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They paved indie paradise to put up a parking lot

They paved indie paradise to put up a parking lot

June 15, 2017 | By Kris Graft

In game development, not everything goes as planned. That also goes for running a game event for your fans.

Austin-based indie publisher Devolver Digital ran into some unexpected problems when it decided to expand its (completely unofficial) E3 presence this year, having to cancel its “Indie Picnic” showcase that would welcome this year’s 15,000 non-industry fans to play indie games from Devolver and other companies.

In short, Devolver paid tens of thousands of dollars to lease a parking lot that could exclusively be used for one thing: parking cars.

It’s a lesson in planning and preparedness for game events. And depending on who you talk to in this situation – Devolver or E3 showrunners Entertainment Software Association – the cancellation of the event went down in different ways.

For the past couple years, Devolver – which is not a member of the ESA – has been leasing an independently-owned parking lot next to a Hooters restaurant across the street from the L.A. Convention Center, where E3 is held.

An adjacent, more visible parking lot that’s marginally closer to the convention center – and owned by the city of L.A. – happened to open up this year because the ESA did not rent the lot for exhibitor or storage use as it had in prior years. Devolver saw this as the perfect opening to make more space for E3’s new fan-based clientele.

"We do well because we’re small and our developers are small. But we can’t play in that world "

But in a phone call, Devolver co-founder Mike Wilson said the ESA had a problem with a “renegade” event encroaching on E3’s territory, and used its influence with the city of L.A. to put the kibosh on the required permits to throw an event at that lot. Without the required permits, “Indie Picnic” was canned, and Devolver was out $100,000, including the $50,000 to lease the lot, according to Wilson.

ESA flatly denied any meddling in a statement to Gamasutra.

Nevertheless, Wilson is convinced ESA leveraged its influence with the city to meddle with permits. “We just didn’t expect trouble. Aside from the trucks, I’ve always thought it was a symbiotic relationship,” he said.

Devolver, a small independent company that doesn’t see the value in paying ESA dues to be an official part of E3, basically piggybacks off of E3 to enjoy the benefits of an event without being officially involved – ESA makes no money from Devolver, but Devolver benefits from the audience E3 attracts. The “trucks” Wilson talks about are 18-wheeler trailers ESA set up in prior years around the perimeter of the lot, blocking view of Devolver’s meeting place across the street. ESA says the blockade-like placement of these trucks had always been incidental.

Once it became clear that Indie Picnic would have to be cancelled, Devolver asked the city if it’d be possible to have a couple trailers, generators, and other structures and equipment to at least host some games for fellow game dev partners. “They were just like, ‘absolutely not,’” and the city assigned an inspector to keep an eye on the lot to make sure the lot was used solely to park cars, Wilson said. (Devolver has been able to charge for parking.)

ESA representative Dan Hewitt told us in an email, “The lot in question is outside of our control. ESA put zero pressure on the city to do anything with regard to the lot. The issue Devolver is having has nothing to do with ESA. We have a completely sold out convention center with close to 300 exhibitors and that's where our focus is.”

Hewitt added, “Exhibiting at E3 is open to all video game companies and we encourage participation. Indies and small developers are also welcome and able to participate in the event in an economical fashion via the Indie Cade booth, sharing booth spaces, and even in the Social and Mobile Game Pavilion. With energy and attendees in every spot of E3, all the exhibit spaces are premium and excellent opportunities.”

Devolver's totally-bonkers E3 "press conference"

Wilson said he considered suing, going as far as hiring an L.A. litigator and started to get a case together even prior to the final permit denial. He said he currently has no plans to file suit, nor a desire to escalate the situation.

But he still thinks legally-questionable actions took place. “[Of course] they’re denying [influencing permit issuance], because that’s tortuous interference,” he said.

Wilson, who undeniably has an anti-establishment, sarcastic streak that was shown in 2007’s “E3 Funeral” and this year’s Devolver E3 “press conference” that mocked the corporate nature of "actual" E3 press conferences, said E3 isn’t the place for game companies that are any less than giant triple-A-type publishers.

“We know there’s a price we can pay to be in there, but we know it’s never going to be worth the price,” Wilson said. “Then you’re shoved in some corner, in some sad place, competing with [big companies].”

“Even though Devolver is well-known and we’ve had a lot of successes, they’re not mainstream successes,” he added. “We do well because we’re small and our developers are small. But we can’t play in that world.”

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