And I mean epic. Last week, I crossed the country to attend Game Developers Conference 2008 in San Francisco, California. Below, you'll find a detailed report on my travels, replete with in-depth photos, each accompanied by both honest and sometimes facetious commentary. But be warned: it's going to be a long trip. If there be any lilly-livered scallywags amongst ye who fear the voyage, turn back now, or forever will ye be scarred by me words.
Tuesday, February 19th, 2008
My trip to California would be a long one. After a two hour flight from RDU to Chicago, I found my connecting flight delayed for two hours due to foggy weather in San Francisco. As I waited in the Chicago airport, I noticed Ralph Baer, the inventor of video games, pacing anxiously from across the room. I approached him and introduced myself. We both agreed that it was a fortuitous coincidence since we had intended to meet up at the GDC anyway. His flight had come in from New Hampshire, and by chance, we shared the same connecting flight to SFO. He complained of a cold, which dogged him throughout his stay in San Francisco; he was all too ready to settle down in his hotel.
Thanks to Southwest Airlines' open seating policy, we sat next to each other during the 4+ hour flight. Ralph and I spoke of life, games, family, and philosophy, and he helped me play WordJong on the Nintendo DS, suggesting possible words. Even though he's turning 86 this year, his mind is still sharp as a tack. He possesses a unique and ingenious sense of humor that has likely endeared him to many during his long and storied lifetime.
Ralph likes chocolate milk. But who doesn't?
Upon landing, we found ourselves in the midst of a rainy and foggy San Francisco evening. Ralph and I parted company at the airport, as he had his own travel plans.
After some searching, I climbed aboard a small pre-arranged shuttle (think "van") piloted by a man who seemed more interested in speaking Russian to his pony-tailed, ex-mobster buddy in the front passenger seat than driving. After an hour and a half doing loops around downtown San Francsico during rush hour in the rain, darkness, and fog — almost colliding with two trucks and three pedestrians on the way — I finally arrived at my hotel. My room looked like this. From the first airport to the hotel, my travel time totaled just over 14 hours.
A quick peek out the only window confirmed my previous assessment: rainy, foggy, and dark. Despite this, someone was swimming in the outdoor hotel pool. I guess you can't keep a good swimmer down.
(Morbid jokes about lead weights just ran through my head.)
From the window, I spun around on my heels to find a curious device attached to the TV set.
Hark! My first encounter with the fabled pay-per-play Nintendo 64 system, LodgeNet. I found this modified N64 controller plugged into the back of the TV set via long, coiled cable. Its business end terminated with a 6-pin RJ-25 telephone jack.
32 N64 games were available though an on-screen menu system. The price was something like $8 (US) for five minutes of play. I didn't play any.
Exhausted, I went to sleep, trying not to worry about what the next day might bring.
Wednesday, February 20th, 2008
I woke up, ate breakfast, and hopped on a shuttle bus to Moscone West. The scene above greeted me shortly before entering for the first time.
I found the natives engaged in curious customs, the likes of which I still do not quite understand.
Unfazed, I made my way to the third floor and picked up my press pass. Then it was back down to the lobby to take a stroll around the GDC Career Pavilion.
Seeking neither a career, nor a pavilion, I soon noticed that the grid-like ceiling overhead made for a cool photograph.
I hit up Epic's booth, as their headquarters are in my home town. I thought I'd just say hello from one North Carolinian to another. In no fewer than thirty polite words, they essentially told me to go away.
And away I went, to more welcoming climes — the Microsoft Xbox 360 keynote with John Schappert. I sat amidst the deafening cacophony of pounding, thumping, mind-crushing techno grooves known as the Press/VIP section (the front of the Esplanade Ballroom).
The 12-hour headache Microsoft imparted on me that day made more of an impression than any of their announcements, so I write about it here, in the "press," seeking my revenge.
Just when I thought I was going to implode from techno interludes, Microsoft introduced something interesting: the blurry guy who created ZZT.
Alas, Tim Sweeney wasn't there to announce a new ZZT engine. Instead, he showed the audience a gloriously, lushly executed demo of a bounding cube of meat. Let me say that again, in case you didn't catch it the first time. A cube of meat.
Then they brought on some other guy who made some game about gears or something, blah blah blah… whatever.
Hey! Is that the back of Al Alcorn's head?
After the keynote, I picked up a quick roast beef sandwich composed of five inches of bread and a one millimeter slice of roast beef. It cost $10.
Onward and downward, as they say, into the depths of the North Hall, where the real action is: the Expo floor.
But first, let us pause for a moment and consider the striking similarities between this scene and a certain level from Lemmings in which you run out of umbrella guys.
Naturally, once inside the GDC expo proper, I made my way to the Nintendo booth.
Hey! Who's that? Could it be? Reggie Fils-Aimé signing ledgers for autograph-hungry accountants? Thinking quickly, I whipped out an eight-quarter projection of my backend fiscal mort fund calendar and waited in line, only to discover that he was merely a new robotic Wii accessory. Rats.
This hemispherical display was about as cool as it looked (that is to say, not very). It doubles as a hot tub for mogwai.
Speaking of mogwai, I stumbled upon a demonstration of how to skin and cook a Pleo, should one find himself stranded in the 21st-century wilderness.
Much like the aforementioned dome, this ambush interviewer on the expo floor appeared about as ridiculous as she intended (that is to say, very). Luckily, I punched her in the gut and managed to escape humiliation.
…Although being stared down by a four foot likeness of Ralph Baer's head, circa 1970, is an exercise in humility unto itself.
Soon, it was time to see the real reason everyone came to GDC 2008: the joint Ralph Baer / Al Alcorn session. There, I met Ralph's middle son, Mark, of whom Baer often speaks fondly. In the picture above, you can see Ralph and Al Alcorn (left) preparing for the session.
Hosting a GDC session is hard work, as evidenced by Mr. Alcorn's shirt. Here, the two luminaries posed for a few press photos before the session.
Thinking quickly, the two men exchanged heads.
(Just seeing if you're still awake.)
After an introduction by the unflappable Tommy Tallarico, Baer's head returned to its proper place and began his presentation. Alcorn acted as Baer's sidekick, changing the PowerPoint slides as Baer spoke. Above, you can see one of his slides.
Ralph delivered his regular spiel about his electronics history, with doses of Baer-style humor thrown in. The audience effused glowing admiration as they stared, transfixed, the whole time — you could really tell how much they admire the man. At the end of his segment, they showered Baer with a much-deserved standing ovation.
For the second thirty minutes of the session, Al Alcorn gave a quick recount of his early dealings with Nolan Bushnell, Atari, and Pong. Alcorn recalled designing the first Pong arcade machine in response to a challenge from Bushnell. He later had the daunting task of reducing Pong to an inexpensive mass-market home model. Baer confided to me on the plane that, according to Alcorn, even though his task was challenging, Atari knew home Pong was possible because the Magnavox Odyssey had done it first.
At the end of the session, Ralph Baer and Al Alcorn played each other in a game of video Ping-Pong for the first time ever on a replica Brown Box that Ralph built by hand. I shot a video clip of the event that you can watch immediately below.
At the end of the session, Keith Pullin (pictured far right at the podium), Editor of the Gamer's Edition of the Guiness Book of World Records, presented a surprise plaque naming Ralph Baer as the inventor of the home video game console. Also pictured is Tommy Tallarico, left of Baer.
Shortly afterwards, throngs of Baer-heads swarmed the stage, seeking autographs.
Pop quiz! Name this respected gaming journalist who has the uncanny ability to shoot laser beams from his eyes.
Speaking of gaming journalists, it was time for dinner. And who better to eat dinner with than the perpetually awesome 1UP crew? I met up with Jeremy Parish (above), Scott Sharkey, and Jenn Frank, along with a non-1UP-affiliated composer named Leif Chappelle.
They brought me to a strange room filled with antique, blurry floating motorcycles, continuously phasing in and out of our plane of existence.
After dinner, Jeremy gave me a quick tour of the 1UP/EGM offices. Still smarting from the Microsoft headache, my gracious host produced a bottle of magical orange pills (ibuprofen) — the journalist's friend. I'll always remember taking drugs at 1UP headquarters.
Checking the clock, we realized we were late for the IGF awards. Jeremy stayed behind at the office to work on something, but Sharkey, Jenn, Leif, and I ducked into the awards just in time. This was my view from the back row. Sure, we could have sat in the front, but who wants to be deaf? (Sounds like the title of a new gameshow on Fox.)
Believe it or not, but this blurry monster is my friend and colleage, Simon Carless, whom I met with Thursday morning. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I stayed at the Game Developers Choice Awards just long enough to see Al Alcorn present Ralph Baer with the Pioneer award for being awesome. After that, I left early to get some shut-eye — I had a big day ahead of me.
Thusday, February 21st, 2008
I awoke to see Ray Kurzweil standing at the foot of my bed!
"I'm from the future," he droned in a robotic Jewish voice, "Come with me if you want to live."
I screamed and pulled the flimsy hotel covers over my head, praying that it was only a bad dream. Thankfully, when I lowered them, he was gone.
I made my way back to the convention center, where I would see Kurzweil for real.
My friend and I have an inside joke about Mr. Kurzweil, using his last name as a verb that means "to forcefully copy another person's brain into a computer." Needless to say, it was quite an honor to be sitting no more than twenty feet away from the unwitting progenitor of the term.
Kurzweil gave a keynote at the GDC titled "The Next Twenty Years of Gaming." Sadly, his keynote had very little to do with gaming in particular, and was more of a rehash of charts and graphs from his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near. Call it a missed opportunity. He did mention Will Wright's Spore, though, to the delight of gaming journalists in the audience, eager to latch onto something game related for their looming write-ups of the keynote.
Kurzweil seemed rushed for time and skipped through many slides. I got the feeling, as I looked out into the blurry audience, that 90% of the befuddled crowd had absolutely no idea what the heck he was talking about. I probably wouldn't have understood it either, had I not previously read his last two books.
After the keynote, I rushed down the block to meet Harry McCracken, Editor-in-Chief of PC World, at Chevy's for a steak quesadilla lunch. Harry is a pretty awesome guy. Sadly, I didn't take any photos of the event, so you'll just have to take my taco picture word for it.
With all my commitments complete and time to kill, I wandered into a roundtable discussion, hosted by Stanford University's Henry Lowood, about the preservation of "virtual worlds" (otherwise known as "computer and video games" to laypersons).
I met some amazing people, not the least of which being Lowood himself, who carries the permanent demeanor of a friendly lecturing professor. Some of the more famous folks pictured on the left side of the table are Warren Spector (ex-Origin designer) and Christopher Grant (Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq), with Steve Meretzky (of Infocom fame) lugging the backpack.
The people at this meeting (and some not present) are responsible for the "Digital Game Canon" that received some mainstream press attention about a year ago. If you'll recall, I wrote a history of Sid Meier's Civilization last year for the project, so I suppose I was in the right place.
Sitting to my right was perhaps the only living fan of my writings, Andrew Armstrong. He's an affable and passionate chap who flew all the way from London to meet up with the Game Preservation SIG group. He manages the group's wiki.
And to my left sat Henry Lowood, seen here speaking to the group while the indispensable Frank Cifaldi (of Lost Levels fame) looked on.
They might as well have called the session "The Nice Guys Club" because everyone there was intelligent, approachable, and easy to talk to.
Warren Spector (pictured above) exudes personable, jovial friendliness — a right jolly old elf. Like some kind of game design Santa Claus, he seems to find humor in everything, and you can't help but laugh along, in spite of yourself. I spoke with him after the session and he was kind enough to sign my childhood Ultima VI compendium, which mysteriously found its way into my luggage.
After the session, I thought I'd pick up some local culture. I headed across the street to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA). It was a great visit, but I'll spare you the gory Picasso-filled details.
Exhausted after carrying a backpack up and down five floors of the MOMA, not to mention criss-crossing the entire Moscone campus God knows how many times, I retired to my hotel room for some expensive-but-tasty room service pizza. And fruit. They also gave me tiny glass bottles of Tabasco sauce, which I found novel enough to bring home through airline security in place of the usual shampoo.
Speaking of security, I just wanted to say that from my two experiences traveling to California so far, the security people at the SF and San Jose airports are a hundred times friendlier than those in my home town. They oughtta be ashamed.
After dinner, I settled down to watch TV.
But what's this? It appears that somebody took the TV set apart to see how the LodgeNet N64 system works. How curious!
It appears that the LodgeNet decoder board uses a 68HC11 microcontroller, while the guts of the N64 apparently reside within the TV set itself. And the hotel's forks are surprisingly good with Torx security screws.
This reminds me of a MacGuyver episode where he was trapped inside a hotel room and had to use the TV set as a flotation device after he jumped out of the window and landed in the hotel pool.
Ok, so I made up the MacGuyver thing, but here's the LodgeNet TV's model number, for those in the audience taking notes.
Luckily for you, the story is almost over. I fell asleep uneasily on Thursday night knowing that the next day would bring another 14 hour ordeal in my quest to get home.
Friday, February 22nd, 2008
Sick of delays, I took this photo as I jumped from the airplane. I landed in an enormous bowl of fluffy cotton somewhere south of Illinois. I hitched rides with big rig truckers all the way back to Raleigh, NC in exchange for stories about Simon Carless.
And here I am, back in my safe underground VC&G bunker, retelling the story to you. I hope you enjoyed the trip.
Hahaha, great writeup much funnier then mine. I can name the journalist too, so that must be a trick question hehe
Seems like you enjoyed it (I hope you did, seems you had a lot more to do then me!), even though you never said *exactly* that. Lets hope you get a press pass next year (with the rumours of it going invite only), even though I wonder how many historically-inclined things there will be next year, since they didn't allow the DGC to run, and it's doubtful another historical figure will be doing a seminar, sigh.
The video was great - I wish I had the time to go to that presentation (kicking my self now)
And did no one like the Microsoft "Keynote"? Yours is the third of fourth I've read saying it was rubbish (I didn't go myself, I now count myself lucky).
Even if GDC is invite only next year, it won't matter. I'm unlikely to attend again for a long time. I can't afford to fly cross-country every year.
The Microsoft keynote was ok. You have to keep in mind that I'm looking at it from the standpoint of a historical writer and not a whiz/bang/flash games journalist. I was excited by their announcement that they would allow regular Xbox live users to download indie XNA-developed titles — it sounds like the future of gaming to me.
Thanks, Sharkey. I would have added some photos of you to the slideshow but I thought you might have not liked it. The photos aren't bad though. Glad I ran into you while I was in town.
And Kitsune, from what I've read around the net, the LodgeNET N64 board downloads the game purchased temporarily to a special RAM cartridge via the cable connection from some sort of hard drive with the game data on from a central server in the hotel.
Neat info on the boards I wondered what the controller was for (not in my San Fran hotel, but the Hilton I got put up in when delayed in Chicago).
And even journalists were not too impressed by the Microsoft PR thing, but there we go
Shame you won't be able to make it for a while, but while there wasn't a huge amount of historical stuff, the introduction of the pioneer award and some talks relating to history are surely a good thing to see. We'll see what happens in the coming years too…