Dabe Alan

How five men are changing the business, and size, of game publishing

How five men are changing the business, and size, of game publishing

The publishers used to be the gatekeepers of the realm. You needed to speak with a publisher before you could get your game on a major platform, creating and releasing games was an expensive, highly technical endeavor, and developer kits were both expensive and hard to come by. This has all changed in the past decade, and small teams have never had it better when it comes to releasing their own games, or finding their way onto services like Steam. So why do you need a publisher?

“We’re starting to feel like we’ve found our spot in the world of games, and what we’re good at, and where we can be of service to gamers, where we can be of service to developers, and run a success business,” Nigel Lowrie, a partner at the five-person Devolver Digital, told me when I asked how business was going. That’s the long answer. The short answer is that business is very, very good. 

In fact, Devolver Digital may be the future of games publishing. Small teams, personal connections, and end-to-end support while developers create the game. In an industry where publishers are hurting, developers are getting shut down left and right, and your reward for shipping a game is often being laid off, keeping things small and personal is a sane reaction to what can often seem like an irrational business.

Bringing the hits

“Our first big game was Serious Sam 3. From there we looked at what company we wanted to be and what kind of space can we operate in. Indie games, and our love of indie games, really pulled us in that direction,” Lowrie explained.

Serious Sam is a well-known name in first-person shooters, and Devolver used that leverage for an interesting experiment. They worked with a variety of indie developers to create side-games in the Serious Sam world. Publishing smaller, high-concept games around the Serious Sam property was not only good business, but it allowed Devolver to strengthen relationships with many developers in the indie space.

These relationships paid off in more ways than expected. When Dennaton was thinking about a publisher for what would later become Hotline Miami, it was Vlambeer that pointed the two-man team to Devolver Digital. The game went on to sell over 300,000 copies on the PC, and is now coming to the PS3 and Vita.

Dennaton’s Jonatan Söderström had, according to Lowrie, turned down any personal payment for the work until the game was released. Lowrie remembers seeing the royalty report from Devolver’s CFO, and he immediate jumped on Skype to share the good news with Dennaton.

“Speaking for the last year, it was a really happy moment for me. I got a little choked up,” he said. While Lowrie brushed aside questions on the size of that check, he stated that the game sold at between $5 to $10 per copy, it has moved over 300,000 units, and the deal is structured so that Dennaton receives the majority of the game’s profits. You can do the math for yourself. Hotline Miami 2 is now in production.

The financial success of these games is important, but there is also a PR benefit to publishing games as weird as Hotline Miami and Vlambeer’s upcoming Luftrausers.

“We want to be known for these neat games,” Lowrie said. “The best PR we can do as a company is to back, sign, produce, release interesting games, fun games, unique games. We can do stunts and whatever, but if we consistently release good games that’s what you’ll be known for.”

The last stunt was a bus that drove around the Game Developers Conference last year, taking pitches from interested developers. Chris Pavia’s Dungeon Hearts was signed during that promotion, and the game is expected to launch this year. I was in the bus during Pavia’s pitch, and the members of Developer crowded around to see the game in action. The five men behind the company were there when the game was signed, and they were there through the game’s development, its promotion, and they will be there for its launch.

This is what sets Devolver apart, especially for indie developers who are used to working under trying limitations without much help. There is no fat in the organization; everyone is intimately involved with each game.

“The people you pitched your game to are the people who sign your game, they’re going to playtest your game, market your game, and they’re going to be at Gamescom, standing with you, demoing your game, or getting you a cheeseburger and beer while you demo your game,” Lowrie explained.

That’s not easy with the publisher’s small size, but that’s half the point. “That’s tiring for us, but it’s a good relationship. The studios we work with range from 1 to 30 people. The intimacy we can have is working very well for us right now… I’d rather work harder on the games we sign than try to sign twice as many games,” Lowrie said.

Flexibility, the PC, and Sony

The company is focused on PC and, oddly enough, Sony systems. Both the PlayStation 3 and Vita are incredibly welcoming to independent developers, and Lowrie explained how aggressive Sony has been about getting smaller, interesting games on its platforms. Devolver was even invited to check out the PlayStation 4, a rare honor for such a small publisher.

The company is also flexible in what it can offer to help developers, during my time on the bus last year they simply asked what prospective partners needs: A new laptop to work on? Money to pay rent while they work on the game? Licensed music? A professional-looking trailer?

Devolver brings that hunger and guerrilla tactics to dealing with the press as well; The first time I saw Hotline Miami was at a bar during a larger event. Lowrie simply grabbed a laptop with the game and said he’d meet me wherever I wanted to chat. He also sent over an early build of the game for me to try to prove its quality.

The results speak for themselves: When Devolver contacts a member of the press to say they have something interesting to show them, it’s very likely that call will be taken. That relationship with the press, and track record for quality, is a major competitive advantage.

This is the future

Overhead is non-existent with only five people in the company. Everyone at Devolver can speak at length about the games they’re publishing, and the services they can offer indies make it easier for the creative minds behind the games to do their jobs. This is a publisher built from the ground up to take advantage of the state of the business now, whereas companies like EA are being weighed down by their shrinking packaged goods divisions.

This approach makes every game more important, but that’s not a bad deal if Devolver is publishing your game. You want to work with companies that have something to lose if your game is ignored.

Gamers may also be hungry for this sort of company. Record geeks are used to certain labels offering a seal of quality due to strong curation and choice of products. Devolver is hoping to build that brand in games: If gamers begin to get excited for each new Devolver release due to its stable of off-beat, high-quality games, promotion becomes much easier. That assumes they’re able to keep up the flow of hits, however, and quality.

“Entering a relationship with a developer is the most crucial part of any of this,” Lowrie explained. “We don’t want to make one game with you, we want to make all your games with you.”