Reporting on the Xbox 360: stories from behind the scenes
Halo 3 launch! Fake Kinect families! Molyneux! More!
The Xbox 360 turned 10 this week, and we've been reminiscing about the wonderful console each day with articles about its influence, its best games and even its dashboard. Now though, it's time for something a little different. It's time to go behind the scenes.
We here at Eurogamer have been covering video games for years (some longer than others), and most of us have reported on the Xbox 360 at some point. I was a little late to the party: I didn't get into this video game journalism lark until September 2007 - coincidentally, when Halo 3 launched. (More on that later.)
So I thought it would be fun to collect a few of our favourite stories from our time on the Xbox 360 patch. It's a gathering of anecdotes about Halo and Forza and E3 and launch events and studio visits and all the rest; tales from the front line, if you will, a glimpse into our world - during gaming's golden age.
Oli Welsh - Editor
I remember going to the review event for Halo 3, which I was reviewing for a magazine. It was held at a swish West End hotel, and we had Xbox 360s set up in our own, comfortable rooms to play through the campaign on the first day, before assembling for multiplayer on day two. Sounds like an ethically dubious kind of heaven, right? Well, no - I could only get started in the afternoon, and I knew there'd be no time for campaign the next day, so I just had to stay up until I finished the game. What with dinner - and, like a surprisingly large number of games journalists, being a bit rubbish at games - I think I hit the second-to-last mission, Cortana, at about 3am.
Now if you remember this mission, you'll remember that it mostly takes place on a Flood-infested ship that's just a mess of indistinguishable, gloopy, purple, pulsating organic spaces, which are regularly flooded with highly aggressive, well, Flood. It's hard, it's confusing, it's not especially fun, and even by Halo's standards it's really, really purple. And there's one large circular chamber in it, split over two levels, which I swear I spent a whole sleep-deprived hour, either side of 4am, simply running around in endless circles, trying to find the exit and somehow, every time, picking the entrance. And getting killed a lot. I was screaming into my expensive pillow. I thought I was going mad. I desperately wanted to give up and go to sleep. It was a pampered kind of mental torture.
So yeah, review events. I can see why they look like a subtle shade of bribery, but that's not the only reason we no longer do final reviews from them here at Eurogamer. It's because that's no way to play a video game.
Wesley Yin-Poole - Deputy Editor
My first full-time video game journalism gig was for a website called VideoGamer.com (back then it was called Pro-G). I started 17th September 2007. I remember the date because two days later I tried to break the Halo 3 street date for a story.
I'd seen reports online that people were able to get a copy of Halo 3 a week before it was due out by ordering online at Argos, then popping down to the shop and simply picking it up. I thought I'd give it a go. The online ordering bit was fine. I saw a message saying the game was in-store and ready to be picked up. So far so good. I ran down to Pro-G's local Argos in Eltham, popped my card in the in-store machine, and paid for Halo 3. I had an order number and a collection point on a piece of paper. My order number was called. I handed in my slip of paper to a very friendly woman, who disappeared into the back of the shop.
Some time passed.
I noticed the woman having some kind of debate with her colleagues about my order. Next to her were boxes, marked with a message: DO NOT SELL UNTIL WEDNESDAY 26TH SEPTEMBER.
Eventually, the woman returned, and said that, unfortunately, she could not sell me Halo 3 because it wasn't on sale yet. I said I'd travelled a long way (I hadn't), I'd ordered it as a present (I hadn't) and I'd already paid for it (that one was true). She sighed. "Okay, we'll make an exception this time. But we're not supposed to do this."
Buoyed by my success, I sprinted back to the office. The street date BROKEN rumour was verified. We called Microsoft's Xbox PR to request a comment on Argos' shenanigans (the shop later blamed this on an "administration error"), and the suggestion that those who were playing early would face a ban from Xbox Live (they wouldn't). That done, I put together my first scoop.
It's all been downhill from there.
Martin Robinson - Features and Reviews Editor
People talk about the space ponchos, they talk about the animatronic elephant and they talk about how Tomonobu Itagaki walked in, surveyed what he saw and wisely turned around and left Los Angeles' Galen Center during Microsoft's infamous Kinect unveiling at E3 2010. No-one talks about the family, though, suspended some 65 feet in air on a beaten-up sofa precariously dangling by wire.
The family that sat through the entire horror show, that saw the succession of clearly staged demos, that saw members of Cirque du Soleil stalk up towards bemused members of the industry and babble incoherently, that saw a night imbued with a cultish atmosphere - the kind that made you wonder whether everyone was about to either start making out or start necking cyanide pills.
It all reached a nadir when a young boy ascended a mountain and threw away his controller: you half expected a 30-foot effigy of Major Nelson to come and swallow him whole, another sacrifice to the greater gods of Redmond. All the while the family sat there and watched, applauding and gasping in forced amazement.
We go back to the Galen Center every year for Microsoft's E3 shows, though the tone has calmed since. Still, I often find myself looking to the rafters whenever we're assembled for another Xbox press conference, straining to see if that family is still there; gazing on in the same feigned delight that's now dimmed to something approaching despair, a faint reminder of when video games completely lost the plot.
Christian Donlan - Associate Editor
A few years back I attended a Microsoft E3 briefing where a new Forza game was unveiled. Nothing surprising there. Sadly, however, the way that Microsoft chose to unveil it was by opening concealed garage doors at the back of the stage to reveal Dan Greenawalt or somesuch hanging out with a fancy motor.
Because of the dry ice involved - presumably to simulate exhaust fumes - when the doors came open this billowing cloud of smoke erupted. It very briefly looked like Dan Greenawalt had been cooking meth behind the scenes. Still wasn't as weird as a Ubisoft conference, of course.
(To see the moment Christian is talking about, skip to the six minute 30 seconds mark in the video, below.)
Jon Hicks - Ex-Editor-in-Chief of Official Xbox Magazine, current Gamer Network Head of Audience Development
GEARS OF WAR 2 SPOILERS AHEAD!
Early in 2008 I was one of a handful of media who went to Epic for the advance reveal of Gears of War 2. Microsoft was taking it very seriously and had rolled out an impressive selection of talking heads: as well as Mark Rein, Cliff Bleszinski and Rod Fergusson, we spoke to Tim Sweeney, John DiMaggio and Carlos Ferro - voices of Marcus and Dom - and Josh Ortega, a sci-fi author who'd been brought in to do the script.
It became apparent that Ortega's involvement was extremely important. The first Gears had been mocked for its narrative, and a chunk of the day was dedicated to emphasising how this was going to be fixed in the sequel. The characters were going to be properly developed, there would be backstory and twists - this was shortly after Bioshock had come out - and it was going to move you, in between the bits where you were chainsawing alien heads open. There was concept art of Dom's home and wife, Maria.
Epic were, as they always are, extremely friendly and when we broke for lunch Mark Rein gave me a lift to the restaurant down the road. I ended up on a table with DiMaggio, Ferro and Epic's in-house PR. I asked Ferro what they'd been up to before we showed up, and he assumed I was an Epic employee. "Oh, we just recorded Maria's death scene." The PR made a small noise. I looked over and saw the face of a woman watching eighteen months' worth of PR strategy unravelling two months before the game was even announced.
After lunch I got pulled into a meeting room by a couple of Microsoft reps for a hastily-prepared speech about how revealing this would spoil the experience for players. Which wasn't necessary, really, because I wouldn't have printed it anyway and ultimately nobody paid much attention to the story of Gears 2. But it was quite a cute moment, and it was a great event. I just wish I'd filmed John DiMaggio single-handedly conducting a conversation between Marcus and Bender from Futurama.
GEARS OF WAR 2 SPOILERS END!
Ellie Gibson - Ex-Deputy Editor. Scummymummies.com (next podcast out on Tues, features Sandi Toksvig and David Baddiel)
I can still remember the Xbox 360 launch party. I had only been a games journalist for about a year, so I was very green, and so was everything at the party - even the drinks. I think you could choose from a horrible green cocktail with vodka in it, or a horrible green cocktail with gin in it.
The decision to offer only these drinks was a massive error on Microsoft's part, because games journalists only really want beer, being an unsophisticated lot whose idea of adventurous drinking stops at pushing the lime into the Corona bottle. Eventually the bar staff got tired of arguing and started handing out lager, but then - horror of horrors - THEY RAN OUT.
Running out of beer spells absolute disaster for any video games press event (cf. Ubidays, 2007), and this was no exception. The Xbox 360 midnight countdown rang out on the big screen to a room full of disgruntled sober people, muttering the words "pissup" and "brewery", and trying to convince themselves Midori is drinkable.
Fast forward to a few years later, and the celebrity launch party for a Halo game - I forget which. The one with the big spaceman with the helmet who goes round shooting everyone. Anyway, I digress.
This was a star-studded event, attended by top level celebs like Sarah out of Girls Aloud, a rapper whose name escapes me, and Richard Branson's son. Someone pointed out the latter to me, and I immediately went to the toilet to apply more make-up.
Imagine my surprise when, standing at the bar ten minutes later, I saw Richard Branson's son striding across the dancefloor towards me. This is it, I thought. Richard Branson's son is going to chat me up, and we will fall in love, because I am from Lewisham, and much realer than all the girls he meets in Boujis.
"Hello," said Richard Branson's son. HERE WE GO, I thought. We will get married on Necker Island, and Kate Winslet will save us from dying in a fire.
"You've got toilet paper stuck to your shoe," said Richard Branson's son, before turning round to continue talking to Sarah from Girls Aloud.
At the time, my world was shattered, but looking back, what a kind thing that was to do. Thank you, Richard Branson's son.
Anyway, I decided to get over my disappointment at our cancelled engagement by nipping outside to have a fag with some other journalists. We got chatting to a passing homeless person, who was very nice and friendly and wanted to know what the event was all about.
We explained it was a huge party for the launch of the latest instalment in a multi-million dollar video game franchise, complete with celebrities and free drinks all night. "Oh right," said the homeless person, and it all felt a bit weird.
"Why don't you come back in with us?" said someone, and that's what he did. We hid him in the middle of our group and walked him up to the bar, where he promptly ordered champagne. As far as I know, he was never found out. I hope he had a good night.
OXM wanted to do an interview with Peter Molyneux for something - I honestly can't remember what, but it was during the Fable 3 PR campaign. We lost our interview slot at a press event and moaned about it, so Lionhead's PR said we could come to their office and do our own. We showed up with a camera, unsupervised, and the receptionist waved us into a meeting room.
It turned out to be one of those meeting rooms where one wall was just dry-wipe, and it was covered in notes about Fable 3. Most of them were incomprehensible, all flowcharts and design scribbles, but it was very comprehensive and very obviously not for public consumption. We waited for somebody to realise this and usher us out, but they just brought us coffee instead. Peter showed up and didn't mention it either.
We tactfully rigged the camera to film him against a blank wall instead, and after about fifteen minutes of on-message PR conversation - or as on-message as he ever got - we casually gestured at the wall and said "well, obviously we've learned a lot about Fable 3 today". He stopped dead, and looked at the wall, and then back to us, and then back at the wall again. And said, very calmly and deliberately, "Ah." We had clearly exceeded even his capacity for revealing things that were supposed to be secret.
We assured him that we weren't going to broadcast it to the world, and his response, marvellously, was to go all-in. The conversation moved on to Kinect, which was still some way from release, and we had an amazingly detailed chat about it which ended with us being taken upstairs for an impromptu playtest of Milo & Kate.
We ended up staying and talking well after everybody else had gone home, and I think we played that game more than anybody else outside Microsoft. I swore secrecy at the time, but given that Peter, the PR and the game are all long gone from Lionhead I think it's probably safe to share now, and mourn the game's loss - I don't think it would ever have sold, but it was a fascinating creation.