Forking Hell: A Decade of Devolver Digital

By Piotr Bajda on at

Devolver Digital is many things: a voice of the counterculture in video games, an outlet for independent creators with visions that rarely align with those of traditional publishers, a champion of the people that’s not afraid to mercilessly mock the games industry. But most of all, Devolver is a principled, well-run company that helped reshape indie publishing in less than a decade.

Mike Wilson is Devolver’s 'Funslinger-in-chief' (hey, I didn't come up with it), and was already an industry veteran when he co-founded the company in 2009 with Harry Miller, Rick Stults, Nigel Lowrie, and Graeme Struthers. Wilson’s career up to that point was an illustrious one: he'd helped launch Quake at id Software, had a hand in setting up and running the iconic Ion Storm, co-founded the Gathering of Developers which brought together heavy hitters like 3D Realms and Epic Games, tried his hand at filmmaking, and had (with others) set up the independent games label Gamecock Media Group. As ambitious and successful as these ventures were, they all left Wilson wanting more.

“We started Devolver with the same goal as our previous publishing companies: to establish a viable, sustainable artist-first publishing model to help ensure that independent developers didn't have to sell their souls — or their IP, or creative freedom — to get funding to complete their game, or to get publishing help in trying to make a living doing what they do,” says Wilson.

The founders’ previous experiences taught them an important lesson, one that would help shape the identity of Devolver.

“After our experiences of finding ourselves tied to financial partners who didn't necessarily share the same values or goals, we committed to keep this one small and 100 per cent controlled by the founders.”

And Devolver was lucky enough to have a Croatian partner committed to the same ideals.

“In the beginning, we had only Serious Sam thanks to our previous work with Croteam at the Gathering of Developers, which also allowed them to remain independent and in control of their IP," says Wilson. "We started very slowly with only the Serious Sam HD remakes to set up for Serious Sam 3.  We all worked without pay, several of us moonlighting while at other jobs, to grow carefully and patiently.”

Hotline Miami

The patience and caution paid off. Multiple Serious Sam games sustained the company through the early, and lean, years. Not long after that came Devolver's big break: Hotline Miami. A smash hit from the Swedish outfit Dennaton Games, this top-down meta-shooter established Devolver’s reputation as both an indie powerhouse, and a publisher of games that others might baulk at.

“We got hooked on working with this new wave of tiny indie teams of one or two people, doing really creative work with very little time or money by embracing the retro vibe,” recalls Wilson. Devolver was exposed to the new movement while working with Vlambeer and some other small creators on the Serious Sam indie series, a marketing experiment devised to fill the void created by the slipping release date of Serious Sam 3.

“This new wave of indies were into making games that were about being fun, rather than about being impressive. Just like in the old days,” says Wilson. That style of game development resonated with him and his partners, and so they pounced on the opportunity to bring Hotline Miami to the market.

Hotline Miami came in via a suggestion by our new friends at Vlambeer at a time where Devolver still had very little money in the bank, and a couple of our founding partners actually invested their own personal money, back pay that Devolver owed them if we ever could afford to pay it, to sign the game,” says Wilson.

In hindsight, it was probably the best investment the company ever made, but at the time there were no guarantees of recouping the money.

“While several of us were very hopeful about the game's potential, no one could have predicted how big a moment that game's launch and success would be not only for Devolver but for the modern indie scene in general.”

Hotline Miami’s smash success in 2012 paid back the investment with what one can safely suggest was a handsome profit. More importantly, it also paved the way for a small revolution.

“Hotline Miami’s success meant that people — a lot of people — were willing to pay good money for these 'simple' pixel art games, which had often been offered for free in the years preceding it," says Wilson. "And the Game Of The Year nomination meant that everyone was suddenly paying attention.”

The guys at Devolver were at the forefront of this new movement, and made sure to not waste the opportunity.

“We continued to grow very slowly and methodically, committed to keeping the team very lean and nimble, just like this new wave of indie developers. Our goals remained the same, as they do now: to work with the best indies around the world and sort of redefine success as a publisher, without growing too big just for the sake of growing.”

“There was and is no ‘exit strategy' for us, nor for the vast majority of the developers we work with.”

Lightning strikes twice

Hotline Miami’s success allowed Devolver to branch out and take even more risks. That approach brought the company a slew of hits. Most of them perhaps haven’t been as visible or influential as Hotline Miami, but an independent publisher needs a steady supply of well-received, commercially successful games to stay in business and make money. And Devolver has had plenty of those.

“The entire Serious Sam series still dominates our catalogue,” says Wilson, kicking off the list of consistent moneymakers.

“Dodgeroll's Enter the Gungeon is also a huge one for us and the Shadow Warrior reboot titles have been a success as well,” he says. The bulk of Devolver’s business stems from the PC market (more on that coming up), but Wilson and co. always look for new opportunities as well.

“And then there's the mobile side of things, where the Reigns series and Downwell have proved that premium mobile can still be very successful, and have got us looking much more seriously at that market.”

And last but not least: “the exquisite The Talos Principle, which is also from Croteam, and which a lot of people don't even associate with Devolver” says Wilson. “It's been perhaps our most successful game, in terms of both revenue and critical acclaim, before SCUM came out.”

SCUM was released this past summer in Steam Early Access and, as the title suggests, marked Devolver’s triumphant return to the top of the charts and headlines. SCUM is very Devolver: controversial, visceral, appearing seemingly out of nowhere and scratching an itch other games do not.

SCUM was another example of us having high hopes for a game, but never imagining the level of success it has found so quickly,” says Wilson, comparing the situation with Hotline Miami. “No one truly knows what will resonate at that level until the game is out there; otherwise, everything would be a big hit.”

The key to success, according to Wilson, is quite simple in theory but not easy to achieve in practice.

SCUM is just a really well-executed vision in a genre that a lot of gamers hunger for more quality games in. But everyone tries to do that and it's impossible to predict such a lightning strike.”

Wilson is full of affection for the Croatian outfit that bottled such lightning. “Gamepires has a brilliant future ahead of them, and we're very proud to have been part of their first big success.”

And did SCUM’s success have any long-term lessons for Devolver?

“I'm not sure it will change how we do anything, other than having to learn more about supporting such a game and developer post-launch,” says Wilson. But he's more than happy to have Devolver’s fortunes intertwined with yet another studio from Croatia: “It has further cemented our 17-year love affair with Croteam and their Croatian indie brethren.”

Work hard, play hard

Devolver walks the tightrope of mocking the industry it is a part of. The company’s fictional CFO Fork Parker doesn’t pull any punches against the corporate greed on Twitter, and once a year Devolver ruthlessly deconstructs the sterile medium of an E3 press conference on a big stage. Is Wilson at all concerned about alienating the industry Devolver operates in?

“We are much more comfortable operating on the periphery of the industry than in the middle of it. It has always been our way.”

“I think the consistent quality of our games and our reputation for treating developers with kindness and respect demonstrate to our industry partners and gamers that our jibes are all in good fun," says Wilson. "We love games and we love the industry, but it's important to remember to laugh at ourselves. Being so serious in an industry that should be all about fun doesn't make much sense to us.”

“Work hard, play hard, enjoy the fact that we're not in the pharmaceutical industry or something awful like that.”

How does Devolver find the developers they want to work hard and play hard with? What are they looking for?

“It's a cliche, but passion and originality, as well as realistic budgets and scope, along with a solid demo, are what gets us going consistently,” says Wilson.

“Even our smallest games mean a multi-year relationship with the developers behind them, so it's important to also want to work together under conditions of transparency and mutual respect, even though we defer all final decisions to the developers that we sign.”

That last part deserves extra attention. Giving full creative freedom to the developers is an uncommon policy, but one Devolver makes a real point of enforcing. Do they ever regret it?

“I mean... it can be frustrating at times to have your input not taken to heart, especially when working with a brand new team, but the dangers of people who have never actually made a game themselves wielding too much power in a creative endeavour are much riskier,” Wilson says.

“When we decide to put our trust into a team, we really commit to it. Otherwise, it becomes a slippery slope of how much influence to exert, which only results in a more strained, resentful relationship.”

“Our team is completely wrong just as often as the developers are, so we think it just makes the most sense to defer to the people actually working their asses off to make the games. Consequently, our input and feedback are usually taken into account anyway, because there is a trust established in that ultimate deference of power.”

No lottery tickets

“Dating back to when we were Gathering of Developers, the PC market has always been where we and our developers have found the most success,” Wilson says about Devolver’s commitment to the PC market. “No matter how many times it was pronounced that ‘PC is dead’, that audience is still there, and still interested in more unique and sometimes more in-depth experiences than in the more mainstream-oriented console world.”

Wilson knows who to thank for the PC market proving the naysayers wrong and surviving.

“It cannot be overstated how much Valve's commitment to Steam has been crucial to keeping the PC market alive and well globally. We likely wouldn't still be in the business without them, as the retail world was pretty dirty, always making you chase down your money from a series of middlemen if you were lucky enough to have some success.”

While Steam was important to Devolver’s survival, the company wouldn’t be around in 2018 without taking some big bets other publishers wouldn’t take. But are there bets Devolver won’t make? Are there games it won’t invest in?

“We've steered clear of the F2P market to date, because there are a lot of gross things about that side of the business in our opinion — and to many of our developers — but as more and more people find ways to be successful in that market while maintaining creative and business integrity, I can't say we'll never try those models,” says Wilson.

“We also don't go after huge budget productions, as that's not our wheelhouse. We feel like indies can be the most successful when they keep costs under control so that they can do well without their games being mainstream hits,” he adds. “We don't buy lottery tickets, never expect a hit, and even our biggest titles are not really known in the mainstream.”

It's a set of principles that, so far, have worked out very well indeed.

“We do fine, and many of our developers have become very successful with this model, without having to dumb down their creative vision because of focus groups or whatever. We don't wish to operate in the world where a team that delivers a fantastic game after years of hard work immediately have to be laid off because the game didn't sell five million copies and their overhead is too high to be sustainable.”

And what’s Wilson’s day-to-day like now?

“I'm personally focused on trying to remind us of who we are and to have fun with what we are doing. Which isn't hard with this team of weirdos,” laughs Wilson. “I'm in a constant state of disbelief about how solid our team is and how many projects they can juggle while maintaining a strong level of quality and strong personal relationships with the developers.”

What he says next resonates powerfully in an industry where, post-Red Dead Redemption 2, there are serious questions about the culture of crunch at large studios.

“I fill in gaps where I can, such as project managing Weedcraft, Inc, since the tycoon genre is a new one for Devolver. I try to make sure everyone is doing OK workload-wise and living well.  Because if we're not living well and keeping it weird... then what's the point?”