Devolver Digital has quickly become a universally recognized video game publisher since it was founded in 2009. Although the company spent its first three years focusing primarily on their Serious Sam franchise, in 2012 they began expanding their reach. They did this by helping independent developers ship their titles off to the masses. Since then, everything has spiraled out of control. Now they are regarded as one of the greatest indie publishers in the video game industry, with dozens of acclaimed titles under their belt, and with them, developers who have been given the chance of a lifetime.
Devolver’s long term success as a indie publisher was jumpstarted by the outrageous success of Hotline Miami. A game where you play as a random man being instructed by messages left on his answering machine to commit massacres against the Russian Mafia. The game is set in the 1980s and the entire world embodies this, from the music to the settings. It’s a surreal tale of a man wearing a chicken mask waging war against the mafia. All because his answering machine told him to. Hotline Miami sold nearly two million copies in six months time. An insanely impressive feat for an indie title. From then on, Devolver Digital truly embraced the potential of weird games becoming massive hits.
Standing Out From the Crowd
When it comes to the AAA status quo, change is slow. The industry goes through waves where certain mechanics, features, or even narrative forms take over. Look at Sony’s first party line up of exclusives for the PS2. Most of them are cartoon styled action platformers, or at least the major ones. There are some exceptions, but that trend of similarly styled exclusives also appeared with the PS4. Most of them are third person narrative heavy games that place compelling stories before gameplay. Many third party teams have also adopted this philosophy. Now games that come out that place gameplay above narrative are regarded as lesser games. Rage 2 is a wonderful example of this. A game that focuses on fun combat, instead of narrative, that has been written off by many critics.
But Devolver Digital actively goes against. From the beginning they have made it a priority not to sacrifice gameplay for storytelling. Instead of pressuring developers to fit inside of a box, they find those willing and wanting to break out of it. Devolver has proven themselves capable of finding quality games of all shapes, sizes, and styles.
The First Rebellion
The actions of the company in its entirety have also taken on this weird and rebellious personality. The company’s official CFO is a fiction character from the Serious Sam series. He even has his own Twitter account that is active to this day. Kinda weird, right?
If we outlaw lootboxes, only criminals will have lootboxes.
— Fork Parker (@ForkParker) May 8, 2019
But that’s tame compared to their E3 shows. Their first one was in 2017. From the get go it went against what publishers use E3 for. They didn’t share any information on any games. Instead they showed a skit. They used this skit to call out problems with AAA industry in a satirical fashion . The first one showed off a new form of micro-transactions where players could throw money at their screens to purchase items. From there they showed off the new “Earliest Access” pre-order format, that allows players to put their money towards games that haven’t entered production yet. They even continued this with their show in 2018, that time mocking loot boxes and crypto currency.
It’s a rather big gesture do this. It isn’t a few tweets mocking these aspects, it’s a pre-recorded, planned out video topping twenty minutes in length. While they may not directly call out anyone, it isn’t challenging to figure out what companies are responsible for the actions being made fun of.
The Second Rebellion
Another admirable move by Devolver Digital is how they have allowed anyone and everyone to both stream and monetize off of the games they publish. They went as far as creating an entire website dedicated to it. If you have a video game based Twitch, YouTube, or Instagram account, all you have to do is go here and enter your account name. Then you will receive written permission from Devolver Digital. Sure, it’s fairly useless since the only reason you would need it is if they went after you. But still, it’s the thought that counts.
Insert Evidence Here Please
Look at Enter the Gungeon, a twin-stick shooter with roguelike elements. The game is challenging with over the top combat. Everywhere there can be a gun related pun, there is one. If there isn’t one, then chances are you’re fighting something like a ripped humanoid bird with a Gatling gun.
Many of their games are just fun, and aren’t meant to be anything more than an insanely fun time. It needs to become more widely accepted that games can just be fun and still be a good game. In their ten years this is the biggest way that Devolver Digital has managed to influence the indie scene. Their games are becoming more and more well known, and are almost all critically acclaimed. Despite not having intricate or moving stories.
Ape Out is a game about breaking out of a laboratory as a gorilla. That’s basically all there is to it. But it combines this with a minimalist art style, procedurally generated jazz music, and wickedly fun but violent gameplay. Games like Minit or Downwell have quick play times but focus heavily on replay value.
Devolver will allow anything if they believe it in the product. Nomada Studio’s Gris is all that’s needed for that to be true. The game does something that’s been the focus of this article, that Devolver Digital often goes against. It puts a brilliant, emotional story over the gameplay. Gris is a story of overcoming one’s drama. Everything embodies this message. The art style while simple, manages to be highly symbolic of the protagonists journey. Even the abilities you get throughout the game add more layers to that symbolism.
This doesn’t mean that they’re incapable of finding gems that also have good stories and great gameplay. Take The Messenger for example. Developed by Sabotage Studio, the game tells the story of The Messenger, a young ninja whose clan is wiped out. He must deliver the scroll given to him by the Western Hero to the Three Sages on top of the Mountain.
A very interesting premise, but what’s really important is how intelligent the writing is. The game uses meta, wall breaking humor consistently. It doesn’t hide from tropes of the platformer genre either. Instead it embraces them, satirizes them, and in doing so elevates their importance. No longer are they mechanics forced into the game for ease of plot. The mechanics are just well written jokes. The story also has a lot of unique twists, and changes the way the world around it functions as you progress. Now that’s good story telling.
But Wait, There’s More!
But even more recent releases embody this as well. Observation is being heralded as one of the greatest sci-fi stories of the year. Developed by acclaimed studio No Code, the game places you in the role of a space station AI. Your goal is to solve the mystery of your missing crew. It combines the sci-fi thriller genre with adventure puzzling in such a unique fashion that you would never see most studios allowed to even attempt.
Katana ZERO also manages to push the boundaries with a unique take on action platforming. You’re an immortal like being with the ability to manipulate time, both actively and passively, while telling a story about forced loyalty, and overcoming programmed behavior by regaining connection to one’s humanity. The story focuses heavily on drugs, violence, and touches many topics that some might have trouble handling. Because of this the game was refused classification by Australia and New Zealand.
Give Your Developers More Freedom
In ten years Devolver Digital has created a new norm for the indie scene. They have created an industry around them that accepts games for what they were supposed to be. All it took was someone taking a risk through the publishing of unique, and strange titles. That and allowing developers freedom over their games. Obviously Devolver Digital still has their own limits and won’t give just any product a chance.
Their titles regularly go on to sell millions of copies. Katana ZERO sold over one hundred thousand copies in its first week, while being barred from release in Australia and New Zealand. Imagine how much damage an AAA title could do if it focused more on the strange side of things? We’ve seen this some in the past with Borderlands, but even that remains fairly inline with industry standards when it comes to production. Maybe Death Stranding is the hero the AAA industry needs? Even if it is technically from an independent studio.
With creative freedom comes more unique titles. That creates an atmosphere of diversity and prevents your titles from becoming over shadowed by all the titles that would have been exactly like yours otherwise. A game should be a good game by itself, not a good micro-transaction delivery system.
— Devolver Digital (@devolverdigital) June 1, 2019
Happy birthday Devolver Digital! Keep up the fabulous work.