They didn't have passes.
To be fair, they tried to secure legitimate, free "industry" passes for E3, but by the time they found out about that option, the deadline had passed. Last year, Swink's game, Scale, was an IndieCade finalist and they both attended E3 with those passes, so they knew – kind of – what they were attempting with a sneak-attack.
"It's also a bit tricky for indies to get in anyway, as we usually lack the qualifying paperwork they want – industry W2s, that sort of thing – that prove that we're developers," Robinson said. "It helps if you have your own LLC, which we both do."
Crashing E3 wasn't out of malice for the show or to snag a cheap thrill. Swink and Robinson did it for the good of their games and their mental health.
"We did this for a few reasons," Swink said. "The main reason is for sanity. It's easy to go a little nuts when you sit in your house working on your game day after day without any external feedback or contact. It's a huge mental boost to show the game to gamers and journalists and be reminded that, yes, what we're doing is cool and at some point people will have interest in playing it. Another reason is just to remind people that our games exist. Our marketing budget is about the cost of a tank of gas, so driving down is what we can afford. We're not Microsoft or Sony or even Majesco. The way we interface with the people who play our games is face to face, one on one, one person at a time."
Swink labeled it a "guerrilla" E3 invasion. They showed up with no badges, no area to demo their games, and nothing to stop them.
"We drove the six hours from Phoenix to LA, strolled into the un-badged middle hall, moved tables we weren't supposed to move and started emailing journalists to come check out Scale and Gravity Ghost," Swink said.
I met up with them once near the Concourse Hall, on the outskirts of the Into the Pixel art exhibit. They had two laptops back-to-back on a small, high-top table, and a player was engrossed in Robinson's Gravity Ghost. They said everything had gone well so far; Robinson was stopped once at the main door, outside of the Los Angeles Convention Center, but she reminded the guard that the main hall was open to people without a pass. The guard let her enter, but warned that another security officer might stop her inside. None did.
Those emails they sent out saw some hits – reporters from PC Gamer, Kotaku, Destructoid, Indie Statik and Unwinnable stopped by to say hi and give the games a whirl, and Indie Megabooth overlord Kelly Wallick popped in (both Scale and Gravity Ghost will be part of Indie Megabooth at PAX Prime).
E3 isn't just about the Los Angeles Convention Center. Every year, leagues of parties and networking events take over Los Angeles, most of them accessible without an E3 badge. Robinson and Swink took advantage of these opportunities and ended up in some surprising places – like the top floor of a high-rise building in the heart of LA, at the swanky, yearly party thrown by Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.
"Oh man, that was hilarious!" Swink recalled. "We were having sushi at the restaurant where M-Pacht's thing was being held by random coincidence. After dinner we went to the elevators and saw some people we knew across the hallway. We didn't see the signs that apparently said 'private event,' and nobody stopped us or asked if we belonged there. We caught up with a bunch of friends – Kellee Santiago from Ouya/thatgamecompany, Nathan Vella from Capy, Chris Hecker, and so on – and we figured, hey, this is the place to be. A surreal moment was Lorne Lanning explaining his business plan to me. I must commend his personal hygiene. He is one nice-smelling man."
"We figured, hey, this is the place to be. A surreal moment was Lorne Lanning explaining his business plan to me."Steve Swink, Scale
Swink eventually ran into Pachter himself and attempted to congratulate him on the party with a high five.
"The man has no idea how to high five," Swink said. "This is what he put up. He must never have seen Top Gun."
High five faux pas aside, Robinson said the chance to attend all these parties was great in terms of exposure for Gravity Ghost.
"We were able to do some playtests at various events," Robinson said. "It's neat to get the game in front of people who don't normally play indie games. One thing I hear a lot is, 'My kids will love this!' just because there's no violence or dying in my game."
All in all, Swink and Robinson said they would do it again, if they had to: "If we could have a spot at, say, the IndieCade booth, that would make things logistically easier. But, hey, we had a great time this year and can make this an annual thing with little to no effort, assuming Kellee doesn't mind us sleeping on her floor again."