Going to Microsoft Meltdown in Seattle

On Monday and Tuesday, I experienced my first real business trip. I probably would be more excited about it than I should be, but we went to Seattle. Whoopee.

Going to Seattle for a business trip is like … well, imagine you could travel from Ottawa to Toronto in three hours on a six lane Interstate highway. (I would compare it to travelling from Toronto to Hamilton, but that’s not fair to Hamilton.)

It didn’t get off to a great start, either. I had to go into the office on Sunday night to finish some work. Allison and I went to the Island Friday night to visit with her family (we hadn’t been over in a couple of months), so I had to leave work unfinished. This was work that I had to take with me to Seattle. It was kind of necessary that I get it done.

We were attending Microsoft Meltdown, which is (for all intents and purposes) Microsoft’s support of the video game industry. Sure, there are companies there that have nothing to do with the industry, but they are few in number.

What we did there was take two of the games we’re developing (our hockey and basketball games) and test them out on several video card manufacturer’s computers. It’s a good way of making sure that our games work properly on different computers, and the video card manufacturers can see what problems their games may have.

Radical Entertainment has a tradition of always leaving a copy of our games with the manufacturers so they can continue testing at their leisure. That’s what I was doing Sunday night — making copies of the games. Sadly, my good friend Murphy decided to drop by that night, so a one hour job soon turned into a five-hour nightmare.

(Just for reference, everything worked just fine, so it was worth the agony.)

I got up a little too late Monday morning (hey, I’d only been asleep for about three and a half hours — I was tired), and was about two minutes late getting downstairs where Neall (one of my co-workers, and our driver to the conference) was waiting.

We picked up Nigel (another co-worker) and Tim (my boss) at Radical, which was a relatively central pick-up location. We then pointed the car south, and headed towards the home of the Space Needle.

Nigel opted to provide the music on our little trip. (Not that we really ever had time to pay attention to it — we spent almost the entire time talking. Natch — they spent almost the entire time talking … about cars. I know little by comparison, so opted to listen and be bored for most of the trip.) Referring to Nigel as a “Star Wars Fan” is like saying the Universe is big; he brought along the soundtracks to “A New Hope” (the real name for the original “Star Wars” movie), “Empire Strikes Back”, “Return of the Jedi”, and “The Phantom Menace”. Not exactly what I’d consider road trip music.

Seattle has bad traffic. KOMO 4 News even had a quasi-documentary on it a few months ago. On Monday morning, we figured out what the problem is: No-one wants to carpool.

The I-5 north of Seattle has a carpool lane. Runs right to downtown (it turns into an express lane that literally fires you right through the middle of downtown). It was virtually empty. While the rest of the traffic came to virtual standstills, we were whipping along at 60mph without any worries at all.

We quickly checked into the Sheraton Seattle and hauled our bags to our rooms. I bunked with Nigel, while Neall and Tim shared a room down the hall. My roll was “Swag Sherpa” (more on that in a moment), so I got to carry the bag full of CDs and other junk we would use throughout the course of the day.

We signed ourselves into the conference, and took a chance to use our first three testing slots (we had to sign up to test our games, which is usually an ordeal — getting a chance to sign up early was a bug advantage). We had to wait until 10am to get the rest of the testing slots, so we opted to have breakfast instead.

By the time we finished, the testing slots were open to a free-for-all. Luckily, the general population was still embedded inside the main conference hall, listening to a bunch of people listening to themselves talk. (Yeah, that’s about how interesting the seminars are.) We took the time to get the rest of our slots for Monday. (Tuesday’s slots wouldn’t open until lunch.)

Unfortunately, none of the testing sessions started until after lunch. This meant we still had three hours to kill. So we did the only thing we could … we tortured ourselves with the seminars.

So, imagine that you’re in a large room with about 400 people. The people giving the talks are boring, repetitive, and really not worth listening to. Imagine that you’ve had only three hours of sleep. Suddenly, passing out face first onto your conference notes doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

If only I had done that.

Luckily, Neall, Nigel, and Tim decided that the speeches weren’t worth the air they were being broadcasted through, and we left.

Lunch came not too long later. A fancy chicken breast sandwich with a small cheesecake for dessert. I couldn’t help but wonder — most of the people here are techies, why on Earth would any of them really be interested in this kind of food. Where were the burgers? Where were the fries? At least they had a healthy stock of Coca-Cola and other similar beverages — it would have been a travesty, otherwise.

Testing began at 1:30. This amounted to us going from room to room in the hotel, installing our games on vendor’s computers, testing them out, collecting t-shirts and other various things used to persuade us to develop on specific boards, uninstall the games, and proceed to the next room. All that ended at just after 5pm.

Tim decided he would disappear to visit with family (his brother works for Boeing), while Neall, Nigel, and I opted to go see Star Wars (again).

Before we headed out, I convinced them to go downstairs to the Product Showcase to see what was there. It’s a good thing, too — we saw a product we had never seen before, and wowed the three of us. 3D glasses.

Yeah, okay, maybe 3D glasses ain’t exactly the bee’s knees, but when you consider that these glasses required no specific hardware, worked (theoretically) on any computer, and required no special programming in a game, we were suitably impressed. Not to mention playing “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” in 3D was pretty slick. We would make a point of stopping by that company the following day.

Dinner was programmer food: Hamburgers, Pogos, onion rings, pretzels, and pop. Basic junk. (It’s what gets a video game programmer through the day.) Then it was off to the movie theatre around the block.

Star Wars wasn’t playing. (As it turned out, the theatres were *really* small, and the sound was pretty lousy.) However, “The Matrix” was. Neither Neall or Nigel had seen the movie, and while I had seen it twice, I didn’t mind seeing it again. Besides, I had nothing else better to do at the time.

As we still had 40 minutes before the movie started, we hopped over to FAO Schwartz to check out their collection of Star Wars toys. (Still no luck in finding a Darth Maul action figure.)

I will admit, I fully expected Neall and Nigel to not like “The Matrix”. They hate everything. It’s their lot in life. They are, by far, the most cynical people I have ever met. It was a surprise to find out that they thought the movie “rocked”. In fact, they went so far as to say that “The Matrix” set a whole new standard for how much a movie can “rock”.

Upon returning to the hotel, Nigel promptly went to bed. It was 9:30. I wasn’t even close to being tired. So I went back out. (I mistakenly thought that Neall went to bed as well, so didn’t bother to see what he was up to.) I wandered about the area around the hotel for a while, and then went for a walk.

It wasn’t long before I stumbled across Seattle’s Monorail. It was the first (commercial) monorail built in the United States, constructed for the 1962 World Expo. It’s still running, and it looks 37 years old. It costs US$2.50 for a round-trip ticket from Westlake Centre (downtown) to Seattle Centre (where the Space Needles resides). The ride takes less than two minutes, and there are only two stations.

Seattle Centre seems to be a bit of an amusement area. It has the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Centre, an IMAX theatre, a lot of amusement rides. From what I can tell, it’s what was left of the 1962 Expo. (Unlike Vancouver, which sold all the prime Expo land for a song, got nailed with the cleanup bill, and now have to pay exorbinant fees to buy an undersized condo there.)

It took me about 10 minutes to realise that nothing was open, and I wasn’t about to fork out US$9 to go up the so-called Space Needle. I headed back to the hotel.

We started off the next morning by taking our bags down to Neall’s car (so we didn’t have to lug them around all day) and proceeded to breakfast. Then it was off to more testing.

Lunch was an adventure. Nigel sensed a disturbance in the Force (like I said, it would be like saying the Universe is big) … corn and salmon chowder. It was followed by a bizarre vegetable crepe-thing. I was beside myself — who in their right mind would feed video game developers this kinda junk?! I mean, really!

After lunch, it was more testing. But we opted not to go the whole afternoon, and bailed after our 2:15 test slot. We wanted to escape Seattle traffic before it set in. We succeeded … only to land in Vancouver traffic. The latter is far worse.

I arrived at home not long after 7pm, a bit tired, fairly hungry, and happy to be home. Hopefully, my next foray into the business trip world will be slightly more interesting…