ve ever done.”

Devolver’s developers say the company has remained true to its principles over the past 15 years, but there has been one big change: In 2021, it went public on the London stock exchange. The move has helped Devolver buy several game studios, including the one that created Astroneer.

It can be a challenge, though, to meet the expectations of investors. If a game misses its expected release date because it needs more work, Devolver explains that the delay will result in a better game.

“That’s been a tough message to push,” Struthers said, “but it’s the right message.”

So far, 2024 has been a rough year for the video game business. It is a paradox: The variety, quality and artistry of new games is exceptionally high, yet the industry is suffering a brutal downturn, with mass layoffs at numerous companies. In part it is a harsh comedown from the gaming boom during the coronavirus pandemic; many game companies grew too fast. For the first time, Devolver, too, announced layoffs, at the studio Artificer.

“It’s a difficult year for everybody,” Osborn said. “But they’re not in a bad place.”

Fifteen years after Devolver started, it still has no headquarters. But it is a global operation, working with game developers in 22 countries.

“They’ve set the standard for publishing in indie games,” said Ruan Rothmann, of Free Lives, which operates out of Cape Town. “I don’t know why, but it seems very unintuitive to a lot of people that if you give developers as much creative freedom as you can, it works out.”

His colleague Evan Greenwood added: “They told us they’ll publish anything we make, which just sounds dangerous, honestly. One day we’re going to cash in with a real clunker.”

There was just one time, Free Lives said, that Devolver objected to one of its creative decisions. In one game it had made, it was possible to kill Jeff Bezos. Devolver balked, pointing out that Bezos owns Twitch, the popular streaming platform for gamers. “That was an existential moment for us,” Rothmann said. “We wondered if we needed to move on.”

But one Free Lives game had already been banned from Twitch — Genital Jousting, which Devolver had happily published — and the studio admitted it was not eager to repeat the experience.

“Ultimately it was sound advice,” Greenwood said. “Which is why we’re still with Devolver.”

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