Interview – Graeme Struthers: Founding Partner of Devolver Digital
Devolver Digitial is one of the true success stories in gaming. Coming from nowhere, their unique take on indie publishing and humorous marketing has given them a huge following of devoted fans and a reputation for releasing quirky, original and highly polished games. Hope Corrigan was lucky enough to sit down and have a chat with one of Devolver’s founding partners, Graeme Struthers and this is what he had to say.
What’s your favourite Devolver game? And yes, you have to pick one.
If I’m going to pick one game it’s the game I can actually play from start to finish and that’s Broforce. Most Devolver games are too hard for an old person like me.
What makes a Devolver game? Do they have to be difficult or is there any specific criteria?
It seems that way, doesn’t it? No, do you know we talk about this a lot because we get asked that question a lot and we actually don’t have an answer for everyone? Except I think it’s basically most times when a game – like when someone in a team will send you a game like a demo to pick up and play. I would say that pretty much what they all have in common is within about five or ten minutes you actually are already into the key gameplay loop. You can sense – you kinda like “Ok I get it, I know what I’m doing here” so I think that’s the only thing they have in common is that something about the core gameplay loop is very intuitive.
What about being Quirky? I have this vision in my mind of someone pitching a really normal game and Devolver turning it down because it’s not weird enough.
God, I’ve never thought of that. Is that how we are? I don’t know I don’t think so. How we work truthfully is like if a game comes in and someone in the crew – like the first person to start with it and they like it and they share it. Once it’s shared we will gather around and have a quick conversation. Just to understand exactly where the game is, how big is the team, how long is going to take, how much is it going to cost, right? Generally speaking what happens is that you don’t question the game itself cause you’re already “yeah I’m in, I like it, what’s next?” And there’s never been a conversation about a game being too normal or is it normal enough, or not normal. I don’t know. No.
There has to be a degree of Marketability though?
Yes, I agree. I agree. But It’s not the kinda conversation you have at the start. I’m always surprised where Nigel takes the marketing anyway. You know, I never know what he’s going to do with a game. I’m always impressed. The man has talent.
I understand Devolver only chooses to take on a small number of projects?
Well, there’s only 14 of us and we are scattered all over the world. There’s no Devolver office. So we’ve kinda limited ourselves and I would say that’s been a good thing that we’ve never tried to grow the company or thought about how we get to scale up. Even saying that sentence makes me feel ill. So we can only do so many games. I mean the one thing that the developer wants from you is your attention and to feel that you actually care as much about this as they do. And if you start adding too many things, that is going to disappear quite quickly.
Speaking of care, Dave Crooks (Enter the Gungeon game director) described the care he and Dodge Roll experiences from Devolver. Is it something that you pride yourselves on?
It’s who we are, rather than an affectation. If we’re working with people it’s because it’s the game they want to make but it’s the people behind the game who are super interesting for us. I don’t know if you’ve ever caught any of them but we do these little documentaries called Behind the Schemes cause we have the privilege of getting to know these people and often I think that’s the element that can be missing for the gamer. That they don’t really know much about the guys and girls who make the game. So we really want that opportunity to share that kind of relationship. It’s not an affectation it’s just who we are and we are a very strange group of human beings.
This isn’t exactly what you expect when you think of a publisher.
No. We probably avoid being called a publisher as much as we possibly can because it’s a term that conjures up sort of negative images rather than positive images.
If not a publisher, what would you call yourselves?
Production team? More like that, I think. I think I don’t know.
Devolver does a lot of violent or darker themed games. Hotline Miami 2 didn’t release in Australia, for example. Does this factor in when choosing or making games?
We were just talking about that. The violent thing is interesting because like Talos Principle is probably one of our most successful games. Hatoful Boyfriend does go dark, I mean there’s no question about that. I don’t think of us as being a company who specialises in violence. I guess I don’t know. Edgy I think?
I do consider the people we work with artists and they’re telling their stories the way we want to tell them. We stay out of the way of that, that’s their deal. We’re here to help on the production side, help guide them if they need it. But generally speaking, they tell their own stories. I can honestly say that often when we’re working on a project we do not know how it’s going to turn out either.
We trust them, you know? Obviously, we’ve got certain things that as human beings we’re not going to get involved in but with the people that we’re working with there’s a lot of trust and we’ve never been let down
What about censorship? The upcoming Weedcraft may not get passed some countries including Australia’s rating systems.
Same in France as well. French have got quite strong rules about what they consider to be the promotion of drug culture.
Weedcraft is set in North America and is examining how there are all these weird anomalies in America. You can be in Colorado where it’s legal to produce and sell and the adjacent state can have the same rules but if you take drugs from Colorado across the state line that’s a Federal offence.
I guess that’s the interesting thing that Weedcraft is trying to reflect, something that is really strange about how we view drugs. My own personal view on that is that I don’t see the point in fighting drugs because that’s been lost already. In London, there was a gathering of investment bankers and venture capitalists around the topic of marijuana cause they see the business in it.
Why found a company like Devolver?
I needed to make a job for myself because no one was going to hire me, pretty much. We’ve been around games for a long time and pretty much that was our conclusion that the only way we were going to have a job was to make our own jobs.
It really is that I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do. The first few years were pretty tough because we decided to go the route of no money which was a lot of fun for three years. The first years of Devolver I was doing freelance just to pay bills and Devolver was evenings and weekends. It stayed like that until the fourth year. It was just a case of the first few games were beginning to generate some money which enabled us to do a few more games. Then we tipped where there was enough revenue coming in to jump on board. That was when there was just the five of us. But I think we learned a lot also about the value of money at that point in our lives, you know it’s a precious commodity, nothing to be taken for granted. Next years’ our tenth year which is a surprise that we’ve managed to last this long because we are fundamentally quite stupid.
Honestly, this is the most fun you can have. We’re so lucky. You know, we talk about our lot like “Oh hey, we’re going to be in Melbourne for a few days, how dreadful is that. It’s awful. It’s the worst”. And also when we travel as a group of friends so you going to different countries but you’ve still got your mates with you. It’s pretty cool.
I’ve heard that Devolver was working on expanding into film?
Well, we did. Mike one of the founders has also made a few documentaries and a couple of features. We’re going back quite a while now, with his last movie he was out on the circuit promoting indie films. He met a lot of people like himself who were beginning to see the end of their opportunity to make any kind of a living out of it because of Netflix.
One of the downsides of subscriptions for small companies is you can just get lost. So Mike thought, “well why don’t we try to do Devolver film and try to bring together a bunch of filmmakers.” And we tried and it’s something that sadly it’s probably not going to last much longer. There just doesn’t seem to be anywhere indie filmmakers. There isn’t a Steam for them which is kinda sad really.
Planning on starting one?
Oooh! No. I don’t think we have the skill set for that. In fact, I know we don’t have the skill set for that.
What happens when a game performs badly?
Fortunately for us, that’s a question we’ve yet to answer. So we’ve been in a really lucky position where the projects have done well and you know what, the best feeling is when a lot of the teams we’re working with don’t need us anymore. Their games have been so successful that they actually do not require Devolver to be in their lives anymore. So if they’re still working with us there must be another reason than just money.
Tell us a bit about My Friend Pedro.
It’s made by one guy in Sweden. He’s very tall and he likes bananas. So that’s pretty much the elevator pitch for his game. That kinda was his elevator pitch to us. But it’s coming out on Nintendo and PC hopefully at around about March. We’ve been around our developers for a long time and we know they’re not reliable on dates.
That’s not true, François who made Reigns, right? When he pitched us the game he said “It’ll be done in six months” and we were like “ok” and he said because his wife had said it had to be finished before she gave birth. He finished the game five days before he became a father. That was actually right on time.
So we’re looking for developers who have really hard deadlines. [laughs]
Before you go, I want your opinions on crunch, microtransactions, and games as a service.
[joking] I mean, we like all of those things if it makes us money.
No, but seriously we don’t encourage people to ruin their lives and there’s a degree of – you know when you’re a kid and you had homework and some of us would do it over time and some of us would wait until the last few hours? That’s partly human nature and I think there’s a big difference between what we do and what big companies do.
I think if you own a studio you’re negligent if you’re pushing your people into that lifestyle. If you’re working with independent developers you have to take care of them and you have to point out to them that they’re beginning to tip into unhealthy practices. So we always keep an eye out for that and we always try to encourage people to get outside, take time out, relax. Generally, that leads to better games, so that’s our opinion.
Microtransactions, candidly, we don’t really get into the free-to-play space so we don’t really know much about it so that’s why we stay out of it. The whole games as a service thing is interesting because what that means to me is that a game after launch needs to be maintained. I think Gungeon is a great example of doing that without dipping into the pockets of the people who bought the game in the first place. It’s a balance and I think if you don’t feel good about what you’re doing you shouldn’t do it. So find your moral core.