Interview: Graeme Struthers (Devolver Digital)
With the big three missing from PAX this year the biggest publisher in the main hall was Devolver Digital. Decked out with a red carpet and couches for people to sit on as they played demos of Angry Foot and Gunbrella, the Devolver booth was hard to miss and lives up to their reputation as being the ‘out there’ publishing house that they are. Among the Devolver team present at PAX this year was Graeme Struthers, Head of Publishing, keen to check out what Australia’s indy developers have to offer. And amongst all of this I was lucky enough to sit down with him for a chat about what they look for in games, a possible Monkey Island sequel and PAX in general.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Shaun Nicholls – Have you had a chance to check out any of the indy games here at PAX? Are there any that have caught your eye so far?
Graeme Struthers – So, I’m here with JR (Jonathan Rosales, Director of Publishing) from Devolver and so he’s been out looking and I’ve been out looking and this afternoon we are going to get together and go and see if what we’ve both been looking at is the same thing. I was saying to Doug (Douglas Morin, CEO of Devolver), what I find interesting here is the variety of games and genres. There’s quite a few projects that are squarely aimed at family and I think that’s really cool, but you’ve got from the family-friendly all the way to, let’s say the more traditional core PC games. It’s great, really good and there’s a lot, so it’s impressive. Again, following on that, is that we have been doing PAX Australia, this is our fourth or fifth time and that scene has been growing exponentially. So seeing it now, it’s great to see.
SN – Cult of the Lamb has been a massive hit. You’re publishing The Plucky Squire. What is Devolver seeing in the market that speaks to you as a company?
GS – For Devolver, kind of our lifeblood has been doing events. That’s how we would get games that we were already working on in front of media, in front of consumers. They have always been the bedrock of our company. We started coming here, I think it was 2016/2017, and initially, we were coming to show games and to meet Australian media, but very quickly we started to see the same indy dev scene that we had seen in places like Seattle, Boston and London. And then of course this industry, even if you think about how far Australia is from everywhere else, it’s still hyper-connected. You mentioned Plucky Squire. Bids (Jonathan Biddle, co-founder of All Possible Futures), is originally English, got married to an Australian girl and moved down here. He’s already made connections into the dev scene here, so you start to get feedback from him saying “you should check this out, have you heard about this game?” It’s kind of organic in that sense but what we have seen here particularly is a big growth in the number of indy developers and I guess that’s helped by government or state funding at some levels.
SN – In Victoria, yes, Victoria has always been pretty strong. Federally, there has not been much until very recently and I know some states now are putting stuff together to try and boost that and recognise it. We did have some big studios going, but that all ended up shuttering down and it’s just been the smaller dev scene, but Melbourne has definitely been the ‘it’ town for the scene in Australia but that is starting to change.
GS – Yes. And I assume the success of Massive Monster is going to help raise the profile more and probably give those State funders more and more confidence at that level of success.
P2 – You have had Anger Foot and Gunbrella on show over the weekend. What has been the response from attendees towards these games?
GS – Really good. Anger Foot, we have been working with Free Lives, the developer, for probably it must be 7,8,9 years now. We started with Broforce, and their creative twists and turns are fascinating to me. They went from Broforce, then they did Genital Jousting. They did Gorn which is a VR game and then Cricket Through The Ages which was an Apple Arcade game and now Anger Foot and soon Terra Nil. When I look at their creative output it’s really interesting the direction. They keep changing direction but Anger Foot is also one of those games you can pick up, it’s really easy to pick up and play, which is maybe a feature of Free Lives.
Gunbrella, we have been working with the developer. They (Doinksoft) previously did Gato Roboto which was published a couple of years back and this is a new game but feels like it is in the same kind of wheelhouse, sort of like Super Nintendo, but both are going over really well. The demo’s on the Steam Next Fest are also going really well.
P2 – Monkey Island getting a new instalment from Ron Gilbert was a ray of light in the dark covid times and it has been critically acclaimed. If Ron comes to you and says “I am going to do another one”, will you be happy to continue publishing Monkey Island?
GS – Wow, so I never even thought about that eventuality. The backstory there is that Nigel Lowrie, who is head of all our marketing and PR (and also one of the co-founders of Devolver), all the clever stuff, is a massive Monkey Island fan and Andrew Parsons, our head of production, is a massive Monkey Island fan. So this was really their project and Nigel just happened to bump into Ron at an event, I think it might have been PAX but I’m not sure, and just basically said: “if we could find a way would you?” And I get the impression it was always like there’s no way you could get access to the IP, so I’ll say yes, and then Nigel somehow, and I’ll be honest I was completely blown away when he did manage to pull it all together. So is there another Monkey Island, I don’t know. Would we be up for it? I think we would, we really enjoyed the experience, and the game has gone over really well. I don’t know if those guys have any plans in that direction but it’s been really successful so that might encourage them.
SN – Are there any specific devs that you are keeping an eye on or looking to work with, not necessarily here at PAX, but just in general?
GS – We always have our eyes open, not specifically targetted at any one particular developer but we are always looking for what’s happening here and in other markets because the thing about the indy space is it’s ever-evolving and doesn’t stand still for very long and we have been paying a bit more attention to VR because Gorn was hugely successful. It might be a small install base but it seems to be a very active one. I guess we are still very much wide-eyed and looking for the next thing as well as working on the projects we already have lined up. I am looking forward to this afternoon and getting back around the indy booths.
SN – Devolver has always stood apart from most publishers, in just being really out there in comparison. At the beginning of Devolver was that always the plan or is it something that has just evolved and come into being over time?
GS – I think if you met the nefarious people behind Devolver, they’re a pretty irreverent bunch. Hard-working? Yes. Love what they do? Absolutely. But we tend to take the piss out of each other pretty mercilessly and what I have always loved about our company is that if you were sitting around with a group of us you wouldn’t know who was a developer and who was a Devolver. We tend to have close relationships and a lot of them is based on taking the piss if I can be honest. And I think Nigel, the person who is behind all of those amazing press conferences, most of what he is doing is a gentle kind of dig in the ribs in the industry or trends, like NFTs, loot boxes and things like that. It’s a gentle dig at the industry in which we work. We don’t take ourselves terribly seriously and hopefully, that does come across. We have the best jobs in the world, so we should be seen to be having a good time doing those jobs. I get to come to places like this, which for a British person is where you pay to come on vacation. I get to come here for work, so how lucky am I?
SN – Is there anything specific that you would like to talk about?
GS – The thing with Massive Monster and its success, I hope it does not only inspire other developers to have a go, although there seems to be quite a lot of other good devs here already, hopefully, it does encourage the Victorian State government to continue funding because it really makes a difference. It’s hard, especially geographically, it is hard to get attention so getting devs on planes to GDC where they can pitch other publishers is really important and they should take heart from the success of Cult of the Lamb and do more.
SN – Thanks for your time Graeme, we hope to see you next year.
GS – Thank you