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Hitting gold on the bus: an early look at Devolver Digital’s Dungeon Hearts

Hitting gold on the bus: an early look at Devolver Digital’s Dungeon Hearts

Devolver Digital reached out to the Penny Arcade Report after we met on their promotional bus to give us the good news: The company would be publishing an upcoming game called Dungeon Hearts, a sort of match-three game that borrows the mechanics and aesthetics of an old-school JRPG. We’ve included a video of the game’s mechanics if you’d like to learn more. The game is being created by a man named Chris Pavia, and the decision to pick up Dungeon Hearts was made soon after the meeting on the bus. 

“It’s funny, we ended up calling Chris that same night from the restaurant. I figured why not make everyone’s day? It was pretty neat to give him that news right afterwards,” Devolver Digital’s Nigel Lowrie told the Penny Arcade Report.

This is the first time I have been present for a game’s initial pitch to the publisher, and I knew I had to follow up with both parties to see how the deal was made, and talk about the game.

The designer

“This is the first time I’ve been interviewed for anything,” Pavia said over the phone. He had spent years working in the industry with a few studios, but Dungeon Hearts is the game he’s passionate about. He spent a long time prototyping games before finding something he loved, and then even more time polishing the game for the Game Developers Conference. Pavia also proved to be a cagey operator when it came to his appointment on the bus.

“I was really nervous about pitching Dungeon Hearts before getting on the bus. I didn’t know how long the ride would be, so I got there early enough to ambush a group that went before me and pumped them for information,” Pavia explained. “[The other developer] said they had as much time as they needed, and that the whole thing was pretty relaxed, which put me more at ease.” The beers served on the bus, it must be added, didn’t hurt.

I asked what Pavia had been looking for in a publisher. “As a person who sits in front of the computer all day, I’m not great at evangelizing the game and getting my game and myself out there. I need someone with a lot more experience at getting the word out there. I’ve tried a few times, and failed abysmally,” Pavia said.

Devolver repeated that idea. “We see ourselves more as support for Chris. We have the stance that they are the creative people, they have the vision, they are making the game. If they ask for our input we’ll give it, but it’s their game to make,” Lowrie said. “We fancy ourselves as having the ability to see a game, figure out if there’s potential there, and then take the most unique part of the game and express that to the audience.”

Devolver was coy about the fine details of the business end of the deal, but they were willing to share that they’re targeting PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. “We’re just trying to support where we can, with money, software, and of course marketing,” Lowrie said. “We work with a lot of smaller developers, and we love doing that. There is a lot of flexibility, and many different scenarios.”

In the case of Dungeon Hearts Devolver Digital paid for animators and artists to help with the game’s visuals, and they provided Pavia with a better Macbook and an iPad 3 to test the game, along with some development software that improved his workflow. It was a simple process: Pavia wrote a list of what he required, Devolver stated what they could provide as part of the agreement, and ideally everyone will benefit with the game is released.

Of course, Devolver has only published a few games, and they’re open about the fact that they continue to learn about what does and doesn’t work with publishing games on portable devices. Still, Lowrie pointed out that many meetings during GDC were set up due to referrals from the teams that worked with Devolver on the Serious Sam indie games, and that those games were profitable.

The problem with Dungeon Hearts, and the very public way it was picked up, is that Devolver Digital is now under the microscope; people are going to be watching the game to see how well it does, and both the publisher and developer may be judged by the success or failure of the game.

“I don’t see it as pressure, because we see [Dungeon Hearts] as a fantastic game,” Lowrie said when I brought this up. “That means it’s halfway to being a successful game. The other half is making sure you communicate that. I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, it’s more like pride. We’re very proud that we set up something unique.” He also pointed out that with stories like this, Devolver is able to let gamers see Dungeon Hearts in the alpha state (the video embedded in this story is several months old) and move forward to see the final product. There will be more transparency with this approach. “Why not open the door a little bit, and see the game in development, and see how its changing and evolving. You can go to the website or through twitter and give feedback,” he explained. “Chris probably feels a little pressure, but it’s good pressure.”

Having watched Pavia pitch the game and seen it in action, I can say that I’m certainly looking forward to playing it. Devolver’s unorthodox style certainly allows the company to stand out. Heck, we’ve already written two articles about the company, and one about the game. They’re certainly doing something right.