"I was so fed up of people telling us we should do free-to-f***ing-play"
Devolver's Graeme Struthers celebrates the defeat of the console naysayers
Devolver's stand at E3 isn't front and centre in one of the main halls, despite the fact that the nine game line-up would make it one of the best populated if it were. Instead, it's in a Hooters' carpark across the road from the LA convention centre: a corral of burnished Airstream trailers horseshoed around a huge gazebo offering shade from the blazing California sun. There's a food truck dishing out incredible BBQ and free beer.
It's pretty popular.
It's also massively relaxed. I get trolled by the security at the gate as I come in - wound up mercilessly by two men in uniform for a good five minutes before they collapse into laughter and easy grins and usher me towards the shimmering column of deliciously scented air which hovers above the BBQ trailer. They recommend the brisket sandwich and the Boston beans. I'm told, with an uncertain degree of seriousness, that the entire set-up cost less than one of the huge, field-sized posters draped on the outside wall of the conference itself.
Each of the nine trailers here hosts a game and its developer - one screen, one coder. PR staff are dotted around, and potter about helpfully, but they're there to make sure everyone is fed, watered and happy with the access they're getting. They find me space in the caravans for a few hands on demos, but then they immediately disappear - they're not there to mediate, to censor or clock watch - once you're in a room with the game and the developer, they're happy to leave you to sort things out amongst yourselves.
It's a refreshing approach. In most of the interviews I've been in, there's at least one PR keeping a watchful eye. It's not bad practice - everyone has a managed schedule of information release which has to be adhered to - but it does change the atmosphere, and I often sense that the interviewees can find it just as restrictive as the interviewer. Devolver is happy to let its developers take responsibility for themselves, and it's an ethos which permeates the publisher as a whole.
"Ironically, given that I'm doing this interview, we don't really push the Devolver thing at all," says Graeme Struthers, Code Enforcement Officer and 1/6th of Devolver. "It doesn't feel to us like it's got any real value. I think when you deal with press, they shouldn't be interested in us, they should be interested in the games. Liz, who does PR for us in the US, we don't get between her and the press. If she wants to put someone directly in touch with a dev, we don't even necessarily know about it.
"This isn't any sort of pitch but Devolver is six people. We don't see it as a brand or that we have any particular values to be promoted, we're all friends who've worked with each other before. There are no plans whatsoever to increase staff, this is as big as it gets for us, there's no plans to change that. This is our living, it's what we love. There's nothing to sell. I hope that's why the developers like being around us, that what we're interested in is them.
"This is our living, it's what we love. There's nothing to sell. I hope that's why the developers like being around us, that what we're interested in is them"
"It's just you and the the developers, there's no crowd control, no spun messages. You can just talk to them and they can answer whatever they want."
It works. Devolver is the indie publisher du jour, home to a catalogue which would be the envy of many a larger company. At this E3 alone they're showcasing platform shooters like BroForce; the way-too-cool-for-any-school Hotline Miami 2; a beautiful roguelike boss-fighting adventure game called Titan Souls; The Talos Principle, a first-person puzzler from the Serious Sam developers Croteam and the frankly insane high school pigeon dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend, just to name a few. It's undoubtedly the most eclectic collection of titles I've ever seen curated by any one team. I ask Struthers if there's a defining element.
"I'm not being evasive, but I really don't think we have one at all," he admits. "When we did Serious Sam we did three indie games - we gave the IP to indie developers to see what they wanted to do with it. That's how we met Vlambeer, how we met Mommys Best Games. From that point we were introduced to Jonatan and Dennis, who were working on what became Hotline Miami. I think we earned some trust when we did the Serious Sam games.
"We all play a lot of games, and we all go off in a lot of different directions, but we tend to be on the peripheral side of things. I don't play FIFA, Call of Duty etc - I've always been a PC gamer. When we got in touch with Jonatan and Dennis, who became Dennaton, we discovered we'd already been playing some of the games Jonatan had released as Cactus."
Struthers might know the scene he works in inside out, but he's not strutting his coolier-than-thou hipster credentials by name-checking edgy developers. He's well aware that he's got some evangelists spreading the word on his behalf.
"Without the introduction from Vlambeer I don't know if we'd ever have even got to that game," he says of Hotline Miami. "That's kind of what's happened. Every game that we've done has led us to other people that developer knows. Everything on this lot, with the exception of Talos and Hatoful Boyfriend has been put in front of us by a developer that we've been working with, they've recommended us to them."
Devolver's first game, and its best selling IP, is Croteam's Serious Sam, an anything-but serious shooter which has branched out into side-scrolling shooters and a turn-based RPG - the game which brought Devolver and Vlambeer together. Sam was an already established IP, but Devolver's co-founders had already had a hand in its growth.
"The ethos of Gathering of Developers was kind of the opposite of most other companies of that time: that developers should always retain their own IP, that it was never a deal point"
"When we were Gathering of Developers, when Mike and Harry who founded the company, Croteam was one of the developers which was part of that. The ethos of GoD was kind of the opposite of most other companies of that time: that developers should always retain their own IP, that it was never a deal point. So all those Gathering developers had their own IP. When the idea of Devolver was forming, we reached back out to all those developers because we knew they could bring that IP with them - that they'd retained all the rights. Croteam were keen - we'd obviously not annoyed them that much, because they let us back in. To me, they're the foundation that the company is based on. I'm very thankful for that."
That foundation is proving to be quite the springboard. Devolver was one of the featured developers in Sony's indie-rich showcase during its high-powered E3 press conference, heralding a deal which expands the publisher's deal with the platform holder considerably. I ask Struthers if he can expand on the details.
"At the conference we had Not a Hero, BroForce, Titan Souls, Hotline Miami 2 and the Talos Principle, so that's essentially it. There's other things that they're talking about that they'd like us to get involved in. We're fully engaged with Microsoft as well, though. They've come back from last year having taken a few kicks.
"There's something I'd stress about both of those companies. They might seem like huge, faceless companies but to us they're individuals. Shahid, Lorenzo, they play our stuff, sometimes even before we make them, they'll sign stuff they already know about. Mark Maslowicz at Microsoft is basically the same. They're just nice people who play games. I'm going to hazard a guess that this is all quite liberating for them, too, quite a relief. Not to have to go through layer upon layer of bureaucracy and PR."
Devolver's natural home isn't on console, though - it's on PC. That's probably not going to change radically, but Struthers is unequivocal in his support of the success of both PlayStation and Xbox. Readers of a less robust disposition should probably look away now.
"The other thing I really like about what they've done is, thank fuck, I was so fed up of people telling us we should do free-to-fucking-play, in-app-fucking purchases, whatever the fuck that is, and that consoles were dead. So fuck all of those people and their fucking shitty stance. I don't really engage a lot with the industry, but I went to one of these BAFTA things and these people were lecturing the audience about why we should all be going in that direction. I was sat there thinking 'fuck you'.
"I was so fed up of people telling us we should do free-to-f***ing-play, in-app-f***ing purchases, whatever the f*** that is, and that consoles were dead. So f*** all of those people and their f***ing shitty stance. Consoles aren't dead."
"Consoles aren't dead. I still find that there's a thing when you sit down and turn on your console, that's a different experience to any other. So hats off to them, consoles are good for all of us."
I heartily agree, albeit in less forceful language, and we both recognise that free-to-play isn't inherently wrong, evil or doomed to failure. What rankles us both is the idea that it's a zero-sum game between that model and the console market. Speaking of the sector, I proffer the idea that the Vita has been a tremendous boost to the fortunes of Devolver and the indie scene in general.
"I think it's It's the other way around actually. Without the indies that thing would be gathering dust," he laughs, with obvious affection. "No, we start off with PC every time. It's PC and Steam. Without Steam we don't exist. Even if we blow up and are successful on Microsoft and Sony, even if they get really big in the indie scene it still wouldn't get anywhere near what Steam represents, so PC is our priority, every single time. Also, GoG are a great partner, as are Humble.
"So the console stuff is great, don't get me wrong, but the core is always going to be the PC. It's great that Sony has started that ball rolling through Shahid's group."
That street works both ways, we agree. With AAA pipelines still somewhat clogged on the new-gen, quickfire indies can really help to populate a catalogue.
"There's also a lot of publishers out there that are realising that it takes a long time to get PS4 and Xbox One content working the way they want it to, so you see them signing up what's generally called indie games. It's a bit of a golden era I guess."
It might be the sunshine and the BBQ, but there's definitely a golden-era tinge to the atmosphere in the Devolver lot at the moment. There are bright stickers announcing 'game of the show' and 'best newcomer' awards slapped around the doors of every trailer, literal badges of honour from media outlets across the world. The great games keep coming, and coming fast. What's the secret?
"Our deals are really easy to understand: What's yours is yours," says Struthers. "It's your IP and your decision what you do with it. If Sony or Microsoft get in touch and say they want us to get involved with PS4 or Vita or XB1, the only person who can say yes to that is the developer, not us. Croteam is a good example of that: clearly we'd love Serious Sam 4, but when they said they wanted to do Talos, we didn't argue. You don't tell them what you'd prefer, the easier one with the ready made community, they can do what they want. I love that. We have zero involvement in the creative process. We don't milestone. We don't schedule. You do what you want to do and any advice you need from us, we'll help. It seems to work.
"We are not in any way, shape or form a necessity for anyone we work with. When you know that and recognise that there's nothing to pitch or sell, that's really quite liberating"
"We are not in any way, shape or form a necessity for anyone we work with. We are actually essentially pointless in that regard. When you know that and recognise that there's nothing to pitch or sell, that's really quite liberating. Some of these guys, inevitably, will move on - and that's fine - there's no ambition to tie them down. It seems to be working so far."
For someone so voluble, Struthers can also be the master of the understatement. June 26th, the day you're probably reading this, is Devolver's birthday. It's also somewhere around this date that the publisher is expected to hit a milestone of five million sales on Steam. Not bad for six guys who half expected to be unemployed by now.
"The sales target isn't actually that big a thing. I actually think that when Mike pointed out how long we'd been working on Devolver we were all a bit like 'really?' This is the longest we've managed to keep a company going, which is both reassuring and intimidating at the same time. We started with Serious Sam and that doesn't feel like five years ago. I can't imagine what it'd feel like doing it for another five years." He cracks another broad smile. "If we don't cock it up."