MCV has a chat with Devolver Digital co-founders Graeme Struthers and Harry Miller about the firm’s recent success stories, the evolution of its strategy and its infamous imaginary CFO
This year has been ridiculously busy and ridiculously successful for Devolver Digital. Serious Sam VR titles, Strafe, Gorn, Absolver, Ruiner, The Talos Principles, High Hell, Reigns: Her Majesty, Stories Untold… All these games (and more) released this year, winning accolades and collecting critical acclaim.
Not content with being universally praised, most of these indie gems were also big commercial successes, starting with martial arts title Absolver. The Sloclap-developed game became Devolver’s biggest ever launch back in August and shifted 250,000 copies in under a month, making it Devolver’s fastest selling title.
The indie publisher’s partnership with Sloclap finds its roots as far back as 2015 when the studio, founded by former Ubisoft Paris employees, had just started working on the title.
“We saw some clips of Absolver two years ago and we reached out to [creative director] Pierre Tarno as he was going to be in London. So myself and [Devolver producer] Andrew Parsons went to meet him to see a demo of the game,” Devolver’s co-founder Graeme Struthers recalls. “We really liked what we were seeing, the art style is pretty different to everything else we’ve seen. And then we introduced Pierre to [Devolver’s co-founder] Harry Miller because it was a big project, bigger than the kind of things we often do, to see what we could bring together.”
"You could play it and it was fun, unique, great art. Easy choice really"
Needless to say Devolver was right about the potential of the project and its scale. Miller remembers Absolver being an absolute no-brainer: “[Sloclap] made it easy on us because the quality was already there. You could play it and it was fun, unique, great art. Easy choice really.”
Absolver even got a limited physical release, which remains unusual for Devolver – the publisher has ‘Digital’ in its name after all. There were precisely 3,250 physical collector’s editions per platform up for grabs, and that brief incursion into physical releases worked very well, Struthers tells us:
“We looked at the market, we looked at what other companies were doing and what had been going on in our space for the past five to six years and the idea of doing limited runs was very appealing because the hardcore fans are interested. It’s worked really well, it’s been a big success.”
Another area in which Devolver has seen success this year is with its films division, which released a Call of Duty documentary a few weeks ago (simply called CODumentary) looking back at the evolution of the hit franchise.
“Devolver Films has released a lot of movies, about 70-ish, and I think it’s safe to say the projects that have done the best have had a game angle, and obviously Call of Duty fits nicely into that,” Struthers says. “Those kind of projects have been fantastic on Steam so obviously we’re interested in that type of content.”
The aforementioned success stories are only the tip of the iceberg, as Devolver has been experiencing a massive boom in the past few years, which can be traced back to the successful launch of Hotline Miami in 2012.
“Since we started the company, every year has been bigger,” Struthers says, with Miller adding: “This year we had kind of a slow start, with fewer games in the first six months. Next year is going to be very big for us.”
Among the titles lined-up for next year, Struthers mentions Onebitbeyond’s The Swords of Ditto and Fourattic’s Crossing Souls, both of which have already generated an incredible buzz from their various preview events.
Devolver’s distinctive marketing strategy also has a lot to do with its titles being visible before they even launch. From the uncanny (and unforgettable) E3 ’conference’ this year to its fictional CFO Fork Parker or its press releases mocking the standards of the sector, the indie label has crafted a unique approach to PR.
“PR is a very important part of Devolver, perhaps the most important part of marketing for us,” Miller readily confirms.
Struthers continues: “The PR guys we work with and the big variety of games that we have – and this is not me making a lazy cheap shot against other companies – means they’re not really involved in the sequel machine, they’re getting fairly interested in the new games.
“The Devolver brand is lifted by all those individual games and we get the benefit of all of that. And when you’ve got Fork Parker in your life, you can be fairly irreverent about the industry you’re in.”
Devolver being indeed the irreverent company that we know, it makes it particularly difficult to have a serious look into the publisher’s strategy. So naturally, when we ask Struthers to tell us a bit more about the evolution of Devolver’s approach to publishing, he answers in a laugh: “You can’t even say that we had a strategy. So we still don’t really have one.”
"And when you’ve got Fork Parker in your life, you can be fairly irreverent about the industry you’re in"
He adds, more seriously: “I think we’ve got a lot of strong development partners that we’ve worked with for many years. So obviously it works for us and it works for them. We’ve added a few new teams [this year], Sloclap with Absolver, Raikon with Ruiner, and we hope it’ll lead to further partnerships. When we get together with other people, we like a good dynamic, a good relationship and we want to keep working together.”
Miller adds: “We look for opportunities. There’s no set genre we search for, if there’s a game that we think is unique and should be brought to the public then we go for it.”
However, if the core strategy hasn’t changed much since Devolver’s inception, the publisher has been looking more and more at ‘emerging’ markets.
“One thing that has been happening in the last three or four years is we’ve been trying to understand markets like, say, Russia, Japan, Korea and China – we’ve put a lot of effort into China in the last year,” Struthers explains.
“That’s not just localising, but also what kind of games may have appeal, how you present those games… Media varies hugely in some countries compared to other countries, so I think that’s probably the biggest change for us in the past four to five years.
“We’ll still make probably about eight to ten games in a year, sometimes a few more, but we’ve been focusing much more on China, how can we make those games visible in China. Same in Brazil, same in Korea. That’s a nice, interesting challenge.”