At GDC 2007, I was at an industry party having a beer, watching a whole lot of Burning Man performers doing all kinds of stuff, just minding my own business. That's when Mike Wilson, wearing a cape and a rooster mask, tackled me to the floor. I'm fairly certain that was the first time I ever met him in person.
That's the kind of...energy that Wilson (pictured) is known for. At the time, he was just getting people acquainted with Gamecock, the ill-fated publisher of small, independently-developed games that collapsed in 2009. Prior to that, he co-founded Gathering of Developers, another company that put independent developers at the center of its business strategy. Take-Two acquired it, and later shuttered it.
Shortly after Gamecock's demise in 2009, Devolver Digital emerged as Wilson's latest venture. Again, the business centers on publishing independently-developed games. That's the ongoing theme for Wilson (and long-time business partner Harry Miller): a keen interest in independent games and the tricky publishing business surrounding them.
Pitching at GDC
Last year at the Game Developers Conference, in typical Wilson fashion, Devolver announced it would have a bus roaming around the premises, in which indie game developers would pitch their games as they puttered about. They're taking indie pitches again at GDC in San Francisco from March 25-29 for another "Pitch Fork Parker" initiative ("Fork Parker" is the company's fictional CFO). But they'll just be at the Moscone Center --they're skipping the bus this time.
"Some people got seasick on it last year," Wilson told me over the phone. "Mostly our people, they were on it all day."
Having a bus drive people around as they pitch games is a stunt dripping with gimmickry. But the partnerships forged from this indie reach-out speak to the credibility Devolver has among even the most fiercely Indie (with a capital "I") game developers.
Devolver signed Chris Pavia and Cube Roots' game Dungeon Hearts -- a scrolling match-three-style game with a classic JRPG aesthetic -- the same day of their bus meeting. Around the same time as the bus tour, other indies heard Devolver was accepting pitches. Soon after, Vlambeer and Dennaton (Dennis Wedin and Jonatan "Cactus" Soderstrom) signed deals with the publisher for Luftrausers and Hotline Miami, respectively. (Incidentally, Devolver just announced this week that Hotline Miami is coming to PlayStation 3 and PS Vita.)
And more games are coming. Devolver published just two games in 2012, while this year Wilson expects to publish 10.
But even with that increase, that averages out to less than a game per month for 2013. For Wilson, the secret to being a publisher of indie games is to be an indie game publisher. Devolver has just five staff total -- four at the Austin, TX headquarters and one in London. Overhead is minimal, so the company doesn't need monster hits. That said, Devolver recently announced that Hotline Miami has sold over 300,000 units on PC, which is a stunning number for a tiny indie game.
"What's cool about Devolver, as opposed to our other ventures, is that we actually own this one completely," Wilson explains. "The only people who own Devolver are the guys working there. We're truly in control and able to see through good deals for people. We had investors, then we bought it back. We don't want what happened to Gamecock to ever happen again, when the rug was pulled out from under us.
"We are indie, too. I think that's what resonates well with the developers we work with."
Wilson is known for his showmanship, his ability to catch your attention. G.O.D. and Gamecock certainly showed that. Devolver seems different. As Wilson said, it's wholly independent, owned by people who work there. Wilson says money that is made goes back into investing into more projects, not extravagant salaries or capes or rooster masks. Devolver seems to be completely about the games and the developers. And the fact they picked up Hotline Miami and Luftrauser shows me that they've got pretty good taste.
Maybe this apparent clarity of direction is because Wilson and his partners have learned something about themselves over the years, and better understand the kinds of games they want to publish.
"We're not doing $10 million games, that's not what we aspire to," he says. "We've been there, and it's just not as fun."