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Across the street from E3, Devolver works hard, plays hard, and picks fights

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The night is young / and so are we

[Photos of the E3 2017 lot by Spencer Zehren]

Somewhere in the 372 miles between Phoenix and Los Angeles lies the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm – a tourist attraction that literally bowls you over between the sheer scope of the operation and all the god damn wind. The striking imagery of those stark iPod-white windmills jutting up from the California desert evokes a Star Trek-esque utopian vision of Americana that currently lies rotting in an unmarked grave. The wind farm also serves a second purpose: an unintentional speed trap, as the wind tunnel slows the cars on I-10 to a unified 50-60 miles per hour as the gusts whip around them. It's a stunning vista.

The San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm is easily the best part of the drive between Phoenix and LA, a six-hour tour of landscapes that would fit perfectly in a Spaghetti western, towns in various states of decay, and a handful of rest-stop Wendy's. It's also the last leg of the journey for the Devolver Digital Penske truck, a yellow six-wheeler packed with the fragile equipment Devolver needs to put on their dog and pony and beer show across the street from E3. The truck needs to make a full round trip, from Austin, TX, to Los Angeles, and back to Austin once more.

This journey is taken in service of the Devolver Digital E3 Lot, a parking lot leased by Devolver during the show, where independent developers take appointments in AirStream trailers and everyone else takes full advantage of the free beer and food. It's a uniquely off-brand part of attending E3; everyone knows the Devolver lot, even if they're just going to take advantage of the free food. And yet this shibboleth – this weird part of E3 that has become so curiously intrinsic to the showgoing experience in the past four years – was born from opposition to E3 and their masters at the ESA.

"E3 was just always a show that was really expensive and that we didn’t want to be inside of as GodGames [neé Gathering of Developers]," Devolver co-founder Mike Wilson said in a phone interview conducted before E3 2017. "When I found out we couldn’t plug our own computers in without paying some union guy $200 and waiting an hour and a half to come over and do that, I was like, well, okay, that’s not an option for us."

Wilson, a 20+ year games industry veteran, first hit on the idea of hosting an adjacent E3 event in 1999 while planning GodGames' presence at the expo. "I drove around and found that parking lot across the street, which is now condominiums on the other side of Pico and Fig from where we’re at now," Wilson said. "If we can get this place, we’ll just do it over here, and if we can’t then we just won’t do E3."

The GodGames incarnation of the lot ran between 1999 to 2001, until Take-Two Interactive acquired the company. Wilson would not have to worry about planning another E3 until 2007 – the year of the infamous Santa Monica E3 – when his new company Gamecock needed to attend.

For the uninitiated, Santa Monica is half Los Angeles neighborhood, half its own city, situated about as west as you can go before hitting the Pacific Ocean. It's a beach town for rich people, and it also played host to the first E3 outside of the Los Angeles Convention Center since 1998's Atlanta E3. The show became the "E3 Business and Media Summit," and was completely decentralized. Most of the traditional media appointments took place across ten different hotels located on beachfront Ocean Avenue, along with an airplane hanger at the Santa Monica airport. To this day, even after the packed and unsafe E3 2017, the Business and Media Summit is widely considered to be the worst incarnation of the show.

"The problem revealed itself as soon as they opened the doors. While the PR reps and game developers residing in their separate hotels didn't have to go anywhere, everyone else did. Worse, everyone else had to go literally everywhere else," wrote Russ Pitts in his game journalism memoir Sex, Drugs, and Cartoon Violence. "People attending the show to meet with the PR reps and game developers had to navigate from one end of Ocean Avenue to another multiple times in a day, locate ten different hotels (and sometimes multiple companies inside those different hotels), match schedules assembled by dozens of different marketing teams and somehow manage all of this while frequently drunk and/or hungover. You don't need a Ph.D to see where this was going."

Gamecock was not invited to E3 that year – almost certainly because the company was not part of the ESA, but also because E3 had cut down on the amount companies that were allowed to officially attend – so the company set up shop in the Hotel California, right by the Santa Monica pier. "We rented a little hotel in Santa Monica [...] we served BBQ, and we served beer, and we did the same thing we always do at E3, and then we had a funeral on the beach," Wilson said.

To hear Wilson tell it, he truly believed that if E3 was going to restrict itself to the biggest companies, E3 was a dead con walking. "If that’s what you believe the industry is, a bunch of PowerPoint presentations for the biggest companies, then I’m pretty sure this show is over," Wilson said. So, obviously, the next move was to hold a New Orleans-style funeral on the beach.

Coincidentally, the E3 funeral was one of the earliest public appearances of Niero as Mr. Destructoid, who delivered a speech eulogizing the Electronic Three. (All while breaking Niero's internal rule that Mr. Destructoid should never talk! Shame, shame, shame.) According to Tiff Chow's writeup, the funeral was less exciting than its reputation suggests. "The procession was long and more physically toiling than we had expected to encounter," Chow wrote. "The ceremony was less than riveting all in all." Some footage of the event has survived, if you'd like to see grainy 240p dancers making some beer money on the Santa Monica pier.

(Nine years later, former GodGames owner Take-Two Interactive would stage a similar mock New Orleans funeral to celebrate the forthcoming release of Mafia III. An unfortunate coincidence, running a jovial funeral procession on the same weekend as the Pulse shootings.)

"We sort of picked a fight in ‘07 with that funeral for E3," Wilson said. "Maybe my best day ever at E3 was when I rolled in to that first day with Gamecock, and the LA Times had a story on the front page of the business section that started with Michael Gallagher saying 'Gamecock may be throwing a funeral for E3, but it’s far from over.'"

Although we were unable to verify the existence of the article, this archived story from 2007 about the potential end of E3 from the Los Angeles Times features a quote from Wilson, as well as a mention of the funeral. "Nobody had ever even heard of us by that point. That was when I realized the ESA knew who we were," Wilson said. "And then the next year I ran for President [of the ESA] against Michael Gallagher."

Wilson's campaign for president of the ESA was more of a bit than anything, since Wilson was not part of the ESA nor was the president an elected position. It was an attention-grabbing move in the American election year of 2008, one that involved pie-based assassination attempts, falsified scandals, and plenty of hotel room strippers. (Wilson claims there were no strippers at the Figueroa, but the mid-credits scenes from the Escapist's behind-the-scenes documentary proves otherwise.)

If I had to guess – and I do – I would say any alleged tensions between Wilson and the ESA were solidified here.

Five years later, the GodGames lot was reborn under the Devolver branding, where the company held "secret" meetings for Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. The lot is both a cost-cutting measure and a way to further Devolver's punk-rock aesthetic, even if doing business in an offshoot of the tech industry means you can only ever really be "Zumiez in a suburban shopping mall" punk.

The lot has always been popular with attendees, but it looked a little different when the Devolver incarnation was established in 2013. The space Devolver leases across the street from the LACC contains two parking lots separated by a thoroughfare: that first Devolver shindig took place on the front-facing lot. Since then, Devolver has moved to the back lot – while the ESA has leased the front lot, only to park truck trailers there. Several game pundits seem to believe the trucks act as a fence, blocking the Devolver show from view of the E3 attendees across the street.

According to an ESA rep speaking with Kotaku's lovely Nathan Grayson, the ESA's trucks are not a conscious attempt to hide Wilson's company from the rest of the show. "There’s nothing malicious or vindictive going on. If you look around, you’ll see a lot of trucks, etc, that are being used for similar reasons. It’s just part of running a large event." We received the same comment as part of the reporting for this story.

"It’s funny, because they literally in a man-to-man conversation, off the books, told me the same exact fucking line they told Nathan from Kotaku last year, that "No, that’s just the way we stage things, we’re running a world-class event." Yeah, that’s how you park trucks when you’re running a world-class event," Wilson said. "That’s the best use of space, right across the street, is to park those trucks end-to-end and do nothing else with the rest of the space."

Things changed earlier this year, when the ESA let their lease on the front lot lapse. Devolver picked up the lease, intending to run an "Indie Picnic" in the lot that would be open to the 15,000 public badge holders attending E3 for the first time. Devolver was unable to secure the city permits necessary for the event, and accounts vary as to why the permits were denied.

The city of Los Angeles did not respond to requests for comment from Destructoid nor Polygon, so we have no official word as to why the permits were denied. Wilson has some theories, though. The city of LA owns the front lot, compared to the privately-owned back lot, so Wilson suspects the ESA bullied the LA Department of Building and Safety into denying the permits.

"It’s exactly what you would expect. Those guys throw the city a lot of money, it’s the biggest event in the Los Angeles Convention Center every year, and they’ve been doing it for 20-something years. They’ve got a little bit of sway with the city, even more than Devolver, apparently. They did not like that we had that front parking lot lease that apparently somebody there forgot to renew the lease on."

"Just like Mafioso bullies, all the conversations they had with people involved were phone conversations, not emails. Not recorded, not written. And none of those people are going to go on the record saying they were told by the ESA not to do this, but they were. Because they told us: 'Who are you guys, why is everybody trying to fuck you? Why do they care so much that you’re over there?' And the answer is we don’t know, other than that they're grasping for relevance because retail doesn't matter like it used to," Wilson said.

When asked for comment, the ESA denied Wilson's claims. "The lot in question is outside of our control. ESA put zero pressure on the city to do anything with regard to the lot," Dan Hewitt, VP of Media Relations for the ESA said in an email to Destructoid. "The issues Devolver had has nothing to do with ESA. We had a completely sold out convention center with 300 exhibitors and that's where our focus was."

Since the Indie Picnic was no longer possible, Devolver used the front parking lot for the one thing it had been zoned for: parking cars. For E3 2017, the usual beer and BBQ brouhaha remained in the back lot – still a lot to worry about even without the headache of the Indie Picnic. Kate Ludlow, a member of Devolver's Special Operations team, is a crucial part of planning Devolver's presence at E3. "We're already planning [E3 2018] in our heads," Ludlow said in an interview conducted during E3 2017. "We kinda never stop daydreaming about it. But about five months before the event, the emails start going."

"You're throwing a party at the same time you're business-ing," Ludlow said. "The sun is hot, and the beer needs to be cold. There's a million little grenades that you have to jump on. Somebody needs an Xbox controller, somebody needs an HDMI cable, we need more umbrellas, there's a million problems. It's like whack-a-mole."

If you know what to look for on the Devolver lot, you can see those moles being hammered in real-time. Hell, even if you don't know who everybody is and what their jobs are, you can still see the problems you'd expect to see at a large event. My Fable Fortune demo was held together by a phone's mobile hotspot, since the parking lot didn't have wi-fi. But for the developers at the show, the pros of showing at Devolver outweighed the cons. For one, independent developers without PR experience were able to piggyback off Devolver's existing staff. 

"Good PR people will always match an outlet or writer's style to a game, but sometimes with shows like E3 you don't always get to choose your writer since some of the larger outlets will just assign someone to cover a publisher, area or game," Devolver PR rep Stephanie Tinsley said in an email. "I can recall one occasion when the assigned writer who showed up for a preview was definitely not a good fit for a game and that made things pretty hard for the PR team because you can’t turn them away, but you know they’re going to hate the game...yeah, that sucked."

"Even though we weren't Devolver affiliated, some of the Devolver PR people would bring press people over to show them Semblance while the press people waited for their scheduled appointment with one of the Devolver games," Semblance developer Ben Myers said in an interview with Destructoid conducted after E3. "They are also so eager to help out with things."

Myers is a South African game developer working on Semblance, a puzzle platformer that was pitched to me as "a game where the world is made of Play-Doh." The game isn't being published by Devolver Digital (or Devolver offshoot Gambitious) – instead the game ended up on the lot through Devolver's partnership with the Indie Megabooth.

"They set up most of our small booth, and also the computers. We just had to arrive, put the build on the computer, and make the little booth look good!" Myers said. "Pretty standard stuff I guess, it's just all happening in the car park of Hooters."

I asked Myers whether he was at all concerned about getting on the ESA's bad side by associating with Devolver. "The ESA seems to focus on large AAA companies, and it's the US association of those companies. Being in South Africa, they don't really have much of a presence there," Myers said. "As a studio making games remotely to sell to a Western audience, Devolver Digital is much more important to have good terms with than ESA is."

While reporting on this story, I spoke with developers through both official PR channels and private email conversations, and everyone praised the company regardless of who was listening. Industry luminary Rami Ismail said the lot felt very "fitting" for Vlambeer's games; Flying Wild Hog's Tadeusz Zielinski compared the Devolver lot to "summer camp" and standard trade shows to "labor camp;" Outreach developer James Booth called the lot an "amazing and unique experience."

From an outside perspective, it's hard to glean whether developers are happy with the kind of coverage they get. Anecdotally, coverage of the Devolver lot will often focus on the lot itself, like this IGN video or this Waypoint video, or, uh, this very article. There's also the Devolver E3 press conference, which did feature some of Devolver's upcoming slate, but is anecdotally known for being an Adult Swim-esque bit of anti-humor.

Myers certainly seems to think showing Semblance on the lot was a good use of his time. "We got mentioned on IGN, Game Informer, and GameSpot as well as a couple other sites. Also, journalists we met from other sites that didn't write about us now are more likely to write about us in the future," Myers said. "We were worried that showing our small indie game from two people just out of University would be overwhelmed by all that AAA fanfare and lens flare. Indeed, booking press before the show was almost impossible."

"Instead, the utter density of press both doing press appointments and hanging out at the Devolver lot meant it wasn't hard to find people interested in smaller independent games. Moreover, in our inexperience, we didn't expect E3 to be a place we would make so many industry contacts, but we ended up meeting a bunch of people from publishers and other organisations. Showing Semblance on the lot was a large net win," Myers said.

Wilson reportedly lost $100,000 over the cancelled Indie Picnic, but hasn't quite given up on a public-facing Devolver event. "We were so excited about a fan festival, we're going to have something in Austin in the spring," said Wilson in an interview with Polygon. However, running both a fan event and an E3 lot could possibly be too cost-prohibitive, and the E3 event seems to be the one on the chopping block. "It depends on what happens. It will be sad for us if we can't do this," Wilson told Polygon.

Devolver still holds the lease on both lots for "a few years," according to official comment from the company. "Devolver has been talking about maybe just doing their own thing but nothing has been decided yet," Tinsley said. "Thankfully the best thing about E3 is that you have the entire summer to not think about E3."

[Disclosure: Devolver covered the cost for the one-way flight to Phoenix, AZ, but if you think our coverage can be influenced by a flight to god damn Phoenix in the summer, then you've clearly never been there.]

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Mike Cosimano
Mike CosimanoSenior Reporter   gamer profile

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