Waiting for Xbox
Xbox 360: Turning casual players into technobabbling addicts one game at a time
It’s Monday night, 9 p.m., and I’ve spent the last six hours in Reno’s Northtowne Wal-Mart surrounded by women’s pink sleepwear. Three penguins stare at me from the oversized pink gown to my left, assuring me, in bright pink letters, that, “Baby, it’s cold outside!” To my right, near the sweaters, a few guys have constructed a makeshift poker table, and even farther up the line, I can see an intense game of Risk being waged next to the gloves.
To most people, this would seem like a strange sight, but for those of us zigzagging through the women’s clothing section tonight, we only have one thing in mind—the launch of the Xbox 360.
To put it simply, the 360 is the world’s most powerful gaming console, rivaling even the most advanced PCs on the market. Its power, coupled with Microsoft’s groundbreaking online strategy and steadfast developer support, has created an almost unprecedented demand. Unfortunately, Microsoft has decided to launch the system in the United States, Europe and Japan almost simultaneously, leaving the availability in the United States stretched so thin it’s almost transparent. In fact, the demand is so high that preordered 360s are selling for more than $1,000 on eBay, game stores are turning away customers left and right, and people like me are sitting in Wal-Mart waiting for midnight to come.
I’m number 21 out of 33 dedicated gamers waiting in line for a premium 360 package. Of course, I arrived at 3 p.m. If you’re looking for real dedication, you should check out the number-one spot holder, Dustin Stanley. He walked into Wal-Mart at 9:30 this morning.
I asked him, nearly 12 hours after he first arrived, why he would spend an entire day here. His response was simple: “To get the greatest console ever made.”
He was most excited about the graphics. From the demos I’ve played, I can truthfully say you won’t see better-looking games anywhere. Project Gotham Racing 3 has, bar-none, the most photo-realistic game environments ever made. Kameo, on the other hand, resembles an earlier, fantasy-based Pixar movie, and, as far as sweat goes, NBA Live 06 features the most amazing sweat simulation ever seen in a video game. Neither eye-candy junkies nor sweat fans will be disappointed.
Of course, most of the line is made up of people excited about bump-mapping, HDR lighting and all sorts of other graphic technobabble. Leon Edling, on the other hand, was born before Pong was invented and has only recently started gaming. He walked into Wal-Mart at 4 p.m. and grabbed the last place in line. A self-described “newbie” at games, Edling started playing in order to spend more time with his son. World of Warcraft is his current game of choice, but he says he’s willing to sacrifice some time for the 360.
“I’ve heard the reviews,” he says. “It’s going to be a good one.”
Edling actually represents a unique and untapped market in the gaming world. To appeal to this older, casual crowd, Microsoft has implemented a few interesting features. When Edling first loads up his 360, he can immediately jump online and download a couple classic arcade games, such as Joust and Gauntlet, or a few popular puzzle games like Zuma and Bejeweled. Microsoft’s strategy is to use these gateway games to turn a few casual players into gaming addicts. Bill Gates won’t lose any sleep if your mom changes her name to “The Deathinator” and starts bogarting your 360. The more gamers the better—no matter what their age. Edling, of course, hasn’t quite reached that level yet. He’s just happy to be spending a little more time with his son.
“He’s on a two-week vacation, and this is how we’re going to spend it,” he says, smiling.
I wish Edling good luck before returning to my seat in the pink void. A Wal-Mart employee walks past the line and jokingly thanks everyone for “not rioting.” Midnight is approaching quickly, and everyone seems a little more on edge. The poker game has been shut down, the game of Risk seems to have ended, and even the three penguins to my left seem a little more anxious than usual. To pass the remaining time, Brian Walt, Number 22, tells me about the risks he took in coming here tonight.
“If my girlfriend knew what I was doing right now, she’d probably slap me,” he says. “Waiting in line nine hours and spending about 500 bucks. It’s kinda crazy.” He’s right about one thing, the 360 definitely is not cheap. To make the purchase a little more digestible, Microsoft has dished up two differently priced flavors of 360. The $400 Premium System is the better value. It comes with a hard drive, wireless controller, HD cables and an Xbox Live headset. The $300 Core System comes with the console and a wired controller. Despite the wallet damage, Walt has few regrets about coming here tonight for a premium package.
“I’m probably going to pull an all-nighter and then go to school at 6 in the morning,” he says.
Of all the 360’s features, Walt says he’s looking forward to trying out the media functions most. Besides viewing pictures, the 360 can stream music straight from your PC or USB storage device directly into a game. Now you can mow down zombies while listening to “Thriller” or defend the Earth from aliens while listening to “Margaritaville.” Trust me, when Buffet’s riding shotgun, everything gets a little more interesting.
As midnight arrives, we are rushed toward the layaway section for the final purchase. This is the moment we’ve been waiting months, if not years, for. Will it all be worthwhile? Walt and I think so. But like any console, the 360 is only as good as the games played on it. The launch line-up has some strong exclusives, but, in the end, there is no AAA title like Halo on the immediate horizon. Truly, what we’re seeing now is just a tiny glimpse of the machine’s potential. But perhaps that’s what’s most exciting about it. The 360 is a huge leap forward, true, but in the coming year, we’ll be seeing games from superstar developers like BioWare, Bungie and Bethesda that will change the industry forever. Jaw, prepare to meet floor.