Skip to comments.Global Xbox launches at B-1 hangar
Posted on 11/22/2005 5:13:06 PM PST by BenLurkin
PALMDALE - In a giant hangar at Air Force Plant 42 where strategic nuclear bombers were built to win the Cold War, computer giant Microsoft has staked its future in the gaming industry, an $8 billion global market. An Internet underground marketing campaign brought 3,000 dedicated players from around the world to the Antelope Valley for Microsoft's North American launch of its newest game system.
"It's basically a 30-hour party. There's never been anything like this," said Ricardo Torres, a senior editor at GameSpot.com, an online entertainment forum.
In the virtual reality world of computer gaming, the giant from Seattle conjured excitement announcing the gathering at "an undisclosed location in the Mojave Desert."
It was the Site 9 complex where aerospace workers once assembled B-1B bombers. Sort of an Area 51 style send-off.
The legions of gamers lined up outside the hangar doors waiting for sunset Sunday.
Taiko drummers pounded rhythms to a crescendo as the hangar doors rolled open.
Inside the cavernous interior, the players - an intense-looking bunch - plopped onto white beanbag chairs under green lights for 30 hours of nonstop electronic entertainment.
Outside, the "gaming nerds" resting their eyes lounged under tents or battered each other with padded pugil sticks.
Dubbed "Zero Hour," the event is part trade show, part sci-fi carnival. A global media event within skateboarding distance of sales venues for the new game system.
Or, you could buy one on the spot. Big ticket for the upcoming holiday crunch, $300 to $400 a copy depending on the model.
Microsoft put an open invitation to an event somewhere in the Mojave Desert on a few gamer Web sites months ago, then raffled off about 3,000 tickets.
The advertising gurus behind the semi-secret launch wanted something aimed at game players. That's why they chose Palmdale over Los Angeles, New York, or even Seattle, where Microsoft is based.
Microsoft wanted "an undisclosed location somewhere in the Mojave Desert," not a star-studded gala. This was supposed to be about the games.
Zero Hour aims right at the game industry's core demographic: 18- to 34-year-old men. Microsoft is hoping to grab customers who "live the digital entertainment lifestyle."
Those who came can brag that they were among the first to buy Microsoft's new console, the Xbox 360.
Promoters handed out sweatshirts to participants, who found memory cards in the pockets.
The memory cards contained an icon that will follow each gamer through Microsoft's online universe, Xbox Live, letting other players know that the name next to that icon was a player who was at Zero Hour.
The launch puts Microsoft ahead of its two main rivals, Nintendo and Sony, who will each release new game consoles next year.
Monday's event drew fans from 25 countries and all 50 states, according to Microsoft, most of whom paid their own way to test the goods.
Jesus Grijalva, 19, a law student from Tijuana, Mexico, said, "What can I say? It's incredible."
Richard Durrer, 46, flew in Monday from Toronto.
"My wife didn't really understand it," he said. "She knows I'm a gamer from way back."
Durrer has played video games about as long as there have been video games.
"I can remember when the only character was an asterisk," he said. "It's nothing like it is now."
Chris Chamberlain helped develop one of the games that caught Durrer's eye. New stuff. The latest.
Kameo is an adventure/puzzle game along the lines of Nintendo's Legend of Zelda games. It's rated "Teen," but Chamberlain said it's one of the few launch titles that will appeal to players of all ages.
Kameo has been in the works about five years. The graphic world of Kameo features rock walls that have finely chiseled details. Dragons fly through the background as the title character passes open windows. Fur ripples on a blue gorilla that hurls icicles growing from its back. Heat and distance blur images differently.
But visual effects aren't everything.
Marty Caplan, a game producer for Sega, spent Monday afternoon playing Gauntlet, a classic arcade adventure game. The 8-bit is more likely to be found these days at the back of a mall arcade than in a serious gamer's living room, but Caplan said one quality gives it staying power: "Game play, game play, game play."
Sega has been out of the console business since its Dreamcast system fell to rival machines put out by Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. These days, the company makes games for its old competitors.
"Sega thought it was wise to be Switzerland," Caplan said.
The new Xbox platform is a chance to start new franchises.
"It's an opportunity to launch new intellectual properties," Caplan said. "There's a lot of sequelitis these days," Too many games, he explained, are either sequels of older titles or spin-offs from movies.
The Xbox launch wades into an $8 billion-plus market dominated by Sony's PlayStation with 70% of share, and Nintendo and Microsoft dividing evenly the remaining 30%.
Zero Hour is a new strategy for Microsoft, dubbed "viral marketing" in the game industry.
A core of dedicated gamers - about 3,000 in this case - got an advance look at the new console and an armload of launch titles, in this case 19 new games. Those thousands of players, Microsoft hopes, will tell their friends, and word will spread.
Microsoft is betting word-of-mouth can spread the Xbox 360 gospel better than a TV ad campaign, although those will come, too.
"They do the marketing for us," said Chris DiCesare, director of marketing for Microsoft. "You're not trying too hard. You're just letting people's passion come through."
Microsoft put announcements for the event on a handful of Web sites a few months ago. Within 24 hours, 60,000 people had signed up for the equivalent of a golden ticket to attend the event.
DiCesare compares Zero Hour to a "pilgrimage" for gamers, something akin to Burning Man in the Nevada desert.
Simon Douvier, 20, and Dustin Burg, 19, are part of the viral marketing ground swell. They won Zero Hour tickets and free airfare from Minnesota to L.A. from a gamer Web site called Hex 168.
"We had to prove we were under the power of the Hex," Douvier said. "Basically, we had to show we were crazier than everybody else."
The two friends dressed as chefs and threw food at Douvier's car. So far, they're totally satisfied with the event. They spent Sunday night and Monday morning playing first-person shooters Quake 4 and Perfect Dark Zero.
At stores where customers could pre-order the new console, demand months ago outstripped production of the Xbox 360.
"We sold out the first shipment back in May. The second shipment sold out two months later," said Seth Petit, an assistant manager at GameStop in the Antelope Valley Mall.
The first shipment totaled 25 games.
Best Buy, which partnered with Microsoft for the launch event, didn't pre-sell consoles, and the Palmdale store will have at least 60 units when doors open today at 9 a.m.
But many of those could be claimed by the hard-core gamers who lined up Monday afternoon. Any consoles not sold at Zero Hour will go to Best Buy stores, but no one knows how many will be left.
"It looks like we're gonna be hit hard tomorrow," said Cheryl O'Neal, a manager at the Best Buy in Palmdale.
Petit said customers are still buying other game systems, especially Sony's PSP, a hand-held version of its PlayStation.
Torres of GameSpot said the high price tag means Microsoft is only getting a certain segment of the market, mostly those single men ages 18 to 34, customers with free time and disposable income.
"It's now an investment," he said. The console has two versions available. A core system retails for $299, but most analysts expect the deluxe $399 version to dominate early sales.
The higher-priced system includes a 20-gigabyte hard drive to download and store upgrades, a wireless controller and other accessories. Games run about $60, which is about $10 more than the previous Xbox incarnation.
"Stamping your feet will probably get you about a $199 console," Torres said.
Petit agreed. "I personally blew about $750 on it, but I'm a gaming nerd," he said.
I bet the place wreaked of B.O. and Doritos...
Thanks for the bump!
I learned my lesson well after buying a PS2 on the day it was released--never buy a new system right away. Inevitably there are some bugs and issues that need to be worked out that a 2nd generation release will correct (sometimes at a cheaper price).
I'm perfectly happy with my PS2 for now. I'll wait.
There's usually not much point anyway. Launch games are rarely worth it. Halo 3 is probably going to be the determining factor on when I get one.
I'm already on Safrguns's list. Am I on yours? If not, may I be?