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Persnickety Perspective: A Journey to Gamescom

After twenty-seven hours by train (five hour stop at Munich included), we reached Cologne. My friend and I were tired, hungry, miserable and in desperate need of a shower. Of course, nothing ever goes smoothly on these journeys. We spent four hours trying to contact a friend of my brother, with whom we were staying, and reached the point of panicking and looking up hostels (which were, of course, all booked thanks to Gamescom). My short temper was reaching boiling point as we sat at Starbucks, leeching the Wi-Fi for the price of a latte. My friend, Luka, wouldn’t stop talking about some girl he would be meeting in Berlin later on. The people at the table next to me wouldn’t stop talking about how they’re visiting Gamescom as game journalists.

My straw hat was on the table, and my latte sat next to my laptop. I frantically tried to contact either my brother or his friend. I had given up on the payphone, which had devoured more coins than a vending machine. Finally, we managed to contact our host, with enough time for me to get to the Sony conference.

I arrived early, in my typical “just in case” fashion. I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect, but I was pretty excited. Maybe I’d meet other interesting journalists? Maybe I’d get to talk to some developers? I had my straw hat ready; the typical “look-at-me” detail that all aspiring game journalists wear. After all, hats are important. My dictaphone was set, and my sights set. This was going to be a good evening.

As our hosts let us in, I walked around the hallway, sipping a soda from Cologne’s despicably small beer glasses, which resembled branded test tubes. I recognized some faces, most of which made me think “was that just…?” But everyone was either in groups or busy… lounging. We were called into the conference room and we all took our seats. Funnily enough, the Polygon crew was right next to me, with Brian Crecente three seats away. Of course, I didn’t really engage in any convo, the big people around me were either getting prepared to liveblog, or repurposing Sony’s Wi-Fi for a Nintendo DS fix.

The conference started and all of a sudden, I remembered how tired I was from my trip and the accommodation-related stress. I had to fight to stay awake, and actually believe I lost that fight for a moment during the FIFA announcement. Somehow I got through it all and then heard an announcement stating that only those with pink bracelets were allowed into the Q&A session. Sadly, mine was blue. But it wasn’t until I went downstairs and grabbed a drink that realization struck me: “Had I just wasted my time?” There were some interesting announcements, I was eager to ask questions, but I couldn’t. My only achievement was attending the conference, but I didn’t find out anything more than I would have from an online stream. All of a sudden, I realized how upset this made me, and after wandering around the first floor for a while, I just packed up and left.

The next day was press day for Gamescom. So far, nothing particularly good had happened on this trip. I had one interview scheduled upfront, but my lack of experience showed. I hadn’t really scheduled anything properly. I hadn’t contacted the big studios in advance; I had this illusion that you’d just walk around during press day and get to talk to a bunch of people by virtue of being there. I went quickly through the business area and after being told, “We’re full and not interested” one too many times at a few big name booths, I moved on to the entertainment area. Surely, the place where all the games were was the best place to be?

How wrong I was.

As if my life were a sitcom, the moment I entered the first big hall was when one of the stage shows started. A dubstep trailer echoed throughout the whole area, the stage occupied by cosplayers there to promote the game. This wasn’t what got to me, though. The moment one of the employees showed up on stage, likely a developer or community manager, the crowd went wild. “Do you want free stuff?!” he yelled, showing a paper bag full of swag, zoomed-in and displayed on the actual stage monitor. The audience yelled with the sync of a Swiss avalanche. You could practically hear the drooling. This was happening on a press day? Who was I supposed to be disgusted with? The media in the audience or the developers on stage? The ones acting like a pack of badgers or the ones exploiting that? The whole scene made me sick and I just kept walking. Somewhere, anywhere, just to get away.

The big name booths were all full of lines that passed the one hour mark. One hour, sometimes more, to play a game for ten minutes? The empty booths, on the other hand, were mostly full of early pre-alpha builds, something you couldn’t reliably base a verdict on or even get a proper feel of the game with. Why was all of this so poorly conceived? Why were only a fraction of the games showcased actually properly presented?

It had been two hours since I had arrived, when my cell phone rang. “Are you having fun? Is it what you expected it would be?” said the SMS from my mother. She was overjoyed that I managed to finally travel to Germany (something I had been wanting for years now), despite my father being scheduled for surgery soon. And here I was: not having fun. The timing was perfect for one of those “make or break” moments. I could either continue to be miserable, or man up and do what I was supposed to do.

“OK, get yourself in line. Adjust the hat. Check the recorder. Take a sip of water. You can do this,” I thought as I went back to the business areas. I approached every booth that seemed moderately interesting. Sure, I may not have played or heard of the games, neither have many others. In which case, it was the perfect opportunity to learn about them. I offered my card, introduced myself and said “I want to do an interview about YOUR game”. And then I got my first yes. I couldn’t believe it. Alright, what else could I pull off? I walked around the area and approached various developers, some which I actually knew of. It all began to go surprisingly smoothly and my schedule for the whole day became full.

This was it. This was Gamescom. This was what I had wanted. Not a spectacle, not swag, but just going and talking to the people making games. It was amazing. When you sat down with someone at a table and started asking them about their work, their creation, all of a sudden, you could feel the passion, the fire burning within them. Something a press release, an email, or even playing a game couldn’t show you. And everyone was eager to talk to you about their work. They didn’t care whether you wrote for a small blog or a big site, they were just amazed and flattered that you, right there, were talking to them about their work.

It was the kind of moment where your whole view on game design would shift. Of course I knew that the people behind the games I played were “also human”, but it wasn’t until I had this opportunity to connect that I actually truly realized that people made games.

Gamescom closed down for the day and of course, as luck would have it, I exited the gargantuan Koelnmesse on the wrong side. But it was OK, I had a great time talking to all these people. My shoulders ached from carrying around a bag and a laptop. But it was OK, I had a great time. The paper bag with a gift a developer gave me ripped, and made it even more awkward to get around. I didn’t care, it was the best time of my life. I finally reached the train station and got on my train, sat down, opened my laptop and decided to go through the interviews I had recorded. 320MB in *.WAV format? That didn’t sound right, I had like seven interviews that day. “Man, this recorder has some mean compression”, I thought to myself. Then I noticed: it didn’t save all but one interview.

I have no idea how long I stared at the laptop screen.

The following day was also to be my last day of Gamescom. I sadly couldn’t stay longer for various reasons, so I wanted to make my second attempt count. Luka and I, in our ever-present ignorance, didn’t expect he wouldn’t be allowed in the business area at all. It made sense, since those halls shouldn’t be chock-full with random visitors, but the obvious eluded us until the point we learned the truth. So our plan to go through Gamescom together fell through. He had to go on his own, since I had the whole day scheduled for more interviews or demonstrations. We decide to declare Hall 10.2 our meeting point.

This time it went far smoother for me. I triple-checked the recorder before and after every interview. I got to talk to various interesting people yet again and the feeling of having made progress lingered in the back of my head. However, the problems of that day were of a different kind. Luka and I failed to meet up, due to, for some odd reason, specific doors in Koelnmesse being closed. So specific, that it increased the journey to our meeting point by roughly twenty minutes. At the end of the day, we somehow managed to find each other, both of us dead tired and slowly getting frustrated with the crowd, the situation and each other. Luka was in the same state I was in the day before, having repeated most of my own mistakes. We argued about what to play, how to play and raised our voices at each other until we finally realized what we were doing (or rather, until I realized I was being a twat with the way I was treating my best friend).

Then, he told me to go to the Retro section with him. Apparently, that was where he had discovered the one game in his lifetime he was awesome at. I complied and that is when we reached my favorite part of Gamescom. A whole section filled with lazybags, old consoles and arcade cabinets. Oh my god, I played Outrun on the Master System! Then he pulled me to “the game”. The one he was so proud of. The one where he, the person who needed forty minutes to learn how to glide in Rayman: Origins, was master.

We played Joust. I’d love to say we played it for hours for the sake of a happy ending, but it was only three rounds. Though it felt like much longer. All our sorrows washed away with each moment of enjoying a game from before our time. We stuck around there until closing time, playing various other games and consoles we’ve heard of, but had never actually seen in real life. It saved our Gamescom trip.

On our way back, Luka stopped daydreaming about the girl from Berlin, and started daydreaming about owning an Amiga.

Persnickety Perspective is a weekly column that deals with nitpicky and overparticular thoughts on the gaming industry, culture and games in general.

Miodrag hails from the land of Serbia. He is currently a college student trying to learn Japanese and speaks English, German and Serbian (as well as all the jabber similar enough to Serbian). He is primarily a PC gamer, but knows his way around various consoles, old and new.

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