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What follows is my recollection of the past few days as I typed it on the plane from LA back to Memphis earlier today:
Day 1: Saturday Nov. 19, 2005 – The Journey Begins
We flew out of Gainesville Airport at 7am, and our original itinerary called for a short layover in Memphis before continuing on to LA. However, when we arrived in Memphis, we learned that our flight to LA had been cancelled. After a lot of confusion on everyones part, we (Daniel and I – Chen, Dave, and Sal had different flights), we were booked on the next flight to LA…which was 6 hours later. So, Daniel and I had 6 hours to kill in the Memphis Airport. After a short search for playing cards (why does nobody sell regular playing cards in the airport?!) we acquired a deck of Elvis playing cards. Now, these were no ordinary playing cards – each card had a different picture of Elvis on them. So, Daniel invented quite possibly the greatest card game ever – ‘Elvis Poker’. Now, the rules of Elvis poker are very similar to 5-card draw, with a slight twist – the wilds. Instead of 2’s or 6’s or whatever, the pictures on the cards determined what was wild. So one hand would have Elvis in a hat as wilds. The next would be Elvis with a dog, or thoughtful Elvis. Just the fact that there are so many random pictures of Elvis made this game an instant classic. Anyways, after that looong layover, we finally get to fly to LA. Oh yeah, and since our flight got canceled and we had to be put in whatever seats were available, I got to fly first class, which was sweet.
Once we got to LAX around 4, we went down to baggage claim, where a lady holding the ‘Green Monster’ sign, and she gave us directions to our next location. You see, none of us knew where we were staying, or even where the event was. All of it was very surreal – and very ‘Amazing Race’ style (as Neubs noted). So, this lady gives us a card telling us to wait outside for the Sheraton shuttle, which would take us to our hotel. Thats right, Microsoft put us up in the LAX Sheraton. It was VERY nice. Plus, once we got to the hotel and checked in to our rooms (each person had their own), we met with more ‘green monster staff’, and we received $25 for random expenses for the night, our bus pass for the next day, and an invitation to the evening reception. At 7, there was a get-together for all of the contest winners, and there was much food a drink. The rest of the night was spent chilling with the rest of the guys and resting up. Sheraton’s beds are so nice.
Day 2: Sunday Nov 20, 2005 – The Beginning is Nigh
Sunday morning began with our bus rides. All of us (me, Chen, Neubs, Dave, and Sal) were on the Orange bus (there had to have been 4 or 5) and thus began our journey from LA to Palmdale. Ah, Palmdale – home to, well, nothing for the most part, but it was out in the Mojave Desert and was to be the location of the Zero Hour event. On the bus, they gave us all green wristbands which would designate us as VIP’s and get us into the exclusive areas of the event. Once we arrived in Palmdale and got checked into out hotel, we recieved more information as to the location of the event. We also received a ‘survival kit’ since backpacks, purses, and any other containers would not be allowed into the event. This survival kit contained, among other things: an Xbox360 beanie, hand warmers, energy bars, some weird Japanese gum called Black Black, caffeinated lip balm, and caffeinated soap. Yes, there was a caffeinated bar of soap. Also, there was an event schedule and a local map showing various points of interest. However, the exact location of the event was not on there. Microsoft really went to great lengths to keep us in the dark about this. However, there was a blurb on the map about Plant 42, an old US Air Force hangar, where we figured it would be. So, at 5, the buses left to go to the event….the time had finally come.
Or had it? Apparently, Microsoft did such a good job at keeping the location secret, that our bus driver got completely lost on the way there. However, she finally figured out where to go, and by this time, the sun had gone down, and the desert was dark. As we got closer to the event, we knew – there were two HUGE green light towers that could be seen for miles in the clear desert night. Once we got through the security checkpoints, we saw the hangars – two gigantic buildings at least 4 stories high, the width of a football field, and as long as at least another 3. In between them were two huge geo-dome tents (think half of the Epcot ball as a tent). plus, a few other tents for the outdoors vendors. One of the hangars had its main doors open a few feet, and there was a huge projector projecting the Zero Hour logo on the doors of the hangar opposite it. There was a lot of very loud techno, as well as hundreds of green lights shining on the walls of the buildings. Once we got inside, we waited in a line to get sweatshirts, and then to get our Xbox Live accounts set up for the event. During this time, people in the open hangar started throwing hundreds of beanbag chairs (which looked a lot like giant marshmallows) to the waiting crowd. We grabbed a few – at least we could sit in line. Just as we got through the line, the music stopped.
Replacing the techno was a cadre of drums, and the energy outside the doors tripled as the crowd waited on the brink of…whatever was inside. Finally, J Allard and Peter Moore (two Xbox big-wigs) officially started the event with a short speech. I was disappointed that they did not play any part later on in the event. But, the time had come. In a very dramatic fashion, the huge doors began to open. The first thing we saw was a sliver of green light, and as the doors opened wider, we saw a towering banner displaying the Xbox 360 console and the system’s catch-phrase: ‘Jump In.’ Inside the hangar was a huge area, filled with hundreds of gaming stations. However, as everyone else went straight for the nearest game system, our group was drawn to what I can only describe as the Origen Tree. Anyone familiar with the origen.com website will know what I mean, but those who have no idea what I am talking about, there was a large tree in the middle of the floor. Around it were dozens of hanging green fluorescent tubes. It was a very surreal sight. Other than the tree, in the middle of the hangar were dozens of small stations, each with 4 Xboxes and displays (most were 23″ Samsung LCD tv’s). Each station featured a different game, with the more popular games offering several stations. The beanbag chairs were obviously for you to use at these stations, as they were only a foot or so above the floor. There were also two VIP areas, characterized by two more dome rooms, and the VIP areas had more gaming stations, as well as some 42″ plasmas for the big launch titles such as Perfect Dark Zero, Project Gotham Racing 3, Kameo, and Madden 06. These were really good for showing off the awesome graphics the Xbox 360 is capable of. Another great aspect of being a VIP was the free food and drinks which were available in the area. (when all was said and done, none of us had to spend ANY money out of pocket for anything except souvenirs or Xbox accessories during the whole trip)
The rest of the hangar floor was taken up by various small exhibition areas for showcasing the non-gaming capabilities of the Xbox 360, an on-site Best Buy store (which was closed on Sunday), and the main stage, with a huge 30-foot screen. At various times during the event, various game developers would do demos on their upcoming games, or just showcases of the games. One of the more popular presentation areas was the Windows Media Center demo, where a guy did a demo showing how the Xbox 360 could stream video, music, pictures, and TV from a Windows Media Center PC. This was not a huge deal, as every time he did the demo it was EXACTLY the same, with the same music selection, video selection, and fairly lame jokes. However, at the end of each demo was a giveaway of t-shirts, more beanies, and a MC PC.
Most of this first night was spent wandering around trying to find open game stations (it was much easier to play games since we had access to the VIP areas) and just trying a lot of games. We went back to the hotel around 2am, even though for most people the event just kept going.
Day 3: Nov 21, 2005 – The Zero Hour
We came back to the event around 10am Monday Morning, and now the event was starting to get into full swing. There were hourly developer demos, lots of free stuff being given away – and most importantly – pre-orders for Xbox consoles. While we didn’t need to order Xboxes (see earlier postings), most of the people at the event were not contest winners and could use the event to pretty much guarantee they would get a console, a big deal since widespread shortages are expected. Some other random things going on – there was an on-site artist to customize faceplates for winners of local tournaments and whatnot, they looked pretty cool. There was also an on-site tatoo artist, in case you desperately wanted that Xbox logo on your body forever. There was also a clown that MC’d a dance-off, outdoor inflatables including gladiator combat and a bungee run, and a huge foosball court that used actual sized soccer balls. Oh, and the nicest bathrooms ever. Seriously, these portable bathrooms rivaled most restrooms in a restaurant, they were that nice. I’m talking hardwood floors, wallpaper, paintings, the works.
Anyways, back to the games. Plenty of that, although by this time most of us had played all the titles we wanted to, and had chosen a select few that we played a lot more. I loved PGR3, the graphics were amazing, and it was still the fun racing game I remembered. This is a good point to explain how playing the games worked. When we first arrived, we each received a memory unit, and our Xbox Live accounts were loaded onto these. These would serve as our aliases when playing online against other people. When we found an open console we wanted to play at, we would simply pop in our memory card, and load our profile. This way, we could in essence carry our identity with us no matter where we were playing, and still appear under our usual name when we played against anyone else at the event. Chen fell in love with Tiger Woods golf, and spent most of the day beating up on me whenever I tried to play him. Around 5, the line started to form. By ‘the line’, I mean the line to get the consoles people had ordered earlier in the day. It was very long, but not as long as it would get once people could actually get the consoles…but I am getting ahead of myself.
Closer to 8, things started to pick up pace. There was a live band that played on the main stage, and then the final countdown began. The clown MC came back and tried to do some lame chants and whatnot, but most people just wanted 9 o’clock to come. Now, the official launch date is Tuesday the 22, but since we were on the West coast, 9pm was the same as 12 eastern, when the first retail stores began selling them, so we launched in unison with them. At about 5 minutes to ‘Zero Hour’, we were met with a pleasant surprise. 3 Best Buy trucks (yes THREE) drove through the hangar to the store at the back, where they had at least 20 registers set up to get people through. It was really cool. When the trucks were opened, I was amazed to see that they each were COMPLETELY FULL of 360’s. And I mean completely full – top to bottom, front to back, solid boxes. People went crazy. At 9, there wasn’t really a huge huzzah, just once they got the boxes starting to unload people started moving through the line. Since we all already had our consoles, we decided to head back to the hotel to rest and get ready to go back home.
All in all, it was a crazy experience, where we each got a ton of free stuff (a console, free games, free clothing, and some beanbags – which actually made it on the plane ride back – amazing), had a blast, and were exhausted. I was bummed that there was more of a ceremony for the opening of the event than there was for the official launch, but after 30 nonstop hours of gaming, I think most people were burned out.
Pictures should be up soon.