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"I was so fed up of people telling us we should do free-to-f***ing-play"

"I was so fed up of people telling us we should do free-to-f***ing-play"

Thu 26 Jun 2014 7:12am GMT / 3:12am EDT / 12:12am PDT
PublishingDevelopment

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."

1

Hotline Miami was Devolver's breakout new IP. Stylish, violent and with a banging soundtrack, the sequel promises to ruffle more than a few feathers.

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.

2

Hatoful Boyfriend. Yep.

"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."

3

As well as its own stable, Devolver also offered exhibition space to other indies like Action Henk, from RageSquid.

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."

21 Comments

Popular Comment
About Frak*ng time someone came out with it :)

Posted:2 months ago

#1

Alfonso Sexto
Lead Tester

806 636 0.8
Popular Comment
His words are not very prof... f*ck that! I'm a fan!

Posted:2 months ago

#2

Jim Webb
Executive Editor/Community Director

2,266 2,403 1.1
Popular Comment
Professionalism aside, he's on point and it is something many of us here have been saying all along.

Coexistence. Accept it.

Posted:2 months ago

#3

Greg Knight
Freelance Developer

56 49 0.9
Top bloke.

Posted:2 months ago

#4

Kingman Cheng
Illustrator and Animator

951 180 0.2
F***ing glad someone has spoken out about it!

Posted:2 months ago

#5
All us console folks coming out now eh :)

Posted:2 months ago

#6

Alex Hutchinson
Creative Director

19 38 2.0
Bravo, monsieur Struthers. Bravo.

Posted:2 months ago

#7

Andrzej Wroblewski
Localization Generalist

102 69 0.7
Free-to-play is just a natural step of customer-developer relations evolution due to the decline in games quality. Basically games that would be considered beta-stage at most in the 90's aren't worth a dime nowadays. So go ... you know what... yourself or do something that deserves my wallet's attention (addressed to all whom it SHOULD concern) ;-)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Andrzej Wroblewski on 26th June 2014 4:54pm

Posted:2 months ago

#8

James Berg
Games User Researcher

157 204 1.3
Very cool interview, and seems like a great bunch of folks. Looking forward to Hotline Miami 2, and Hatoful looks too hilarious to miss out on!

Posted:2 months ago

#9

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,174 1,124 0.5
This article reminds me of the wild Gathering of Developers setup they had outside E3 (back in what, 1999 or 2000?) with the free barbecue, beer and trailers with games and developers hanging out inside showing off their stuff.

"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."

THAT needs to be carved into huge stones and dropped onto a few corporate lawns, I think...

Posted:2 months ago

#10

Bonnie Patterson
Freelance Narrative Designer

159 431 2.7
It's wonderful that everybirdie will get to experience the audacious headtrip that is Hatoful Boyfriend. If you haven't seen Angie Gallant's notorious review, check it out at http://www.quartertothree.com/game-talk/showthread.php?67529-Hatoful-Boyfriend-A-dating-game-about-pigeons but be aware, it contains spoilers.

As for consoles, of course they aren't dead. I suspect that the style of games developed for the PC and the console will diverge greatly over the coming years, to capitalise on the different advantages the two offer. PC games have huge scope for modding, from fixes and official expansions to user-generated content, as well as being better suited for complex communications and interfaces. I've always been a PC person.

But my partner prefers consoles for one simple reason: after going through the huge hassle of obtaining a game (we live out in the sticks, so terrible broadband and miles from any shops), it should bloody work. It's going to be a while yet before the days of incompatible graphics cards, patches and failures to launch are forgotten, I think.

Posted:2 months ago

#11

Roberto Bruno
Curious Person

104 69 0.7
I'm not really into consoles that much.
I'm a PC person first and foremost so I perceive consoles mostly like some redundant hardware DRM gateway that forces you to play games that aren't on PC on it merely because of some arbitrary exclusivity.
It always feels to me like if I would be asked to buy a second (worse) television just to watch some specific TV channel.

That said, I also like games in pretty much every genre, so I still share his fierce stance against anyone preaching that "You should do this popular thing right now".
When it comes to free to play, in particular, I genuinely despise how aggressive monetization can get in the way of competent design... With ridiculous extremes like adding deliberate tedium to a game only to offer a loophole out of it through money milking.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Roberto Bruno on 27th June 2014 2:06am

Posted:2 months ago

#12

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,174 1,124 0.5
Popular Comment
Hey Roberto, as a journalist, you should be at least willing to discover the truth rather than let a biased opinion rule your roost. Consoles aren't a "redundant hardware DRM gateway that forces you to play games that aren't on PC on it merely because of some arbitrary exclusivity." In fact, some great PC ports have made it to console and turned some console gamers onto them (both Half-Life games, Deus Ex and older games like the Wing Commander series or even Wizardry ports all helped me turn some console friends onto those PC series).

At least you don't seem to be in the camp of those who believe consoles aren't important as PC in terms of gaming (or to quote too many of the "master race crowd, for" console kiddies"). I'd say the multiple millions of game systems sold in previous generations that were easier to set up and maintain over any high-end gaming rig shows that there are and were plenty of people who like that simplicity (no matter how much newer consoles break the experience up into PC-style waiting for updates, patching games on day one and other things that sometimes make things a bit annoying when they should be simpler thanks to technology moving forward)... :D

Posted:2 months ago

#13

Roberto Bruno
Curious Person

104 69 0.7
@Greg Wilcox: I have no idea what are you taking about.
I'm absolutely familiar with the truth; that's precisely why I say what I say.
I already own hardware that is far more powerful of anything I could get with a console, and a setup that makes me feel comfortable playing games, so to me the only use for a PS4 or XB1 is to have this little, under-performing box that runs games I could play in a far better shape on my PC, but it can't because of some silly, mandatory exclusivity.
I also DO own consoles, and I owned even more of them in the past, so it's not like I'm talking from an inexperienced standpoint.

And please, let's keep the "master race" crap outside. It's silly and it's pointless, not to mention no one actually believes that bullshit.
I'm not sure of how many realize that but the term was also invented by a console gamer (Yahtzee) to mock PC players, it wasn't the product of some superiority complex.
Many PC gamers simply embraced it in a self-derogatory, tongue-in-cheek manner.
Of course I'm sure there are also idiots who take it at face value, but I would be shoked if they were anything more than a sparse minority.

Posted:2 months ago

#14
Save the cheerleader, save the world

Posted:2 months ago

#15

Roberto Bruno
Curious Person

104 69 0.7
Hum?

Posted:2 months ago

#16

Kingman Cheng
Illustrator and Animator

951 180 0.2
It's a message from future Chee!

Posted:2 months ago

#17
It appears the folks at Devolver have mastered the word "FUCK"

Posted:2 months ago

#18

Jed Ashforth
Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group

107 178 1.7
A quick shout out for one of the less high-profile titles on there, maybe get it on a few more people's radar - I played 'Action Henk' at Shayla Games festival in Copenhagen last month for ages, thought it was brilliant. The coder, Roel, is a great guy, and has a really good eye for design and flow. Loved it.

Posted:2 months ago

#19

Adam Jordan
Community Management/Moderation

113 65 0.6
These "X is dead, long live X" things drive me nuts. Consoles will never die, PC will never die and so on. Sure they may be fazed out but there will always be a small group using old technologies.

I still remember people saying that the Dreamcast will die, that no one will play it after the announcement came from Sega that fateful day. Over 10 years later, there are still being bought, modded and played. I still have mine up and running and essentially there's a niche following even now.

Point is...anyone saying "X is dead" is a douche, plain and simple. It's an attention grabber and the sooner it gets stomped out, the sooner that people will realise that things will co-exist quite nicely. You will always have the fanboys shouting louder than the other, it's the way of life, competition and how we sell things but if "Consoles were really dead" then who would oppose the PC? If "PC was dead" who would oppose the consoles?

But this is why I am liking Devolver Digital more and more, they are catching my eye at every turn and I hope all upcoming publishers and even the veteran publishers take a note out of their book. WORK WITH your developers, let their creativity breathe, have confidence in them to create something that will not only be remembered positively but will put the names of your brands into the minds of others forever.

Starbreeze/Overkill and 505 Games is a great example of that. 505 Games gave Overkill freedom and they created Payday 2. My point is proven ;)

Posted:2 months ago

#20

Shane Sweeney
Academic

365 292 0.8
I look forward to the peak of this generation when PC gaming naysayers come out in droves.

No matter how much you point to every prior generation and its cycles people just don't learn.

Posted:2 months ago

#21

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