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Interview

Talking Industry Trends, Classifications And Publishing Wishlists With Devolver Digital Co-Founder Graeme Struthers

A great chat with an industry heavyweight

Following a two-year hiatus, PAX Aus 2022 was an excellent chance for indie developers to get their upcoming games in players’ hands before release. For some devs, the weekend was also an opportunity to pitch their projects to potential publishers. One publisher with a presence this year was Devolver Digital, a personal favourite that seems to wholly and solely back games that are up my alley. Alongside playing Gunbrella and Anger Foot, I had the opportunity to chat with Devolver co-founder Graeme Struthers about trends in the industry, the global reach of games and his personal publishing wishlist.

WellPlayed: I’ve read in your previous interviews that the folks at Devolver prefer to avoid the term publisher, instead leaning towards purveyors of fine digital entertainment wares. In your opinion, what makes Devolver so unique in the gaming medium?

Graeme Struthers: Well, actually, I was saying earlier today, I hope that we’re no longer going to be, or will stop being, unique. When we started, the main impetus was that most of us come from a development background. Most of us worked in games for quite a while, and the models of old were that you, as a game developer, pitch a game to someone, usually a publisher, they have the money, and that’s why you’re pitching. And as part of that, if you’re successful, typically, what would happen is you would lose the IP, it would be part of the package, or if you didn’t lose the IP, you’d be locked into sequels, multiple sequels, which is kind of the same thing.

So the balance was wrong. The balance was in favour of money versus creativity. And I’m not saying everyone in the 90s or early 2000s was bad, but you tend to absorb and accept business models because that’s what everyone else is doing. So, Harry, Mike and Rick, of the original five, were three guys who had this idea that the developer should keep their IP and should not be tied into sequel rights and should get the majority of the royalties.

So that’s the model we’ve been following since 2008–2009. We think it’s very successful. I’d like that to become the norm. There’s nothing exceptional about what we do. You know, the business side of it should not be exceptional; that should just be the norm in the same way that Steam brought in, along with Apple, 70/30 being normal. But it’s prior to them, the way that it worked with retail is that they were taking way more than that. So it was Steam and Apple that changed that, and everyone got used to it very quickly. Now to the point, we can complain about it. That’s the hope.

WP: “That looks like a Devolver game” has become a term of endearment that seems to revolve around titles with a distinct personality or an edgy gameplay hook. I won’t ask you what makes a “Devolver game,” but I’m curious, what does the team look for in potential projects and is there a tone or style that’s particularly favoured?

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GS: It does vary. I mean, there are a number of developers we’ve been working with for five, six, seven, eight years now. And we very quickly reach a point in those relationships where we have no idea what they might do next, and whatever that is, we’re always happy.

So a good example would be Free Lives. The first time we worked together was with Broforce, which was fantastic. And then they walked into GDC a year down the line with Genital Jousting. You know, what can you say except yes? And then, they wanted to know what it was like to make a VR game and created Gorn. Then Cricket Through the Ages.

So I feel that they’re a great example of, if you’ve got that kind of relationship, they will take you in areas that you never yourself have thought of. And that’s led to Anger Foot and then Terra Nil.

So some of the developers themselves have gone from the start point. Another one would be Le Cartel; they made Mother Russia Bleeds, and then their next game was Heave Ho. So yeah. So I feel we benefit from them just having that kind of inquisitiveness.

Andrew, who’s our head of production, would say that all the games have one thing in common, and it’s that the central gameplay mechanic is instantly understandable. You pick the controller up, look at what you’re there to do, understand what you’re there to do and that the core gameplay loop is very well defined.

So I think that allows you to be across all different genres because you’re more driven by the actual core gameplay than you are by any other one thing.

Cult of the Lamb is another example. That’s a team we didn’t know, and they pitched to us. Their pitch was so compelling, they knew exactly what game they wanted to make, and they already had baked in a really interesting art style, and they were bringing together different genres, which is always a bit of a risk. But they had such good ideas of how they’re going to pull that off and a pretty decent prototype. So it made it easy to say yes.

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WP: Through digital showcases, social media and general presence, Devolver has always felt anti-establishment, or at least an indie alternative to the enormous corporate publishers in the industry. What are some positive or negative changes or trends you’ve noticed in the gaming scene since Devolver’s inception? Obviously, something like NFTs comes to mind, as they’re topical now.

GS: Well, if you’ll allow me to go down memory lane, when I was in my early 20s, I was a retail buyer, buying video games, and in those days, it was mainly eight and 16-bit and then we had PC games.

And the boss of our department said, “Okay, we’re getting out of PC games, PC games are dead, it’s over”, and “we can use that space in the stores for other things.” And that was the thinking in 1992–93. I’m happy to say that PC games still thrive, albeit, as well all know, sold on Steam.

And still, most people are buying games. They’re buying a game rather than any of these other business models that come and go. Some of them have stuck around like free-to-play has changed a big section of how people are entertained. But it hasn’t taken away all of the oxygen from the kind of premium gaming experience.

When things like NFTs come along, I think if you find yourself in a room with complete strangers and you have to explain something to them and they’re just looking at you as if you’ve spoken in some other language, then you know that there’s a long way to go before that ever becomes something that people will accept. To this day, it still feels like there’s something quite shady about the whole thing. And you can’t put your finger on it, you can’t say what it is; it just doesn’t feel quite right. Anyway, you mentioned them, so there you go.

I think the great thing is you’ve got platforms like Steam, Unity, Unreal, and Game Maker. You have a really powerful retail experience where you can be there, and you have technology companies that make technology readily available. Whereas before, it was so expensive to get your hands on that and even if you could, it would have required big teams to even be able to use it.

So the technology is allowing small teams the retailing, from that perspective, and it’s allowing you a shot at selling your game. I think those things have combined, leading to a kind of explosion in the indie scene, which has been going on now, really [since] about 2012-2013, and it’s not slowing down.

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You’ve looked around [PAX Aus], right? There are a lot of really interesting projects. And I’m always amazed at the level of polish the people are putting in now, so I think that’s been great to see. And it’s not just here that it’s happening. Conventions in Japan and Korea, we’re seeing games coming out of those regions now being successful in the West, so it seems that we’re going in both directions as well.

WP: On a somewhat related note, we’ve seen an uptake in services like Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus Premium that offer streaming and on-demand gaming in the last few years. From a publishing standpoint, how have things changed with the introduction of subscription services like these?

GS: So the easy thing to turn and look at is you look at the negatives. You look at what it’s done to film and music, where it feels like, specific to music, that it’s very hard for an artist to make anything from those services, even when their music has been streamed music hundreds of thousands, if not millions of times.

With that in mind, when you look at any move into subscription services, it can create nerves. Is that where we’re heading with games?

I think the good news is that we’ve got slightly different business models. Music was able to bring its old model to a new service without ever being challenged to change. Gaming seems to have been quite happy in that [companies like] Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and Epic understand that the business model has to be able to support the publisher/developer. Sometimes they’re the same thing, and sometimes they’re not.

So I feel like at least the business models are fair. Also, to this day, the people who are running them are game-centric people. They care about the service that they’re offering. I’ve said that from a point of view of ignorance, I’ve never worked in the music industry, but my impression is that [Sony, Microsoft, etc.] actually understand it’s an ecosystem, and it needs to sustain itself, otherwise the creativity will be starved of oxygen.

I would just say that anyone who’s got content needs to look at what their objectives are. We launched Fall Guys straight into PlayStation Plus because it was a way of building an audience that we could not have done without PlayStation Plus or Game Pass, one or the other, right?

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The value of that arrangement with Sony was that the game gathered an audience. So I think you should always be looking at it from your own perspective, what’s in it for the actual game? And if you’ve got a game that’s got an ongoing place in the world, you’re going be doing more content, and you’re going to be making sequels, then I think it’s a valid way to expand the audience, to then reap the rewards down the line.

WP: As you mentioned, exposure is beneficial because it quickly reaches people overnight without that added purchase. I know that The Messenger was always on my games-to-buy list, but then I discovered it on the PlayStation Plus service, and now I’ve sunk 20–30 hours into it. So I imagine that exposure would be perfect for certain games.

GS: Yeah, and maybe the next Sabotage Studios game, when it comes around because you’ve enjoyed The Messenger, you know, you might be more predisposed to play it on day one. It’ll be different for each of us, but as I say, the nice thing is, it’s the feeling we have that people who run those services in those companies are actually game-centric people.

WPCult of the Lamb has been a critical success, developed by Australia’s Massive Monster. What is Devolver’s approach to globalising its reach? Is there a focus on diversifying the publishing portfolio and having dev teams from all corners of the globe under the Devolver umbrella?

GS: It’s always going to be down to the individual game. The good thing is, as we’ve seen with games like Enter the Gungeon in the past, the game was developed in America but has been wildly successful in China, Korea, and Taiwan. The origin of the game no longer seems to be a barrier to where the game may find its audience, where I think in the past, perhaps, it was a bit more splintered into being more regional.

Cult of the Lamb is a great example. Of the four developers, I think two of them are here in Melbourne, one is in Singapore, and one is in England, Bristol. And the game has been successful everywhere.

So I should answer your question differently. We’re very happy to work with people from all over the world because we don’t see any impediment to that developer’s game being successful anywhere else in the world.

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WPAs you said a moment ago, most Devolver games have a pick-up-and-play quality that lets players quickly understand the setting and narrative and firmly grasp the mechanics. Where some long-winded RPGs take hours to crack into and can afford to, how important are the opening moments when it comes to indie titles?

That’s really interesting because I’ve always, until recently, assumed that someone going onto Steam or onto PlayStation or Switch knows why they’re going there, and they’re actually going there to buy that thing, rather than they’ve gone on there to browse and look for something to buy, which is a huge assumption on my part. So I’ve always felt that that person went there looking for The Messenger, then bought The Messenger.

But more recently, because we’ve had the luxury of time, we’ve done more demos; Terra Nil, an example, Anger Foot, an example, Gunbrella, an example. And that’s then taken those games into places where maybe that person’s never heard of the game, and they just see the demo, and they download it, and then they give a go. And then you do look at the kind of like stats you can see off the back of that, as to how quickly people abandoned it, or how long they stayed in it, and you’re trying to figure out then, is that because we haven’t thought that through? Maybe you’re not used to roguelikes?

Or with Anger Foot, if you are used to a certain gameplay style, if you pick up a gun, then you run over anyone’s gun, you get the ammunition, right? No, you have to throw it away and pick up another gun.

And you want to see how that plays out. Will people get that? Will they find that frustrating? Or will they see that as a gameplay mechanic? The thing with Anger Foot is that it wants you to throw things. So, I think the reason they’ve done that that way is that, while the gun is empty, it’s still a weapon. Throw it, disorient that enemy, pick up the next gun and keep going.

So it is interesting when you start breaking away from the core audience. I think then you probably do have to have to do a bit more UI and onboarding.

WP: We recently saw the return of the Monkey Island series with, well, Return to Monkey Island, which received a tremendously positive response from fans a critics alike. Are there any other pre-existing franchises that you’d like Devolver to be involved with? Or any forgotten gems that you’d love to bring back?

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GS: I have tried twice, to no avail, with Vagrant Story, which was a game released by Square at the very end of PlayStation One era. In fact, I think I’m right in saying that it’s a game that got ten out of tens through quite a number of sites. I absolutely love that game. And yeah, I’ve tried a couple of times with Square, now Square Enix, saying, “you’re not doing anything with it; we’d love to have a go at that one.” Yeah, that’s a personal favourite, so I’ll keep trying.

WP: I suppose you’re in a unique situation where you can see a publisher sitting on a franchise, and you might get that itch to say, “hey, let us have a go with this one.”

GS: I mean Nigel and Andrew, you know, those kids, when they were 12/13 years of age, Monkey Island one and two were their favourite games, right? That’s what led Nigel to try and find a way to do Monkey Islands, and he did it. How did he manage to convince Disney? I think the team didn’t have the ambition to do another Monkey game, perhaps, I mean, I don’t want to speak on their behalf, but Nigel just said, “Well, let’s see how we can convince Disney.”

Maybe we should get him to try to do Vagrant Story rather than me. He’s more persuasive than I am.

WPYou’ve been busy over the last few days, but have you had a chance to walk the floor here at PAX Aus? Is there anything that’s caught your eye?

GS: The first few hours of day one, I had a little wander around. JR, who’s with me, he’s another Devolver, he’s going around right now and then tomorrow afternoon, we’re going to go around together and see what we agree on.

But I’ve been impressed. Like I was saying earlier, the level of polish that a lot of these games already have is pretty impressive. But yeah, we haven’t spoken with any of the devs, we’ve just done that kind of peripheral look. It looks like there’s some good stuff.

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WP: I know that there’s no point in asking, but I’d kick myself if I didn’t try. Is there anything coming from Dennaton Games? Perhaps a Hotline Miami 3? 

GS: All I can say is what they say and they’ve always been very unequivocal that they’re finished with the Hotline Miami universe. It was only ever going to be Hotline Miami 1 and 2, and they’ve been working on other ideas for a while. So I don’t know much beyond what I’ve just said. I know what else they might do. But I speak to Dennis [Wedin] fairly frequently, not in a nagging or stalking way, just in a how’s it going way.

But yeah, we know no more Hotline; they’ve been pretty straightforward about that. Still, every time I Tweet anything out, it’s “Hotline Miami 3; when?”

WP: Talking about Hotline Miami, I’ve played and loved both games, which is a no-no in Australia when it comes to Wrong Number, thanks to the sequel being banned here. I know that Hotline Miami 2 isn’t the only one of your games to run into this issue. How do you feel about censorship, classifications and banning games with certain content?

GS: I think in the context of Hotline 2, we would never be saying to Dennaton, “We think you should modify the game,” but you also have to reflect on respecting the rules and regulations of that country, and you can leave it there.

I also hope, well, I used to think that we were on a journey towards a more enlightened or more encompassing set of systems, but it seems the last four or five years, we’ve been going backwards in certain countries, mine included.

But, you know, I’m an optimist. Hopefully, we’ll swing back around a be a bit more progressive. I do find it interesting how sex and drugs are so fearful for certain parts of society.

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WP: Hotline 2 is a great example, as the massive amount of violence wasn’t a problem, but the implied sexual violence was.

GS: You can find all kinds of anomalies. Having a character smoking a cigarette can create issues in certain territories, and having a character point a weapon directly at the camera can be a problem. You run into these things from time to time. What can you do?

I always remember when that happened with Hotline 2. Jonaton, the other half of Dennaton, just tweeted, “Well, just pirate the game then.”

WP: Well, I was hoping you might have a secret copy of Hotline 3 that you could whip out of your pocket and give to me, but that’s all right. Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to have a chat with us.

GS: No worries, mate.

If you’re looking out for Devolver’s next ventures, then Gunbrella is set to launch on PC and Switch in 2023, with Anger Foot also launching in 2023 on PC. Devolver is an absolute powerhouse when it comes to publishing unique indie titles. If my chat with Graeme told me anything, it’s that Devolver is made of gamers publishing games made for and by other gamers. Their fresh take on nourishing small yet infinitely talented developers and giving them the stage, credit and royalties they deserve is only good for our industry.

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Written By Adam Ryan

Adam's undying love for all things PlayStation can only be rivalled by his obsession with vacuuming. Whether it's a Dyson or a DualShock in hand you can guarantee he has a passion for it. PSN: TheVacuumVandal XBL: VacuumVandal Steam: TheVacuumVandal

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