The McLees GenCon 2003 report
Thursday, July 31st, 2003, 11:37 AM
The McLees GENCON 2003 Report
by mehve and harangutan
GenCon, “The Best Four Days of Gaming”, is one of the longest running game conventions in the world. It started off in 1967 as a gathering of friends from Milwaukee and Chicago, wargame enthusiasts all, for a weekend of gaming at the home of Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeon&Dragons and Advanced Dungeons&Dragons. The first official convention was held a year later in 1968 in the Lake Geneva Horticultural Hall up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin with 100 people attending. Being wargaming enthusiasts, I'm certain that it was with much glee that their official gathering would be henceforth known as GenCon, short for the "Geneva Convention." Thirty five years later, the mayor of the city of Milwaukee states his regret that his city was just not big enough to support the kind of room GenCon required. Although GenCon tended to bring in something like $10 million of revenue into the city there was just not enough room in Milwaukee’s largest convention center to hold all the events, exhibitors and the throngs of gamers who made their requisite pilgrimage to “the Mecca of Gaming.” With an approximate attendance of at least 40,000 from all over the world, it was time to find some more elbow room! So, from July 24-27, 2003, Indianapolis, home of the Indy 500, welcomed GenCon with open arms. According to Susan Scheid, Origins and GenCon manager, finding housing for the convention and all the attendees had always been a problem. The Indiana Convention Center had over 300,000 square feet of space and around 3,500 hotel rooms nearby. And with Indianapolis located within driving distance for nearly two-thirds of the midwest’s population it was the best place to relocate and still have room to grow.
Since we’re going to be there anyway…
Microsoft had made GenCon a habit since who knows when, with a modest booth on showroom floor and a host of games in the LAN pit. Apparently, Andrew Jenkins, our rep from PC Games Marketing, in a conversation with Cliff Jones, GenCon's Director of Technical Services, came to the conclusion that Halo for the PC would be an excellent thing to have at GenCon's 64-station LAN. And it seemed the best option to get the most people playing Halo on the PC before its release. And what better way to entice gamers to play than offering up some top-of-the-line graphics cards to tournament winners? And wouldn’t it be a treat for the fans if folks from Bungie came too?
And so Brian Jarrard (Sketchfactor) and I heard about Andrew’s nefarious plans late June and wondered if we had to go rent some costumes to fit in. Neither of us had ever been to GenCon. But because Halo was going to be there, and there was going to be a tournament, we had to go. Ryan Hylland, Bungie’s test lead, was going to need some help anyways. With security issues addressed and technical requirements met, Ryan took off ahead of us before the start of the convention to get Halo for the PC on the PC’s at GenCon’s closed local area network. He took with him the E3 build with added security coded in – just to be sure. The E3 build was also the most portable – we had it over at E3 and it performed wonderfully there.
The Monday of GenCon week, Brian was hit with a family emergency. Andrew had asked for four Bungie folks to make sure all went smoothly (and it would be cool for the fans!). But he was going to get two. Fortunately, Robert McLees had expressed keen interest in going. He was one of the few at Bungie along with Ryan who had been to GenCon back during the days when Bungie was an independent company. Plus, Indiana was Robert’s home state. He was born there and his family was only a little over two hours drive away from Indianapolis. We had planned on my bringing Eagan along so he can see his cousins, grandma, aunt and uncles, and it only made sense for Robert to come along too. Eagan was a handful when he had his own seat. With him sitting on my lap for over four hours in an airplane, I and nearby passengers might be going crazy by the end of the trip. So Robert went in Brian’s stead.
Please remain seated with your seatbelts fastened…
I expected a bunch of folks in a myriad of shapes and sizes and in all sorts of costumes gallivanting about, yelling "Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!" But after a long flight with a bunch of screaming kids (which, fortunately, didn't include my infant son, who was content to wriggle about on our laps and yell his "bababaa's" into the cramped cabin -- at the top of his lungs), I was just about ready for anything. I, for one, was thankful Robert was able to attend, and doubly thankful that our resourceful admin, the Bungie Princess Alta, was able to secure him a seat on the same completely booked flight to Chicago and the connecting flight to Indianapolis. Brian’s vacated seat was in hot demand.
"There and back again…"
We were off to a wonderful start when we got to the exhibitor services booth and Robert didn't have a badge waiting for him, and the volunteer manning the booth was... not very helpful. There was a badge for Brian, but no badge for Robert, even though arrangements had been made before to add Robert to the list. I managed to get our event coordinator on my cell phone and was about to shove it -- uh -- give it to the guy at the booth -- when the volunteer guy changed his tune and said everything was taken care of and that all is fine. I was a little sorry I didn't get to chew his head off. I just didn't see why he thought his supervisor would get mad at him for helping us out. It's not like we're some rinky-dink operation out to ruin their show. I mean... seriously?
The first thing Robert noticed was how mainstream GenCon had become. Well, that's not completely true -- the first thing he noticed was that it was in Indi-freaking-ana! “The [u]venue [/u] was better. The attached hotel was better. But no Safehouse? No Water Street Brewery?! I had no idea where to hang out after the 'con' shut down for the night. Well, actually I did, "with the wife and kid." Heh.”
Robert recalled his first GenCon in 1984. "We camped at that one -- no hotel for us -- hitting the showers at the university before heading into the con and eating twice a day -- dry cereal for breakfast and bratwurst, cooked over a campfire, for dinner. I remember nothing of the convention floor itself. I was there for the gaming." The next time he went was in 1986. "I only went up for a day and this time all I remember is the Exhibit Hall. I wasn't playing any games this time around. I was there solely for the acquisition of "gaming stuff." But as I spent so much more time at the con-proper, I noticed something I had been oblivious of before. The people. "
"And that was the third thing I noticed this time around -- the very high percentage of normal looking people at the show. That is not what I meant by mainstream. There are plenty of eccentrics and human oddities in the waking world, far more than Friends or Dawson's Creek would have you believe."
GenCon, while still very much a gaming convention, was no longer strictly for hard core role-players. There were more computer games, card games, and game and non-game related merchandise in the exhibit hall than he had ever seen before. It was now more inclusive than it had ever been, more so than any comic book or anime convention we have attended. But even so, people were still gathering in groups (small and large) on every available seating surface (and yes, that includes the floor) to play games. But instead of everyone playing D&D or its derivative or LARPing, they were also playing board games or reading or playing Magic. The number of pre-teen kids at GenCon had also apparently increased by several orders of magnitude. It used to be that the youngest person you'd find at the 'con would at least be old enough to drive there by himself. Another thing Robert realized was that the attendance of women at GenCon had been pretty consistent, but the release of White Wolf's “Vampire” increased the attractive female attendee ratio significantly (it also skewed the "skinny dude to fat dude" ratio in favor of the skinny dudes).
Not Bungee. Not Bunjy. Bungie!
By the time Robert and I got to the LAN pit, Ryan and Andrew were already there getting the ball rolling. One of the 64 stations was hooked up to a twelve-foot screen that I could see from the other end of the hallway a quarter mile away. Did I mention that this convention center was huge? The hallway where the LAN play area was set up was a good thirty feet wide and about twenty high and looked like it was a third of a mile long. The tournament games were password protected. It was interesting trying to come up with passwords that the players could spell. I was surprised at how many people didn't know how to spell "Jackal" or "Bungie" and how folks kept want to spell "Elite" as "l33t"! There was even one incident when Ryan told a player that the password was “monkey” and the player typed “turtle”. Huh?? We also realized that capitalizing the first letter of the password was not conducive to quick entry into the tournament game. Even so, it wasn't a problem getting people to play. The lure of carnage and free play and the chance to win a graphics card worth about $400 was irresistable. Plus, one of the GenCon guys would walk up and down the hallway hollering in a mighty voice "FREE HALO!"
That's right, everybody was playing Halo for free during the Halo tournament. Andrew, who spearheaded this shindig, had arranged to buy the time slots for each and every station for four hours each day so that con-goers can just jump in anytime we were holding the qualifying rounds and man an empty seat that we weren't reserving for the tournament; which was basically 16 out of the 64. We kept the tournament going until we had all the spots for the two rounds of semi-finals all filled up, then opened up all the seats to anybody who wanted to play Halo until the end of our timeslot. There was at least one guy who didn't get up to leave for any reason. Not even a bathroom break! On the whole, the GenCon Beta build ran pretty smoothly, considering it was basically the build we ran at E3 three months ago. There were some crashes and at least one graphics glitch that had more to do with the cards installed on the machines and there not being code to support them yet. The GenCon PCs sported a couple of different nVidia cards, the GeForce FX and GeForce 4 TI, and ATI had their Radeon 9800Pro. All of them had flat screen monitors of various makes and models.
Most of the people seemed to be enjoying themselves, some of the people didn’t know what the hell they were doing, a few people complained non-stop (but still continued playing), a couple of people tried to cheat their way into the finals and one guy (who hadn’t played in the tournament) stormed off when we didn’t bend over backwards to accommodate him during the running of the finals – he wanted to play on one of the stations up front even though there were several stations free in back.
The qualifying rounds were played on one of the two new maps, Gephyrophobia and Timberland. Gephyrophobia (fear of bridges) takes place in a really huge cavern with a gigantic bridge spanning the chasm. The map featured Banshees which really led to quite a few dizzying dogfights above the center of the map while everybody else was scrambling for rocket launchers and ghosts below. Timberland often had the new Rocket Launcher Warthog and folks liked to make a grab for the Fuel Rod Gun. It was interesting to note that there was at least one female in chain mail and leather who stepped up to play -- and she never played before. It was too bad she did not make it through the qualifying rounds. We stuck around at the end of the tournament to play a little bit. I was going crazy with the Scorpion on Blood Gulch when someone nailed me while I was trying to figure out why I kept hopping in and out while I'm trying to move forward and left when I was trying to back up (darned keyboard!). I quit before motion sickness set in...
Quit stuffing the ballot!
On Thursday, the 12 who won the qualifying rounds were told to report back to the LAN area at 2pm on Saturday for a chance to win an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card. The 12 from Friday were told to report at 2:20. The other 4 slots for both rounds were made available to wildcards; basically, attendants who wanted a chance at those prizes without going through the qualifying rounds put their name and the first five numbers of their con badges on a sheet of paper, folded it up and dropped it into ballot bucket. Andrew made the mistake of NOT saying you could only enter your name once. A couple of people stuffed the ballot with five sheets of paper with their name on it before he put a stop to it. A couple of jokers tried to sneak some in, but Andrew got wise. When 2:00 came around, we waited a bit for those who should be seated were, well, seated. Then Andrew proceeded to pull names out of the ballot bucket until all 16 seats were filled.
The semi-finals were played on Gephyrophobia with Banshees accessible via teleporters at either end of the bridge. Ghosts and Rocket Launcher Warthogs were available on the bridge and its lower level. Ryan also gave everybody the short-range weapon set.
Round one (2:00 game) saw Phil "Ace" Norton and Brandon "Onikaze" Cecil at the top two spots with 25 and 23 points, with Phatcorns bringing up the third with 21 points. It was quite a close game! The other five who made it to the finals were nicknamed superman, kawaii, jumpy_beans, and Maddog and Fuzzy tied for 7th place. Only the top eight would go to the finals.
Round two (2:20 game) saw Brian "Mythica" Towne taking the spectacular lead with an excellent "Killtacular!" that led him to a quick 25 points with his expert use of shotgun and grenades. Jonathan "Scrub" Rigsby was the closest at 17 points, followed by Tom Medved at 15. The other five were made up of Dinky, Pvt Donut, Noraa, Rick Demigod and Hollywood. (yeah yeah, in hindsight, I should have gotten everybody's names!).
Ryan set up the finals round on the Timberland map with the normal weapons set, Slayer Pro, Ghosts and no Warthogs. We let everybody get a chance to practice on other games on the LAN and told everyone to make sure they had their settings the way they want. When 3:00 rolled around, one of the GenCon guys brought out the little plastic whistle they'd been using now and then. We had everyone type in the password and had their finger hover over the enter key. Again, we were amazed at how a good percentage of the players didn't know how to spell Bungie! And with a capital letter, to boot! The whistle blew and bullets flew!!
And it was over in less than ten minutes.
And the winner is...
James "Kawaii" Hsiao was the upset, the wildcard who took first place. Brian "Pvt Donut" Barber took second place and Brandon "Onikaze" Cecil took third. The first place winner also got an additional prize - a set of little red and blue Master Chiefs. Mythica did so well in the semi-finals, I was sure he'd kick ass in the final round, but he placed fourth. As a consolation prize, I let him pick one of the other MC's I got from Joyride the day before the tournament. Brian picked blue.
We had some pictures taken with the winners, but then Andrew suddenly announced that it was now time for the "get your picture taken with Bungie people!" Ryan ducked out somewhere and I couldn't see anything but flash after-images. Cheese?