The alarm clock went off at 3:30am on Tuesday morning and I immediately wished I had gone down to Los Angeles the night before. Instead, I opted to take a 6am flight down on Tuesday. Factor in snowy weather and the unpredictable security lines and, well, I end up out the door by four o'clock.
The flight down was non-eventful. I managed to read a good bit of the materials we've had translated from a Japanese strategy guide for the game I'm working on (certain games release in Japan months before they hit shelves in North America. Europe and Australia get it the worst though) and before I knew it, I was guiding my cabbie to the Summerfield Suites in El Segundo. It was only a couple miles from the airport, but he was new and had no idea where he was going. Nor did he know how to use the GPS system he was typing into while straddling the lines on Sepulveda Boulevard. My ten-second glance at Mapquest proved invaluable, as I had more of an idea on where to go than he did.
My editor Chris joined me for breakfast and after 90-minutes or so of gabbing over coffee, we hopped into his rental car and drove to the game company we were in town to meet with. As is always the case with these companies, the lobby was a fanboy's wet dream. Glass cabinets filled with rare collectible action figures, jewelry, statues, and even beautifully airbrushed soda cans lined the walls. Framed high-gloss posters promoting their recent hits were on display like works of fine art at the Gugenheim.
Our contact gave us a quick tour before leading us to a conference room where I got to meet all of the QA leads and testers working on the game I'm covering and we got to spend an hour or two getting to know one another and explaining our various processes. And I must say that as I looked around the conference room I was pleased to see several copies of books I had written for their games on their shelves.
We soon went down the road for lunch where a very grandmotherly looking waitress with an act -- it's LA, everyone seems to always be in audition mode -- got us laughing quite a bit. One second she was doting, the next threatening, and then she even started whispering to the tester to my right about her collection of leather straps, boots, and lingerie. I'd describe the scene as both surreal and horrifyingly hysterical at the same time.
Lunch was spent trading stories about games and work and hobbies outside of gaming and although my cheesesteak was a bit on the smallish side, the conversation more than made up for it. On the way back from lunch, the conversation switched to a book I had written a couple years ago for another game company and I was describing a certain lack of cooperation when it came to secrets. That particular company's policy is that we're free to include anything we want in the book regarding secrets -- so long as I find them on my own with no help from them. Well, in this one game I was given a very ridiculously short amount of time to cover it and even with a full-time co-author assisting me, we missed three special targets in the game (out of about 130 or so). One of the testers we had lunch with started laughing when he heard me tell that story as he actually bought that guidebook and was wondering why I had to leave some question marks in the book and act like we wanted to the readers to find them on their own. I had to come clean -- "Man, I spent days searching for those things and simply ran out of time." It's embarrassing when that happens (and it's extremely rare) but it did give the QA guys we were with a bit of an understanding on how important their cooperation (and sharing of documentation) can be sometimes.
Back at the office, Chris and I got to meet with many of the head marketing people and go over some design samples and talk about style guides and future products and, basically, a lot of really cool stuff I'm not at liberty to discuss.
Moving right along...
We capped off the afternoon with a very beneficial Q&A session with the lead testers who worked on the game I'm covering. This sort of access is extremely rare and I was thrilled to take advantage of it. I asked them every question I could think of about the game and then encouraged them to talk amongst themselves about their different strategies and the game's secrets (it's an 80-hour game so there's lots to discuss) while I scribbled notes as fast as I could.
Chris owed me some beer from busting my hump to write the book for PGR4 in five days time last fall (the Beastie Boys had it wrong... in this business, it's No Sleep till December) so we left the office and drove back to the hotel to down the six-pack of Tecate he picked up the night before.
Our contact picked us up for dinner at 7:30 and, being that Chris and I both really like Japanese food and that he was Japanese, we asked him to take us someplace as authentic as he knew. We drove to the town of Torrence (sic?) and had dinner at a very Japanese-y restaurant in a very Asian part of town. Chris and I were the only caucasians to be seen. The best way to describe it would be to say that the restaurant serves the food tapas-style and everyone shares. The menus were in Japanese so we simply encouraged our host to order everything he thought we should try (contrary to popular belief, sushi is actually reserved for special occasions and is not the breakfast-lunch-dinner food we're lead to believe it is for Japanese people).
We started with some mackerel sashimi and a green salad, then moved on to an excellent pork belly dish with huge potatoes. Up next was a sort of Japanese version of something that could best be described as a meat & egg fritata with noodles along with an unbelievably good dumpling & kim-chee soup. The waiter then brought over a cauldron of fiery charcoal and a plate of raw beef tongue which we grilled ourselves on a wire grid over the coals. Fantastic. Several other dishes made their way to the table, along with multiple pitchers of Kirrin and a few bottles of Asahi (they're beer).
We sat and ate and talked and drank for three hours and although Chris was getting full of food and our host was easing back on the beer because of the drive home, he continued to order more and more food (excellent kim-chee over udon, among other items) and more and more beer. And what a great host he was -- he would immediately refill our glasses of beer almost every time we took a drink from them. It was just a fantastic night out and it certainly made getting up at 3:30 worth the hassle.
Of course, now I'm back home with a massive book to write in the next two weeks and although I have a great co-author taking care of many of the peripheral chapters, it's still a monumental amount of work for both of us. Nevertheless, the game is fantastic, bug-free, and plays well. And best of all, I got to really get to know some of the guys behind the scenes and made to feel even more a part of the process and game than normal.
This time, it's personal. And I wouldn't want it any other way.