Devolver co-founder forms new game publisher focused on improving mental health

Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson and former Nextern CEO Ryan Douglas have formed a new company focused on creating games that improve the mental health of their players.

Wilson told IGN that part of the inspiration for the new venture, called DeepWell, came from fan reaction to Devolver’s published Fall Guys. Wilson received letters from gamers around the world saying the game helped their depression during the COVID-19-related lockdowns, and he watched first-hand as his son continued to play online with friends while they couldn’t be together in person.

Although these games helped some players, they were not expressly designed for wellness and lacked the medical knowledge, tools and resources to prove their effectiveness.

Douglas, meanwhile, came from the medical and wellness field, where he saw companies create games and apps that tried to gamify mental health, but often failed to be fun. They used scores and rewards, but lacked the in-game elements that make them actually enjoyable.

Wilson and Douglas agreed that these games and apps fall short of the challenge of truly motivating people to improve their health.

“If you create [a pill that cures cancer] and people won’t take it, have you really created a treatment, a solution? I think we have to start saying the answer is no,” Douglas told IGN.

DeepWell aims to solve this problem by developing and publishing games that offer proven health benefits. It hopes to unveil its first games in late spring. It will also partner with existing developers and publishers to secure similar sanitary approvals for games that have already been released.

Although DeepWell addresses both mental and physical health, mental health will be its focus. Its games will be broken down into three main categories. The first will be original, in-house developed games designed to be therapeutic as well as entertaining, and which will aim to appeal to players who are not specifically looking for health and wellness games. These games will be widely accessible, requiring no special devices or technology.

The second category will include partnerships with existing developers, focusing on independent studios, which are already working on games that could meet its Therapeutic standards. DeepWell will provide them with the resources to meet these standards in the development process.

The final category will see DeepWell investigate the health benefits of games that have already been released, certifying them as beneficial where possible.

“We can take these very therapeutic pre-existing games and release them to the world in a way that they can be deliberately introduced to people with issues and help them get treatment,” Douglas said. “Building real supportive therapies that can relieve the pressure of depression, anxiety, stress in a world where there is no [are] not enough therapists for everyone.”

DeepWell has created an advisory board of over 40 game designers, creators, scientists, and medical researchers to help set the standards for therapeutic game design. Participants in the game’s design include id Software co-founder Tom Hall, indie designer Rami Ismail, and several other big names.

“The pun, I think, is more important than the pun,” says Wilson. “Because if you think of all the things you could play in this lifetime, almost all, or all of them are going to benefit you in some way. Whether it’s music or playing improvisation or whether you play video games, you play board games, you put on a play, whatever it is…acting is good. It’s good for us.”