How Devolver Digital found success by disrupting the game

A rooster in a varsity jacket prowls the halls, clutching a baseball bat and leering menacingly. Behind him stands a huge lamb in a blood-red cape whose huge cartoonish eyes don’t entirely hide his malevolent intentions. These costumed mascots recently greeted visitors to the inaugural WASD games fair at London’s Tobacco Dock, delighting and unnerving the hordes of visitors in equal measure.

At an event that showcased the eccentricity of contemporary gaming, where you could become a tile-maker in Moorish Andalusia or a gardener mowing lawns overrun by dinosaurs, nothing was stranger than these mascots, which represented game characters from independent publisher Devolver Digital. In the crowded ecosystem of the indie games industry – more than 10,000 games were released on the Steam platform last year – a Devolver release is a mark of quality and originality.

It all started with the 2012 breakout title Hotline Miami, a retro shooter that has indulged in carnage while taking a critical look at the ultra-violence that players mindlessly commit in games. In 2020, fall guys tasked players with steering fluorescent candies around an obstacle course, becoming a joyous viral hit at the height of the pandemic, while last year Registration sets a very different tone – a spooky card game with a strong postmodern slant. In April, Devolver announced the move to bring back the beloved Lucasfilm Games monkey island series after a 13-year hiatus.

A rooster with a baseball bat is one of Devolver Digital’s mascots, appearing at game shows © Alamy

Every year, a few Devolver titles inevitably end up on year-end lists of top titles. “This success gives us the mandate to take risks and make really interesting and offbeat games,” says Graeme Struthers, Head of Publishing. At WASD, this reputation has drawn a steady stream of enthusiastic gamers to their playable demo booth. I sampled the new Hike to Yomia moody samurai game in grainy monochrome inspired by classic Kurosawa movies; card shark, a beautifully illustrated tale of cheating to the top of 18th-century French society using only a deck of cards; and nil eartha “reverse city builder” that asks you not to pave the wilderness with highways, but rather restore the countryside to its natural splendor.

The latter is created by one of Devolver’s key partners, Cape Town studio Free Lives, which works to create a sustainable development scene in Southern Africa. It’s an example of how accessible tools and digital distribution have allowed the indie scene to expand far beyond the conventional gaming hubs of Europe, North America and East Asia. ‘Is, allowing new voices to find an audience and tell their own specific stories.

Many of Devolver’s best releases overturn conventional wisdom about gaming and encourage players to look at the medium from a new perspective. Often this means presenting the player as a character they never thought they would inhabit. In monkey outside, you play an escaped gorilla whose every move triggers a crash of cymbals or a snare drum hit, creating a jazzy score as you go. The highlight of Devolver’s upcoming slate at WASD, Worship of the Lamb, throws players like a sacrificial lamb that escapes from the altar and begins to build its own cult in revenge.

With releasing games across such a wide range of genres, it can be difficult to pinpoint the brand of a Devolver title. It could be a personality more than a style, an irreverence to tradition that can also be seen in their imaginative branching of the gaming industry at media events. In press conferences, the company openly mocked trends like microtransactions, loot boxes, and cryptocurrency in 2019 by posting Devolver Bootleg, which included eight playable parodies of his own versions. All the while, the company’s fictional CFO, Fork Parker, sends out tweets mocking an industry that often takes itself way too seriously, as if to say: Aren’t games supposed to be fun?

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