Zero Hour ticking away

[UPDATE]: Best Buy sets up shop in the heart of the event; order is maintained as attendees line up to be among the first Xbox 360 owners.

PALMDALE, Calif.--To the casual passerby or trucker driving through Palmdale, California, it would seem like just another Sunday in the town roughly 60 miles north of Los Angeles. However, in an airplane hangar on the outskirts of town, a green glow signified that something unusual was brewing. Palmdale may not be considered the center of much, but from November 20-21, it was the center of the gaming universe.

Gaming has grown exponentially since the last generation of consoles was released, and the power struggle between the big three manufacturers has nearly boiled over. It would make sense for the first company to release a next-generation console to hold a high-profile event amid a sea of celebrities, fireworks, and major media. It seems Microsoft missed the memo.

It was here off Avenue 30 in Palmdale, where even Avenue 15 would be considered "in the sticks," that Microsoft chose to throw the biggest gaming event in the company's history. This was Zero Hour, also known as "Nerding Man" or P3 (Players' Pow-wow in Palmdale), the countdown and launch party for the first next-generation system to hit the market, the Xbox 360.

Throughout the day cars pulled into a nondescript driveway and headed toward two large buildings, which upon closer inspection were former airplane hangars. The line of cars entering the premises and populating the parking lots were noticeably absent of limousines or fancy rides. Microsoft did not set this event up for the rich and famous. The company wanted to attract the gaming audience.

Indeed, being in a blockbuster movie wouldn't get one into the event. To get a coveted wristband and gain access, attendees had to win a contest, or be one of the lucky to register for the event and be accepted. European attendees were able to gain access through the Origen 360 contest, and North Americans could get their passes by being one of the winners of the Hex 168 contest, both of which were successful viral marketing campaigns put on by Microsoft. Additional attendees filled in the remaining slots by registering through various gaming media outlets and keeping their fingers crossed.

At 3:30 p.m., a full three and a half hours before the doors officially opened, a line of people nearly a quarter of a mile long had gathered to be the first in. By 4:30 p.m., the line extended even further as anticipation grew and Zero Hour neared.

At 5 p.m. sharp, the gates to the outer courtyard opened up, and people began filing in to the beats of a DJ spinning on some scaffolding. After a simple registration process and a pass through the metal detectors, the people moved toward a tent and were handed their first pieces of gaming swag--fleece Zero Hour sweatshirts, Xbox 360 memory cards, and complimentary Xbox Live subscription cards to the first several hundred.

From there, it was off to update gamers' Xbox Live accounts and transfer the data to their new memory units, which could then be used inside the event for some online gaming. While they waited for the giant doors of the hangar to open, the crowd spread out and took in some of the diversions: a beer garden sold beer and wine to those of age, a makeshift cafeteria sold snack foods such as burgers and burritos, and a gigantic foosball table kept some entertained.

The hot property, however, was the hundreds of white individual beanbag chairs that were strewn across the grounds. With a few hours to kill, finding a seat became a prime objective for many as they waited for the main event to begin. Soon, one determined gamer carried a chair to the front of the hangar doors, deciding to wait in comfort. Gamer see, gamer do, and it didn't take long until half the crowd followed suit, completely blocking off the hangar doors.

Evening came quickly in the desert, and with the falling sun came the falling temperature. People huddled around heat lamps and wrapped themselves in their new sweatshirts as the clock inched closer to 7 p.m., the beginning of Zero Hour.

As anticipation built, the mass of gamers gathered around the hangar doors grew restless and began an impromptu beanbag-chair fight. The chairs were surprisingly light, so direct hits resulted in laughter rather than trips to the emergency room.

Then, the DJ stopped. House music was replaced by whoops and hollers from the crowd, and a projected image on the hangar doors cycled through various Xbox 360-related pictures, including the Origen and Xbox 360 logos.

Soon two voices boomed welcomes over the sound system, and two spotlights revealed the source of the oration--corporate vice president and chief XNA architect J Allard and corporate vice president of worldwide marketing and publishing Peter Moore. Microsoft's dynamic duo, though likely two of the planet's busiest people in the past few months, seemed incredibly relaxed and energetic. The two opted for sweatshirts and tennis shoes rather than thousand-dollar suits and polished dress shoes and were at home among the crowd of mostly 20-something gamers.

After the masses were hyped up for a while, the next generation of gaming was introduced, and the HD era was ushered in. The hangar doors began to slowly crack open, revealing a large banner with a picture of the Xbox 360 on it. Zero Hour was officially on, and the crowd pushed into the spacious hangar.

The interior was as promised--hundreds of gaming stations playing launch titles and upcoming games on high-definition monitors. The motif was no surprise either--nearly everything was green or white. With various decorations including the Origen 360 tree with live rabbits, cascading green lights, and a bush with green Slinkys instead of leaves, the hangar and Zero Hour were everything 360.

The attendees weren't there to see a building decorated with a good grasp of color schemes, though. They came to see the games.

In addition to the 18 launch games, playable versions of Dead Rising, Full Auto, and The Outfit were available to the public. Though just about every station had a set of hands on the controllers, those playing were generally courteous of bystanders, and the white control pads opened up to new gamers at regular intervals.

Later in the evening, Peter Moore told GameSpot that he felt the launch lineup of the Xbox 360 was the strongest list of day-one games for any console, ever. "I look at the gamers [who came to Zero Hour] and see kids in a candy store," he said, commenting on the first impressions of attendees.

But in order to play these games, consumers will need to get their hands on an Xbox 360. Rumored shortages of the system are appearing more and more legitimate, as retailers are selling out of units almost as fast as they can advertise them. Luckily for those attending Zero Hour, perhaps the most ravenous Xbox fans in the world, they will have their opportunity to pick up a unit, preorder or not.

Best Buy will set up a makeshift shop inside the hangar and sell 360s, games, and accessories, beginning at 9 a.m. PST tomorrow.

"Everyone here who wants a 360 will be able to leave with a 360," said Grant Garret, one of Best Buy's Geek Squad Double Agents, dismissing the rumored shortage. Three truckloads of hardware will make their way into the hangar tomorrow morning, and gamers will be lined up to drop some cash on a voucher that can be exchanged for 360 hardware on Monday, November 21, at 9 p.m. PST, to coincide with the East Coast's first sales.

Those who can't attend Zero Hour and are unable to pick up a 360 at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning won't have to fret for too long. Moore says that Xbox 360s will be replenished weekly. "The best I can say is to check back with your local retailers often," said Moore.

At a first, simple glance, Zero Hour could be viewed as a disappointment. The hangar didn't seem to be filled to capacity. But in Microsoft's aim to appeal to the gamer, any more attendees would have meant longer lines for everything. On several occasions, those present could be heard expressing their relief that the spacious area wasn't packed to the gills. It didn't appear that the 3,500-plus attendees were all present Sunday night, but Garret expects tomorrow to be much busier as the console goes on sale.

Zero Hour may not have kicked off with the glitz and glamour expected of such a high-profile launch, but judging from the thousands of unflinching eyes trained on the high-def monitors, no one seemed to mind. It is, after all, all about the games.

[11/21 UPDATE]: The Best Buy store opened right on time at 9 a.m. this morning. To avoid a mad rush to the cash registers, the retailer decided to split Zero Hour attendees into groups. Slips of paper were handed out to those eligible to purchase a system, and each piece of paper listed off an hour of time, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The theory was that gamers would arrive sometime during their specified time, keeping rushes at a minimum and ensuring smooth selling.

Try telling console-thirsty gamers about "theory." Sure the line at 8:45 a.m. was surprisingly very manageable, but it was obvious that not everyone was holding a 9 a.m.-10 a.m. slip of paper ,and it didn't seem to matter, as few were turned away.

Besides the Best Buy store, little else was stirring today inside the hangar. Settling into a 360 station was much easier today, with more vacancies than the small Palmdale motels.

Speaking of local motel vacancies, they were probably due in part to the fact that several gamers slept on the grounds rather than coughing up cash for a shoebox room. Like hobos drunk on next-generation gaming instead of cheap vodka, these tuckered-out Zero Hour casualties created makeshift beds out of beanbags and slept where they lay.

The next big event begins at 8 p.m., when San Diego rockers Louis XIV take the stage in the last hour before Microsoft bends the rules and starts handing out Xbox 360s at 9 p.m.

Stay tuned for more coverage from Zero Hour.

For a complete run-down on Microsoft's next-generation console, visit GameSpot's Xbox 360 Launch Center.

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Discussion

54 comments
AceCometh
AceCometh

And the wait was well worth it!

townsenda1
townsenda1

WOW, I wish I could have been there. Sounds like the trip was well worth it.

gamecube120
gamecube120

LOL, I just saw a Gamespot editor on G4's coverage. He was almost sandwiched between the Best Buy trucks and G4's camera crew. That's devotion!

gamecube120
gamecube120

LOL, I just saw a Gamespot editor appear on G4 as the Best Buy trucks rolled in. He was taping the thing and looked like he was about to get sandwiched by G4's camera and the trucks. That's devotion!

petrnorth18
petrnorth18

those guys are so lucky! i wish i could aford a 360....

Bladex2k
Bladex2k

for all the ps3 fanboys out there. PS3 coming out in 2006 spring maybe dec 2006 in U.S.A. so forget about ps3 for now because xbox 360 coming out ing 5 hours woot!!!!!!!! cant wait closest we are going to get to next GEN for now.

Bladex2k
Bladex2k

dude ut was a sucess plus every1 there can buy a xbox 360!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Bladex2k
Bladex2k

YaY zerO hour video!!!. gamespot ROCKS!!!!!!!

ArmoredAshes
ArmoredAshes

Heh nice....wish i was there...but i live on the otherside of the U.S oh well bc i am still getting mine tomorrow =)

colinjennison
colinjennison

"shutdown_202" gets fanboy award of the year for the stupidest comment I've ever read

wytefang
wytefang

Yawn..get better games for these 'next-gen' systems and we'll all be more impressed. Have fun standing around to get a system that's basically using games made for the original Xbox. LOL

ajadoniz
ajadoniz

ThePatinator, you don't understand. Microsoft wants to make it a culture, er "Cult", and being out in an isolated place makes people feel like they are in their own world. They are "special". We are "special".

Sabooya
Sabooya

I WISH I WAS THERE SO BAD!

ThePatinator
ThePatinator

Microsoft seem a little stingy holding such an exclusive and isolated event. Why not in a major city and open to the public?

vaejas
vaejas

Hmm, middle of the desert.. lots of eerie green lights.. domes... monolithic shapes... use of the letter X... who planned the party, Chris Carter? Did they at least invite Gillian Anderson?

1337_g4m3r
1337_g4m3r

Heh, I even live in Palmdale. Even though I don't plan on getting a xbox 360, it would be fun to check the event out. Sucks it's not open to public. :(

repsode
repsode

Can someone get that shutdown dorkus shut down. Everyone knows all consoles are equal. Fanboys are the gaming equivilant of racists. Wish I won the origen thing. Coulda been there now!

shutdown_202
shutdown_202

u guys r gettin ur hopes up to high for xbox 360 (or shud i say xbox 1.5), i cant w8 to see the looks on ur faces wen the ps3 comes out with all these better games n graphics, n then the revoultioun comes out which is gonn revolutionaise games. wat qualities is it gonna hav den. ewwwwwwwww xbox live so wat, n ur gonna b stuck with xbox 1.5 since ur all to poor to get anothe console hahahahahahahah

AA7
AA7

I was so mad, I actually won tickes to the launch event (for real, no lie) but couldnt go. Damn, why does Ontairo have to be so far away from Palmdale!

CombineUnit
CombineUnit

Sounds great....Wish i went =(...At least im getting the system tomarrow!

icspeedracer
icspeedracer

Dude it was great... playing the games, seeing the live demo of Gears of War and people getting a chance to play the demo onstage, oh yeah AND THE FREE STUFF! Now just gotta wait for my xbox 360 at midnight!!!

HeroicAutobot
HeroicAutobot

Dear Mr. Surette, Since you're already there, do you think you could pick up an XBox 360 for me? My local EB Games is no longer taking pre-orders and I really don't want to spend the night in the Best Buy parking lot. Much appreciated, -k

neoand12
neoand12

shutdown_202 is another fanboy we don't need ithis world

VFG
VFG

Why? You could sit at home and play most of the same games on your PS2 or Xbox.

farnes
farnes

bahhh i wish i could be there.....i want an airline ticket and a wristband

Van_Cleef
Van_Cleef

Does this green glowing building surrounding to hype a new technological gadget that sucks your conscious away remind anyone else of Edward Nigma's scheme in Batman Forever???

epic_nemesis
epic_nemesis

damnit i hate my teacher for giving me a midterm tomorro, i soooo would have applied for a ticket

supersim10007
supersim10007

I wish I could go, but i live on the other side of the us!

Bigbman65
Bigbman65

Well it will be on G4 all night and just think either by this evening or tommorow moring we will be playing one of the sweetest games system ever. PD0, COD 2, and need for speed wahooo

xmg0
xmg0

Awww, I wish I could go. I was in L.A. yesterday! :(

NintenDOGS6625
NintenDOGS6625

i got invited to go but sadly no transportation...

dd51
dd51

the big kickoffs are fine, but there aren't going to be a lot of 360's coming out tomorrow...most EB Games stores are only getting a handful of units and not the full amount of 50 pre-orders. So folks like myself who ordered months ago will have to wait at least three weeks for their 360. the big electronics stores won't be getting huge numbers of machines either, so people will have to wait a while for their new system.

bluedevl420
bluedevl420

if only they would let us all go!! wouldnt that be fun?!

shutdown_202
shutdown_202

[This message was deleted at the request of a moderator or administrator]

juicebomb
juicebomb

No open bar? Were the PR folks tied up in a back room?

Bladex2k
Bladex2k

gamespot you guys shoulda capture some footage for the paeople who couldnt bet there ;(

marol54
marol54

Man, I wish I was invited!!!!!!!!

Donkeljohn
Donkeljohn

Mmmmm, warehouse gaming at its most corporate. I must say, the lack of celebrities at the official relase party was a nice touch. I think M$ had plenty in their announcement events to make up for it though.