Hours before I met Mike Wilson, he was on his back in a dirty downtown Los Angeles parking lot trying to blow up a promotional Devolver Digital balloon the size of a small building.
Someone needed to inflate the thing so that people attending E3 at the convention center across the street would know that this Hooter's parking lot full of Airstream trailers is part of the game industry, and when it was nearly done Vlambeer frontman Rami Ismael pointed his phone’s camera at the red-faced Wilson and asked, “so, tell me what you do again?”
Wilson helps run things at Devolver Digital, the independent publishing label he co-founded almost five years ago after his previous publishing venture Gamecock went under
. In that time Devolver has brought games like Hotline Miami
to market with a business strategy that seems to be as simple as reaching out to promising independent developers around the world and figuring out how to help them sell their games.
The strategy appears to be working; Wilson claims that every Devolver game has been profitable (“13 and 0!” he crows), and this week Sony announced plans to expand its partnership with Devolver so that six of the publisher's upcoming games would debut on the PlayStation Network.
The deal itself isn’t remarkable, but you wouldn’t know that from the way Sony executive Adam Boyes talked up the partnership during the company’s E3 press conference. The Devolver Digital sizzle reel that followed wasn’t quite as dramatic as Sony’s indie-centric stage show at last year’s conference, but it did paint Devolver as a rising power in the game industry — an image the company’s leadership seems keen to avoid.
"It feels like the industry finally came around to us"
“We have no aspiration to grow into some giant company,” says Wilson. It might be the L.A. summer heat, but he seems a bit uncomfortable about the way Microsoft and Sony are making a show of embracing indie development. “It feels like the industry finally came around to us; what we were doing already works really and supports the indie movement.”
Of course, at this point the “indie movement” is growing so quickly that many feel it’s about to implode. In the months leading up to E3 I’ve spoken to developers with complex, legitimate concerns about the growing problem of discoverability and player fatigue as small-scale games flood the digital market; when I share those concerns about an “indie bubble” with Wilson, he seems unconcerned and makes a point of looking at the bright side.
“It’s not a fucking ‘indie bubble;’ it’s just a new wave of creators,” he says. We talk a bit about how independent development can serve as a much-needed channel for new talent to get noticed and enter the industry, and he points out that the notion is hardly novel. “When I was at id, Doom was made by six guys in six months,” says Wilson. “Now it’s being made by 400 people. I want no part of that.”
Trouble is, neither do most of the developers under his aegis. Many of them are young, between 18 and 25 years old, and none of them seem to have given much thought to doing anything in the industry but independent development. Joining or founding a large-scale AAA game studio seems like a foreign concept to them, which might prove problematic for the industry in the years to come.
In fact, the handful of developers I spoke to in the Devolver lot all said the same thing when I asked about their goals for the future: stay alive, stay small, stay indie to retain creative freedom, and try to have a good time along the way.
These are, coincidentally or not, the same values that Wilson espouses when I ask him about Devolver’s plans for the future.
“For us, success is, ‘oh shit, we get to keep doing this!’” says Wilson. “We have no aspirations to grow, and no aspirations to ever sell this company. This is what we want to do — we’re hanging out with our buddies, doing something really cool. It feels like a family business."
The developers camped out in Devolver's parking lot seem to agree. During the day they're swapping stories with each other, getting concentrated bursts of press attention and player feedback from the steady stream of E3 attendees who come through to play their games. At night, they retire to a huge house Devolver has rented near the convention center, where they bunk in and talk games, throw parties ("we've got a great barbeque," says Wilson) and generally catch up on what everyone has been up to back home.
"It's kinda like a summer camp, or a retreat," says Wilson. The kind of thing a family would do.