Entertainment Software Association

Free E3 passes, bought Twitter followers, and indie games: the sketchy tale of Indies Crash E3

Free E3 passes, bought Twitter followers, and indie games: the sketchy tale of Indies Crash E3

A couple weeks ago, a Twitter account appeared in the feeds of many video game journalists and members of the press. Called “@IndiesCrashE3” this company said they were taking on E3 to fight for the “little guys” of the gaming business: independent game developers who often have trouble getting verified for access to the industry's biggest event.

Run by a small company called SemiFormal Studios, “Indies Crash E3” is a contest that purportedly seeks to give indies a chance to get into E3. It's not every day that a feel good story like this lands in a reporter's lap, so I excitedly started researching both the company and whether or not it's actually possible to hold a contest like this without violating E3's “industry only” policy.

What I found was a web of confusion and conflicting reports that made me doubt basically everyone I talked to.

For starters, the @IndiesCrashE3 account already had 25,000 followers by the time I saw it, which seemed very odd. It's my job to keep up with the goings-on of the gaming industry, and some of my close friends do the same job. So it's strange that a “movement” (as they repeatedly describe themselves) like this would reach 25,000 people before showing up on my radar (or Ben's.)

Red Flag

I remembered Ben's story from last year about the faked Twitter popularity of NBA Baller Beats, and decided to check them out.

My suspicions proved accurate as it became immediately obvious that the company had purchased themselves a large, fake Twitter following.

“We figured the contest wouldn't have any credibility if we were advertising it on a twitter account that had 3 followers, so we went over to fiverr.com and set ourselves up with some so we wouldn't be immediately dismissed,” said Ian Kinsey, director of SemiFormal Studios, when I asked him about the fakes. “We've been upfront about our twitter followers since the beginning, and I don't think it hurt anyone but we are, of course, willing to accept that there's some other methods we didn't think of that would have accomplished the same goal in a more tasteful manner.”

So I read the entirety of @IndiesCrashE3's 380 tweet history and found zero instances of them informing their readers that their follower count had previously been purchased, or saying anything to that effect.

It's hard to believe they have a trusting relationship with their users when the entire basis for their followers believing this was a “movement” was false. And it's hard to trust them when their first instinct for overcoming a lack of credibility… was to buy some.

Maybe it was the Twitter followers, or maybe it was the weird moment in a company blog post where they boasted about how beautiful their booth babes were, or the way they refer to themselves as a “small indie startup” (no indie I've ever met has referred to themselves as a startup…even the word 'indie' is uncommon these days.) But it just didn't feel right.

The Contest

Indies Crash E3 allows fans to nominate their favorite indie games and then vote for which companies will win. The top ten companies were to be awarded two passes, and the nominating fan would receive two as well. However, this seemed pretty sketchy. E3 passes are extremely hard to get, which is the entire premise of the contest, so why would the Entertaiment Software Association, the company that controls E3, suddenly decide it was alright for this company to give away 40 passes?

That's a very large number of passes for any company to give away, especially when access ot the show is so tightly controlled.

“The winning nominators and indies will be guests of Ensemble at the expo,” Kinsey said. “Those guests still have to be members of the interactive entertainment industry, but E3 does not care how we distribute the badges.”

But everyone we talked to about this insisted that it was a very difficult thing to do, and SemiFormal is planning to give away five times more badges than there are people at their company.

“You cant give your badge to someone who is not from the industry, and if you do it opens you up to a fuckton of liabilities,” said one source who asked to remain anonymous. “However, there are affiliate badges you can register for which wont get you 24/7 all-access, but will get you in to the show. But even then, you have to register that person under your company. You are not supposed to give badges out to the public, but its more of an unwritten rule. Not enforced, because of course ESA doesn't want to piss off exhibitors when they are struggling to get people to pay their exorbitant prices anyway.”

Exactly how the ESA tracks exhibitor passes is hard to pin down; the official rules and policies aren't available to the public, and no developers with first-hand knowledge of the process were willing to talk on-the-record about how E3 passes are matched to each company.

Another source, on the condition of anonymity, said that there was at least one official document needed that links the person being given the pass and the company, but they refused to elaborate. Any information about how the system is set up simply opens the door to that system being gamed, and everyone we spoke to expressed a wish to keep the pass system as secure as possible.

Confusion

Despite this, Kinsey says the IDG World Expo representative that sold them their booth said in no uncertain terms that they would not get involved with how they used their badges.

“The person who sold us the booth and fielded all our questions during the process was either trying their damnedest to sell us or was just incorrect,” said Kinsey. “We think it was simply a miscommunication between the ESA and IDG World Expo, the company who runs E3 for the ESA.”

What's clear is that it's possible that anyone 'winning' an exhibitor pass through Indies Crash E3 with no legitimate links to the company could be turned away, or asked to leave. I'm told that SemiFormal and the ESA are currently hashing out the discrepancy as a result of this story. The ESA refused to comment.

Meanwhile, the contest is still running, but paying to travel all the way to Los Angeles on the hope that the ESA will turn a blind eye to what sounds like rule-bending strikes me as a bad deal for cash-strapped indies until it is confirmed that this will be allowed.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that the entire structure of the contest directly contradicts the stated purpose of Indies Crash E3. A full half of the badges they plan to give away will go to non-indie attendees. Wouldn't it be massively more efficient to simply distribute the passes privately among colleagues? Twice as many legitimate indies could attend; they wouldn't have needed to create and run a contest page; and they wouldn't attract attention to a possibly-illegal contest that could get shut down.

Ultimately, Indies Crash E3 may never finish and if it does, it's contributing to the very same problem they say they're trying to solve. Half of the 40 badges being given away will go to fans who nominated the games, and it remains possible that they won't be able to attend the show even if they pay for the travel to LA.