The Date: 27th July to August 3rd
The Place: Seattle
The Occasion: A meeting with the Puppetmasters
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Along with all the usual stuff, I packed the my digital camera; despite the repeated protestations of some moderators, I swore that by God, I would be taking photos and one day the world would see them (also meant that as the person taking the photos, I would be in the minimum of them). And of course I had to get at least one Puppetmaster doing his stuff on the Dance Dance Dancefloor. I also took my Visor PDA to jot down some notes; that way, my imagination would be prevented from running too wild on the writing of this report.
The flights over were pretty uneventful and without delays; we first had to get to Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, then transfer to a direct (10 hour!) flight to Seattle. I was a bit worried about the latter since there were a couple of people in the row behind me having a heated territorial dispute over the ownership of the armrest between them, but after a negotiating team was brought in the matter was swiftly defused. With that over, I could get down to some serious boredom.
On a whim, I'd brought along a copy of SpaceWars on my Visor (basically Elite without the flying - it's better than it sounds), which I managed to spend about three hours playing. Strangely enough, I didn't play any SimCity at all but I figured the screen was too small to make it practicable.
Arriving at Seatac Airport at about 3pm, we met up with the rest of the moderators as well as Sean Stewart (SF writer and story-guy for the game) and his friend Phil Freeman (helped out with the science aspects of the game, notably the TP-web). Later on, a PM joked that they should've held up a card with a load of incomprehensible squiggles and dominoes at the airport, and all the moderators would have flocked to it - it's a puzzle, after all.
It didn't take too long to get to the hotel, considering that none of the people my car were Seattlites and that the hotel map managed to omit every single possible streetname from itself. Eventually we resorted to the tactic of driving towards the seafront and hoping for the best.
During the drive, I was delighted to hear that one of my past email/rants about the TP-web had been taken notice of; specifically, the one about the TP-web becoming a global consciousness. I made some comments about propagation times and so on, and apparently Sean picked these up and passed them on to Phil Freeman, who consequently invented the Jellyheads. A good solution for all, I thought.
The hotel had a pretty decent lobby with some game tables and a few fish on the walls (I have it on good authority that there was a picture of a trout somewhere). There were also a load of branches with articulated joints hanging from the ceilings, which gave some people disturbing images of the hotel AI being taken over by Sencha and the branches reaching down to claw people's brain out. Thankfully, no such thing occurred during our stay.
Left to Right: Dan Fabulich, Sean Stewart and Dan Hon. Both Dans are moderators and are responsible for the Trail; Dan Fabulich here is wearing his Emancipation for All T-shirt. We're in the hotel lobby.
After a quick shower, we all met up in the hotel lobby for ridiculously large numbers of lemonades (this became something of a thing for the trip).
I mentioned that Sean had read my TP-web email. Well, as Sean was the 'story guy' for the game, he had to keep a close eye on everyone that we did and said. The 'Fuzzy Incident' where FuzzyMelon2K managed to figure out the plot of the entire game in the first week has already become the stuff of myth (the PMs breathed a huge sigh of relief when Fuzzy, after inadvertantly completing the game, managed to divert himself by noticing a misspelt 'Allen Hobby'), but you should all take note that Sean and the other PMs know many Cloudmakers regulars by nickname alone, so many of our conversations were dotted with comments like 'Hey, remember when xxx said that thing about yyy?'
Left to Right: Phil Freeman, Elan Lee and Andrea Phillips ('Rhiannon').
I've left out Elan so far - Elan was the 'puzzle guy' as far as the game was directly concerned (well, he also did some really inconsequential stuff like directing the entire game, but like I said, it was pretty inconsequential...).
I think it was now that Sean, with great ceremony, presented members of the Microsoft team with tins of 'Sencha Green Tea' - and it's not as rare as you'd think!
Our group was definitely by far the loudest group in the hotel lobby, something that would cause problems later...
Some more talking, lots of reminscing about the games and revelations about how things are done on the 'other side' (for both parties) and then it was time for dinner. We went to a fairly good Italian restaurant with a peculiar light and brightened then dimmed periodically, and in total there were twenty people; nine moderators+spouse and eleven Puppetmasters.
Left to Right: Irwin Dolobowsky and Vic Bonilla.
Vic was one of the artists for the game and you might remember him as one of the robots who was on the run from SPCB; apparently all of his friends immediately realised that he was involved with the game when they saw that photo.
There was a great story from Vic which summed up a lot of the PMs' experiences with the Cloudmakers. During the Eliza puzzles, when one of the answers was 'Toad in the hole' (a puzzle which Vic devised), Vic was lurking in the chat channel while people were trying to figure it out. People were making no progress when he noticed that one person in the channel, Ccharles, was on the right track but every time he made a suggestion he was ignored and his comment would drift up the IRC screen to be forgotten by all. So Vic was watching Ccharles slowly but surely proceed on the correct line of reasoning while there was chaos all around him.
Eventually when he said that it was 'Toad in the hole', no-one believed him probably because Americans have absolutely no idea what it is (an English food with sausages), Vic ran out of the room to tell the good news to Paolo who vividly remembers the event.
Left to Right: Vic Bonilla (in the shadows), Paolo Malabuyo and Cabel Sasser.
Paolo was the creator of the BWU Mowz and you couldn't have found a happier guy when he discovered that people were selling 'Mowz' pads. Paolo: "I'm going to have to buy one of those... Hey, but why do I have to pay money for my own design?" <cue much laughter>
Left to Right: David Wells, Pete Fenlon, Elan Lee and Mark Selander. I wasn't on this table at the dinner so I can't offer any interesting anecdotes although it does seem as if Elan is being particularly thoughtful here and Mark is looking very doubtfully at my (or rather, the camera's) presence. Pete is mostly known as the 'money guy' although from speaking to him it's clear he was as involved in the puzzle and story-making process as anyone else.
I had a great conversation with Todd Lubsen, the art director, who told me about some of the challenges the art department encountered in trying to embody the entire ethos of an organisation in more often than not just a single logo. I remarked that I thought that there was a marked increase in quality of the art and website design as the game went along, which was apparently both due to increasing experience and better co-ordination with the web designers.
The high point of the game art, we both agreed, was the 7to1 website with its incredibly rich visuals and excellent splash page which summed up exactly what the organisation was trying to say - humanity is experiencing an exponential shift to the mecha. Throughout the website the exponential motif was highlighted. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get any other photos at the dinner but hopefully Cabel Sasser will provide some soon.
Also interesting was the fact that Sean worked remotely on the game for most of the time; I found this pretty amazing considering that he wrote most of the story but it's clearly a testament to the powers of the telephone that such a thing is possible. That, and the internet. That Sean was planning to do backtraces on calls to 'Mike Royal' is already known from an IRC chat, but to hear him talk about it makes me realise exactly how cool - and scary - that would have been for the callers.
It was fairly late at the end of the dinner so we called off the visit to the arcade and instead retired back to the hotel lobby for lemonades. Now, this bit is quite annoying for me now because I recall there being some really interesting discussion at the time, except I was too tired to process the information. Stuff I do remember is an involved conversation about the Mann Act and the problems inherent to uploading and augmenting human consciouness (a very interesting topic for me, as I'm studying neurobiology next year).
It turns out that the Mann Act isn't that much of a clear cut topic even among the PMs, with most saying that they would vote Yes, but with reservations. Sean counted it as a true triumph that people had some well thought out and in-depth arguments and discussions about the Mann Act on the mailing list and IRC channel; when you can make people really care about these presently abstract issues, you know you've got a good story.
The lightweight that I am, I went to bed at about 1AM (my excuse is that it was 9AM for my body, and that I hadn't had any sleep); everyone else drifted off at 2:30AM.
On to Day 2 >>