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.

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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.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

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