The Devolution Solution: How One Indie Publisher is Changing Gaming For the Better
Devolver Digital is a small and passionate team that just wants to put the best titles in front of the most people – it's really that simple.
"They signed off their first email to us with 'boners for life' – which helped immensely."
Roll7's Tom Hegarty, on his initial correspondence with publisher Devolver Digital
Devolver Digital is a six-man, fiercely independent publisher founded in 2009 whose titles likely need very little introduction, but if you need a 101, here's Wikipedia's list of what they've put out. Less known perhaps are the Austin, Texas-based company's indie film production and distribution arms, and a recently announced soundtrack distribution deal with Laced Music to officially spread the banging chiptune gospel. Celebrated by the developers they work with for an experimental, humanist modus operandi – inviting comparisons to Sub Pop and creator-owned comic publisher Image – Devolver clearly doesn't see barriers between industries, but opportunities.
And they're blazing a trail for a new generation of medium-agnostic producers to follow as they go.
Underpinning everything are eccentric, eclectic tastes. To wit: the 2.5D run'n'gunner Not a Hero; metaphysical spatial-puzzle game The Talos Principle (developed, weirdly, by the same team behind the Serious Sam franchise); insta-gib Shadow of the Colossus "demake" Titan Souls by Acid Nerve; the psychotropic Hotline Miami and its recent sequel replete with neon-drenched soundtrack; sci-fi survival strategy game Gods Will Be Watching; 2D skateboard rogue-like OlliOlli; motorbike-helmet-clad turn-based action-stealth-em-up Ronin... The list goes on (and gets increasingly surreal and entertaining to summarise). And that's just their games.
This diversity, combined with excellent merch (they're the exception that proves the rule) and their sardonic, debauched, supposedly fictional CFO Fork Parker, has imbued Devolver with a strong personality. It's something unusual for a publisher to command – can you imagine EA being self-referential, or Ubisoft sending out surreal, heavily tongue-in-cheek press releases? Not a chance. But even Devolver's own are quick to point out that their intentions were rather different from what they've become.
"The personality of Devolver has nothing to do with planning," explains company co-founder and CEO Graeme Struthers. "We are really terrible at planning! What you see is really is just a reflection of our beliefs. We have somehow managed to luck out and do things the way we always wanted to – and we have met so many talented artists who have trusted us to work with them. That's really what allows our little bandwagon to keep going forward."
Tom Hegarty of London indie studio Roll7 – read more about them here – tells me that it's the faith that the publisher has in its creative partners that really makes the deal a sweet one. "They put 100% trust in the developer," he says. "Devolver have given us huge creative freedom." Hegarty also confirms the existence of "the Devolver factor" in modern indie gaming: "We saw the power of the Devolver brand as a massive plus point – they help us get the Roll7 name out there way more than we could on our own."
But if no actual planning goes into Devolver's presentation of themselves as a force for good in the gaming industry, what does bind the titles they choose to publish together? On a surface level, you can look to the art of each release and conclude that they've a love of pixels. Their releases also tend to have amazing soundtracks, feature jaw-grindingly difficulty levels, and can arrive bearing bucket-loads of satirical ultra-violence. For Struthers, that games-bonding glue is easy to define: "Do we want to play it? Do we think the people behind the game are going to enjoy being part of our wee thing, and can we all enjoy the journey from the idea to the reality?"
This sentiment is one echoed by visionary publishers in any medium, those who stick to their integrity however much it blinds them to risk. Speaking of which, whereas music, literature and film are struggling with piracy and the strangleholds of iTunes and Amazon, Valve's Steam store really levels the gaming playing field. It means that, as Struther tells me, "niche is no longer any kind of barrier – you always have a chance of finding the people who will fall in love with Gods Will Be Watching, Always Sometimes Monsters or Hatoful Boyfriend" (you can read more on the latter bizarro pigeon dating sim thing, here). As Devolver expands further, into film and beyond, their partnerships with the likes of Laced will be crucial in maintaining this human-centric vision.
Why now, though, for this link up between games and music? "I guess we have a generation of musicians who grew up playing games and love the culture of gaming, and are now being let loose in the indie scene," Struthers summarises. "It's great to see music is high on the list of priorities among all the teams we work with."
It's a prescient point that Devolver is well poised to capitalise on, with the added benefit of providing a more dedicated platform for the new wave of game-music composers. Still, is there any danger of them running afoul of the issues that the music and film industries are currently mired in, awash in a Tidal wave of ineptitude and moral depravity?
"I don't know much about how those [other] industries work," Struthers continues. "They seem overly complicated. In the end, you have an artist, an engaged audience and a huge desire from that audience to be able to enjoy the artists work."
Struthers makes it sound so simple, and hell, it just might be. The games industry isn't perfect but it's growing, maturing, and unlike its cousins in film, music and literature, there is unparalleled opportunity for indies and young talent to find and develop audiences. Perhaps that's why Devolver's gung-ho eclecticism, pseudo-political DIY marketing campaigns and transparency equate to an almost label-like personality. In typically self-effacing fashion however, Struthers counters: "We don't have a label identity – maybe that's who we are, people who just stay out of the way!"
So what's the most important thing the Devolver team has learned from their roots in games as they head towards pan-cultural domination? "It doesn't feel like the games industry – it feels like a culture," Struthers says. Perhaps for all our headlong rush into increasingly complex technology, what's most important is devolving and getting back to humanistic basics. The alternative is ending up like Fork Parker, whose "belief in money being the only way to truthfully value your life vs other people is unshakable", and who just maybe exists to make sure nobody at Devolver can ever fill his gator-leather shoes.
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