Devolver Co-Founder Forms New Games Publisher Focused on Improving Mental Health

DeepWell founders Mike Wilson (left) and Ryan Douglas.
DeepWell founders Mike Wilson (left) and Ryan Douglas. / Photo courtesy of DeepWell

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

Wilson told IGN part of the inspiration for the new venture, called DeepWell, came out of the fan reaction to the Devolver-published Fall Guys. Wilson received letters from players around the world saying the game had helped with their depression during COVID-19 related lockdowns, and he watched firsthand as his son continued to game online with friends when they couldn't be together in person.

Although these games had helped some players, they weren't expressly designed with wellness in mind, 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 making games and apps that attempted to gamify mental health, but often failed to be fun. They used scores and rewards, but lacked the elements of games that actually make them enjoyable.

Wilson and Douglas agreed that these games and apps were failing to meet the challenge of really incentivizing 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 that we need to start saying that the answer is no," Douglas told IGN.

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

Although DeepWell will address both mental and physical health, mental health will be its focus. Its games will break down into three broad categories. The first will be original, internally developed games designed to be therapeutic in addition to being entertaining, and that will aim to entice players who aren't specifically looking for health and wellness games. These games will be widely accessible, requiring no special peripherals or tech.

The second category will include partnerships with existing developers, focusing on independent studios, that are already working on games that might meet its standards for being therapeutic. DeepWell will provide them with resources to meet those standards in the development process.

The final category will see DeepWell investigating the health benefits of games that have already been published, certifying them as beneficial when possible.

"We can take these preexisting, very therapeutic games and get them out in the world in a way that they can be deliberately presented to people with issues, and help them get treatment," Douglas said. "Build real adjunctive therapies that can relieve pressure for depression, anxiety, stress in a world where there [are] just not enough therapists to go around."

DeepWell has created an advisory council of more than 40 game designers, creators, scientists and medical researchers to help set the standards for therapeutic game design. The game design participants include id Software co-founder Tom Hall, independent designer Rami Ismail and several other prominent names.

"The word play, I think, is more important than the word game," Wilson says. "Because if you think about all the things you could play in this life, almost all of them, or all of them are going to be beneficial for you in some way. Whether it's music or you play improv or you play video games, you play board games, you put on a play, whatever it is good. It is good for us."