How Devolver Digital is taking games seriously — and not so seriously | Graeme Struthers interview

We’re thrilled to announce the return of GamesBeat Next, hosted in San Francisco this October, where we will explore the theme of “Playing the Edge.” Apply to speak here and learn more about sponsorship opportunities here. At the event, we will also announce 25 top game startups as the 2024 Game Changers. Apply or nominate today!

Graeme Struthers handles day-to-day production as chief operating officer at Devolver Digital. It’s the “boring” stuff that keeps the company humming along as a major publicly traded publisher of games.

The company’s titles include Cult of the Lamb, Return to Monkey Island, Trek to Yomi, Hotline Miami, Inscryption, The Messenger, Death’s Door, Enter the Gungeon and Katana Zero. If you’re looking for a pattern there, there isn’t any, beyond an emphasis on original titles with interesting gameplay.

Devolver Digital has set itself apart with its zany marketing for its online press conferences that mocked the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show, and its recent Devolver Delayed video, where it’s a bit hard to tell what’s serious and what isn’t serious.

Despite the delays for some games, Devolver Digital has a good slate for 2023, Struthers said. He noted Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood just shipped, and Gunbrella is shipping soon. Also coming are Wizard With a Gun, Talos Principle 2 and KarmaZoo.

I caught up with Struthers at the Gamescom event in Cologne, Germany. I tried to get him to show me some of that Devolver sense of humor, and he occasionally bit. But he noted that when the company announced it was delaying some games until next year, that was no joke.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Graeme Struthers is COO of Devolver Digital.

GamesBeat: A lot of the games for the showcase seem to be delayed. Are these actual delays or joking delays?

Graeme Struthers: No, these are actual delays. We had a few projects move into 2024. It’s going to be like this for us in this space, I think. Ultimately, the game’s quality is the only thing we’re ever going to truly focus on. One thing we know from our 13, 14 years at Devolver is that if a game lands well in terms of its quality, then it’s going to be selling 10 years later. We just released an update for Broforce, which launched in 2016. The reason there’s an update for the game in 2023 is it still has an audience.

GamesBeat: You found a way to fit a sense of humor in the announcement.

Struthers: I can’t take any credit for the clever people who deal with marketing and PR. Obviously it was very tongue in cheek, and it went over very well.

GamesBeat: Sometimes, do you find that people don’t know if you’re being serious or not?

Struthers: Sometimes I won’t know. But I think there’s a good strong core understanding of the Devolver culture across fans and followers and the industry in general. It can throw up some issues in how it’s understood in different languages. On occasion we’ve perhaps had serious things sent out and people wonder if it’s a joke. But that’s more to do with translation or the lack thereof.

GamesBeat: What do you have coming, then? What are the highlights this week?

Struthers: We just shipped Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood. We have Gunbrella coming pretty soon. We’re starting that cadence for Wizard with a Gun. We have Talos Principle 2. And we’ve got KarmaZoo. Those are the big beats for the rest of this year.

GamesBeat: Is there an interesting position you have right now relative to the rest of the industry? It seems like the business at large is retreating further and further away from original titles.

Struthers: I’ll be honest, but I don’t really know that I see that. We tend to be so busy doing what we do. As I look around me, I look at the people at Annapurna, and they seem to be still bringing out some pretty amazing titles.

GamesBeat: I suppose I’m thinking more about the biggest publishers.

Struthers: If I think about the triple-A ones, they’re incremental in their innovation of IP, rather than–every so often they do birth a new one, but it feels like it’s been quite a while since there’s been new big triple-A IPs that have happened in the last five years.

GamesBeat: The interesting thing to me is that the way they describe things now–they almost say that this is the strategy, to not do new games, but to rely on proven franchises. They’re not apologizing for that.

Struthers: It’s a world of IP. It’s a practical way to go about things. I went out to get a couple of T-shirts at one of those stores here, and half the store is branded Teenage Mutant Turtles or Dragon Ball Z. I’m guessing that works. They can use these IPs to support all kinds of activities – film, TV, clothing. Whereas the space we’re in, it’s tiny, or niche at least, the game space.

To stay in this industry, though, we have to figure out how we’re going to be competitive in terms of holding on to what we already have. Three, four, five years ago, we started to see a lot of companies coming in and buying up studios. Embracer Group was one of them. Even the small teams we work with, they wanted to do more complex games. If you look at Cult of the Lamb, it’s a very small team, but it’s a game on five platforms that supports cross-play, ongoing content, and regular updates. We have to match up to that in terms of our abilities on that side. To fund that you need more money.

GamesBeat: I imagine your comedians could do a lot with AI in games.

Struthers: It’s not an area we’ve really looked at. Our CTO occasionally pops his head above the parapet and says something, and we all don’t understand what they said. Then we get back to make indie games.

GamesBeat: You haven’t done a press release where you’ve said you’re laying off the marketing department in favor of AI.

Struthers: Maybe we should get it to write the emails. “Dear valued colleague… It’s been an interesting journey. There are fresh new horizons out there. Please go and explore.”

DSC 2641
KarmaZoo is coming soon from Devolver Digital.

GamesBeat: It’s an interesting time for the game industry.

Struthers: Oh, it is. This industry’s never not interesting.

GamesBeat: Where are you as far as the number of people at Devolver? Is that expanding or contracting?

Struthers: We’re sitting around about 275, of which around just under 70 are in the core Devolver publishing and production, finance and legal groups. The rest are spread out across the studios we work with.

GamesBeat: Are you in a hiring phase, or not hiring?

Struthers: We’re always hiring. It’s been like that for probably about 18 or 20 months. Not aggressively. We’ve wanted to staff up our production side. Until five minutes ago we were staffing up the marketing side, but now we have AI taking care of that. There’s your headcount reduction.

GamesBeat: If people would ask what’s your view of the state of the industry, how do you see your place in it?

Struthers: We’re very confident in the place we’re in. We like it. We’re still in a fortunate position where most of the developers we work with continue to want to work with us. We get the benefit of the studios who are now in there–in the case of Free Lives, they’re in their first decade as a developer, and they’re now supporting three productions at once, which is phenomenal. We get that benefit. That keeps us happy in the space we’re in.

Being part of studios now is interesting, because again, we’re more able to do long-term planning. That might have been a slight risk, because we were maybe more waiting to see what was happening next with smaller teams. Now we can plan a bit better on some of our core–I hate to say this, but our core IPs. Which is interesting, because we’d never had that before.

We’re like everyone else. We’re excited about Switch and what’s happening next, along with what we’re doing alongside Sony and Microsoft. It’s never not fun. There’s always interesting stuff going on.

GamesBeat: Is the future of Switch getting to be a bit more tangible or predictable, as opposed to just sort of vaguely out there?

Struthers: Well, you shouldn’t assume anything about the name “Switch” and “2” put together. But we have quite a lot of content in production. We’re very eager to continue to work with Nintendo. We’ve had a great time on Switch. It’s been great for us.

DSC 2640
Devolver Digital is publishing Pepper Grinder.

GamesBeat: Is there anything particularly fun that you’re doing here, that you’re looking forward to?

Struthers: Sorry for the boring answer, but when we come to these events, we’re really focused on putting as many media folks as we possibly can in front of the developers. Gamescom, like the E3 of old, those were the two events where we could get the biggest concentration of media. For the first time we’re actually on the show floor, which is frankly terrifying, when you see 100,000 kids here. But it’s also exciting to get the games out in front of the public. We’re trying to pretend we understand German.

GamesBeat: Do you miss making fun of E3?

Struthers: To me, honestly, I genuinely loved E3. When I first joined the industry, it was a dream to be selected to be sent to E3. That’s a European perspective, maybe, because Los Angeles is cool. There’s something about going to L.A. that’s more aspirational for Europeans. I loved it. When we were in the parking lot, I didn’t really think about it as making fun of E3. We were living off the benefits of it. Again, it brought this huge amount of media, as well as Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo.

PR: When we had the mansion at E3, we’d have developers come out who weren’t showing anything in the lot. Their games had launched however long ago. But they just came to hang out and be a part of–there was enough room for everyone, and it became this dev hangout where they would start to game jam. You had these younger developers talking to the seasoned people.

Struthers: Yeah, the 21-year-old talking to the 23-year-old, because the 23-year-old was seasoned.

PR: Still, you launch a game, and you learn a lot. The feedback and that relationship, the camaraderie, I can imagine from a peer-to-peer basis in the industry, it’s so much more valuable when it happens organically like that, rather than someone on the service side coming in and being a consultant. I can give you all the PR tips in the world as a consultant over a set number of hours, but it’s not going to be the same as what you create when you’re moving through a particular campaign, because every campaign is different.

GamesBeat: You can meet people in the metaverse too now.

Struthers: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t feel that’s our thing. I think we’re much better in person. During COVID it was nice to have that technology, but it’s much nicer to get back to meeting humans.

GamesBeat: There was one interesting piece of data that I picked up in an interview with a guy named Amir Satvat. He worked for Amazon and switched to Tencent, but his side gig was to automate a collection of job openings among all the game companies around the world. He has a LinkedIn page with Google spreadsheets on it that people can look at to find all the world’s open game jobs, from 732 game companies. He has about 14,000 game job openings. Anyway, his interesting observation was that in the last five or six weeks, it hasn’t changed much. He’s only been doing it since November, but he feels that there’s a stabilization happening. Before he was seeing jobs go away. It might be an economic sign of some kind, that whatever gloom was around has turned a corner.

PR: It’s an interesting metric to gauge, because if it’s almost comprehensive, you can gauge the arc. Is it going up or going down?

DSC 2627
Devolver Digital delayed some games into 2024.

GamesBeat: If it’s going down, then nobody’s hiring. If it’s going up like a rocket, maybe everyone’s going bananas over AI or something like that.

PR: It goes back to the beginning of the year, when suddenly it was just this tech layoff bloodbath. I read everything, every day. Tech news, financial news, business news, games news. I’m still waiting for this recession that everyone has said is coming. Maybe we’re in it and maybe it’s already passed. But it’s literally just–someone has given an opinion. I’ve not seen data outside of this very industry-focused data point you mentioned. That’s fascinating.

Honestly, we haven’t done a lot of talking about Devolver on a business level in the past few years. This being a show where we’re showing games, we’re on the consumer floor, yes there were a lot of delays that just went out, but there are a lot of games coming up that are still scheduled for 2023. The video was fantastic and funny, but moreover I think it’s setting expectations for fans.

GamesBeat: You could always talk about your GTA VI killer. “We had to delay that game again!”

Struthers: We were very gently asked to stop taking credit for Red Dead Redemption 2.

Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz