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Devolver Digital e3 2017

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The story behind Devolver Digital’s legendary, ridiculously last-minute 2017 E3 press conference

The stakes are higher than ever for this year’s appearance

Don Thacker/Imagos

Last June, Nina Struthers, dressed in an innocuous grey slacks and a white shirt, walked out onto an E3 keynote stage to the sound of raucous applause. She looked unenthused as the camera flipped back and forth between her and the audience, her tired eyes straining with every second more of applause. As time passed, so did her patience; she begged people to stop clapping so that her publisher, Devolver Digital, could get on with its E3 press conference. Nothing helped. Finally, after mocking journalists for clapping, and sighing as loudly as possible, Struthers grabbed a pistol and shot it into the air. People laughed, and everything became even more bizarre.

It took 30 seconds for people to realize that Struthers was a fake and Devolver Digital’s inaugural press conference was a goof. It took about five minutes for people to realize it was still E3 2017’s best conference. A fake press conference that lasted 15 minutes and poked fun at E3’s entire identity suddenly became one of the most talked about events.

This is how it happened.

“Things got out of hand quickly”

Devolver’s press conference probably shouldn’t have happened. That’s what co-founder Nigel Lowrie thinks, anyway. Lowrie, who spoke to Polygon ahead of this year’s E3, where Devolver will return for the publisher’s second press conference, said he and his team came up with the idea only a month ahead of E3. They approached Don Thacker of Imagos Films, a production company that’s worked on live-action trailers for Devolver, to see if it a press conference was possible. Lowry described getting ready for the conference as a “mad rush to come up with basically everything,” adding that he “wrote down some ideas and a rough script, and the like a few days later, [Don] turned it into an actual kind of screenplay.”

“We just started just producing the heck out of the thing,” Lowrie said. “And then they shot it. I think we threw the file over to Twitch a couple of days before. They never even saw it, [but] it paired well with the weirdness that they like to do a late night at three in the morning. Ours was kind of a transition from the very real Bethesda press conference to their overnight weirdness stream.”

Thacker panicked after Lowrie called him with the idea. Thacker, a big fan of Devolver Digital and a good friend of Lowrie, told Polygon his team had three weeks to put together the 15-minute show. Having 15 minutes to put together the most ridiculous conference they could imagine was simply “just too epic to pass up,” Thacker said.

“I actually had a really deep conversation with my executive producer at the time and I was like, ‘Hey, this is rough. It’s just going to be a long haul. We’re going to start tomorrow and not stop until it plays,’ which is exactly what happened,” Thacker said. “And she said, ‘But think of the opportunity that you’ll get for making a statement with the conference.’ And that really sat with me; having the opportunity to say some stuff.”

Devolver’s experiment was always about two things: delivering cute jokes and making a statement about the state of E3. Everything about E3 is ridiculous, according to Thacker and Lowrie, and the two wanted to find a way to poke fun at an event they both thoroughly enjoy. This came with its own set of difficulties. Lowrie and Thacker wanted to poke fun, but they didn’t want to insult anyone directly. The people who attend E3 are their friends whose work they admire; the last thing they wanted to do was come off as self-righteous while they were also participating.

“We thought about the industry, and how these things always go down because E3’s kind of a like a national pastime in gaming,” Lowrie said. “Once these things are done, everybody judges them live on shows and on social media and that informs everyone else. Everyone knows the moments of the year are usually formed during these gigantic press conferences. So we thought we would kind of maybe just have fun with that.”

Jokes that felt a little too personal or mean were left on the cutting room floor. The show went into another direction, trying to find a balance between traditional Oscar-style jeering, poking fun at E3 press conferences overzealous lavishness, and self-deprecating jokes.

“We don’t want to attack people and that’s a hard line to find, to be honest,” Thacker said. “It’s very easy to slip into something that’s just a little bit to vindictive or vicious or biting. And the way we avoided that is replacing things that we thought were going to be too vicious with crazy.”

Nina Struthers Don Thacker/Imagos

Devolver Digital’s 15-minute press conference was like a descent into video game maelstrom; a cornucopia of gore, comedy and technology used to create a hilarious satirical take on the modern video game industry and E3. Jokes made fun of in-game spending, poked fun at games press and made light of the industry as a whole.

While the conference may be remembered by some for the visual gags and grotesque effects, Thacker said the goal was always to leave people thinking about the conference E3 has become. The whole charade was a gamble; Lowrie told Polygon he was so nervous about the entire event, petrified people wouldn’t get the jokes and Devolver Digital would become the industry’s laughing stock, that he was forced to watch the first half in the back of an Uber in downtown Los Angeles after leaving a “super secret developer dinner” late.

“I was like freaking out in the back of this thing,” Lowrie said.

E3 2017 Devolver
Mahria Zook on stage as Nina Struthers presenting “comment created content.”
Don Thacker/Imagos

“Oh my god, what’s happening?”

Lowrie knew they accomplished their goal about five minutes into the Twitch stream, as actress Mahria Zook owned the stage as Devolver Digital’s “Chief Synergy Officer” Nina Struthers.

“The way that mobile app works on Twitch, like even if you hold it vertically, you can see the chat below it and the video up top,” Lowrie said. “I obviously know what’s happening in the video, so I’m just staring at the chat and people are like loving it — like freaking out — and I’m flipping over to Twitter — and people are freaking out — and we’re all just high-fiving in the car. I remember thinking, ‘This is great. This is going well.’ We get to the where we’re staying with 10 minutes left in the thing, and everyone in our group is gathered around a big screen watching it and just having a good time. I was pretty elated afterwards that it actually worked out.”

The conference wasn’t just a success for Lowrie, Thacker or Devolver Digital. It also turned Zook into an overnight internet sensation. She became the center of ongoing GIFs, video edits and funny cuts that spread around YouTube and Twitter like forest fire. She became the face of Devolver, even though Zook’s involvement with the company wasn’t as close as people thought.

Zook was working part-time at a sensory deprivation float house at the time of the press conference, and decided to watch the stream on Twitch while her customers were “in their little, their little float pods having their quiet, peaceful journey.”

“I was watching the live feed and it was pretty hysterical,” Zook told Polygon. “It was surprising that people really bought into like, is this real, is it not? Just watching the comments and the way it devolved into, ‘Oh my God, is she okay?’ was pretty cool and pretty funny. And then overnight I got a twitter following. I wasn’t really active on Twitter. I don’t know if I’d ever gotten a Twitter notification before that night. Suddenly it just blew up overnight and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what is happening?’

“Obviously within a day it was like, ‘Wow, that’s a thing.”

Designing Nina Struthers, a character so outlandish and villainous, was a key part to building the press conference, Thacker said. She couldn’t be an aspirational figure; she had to be a strong character that some people may not like, but ultimately loved watching. Nina became a caricature of a traditional publishing executive; someone so satirically thought of that she couldn’t be compared to Sony’s Andrew House, Microsoft’s Phil Spencer and Nintendo of America’s Reggie Fils-Aime. Thacker said despite their attempt to create a villainous figure, they were left surprised over how many people saw her as E3’s hero.

“We did try to keep them disconnected enough from reality so that you can’t be like, ‘Well, I didn’t like this person who made this human decision that I would have made differently,’” Thacker said. “No, you can’t relate to Nina and you’ll never relate to her. That’s important. I think what surprised us was the overwhelming positive reaction. When you see people who have tattoo outlines of Nina’s face on twitter, that’s troubling. Mariah Zook has found a nice little fan base in Nina, and gotten work from it, but I think her character’s popularity was actually what was surprising to us, and not necessarily how the press responded to it.”

It’s a hard task to demand from Thacker, Zook or Lowrie; it’s a goal that Lowrie admitted he’s not sure they’ll be able to achieve.

Devolver Digital e3 2017
Don Thacker in an auditorium.
Don Thacker/Imagos

“Impress me”

Proving that you can do something well is scary. The immediate promise that you’ll try to do something even better is downright terrifying. It’s almost impossible to do, according to Lowrie, who likened this year’s press conference to any sequel that’s almost guaranteed not to live up to people’s expectations.

Nina will return to the stage this year, and Zook can only describe the show as “bananas,” especially in retrospective of last year’s show. Zook couldn’t describe what happens in the show, or tease what Nina Struthers will do, but she did hint that’s it even more over-the-top. It has to be. That’s how Thacker and Lowrie see it, too. They wants Devolver Digital to be the name on everyone’s tongue again. They’re also facing down the barrel of a sophomore curse, trying to figure out how to outdo last year’s mad circus to deliver something that lives up to people’s expectations.

“I’m certain, no matter what you do, it’s like anything — a game release or whatever you gotta do — it’s never going to be as well received,” Lowrie said. “The element of surprise isn’t there right now. It’s expected; now you have to impress me. I’m resigned to the fact that this will not be as well received as last year. That’s how it’s going to be, but I do think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I mean frankly, there’s a couple of games being shown for the first time or in-depth for the first time, and one’s a full blown reveal. The reveal game is, for a certain segment of the gaming population, going to melt their fucking brains. It’s going to be amazing.

“So at least that’s good.”

Thacker and Lowrie now have to worry about their games and producing a riotous, fake E3 press conferences. Keeping it fresh requires a strategy: the Terminator 2 method.

“I kind of reviewed my favorite sequels while working on this year’s show,” Thacker said. “I’m always like, ‘How is Terminator 2 better than Terminator?’ How is that? Why is it so much better? And it, it’s pretty simple. You get all this bigger stuff, but what you keep is that core design. These characters got to this next level because of the events of the first one. So in the second one our goal was to kind of level up.”

That doesn’t stop the creeping anxiety from settling in, of course. Thacker said he feels like he’s expected to just “close the door and be expected to be the most brilliant version of myself for 21 pages,” adding that “it’s the worst.” All of which is not to suggest Thacker isn’t excited for the show. He’s proud of the work they’ve all created. He simply doesn’t want to do a disservice to Devolver fans, Nina Struthers’ character or the commentary they’ve put together in a 15-minute conference.

“You can’t be left thinking, “Oh, it’s just, this is the same thing again,’” Thacker said. “You can’t be left asking, ‘Is it the stupid same thing again?’ We have to give this character more. You have to give everything a little bit more.”

If there’s one thing everyone involved can agree on, there will certainly be “more” at this year’s press conference. Lowrie said they’re doubling-down on everything that made last year’s conference so memorable, and there shouldn’t be any reason people don’t enjoy it, even if it doesn’t live up to their full expectations. It is a Devolver Digital conference after all. Prepare for anything,

Devolver Digital’s press conference will stream on Twitch at 11 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 10.