Ben Kuchera

Get on the bus: Devolver Digital’s innovative strategy for finding new talent at GDC

Get on the bus: Devolver Digital’s innovative strategy for finding new talent at GDC

Devolver Digital’s goal at the 2012 Game Developers Conference was to find new games to publish. The company had already found success with Serious Sam 3: BFE and the tie-in campaign made up of Serious Sam-themed games from indie studios Vlambeer, Mommy’s Best Games, and Be-Rad Entertainment. Devolver engineered an interesting way to find new games at the show; the company rented a bus and took appointments for developers to come onboard and pitch games. The press release sold it as a way to meet and pitch to the company’s fictional CFO Fork Parker, but the idea that games would be considered for publication seemed serious.

I reached out to the company when I first caught wind of this strategy and found the truth was a little more complicated. The bus was certainly a publicity stunt, but there was method to this madness: Developers had to step out of their comfort zone and pitch their games in a novel and informal environment. I was assured that yes, games would be seriously considered for publication, and Devolver was interested in working with up and coming developers.

That’s when I knew I had to get on the bus.

Riding along

I walked close a mile away from the Game Developers Conference to find the bus; it was parked on a nondescript street corner away from the convention center. Nigel Lowrie, Devolver’s vice-president of marketing, met me on the corner, shook my hand, and invited me aboard. The bus smelled musty, but not unpleasant. I grew up in Kentucky, and the smell reminded me of a barn that has been well cared for. The driver was a man named “Chicken John.”

“John owns the bus,” Lowrie told me, and John nodded before taking a long swig out of a carton of what appeared to be orange juice. Chicken John would later tell me that he had once slept over 50 people on the bus. I didn’t see how that was possible.

“Everything you see in here can be turned into a bed,” John said, as if telling me a secret.

“It’s legal since we’re using plastic cups,” I’m told after being offered a beer. I must have looked skeptical. “I have no idea if that’s actually true,” Lowrie said, grinning. The bus seemed to be very far from the meeting rooms and stale coffee that made up most interviews and pitches at GDC. The first developers arrived on the bus, and Chicken John drove us away from the corner.

The two developers are working together on a number of iPad games, and it takes awhile for them to get used to the bus. Things loosened up as the games were played, however.  Lowrie would make a lousy Simon Cowell, as he clearly enjoyed playing the games. He talked to the iPad and the developer, and he reacted with something close to glee when he noticed a visual joke in the game. “This is neat!” he said with genuine enthusiasm.

The developers began to tell stories about their negative experience with Chillingo. They had been pushed towards a “freemium” model, where the game is given away and the player is asked to pay for extra content or items through the application, but that was a strategy that didn’t seem to fit the games they wanted to make. Devolver isn’t interested in forcing certain monetization strategies over others, Lowrie assured them. It was at this point that the balance flipped in the bus, and Lowrie begins pitching the developers on Devolver, not the other way around.

“There’s five of us, and you’ve already met all five of us,” Lowrie said. “We haven’t worked out the mobile space, or what the best things to do are in the mobile space,” he admitted. What Devolver can offer is a strong marketing and PR team, as well as talent that can port existing games to the Android platform. They have strong connections in gaming markets overseas. Lowrie laid out all the things that Devolver can offer to a smaller developer, and the strategies and partnerships Devolver has in place in multiple markets on both the iOS and Android side of things sound impressive. It’s also the sort of thing that many creative people don’t want to think about, and that’s a large part of what Devolver is selling: The ability to do things that the developer doesn’t want to worry about in order to make the game successful. 

Chicken John drove us around San Francisco as these conversations took place, and the beer sloshed around in the plastic cups. I tried to disappear in the corner so both sides would forget that a member of the press was watching the interactions. The audio I took from the meetings ended up being worthless; my iPhone slid around the bus and picked up more engine sounds than quotes. I tried to transcribe as much as I could on the fly. The first developer left the bus after 45 minutes or so, and looked pleased.

We had a few moments to ourselves before the next developer showed up, and everyone was feeling mellow after drinking a beer or two. I asked about the bus, and its use in finding new talent. “I’ve worked at EA, I’ve worked at Virgin. People come to pitch you in different environments. It’s very stressful, with the vertical slice and everything worked out,” another member of the Devolver team said. “And if there’s a success they’re faced with a contract that takes everything away. With this approach, and everyone we’ve spoken to, it’s a conversation. It’s much more open about where they see the pitfalls and the risks, and the challenges they face.” When you’re sitting on a bus, drinking a beer, the situation is much more open and comfortable.

The strategy seems to have been successful. I caught up with one of the developers after the show to ask about the experience of pitching his game on the bus. “The welcoming atmosphere and rickety bus wheeling around town made it easy to forget that it was a business meeting, and I ended up having a lot of fun just talking about games,” he said. “This was the first time I’ve had to pitch a game, and I doubt any future publisher meetings will live up to this experience.”

I find out the world of independent gaming and the publishing of smaller games is a weird business. Many of the developers who pitch to Devolver aren’t looking for funding or equipment; game development is often an inexpensive pursuit in terms of tools these days. What people need are the connections to get the games in the hands of the press, or featured on the various App stores. For many developers it’s not an issue of money, it’s a matter of discovery. Devolver’s strategy of staying out of the developer’s way as they finish the game and then providing support for ports to Android devices and getting the game on multiple stores in many markets is an attractive one for developers who may not know how to take the next step.

Our chat is cut short when the second developer entered the bus. The doors closed, and Chicken John continued our tour of San Francisco.

The second developer also brought along his iPad, and he began to describe his game before handing it over to Lowrie to try. In a weird twist of fate, he and Lowrie have the same tattoo: the eye of Horus. The two men bond over their mutual love of StarGate. The developer explained that he wanted to create a role-playing game, but that’s a hard path for a team of one, so he created a game that focused on everything he loves about the genre. The result, even when watched from across the bus and upside down, was captivating. When you pare down role-playing games and focus on the mechanics that are left you get something that looks interesting and new, and the art and music were both impressive. 

Lowrie grew quiet as he played the game, and he leaned towards the iPad. “Take a look at this,” he said to the other members of the team, who had already begun to learn towards the front of the bus. Soon all the members of Devolver are hunched around the iPad, watching Lowrie play the game.

The questions become pointed. Does the developer own all the game? The music is an important part of the game, and there is some question about who owns the rights to the work. Is there a legal agreement with the other people contributing assets? “Once the money starts flowing, it’s a good idea to do that,” Lowrie said. We took a short break to enjoy the view, as Chicken John had driven us up one of San Francisco’s famous hills so we could enjoy looking down on the city. “You never get to actually see the city when you come to shows like this,” Lowrie said, and invited us to take a moment to enjoy things. The developer sipped his beer. I took a picture of the view. It was a moment of calm in a usually busy show, in an environment that should have created more pressure than we felt. The bus strategy made much sense.

It was time for the big questions after this moment of contemplation. What does the developer need?

It turns out he’s making the game in his spare time, it could be finished much sooner if he could leave his job to work on the game exclusively. He needed a new laptop, and an iPad 3 to test builds of the game. He’s also interested in porting the game to Android, but he needs help affording the multiple devices needed to test the work on the ports.

“We can help with that,” Lowrie said, smiling.