Monday, February 9, 2009

Rock Band Tournament: Came in 3rd

The weekend before this past weekend, if you had asked me "What are you doing next weekend?" (referring to this weekend just past, that is) I would have said "Oh I don't know, probably staying home, maybe playing Rock Band with Jen and the guys."

I would have been half right, at least.

Anybody who's married can sympathize when I say that although my wife, her brother, and their friend were talking about this Rock Band 2 tournament for months, I had no idea about it until I read a MySpace bulletin where she said we were going to a Rock Band 2 tournament on Saturday and that she, her brother, and our friend were competing in said tournament.

Huh? What?

I love Rock Band, as anyone who reads my blog will tell you, but I'm not particularly good at it. I used to love Tetris, so you'd think a game with what amounts to falling bricks would be second nature, but while I'm good at Tetris when the blocks are falling slowly, when it speeds up real fast, it's a whole different story. Same with Rock Band. The game offers a decent challenge on Medium, when the pace is fair and you only have four columns of notes (blocks) to hit, which goes with only four fingers to hit them with, one for each column. Expert, though, what you set it to for a tournament (since it's based on score), means not only do they fall a hell of a lot faster, but you add that fifth column as well. (I wonder if six-fingered folks find Hard and Expert to be easier than I do.) And if you want to know how to play the game, read one of my other blogs about it where I spend 2-3 pages describing it, read Wikipedia, or look it up on YouTube. This story's long enough without getting into all of that. But suffice it to say that while I enjoy playing songs I like on Medium, I am not tournament material.

The tournament is in Goldsboro, at the Wayne Community College, a good hour and a half away, so I agree to drive. Then come to find out it's at 10:00 in the morning. And the car needs gas. And we need batteries for the camera. And Jen wants McDonald's sausage gravy and biscuits for breakfast. Bad preparation meant that while she was at work Friday evening, I should have got the batteries and got gas. But I didn't think to for whatever reason. No, I stayed home. When Jen got home, we went over to her brother's to practice. She and Robert (her brother) and Carl (our friend) practiced, while I tried not to fall asleep. I did not play because I had no intention of playing at the tournament. I, like Robert's girlfriend, was just going for support and picture-taking (and driving). When we got home, I stayed up studying the directions on the computer. Google sent electric cars all over the country with camera kits on top, so that you can get panoramic photos of the roads all across America (in most areas) (and where was I when they were looking for drivers?) so I was noting landmarks and whatnot.

I got somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half of sleep.

Naturally, Jen's alarm woke me. She got up a half hour earlier than we planned to take a shower. I had taken one the day before, so I was good. (She probably had too, but she was in this tournament, she wasn't about to not go in looking her best.) We left at a quarter, maybe half past seven in the morning. That's seven hours after she got off work. Four hours since we left her brother's house from practicing (and him playing Ninja Gaiden II). And about two hours since we went to sleep, having been up all Friday and Friday night. One hour of good sleep and maybe half an hour of rest.

I love Google, and Google loves Greenville, North Carolina. What Google has for Greenville, I'd say among my friends, but I wouldn't post up here because it's a crude sexual reference. No matter where you're going in Eastern NC, Google will recommend that you drive through Greenville, even if it's 30 miles out of your way. But Google is somewhat accomodating in that if they're giving you directions, you can grab part of the route and drag it to make waypoints. Greenville is northwest of us, and the tournament and Goldsboro are to the southwest of us. I figured the best bet would be to go through the small town of Ayden, as right on Highway 11 where we'd likely pass through, there's a few gas stations, a McDonald's, and a Food Lion (grocery store). Dragging a waypoint to Ayden resulting in Google telling us to go up to Greenville, down to Ayden, and then onto a new route to Goldsboro. The second half looked pretty direct, but they still had us going way out of our way to Greenville. A second waypoint between Ayden and us, in the even smaller town of Blackjack (which is almost directly between us and Ayden), set the course right, and only a couple minor modifications later, and we had our perfect route.

So it's 7:30AM at the latest, and we head out. Grabbed a couple Mountain Dews for the road (love that stuff) and we were good to go. Had my latest mix in the CD player (which I still need to blog about, it's a great mix), and the heater on, which takes a while to get going. We were nearly in Ayden when I took off my beanie (my wife calls it a toboggan, maybe that's the proper name, but they've always been called beanies where I'm from - sock hats otherwise). Got into Ayden, stopped at Food Lion for batteries (and M&Ms), got cash back to get in the door (no advance/Internet ticket sales for this - $10 a head to play or watch), and we were off again. We got there around quarter after 9:00 in the morning, at a time I'm usually going to sleep. The doors didn't open until 10:00 in the morning, but we were told to be there early. We were a little too early, but Rob and Carl were a little too late. We took separate cars, partly because Robert and I both like to drive, partly because nobody likes riding in the back seat, and partly because all three of them (Carl and Rob and his girl) smoke menthol cigarettes where both Jen and I are nonsmokers.

We got there, and the line was stupidly long. There were at least 100 people in line. At least. We got in line, and fell in behind some guys talking about various games. Every time I'd open my mouth to say something, Jen would shoot me a look to shut it. Wasn't long before I couldn't help myself, and the four of them and I were getting along great, talking about handheld games and how to modify them, comparing games, and whatnot, all very friendly. Shortly after we got in line, the line doubled in size, with as many people behind us as there were ahead of us, as people started coming in herds. We called Rob; he had taken a wrong turn and was still on his way. It was almost 11am when we finally got in the door. We paid $10 each for our passes and showed our IDs to allow us to play T-rated games such as Rock Band and, if we so chose, M-rated games like Halo 3 and Gears of War.

When we got in, it was your typical convention. Most of the booths set up were for the video game and peripheral industries. One was for a generic Guitar Hero game a student had made as a project. We saw costume players (cosplayers) as Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper, Boba Fett, and Princess Leia, all from Star Wars, and some various steampunk characters, perhaps from the Fallout games, I suppose. I wanted to ask them what the deal was but didn't. All of the arcades in the break room had been rigged for free play and three pool tables took quarters (75¢) to play. People were everywhere. Talking to the folks at the booths or to each other. Some had laptops and were online, some had PSPs and Nintendo DSs. I think I saw a Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh! game in the break room. We were told registration for the tournaments was upstairs, so upstairs we went.

The ground level of the Wayne Community College "Learning Center" (aka Student Center anywhere else) consisted of a lounge with arcades, a theater/auditorium, a cafeteria, the student bookstore (closed), and various offices (e.g. financial resources) (also closed). The second floor was a computer lab and seminar/meeting rooms. The third floor, off limits to us, was classrooms, and apparently a library as well. We called Rob again, and he had taken yet another wrong turn, and hadn't arrived yet, but was on the right road, so he was close. Jen registered for her spot in the Rock Band 2 tournament. We called Rob, who was now in line with his girlfriend and Carl, and we got some personal info from them so as to register accounts for them and then put them in the band. All three DysS\MemB/EreD members registered, we found the meeting room the Rock Band 2 playoffs would be hosted in.

The room was fairly small, with about 30 people inside, including three small children and a teenage boy, who turned out to be the tournament director's children (and at least 50 people right outside, trying to watch or listen). They had a projector and screen setup, with what looked like a brand-new Xbox 360 "Arcade" edition (the $199 one) and secondhand instruments, as well as the first and second game. (Why they had Rock Band 1 is beyond me. It was never used.) The instruments were all from Rock Band 1, however, and were all in shoddy condition. The tournament director came in, and among other things, noted that now "partial" bands would not be able to play. Any band with three or fewer members was free to recruit anybody at the tournament, but could not play with three or fewer members. In other words, we needed a bassist or we were out of the tournament.

We were one of the bigger partial bands, we later learned. There were a couple others with three, and there were 3-4 with only one member. But still, we couldn't find a single person who wanted to join our band. The other partial bands all folded, every one of them. The tournament director wasn't very sympathetic to a single one of them. We only had one choice. I had to register and join the band. I was able to register an account on their site at a computer in the room, but I had to go back to the computer lab to join the tournament, so I did. I tried to be all sly and text Rob that we had to get a bassist, but Jen had already spilled the beans.

Nine bands ended up ready. The director's assistant put six of them on the whiteboard, which was to be the makeshift leaderboards and bracket, until they could figure out what to do with the odd band. They went with the two-on-two format they agreed upon on the website prior to the event. Each band paired with one other band. Each band picked one song and each pair played both songs, highest score between the two songs advances. We were the sixth band, and we picked "New Kid in School" by The Donnas. The other band picked "Man in the Box" by Alice in Chains, despite the fact that the song was played during both of the prior pairings (thus had already been heard four times). The interesting thing about "Man in the Box" is that, like any song in Rock Band with cursing, it's censored, but unlike any other censored song, the bad words aren't removed, they're replaced. The song features two instances of the word shit, and first it's replaced by pit ("I am the man in the box, buried in my shit" becomes "...buried in my pit") and second it's replaced with spit ("I am the dog who gets beat, shove my nose in shit" becomes "...shove my nose in spit"). The nice thing about this is that if the singer sings the original, correct, profane words, the game reads it right because shit, spit, and pit all sound the same (to it). And every band up to and inlcuding us sang the lyrics with the clean words out of respect for the kids. The band we were playing against sang the words profane, but they failed "New Kid in School" because their male vocalist couldn't handle the female vocals.

Then an interesting thing happened. A tenth band was introduced before the ninth band, called "D-Squad", featuring the youngest of the children on vocals and her brothers on the three instruments. She could not read, so the tournament director called on a spectator to assist her. The director chose "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor (the game's easiest song) and the other band chose Rise Against's "Give it All", the hardest song played. The kids barely passed "Eye of the Tiger" but, quite naturally, failed the Rise Against song. The other band beat both songs and advanced to the next round.

Round two. The tournament director decided that two songs per pairing would take too long and that people had taken too long to decide their songs. He picked "Drain You" by Nirvana, an easy song from the first or second difficulty tier. But then we were faced with another odd number. Five bands had advanced from Round 1. The first four bands, including us, paired up. The band who beat the kids was given a pass to the finals. Yes, this tournament, this self-proclaimed "Summit", advanced a band to the finals for the stunning achievement of besting a band formed right on the spot who had little or no practice, whose average age was eight and whose vocalist could not read. It was about 3pm now, four hours after we got there, but only a little over 2 hours since we started. We were told to return at 5pm for the finals, which would be held in the auditorium, in front of an audience.

Great. I was under the impression that the tournament would only last until 2-3pm. I was thinking, win or lose, we'd go home, I'd catch about 4 hours of sleep, and then we'd all get together to drink and play Rock Band until about 4-5 in the morning, or until everybody left. So now we bothered to read our flyers they gave us at the door, and it turned out following the finals at 5, there would be an award ceremony at 8, and we were expected to be there. By now, we were guaranteed at least some measure of victory. There were three bands left. We were guaranteed third place. No one who went to the finals was leaving empty handed. So we made a run for the border - Taco Bell, that is. Got some plain-old crunchy tacos and a chicken Gordita; Jen got a small order of nachos and a taco supreme or two. Jen fell in love with Code Red Mountain Dew a few years back, but not the kind they can or bottle, only the fountain version, which only Taco Bell had, which made Taco Bell her favorite fast-food joint. They stopped carrying it and she stopped going. I figured out how to make it. A splash of the fruit punch and fill the cup with regular Mountain Dew. That's all it is. Tastes exactly the same. Now she loves Taco Bell again. I miss Subway, but I don't mind Taco Bell (used to be my favorite place to go). So. We ate our food, and headed back to the college. Hung around for a bit, then headed to the auditorium at the designated time.

The finals were a mess. The difference between an auditorium and a theater, I came to understand, is a theater is just a silver screen bordered by curtains. Sometimes the curtains close over the screen, but I haven't seen that in years. An auditorium features a stage you can get up on via stairs on either side, the curtains close, and the screen is optional. The screen was present in this one, full size, so movies could be shown here. What they had done was placed us at stage left (audience's perspective) not quite off stage, but not quite on stage either. They had set up a table with a tiny little 20" or so TV and the Xbox, with the instruments behind it. Somehow the Xbox was sending its video signal to the TV but also its video and audio to the projector in the room at the back of the auditorium, which was projecting the image on the screen behind us. As you've probably seen, a typical Rock Band 2 screen with the full band playing is one guitarist on the left, the other on the right, the drummer in the middle, and the vocalist on top. The vocals track is horizontal anyway, and on the bottom 3/4 of the screen you have the three note highways side by side. How we were positioned, you simply couldn't see the left track, and the light from the projector was blinding us. Not only that, the floor was freshly waxed and the drum kit, I later learned, was getting away from our drummer. Not just ours mind you, the other two bands had this problem as well, though they did a better job of overcoming the odds. Oh, the song. "Today" by the Smashing Pumpkins. How we came to that conclusion was, we'd tell the game to give us a Random song (this is an option) and the 12 of us (3 bands * 4 members each) would each have the option to veto it. A couple songs came up, I can't remember, maybe easy, maybe hard, maybe "Painkiller" (by Judas Priest, one of the hardest songs on the game), I don't recall. "Today" came up and nobody said no. It's an easy song, it's popular, people know it - why not? I had no problem with it, but the setup of the game and everything was a mess, and we scored a very modest 300,000 and some change. The next band scored in the 500,000's, and the third band - the one who beat D-Squad, actually, handed all of us our asses with a score of roughly ours and the other band's put together.

We came in third.

But, we got to go to a town we'd never been to before. We had a good... We had a GREAT time. We competed in a tournament for our mutual favorite game (not mine - theirs - but I do enjoy playing it enough) and we met some good people - not one jerk in the lot. We got out of the house and did something we'd never done before and probably won't do again, at least for some time. It's not every day a video game tournament rolls through your neck of the woods. This particular lot announced its intention to come back, same place, roughly same time of year, in 2010. We'd like to come back, but we'd like assurances that the shortcomings this year will be addressed next year.

Awards ceremony at 8pm. There were a lot of games besides Rock Band 2. Guitar Hero World Tour for instance, as well as Halo 3, Gears of War, Madden '09, Mario Kart for the Game Cube (not sure the official name, just saw it played), Call of Duty 4, Call of Duty 5, and many others. Each would have its winners, as many as 3 each or 3 teams/squads each. We had no idea when we'd be called. Most bottled liquor in North Carolina is sold by government-run stores cleverly named "ABC Package Store" and they close at 9pm at the latest. Some as early as 7pm. It was about 5:30; we had no idea where to get liquor after dark in a town we'd never been in. Here's where my keen sense of navigation should have been of assistance, but wasn't. We were on Wayne Memorial Drive, a few miles off the main highway in the area. We knew we were on the outside of town, so we went back to the highway, me driving and Jen looking for ABC stores. (Hey, I wanted some rum and she wanted some tequila.) We left town via Wayne Memorial Drive, having passed a road called Ash Street, which I do remember from the map as being the main road in Goldsboro. We came back to it and I took a guess. Wound up outside of town in relative short order. Turned around, passed Wayne Memorial Drive and took it the other way. Bit longer, but we left town again. No liquor stores, but again, we'd passed another busy road, so we took it in one direction. Luck held up - road outta town. Turn around, past Ash, back into Goldsboro. (Any Goldsboro residents reading this are probably laughing their asses off - I bet we passed a half dozen liquor stores by then.) This was Berkely Road or Boulevard. About to leave town, I pulled into a gas station, and we asked the attendant for directions to the nearest liquor store. She gave them, and we were off again, and this is where it gets funny. Jen could have sworn we passed a Walmart coming into town, and the liquor store is across from Walmart. We follow the directions, get to the Walmart, and look where we are. Right off the freeway. In other words, we get our liquor, which we drove about 30-40 minutes to get, and inside of 5 minutes, via the freeway, we're right back at the school. Lovely, eh? Had we known we could just jump on the freeway back towards home, take the very next exit, and search the area, we'd be putzing around the school for another 45 minutes having the time of our lives. Right.

Well, we got back, and we still had a good hour to kill. Jen and her brother played pool. His girlfriend and Carl smoked outside, and I bounced back and forth between the two groups. Jen and I were having a great time, but the rest were bummed out that we didn't do better, and Rob's girlfriend was downright irate at what she was probably about to call a conspiracy to usher one band through the playoffs, never mind that they were actually better than us, perhaps better prepared, who knows, maybe their instruments at home were in excessive disrepair as well and they were ready to overcome that hurdle. Jen and I buy our Rock Band and Xbox gear from Best Buy, and we pay for the warranty. Something goes bad, they replace it. It's that easy. Rob buys his stuff from Gamestop. If something goes wrong, he can send it off to Microsoft to be worked on and he's without an Xbox for a few weeks (though, a couple days before the tournament, his 360 got the Three Red Rings of Death - catchy name, that - and his girl bought a brand-new one, planning to return the new Xbox when the broken one comes back from the shop). I don't think any of us were actually happy that we came in third, but at the best of times we were willing to concede that at least we made it to the finals, at least we had a good time.

We go into the auditorium, take our seats - actually, some savage looking for a handout swoops in and takes Jen's seat right from under her, and Rob's girlfriend ended up having to temporarily share a seat with him as we couldn't get anyone on either side to move over (despite open seats on either side, because, God forbid, you know, a group sit together, right). Anyway, we were all pleased that Rock Band 2 was the first game announced, and being in third place, we were the first band announced. We were marched up on stage, announced by band name and first and last names, all of us but Rob's girlfriend, each given a bronze medal which unceremoniously read "3rd", ushered to the back, and given a goodie bag with four posters and God knows what else inside. Rather than take our seats again, we simply exited, better to avoid the traffic, we figured, and checked out our goodie bag. The poster was for Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, a game none of us cared about much (though, for a while, I had the demo, though, because it was free). Couldn't be Guitar Hero: Metallica, but oh well. Four shirts. Two Medium, two Extra-large. I wound up with an XL, but swapped it for a M. I'm gonna re-gift it, and I can't say to whom because that would spoil the surprise. Also inside the bag was a guitar skin, though not for a Rock Band guitar, but for a Guitar Hero guitar. The best prize though, was on the way out, we were given a case (10-pack) of Vitamin Water. I guess they were the main sponsor. Actually the best prize was the good time we had, but I've said all that a few times already, no need to be (too) repetitive.

The five of us parted ways, Rob and his girlfriend and Carl in Rob's car; Jen and I in ours, and headed for home. We offered to get together and play Rock Band (ha ha) but none of them were up for doing anything but sleeping, though they'd gotten far more of it than we had. Wusses, lol. Then again, Robert was probably up at 6am Friday morning seeing his daughter off to school. No telling if he'd had a nap during the day or how long Carl or Rob's girlfriend had been up. (If anyone's curious by now, I'm not posting her name because she asked Jen not to post any pictures with her in them (or to cut/blur her out) so I'm extending a similar courtesy here. She probably told work she was doing something far more charitable than accompany her boyfriend, his sister, her husband, and their friend to a Rock Band tournament. Oh well.

Update: It's now early Tuesday morning as I write this extension of the story. We were so sore and tired when we got up Sunday afternoon. I had to work that night, too. We barely had time to run the errands we intended to run, and I had no time to cook dinner to take to work. So, instead we picked up a pizza at Walmart (Walmart deli pizza is awesome by the way) and I baked that, cut it and ate it at work. Good stuff. Though I would like to ask the Waltons what "beef product" is, that it says is on the pizza on the box. I am not joking. Go to their deli and look at the all-meat pizza, see what it says is on it. It's good though.

At some point (the next couple days kinda ran together) I made two postings on the forums, the official site for the tournament. One called out all the Rock Band 2 players. I told them that we didn't get enough time to play and we knew they didn't either, so we posted our Xbox Live gamertags, so they could add us as friends and play us online, if they chose. Good guys, all of 'em, I figured it would be awesome if we kept in touch until the next tournament, practiced together, and had a better tournament next year. I also posted Jen's, Carl's, and my MySpace pages (Rob hasn't got one) in case they wanted to contact us that way. The other post was much longer, not only detailing everything that was wrong with the tournament, but also a suggestion for how it could be better next year, addressing each and every problem. The tournament director (forums username DigitalRecruiter) read my post and only had one misunderstanding; it turns out he thought I was insulting his daughter by pointing out that she couldn't read. I apologized for the misconception and explained that I was only making the point about them pushing a band who bested kids through to the finals and reiterated that it was admirable and inspiring that he was allowing his kids to play the game. I also figured that if that was the only problem he had with my post, hopefully the other issues would be addressed for next year, and I hinted at that inference as well. Hopefully it wasn't in vain. Also, the band who bested D-Squad and won the tournament joked, on the forums in another topic, that they wished they had had better competition and would have been allowed to play more songs (in fact they played one fewer song than the other two finalist bands as they skipped the "Drain You" round). Overall it was good sportsmanship on part of the players and a lack of planning on part of the folks running the show. On top of the shortcomings of the Rock Band 2 tournament, players from virtually every other game showcased at the tournament had a long list of complaints. And virtually nobody said that the game they came to play went off without a hitch.

All in all, the 2009 Carolina Games Summit was a failure and an embarassment to the gamers, and possibly the sponsors as well. However, it was a lot of fun. It brought a lot of cool people together. And I really do hope that if the same people do the tournaments again next year, that they learn from their mistakes.

A short summary of my suggestions for improving things, as the problems are mostly mentioned here, I think it's only fair to point out the solutions I suggested. As it relates to the lines, they could have had outdoor entertainment for those in the line and could have facilitated ticket sales better. Let people buy them online and register online, and merely confirm their registration on arrival. Would have been much faster. As for the nine teams, do groups of three instead of two. Have D-Squad open the playoffs and/or the finals but not actually compete, let alone be the means for a band to advance straight to the finals. (That little girl could have sang any Hannah Montana or iCarly song she liked if they'd picked "Testify" by Rage Against the Machine; the way the vocals are set up on that song (and a few others) are such that all you have to do is say something, anything.) For the finals, we should have been performing behind the curtain and the drums placed on a mat of some kind. They could have rented or bought working guitars. We could have used Guitar Hero instruments. Rock Band 2 recognizes them and they're sturdier (despite the game software being inferior). Too many spectators made the room crowded; they could have limited the spectators or cycled them through.

In closing, it was our first video game tournament. All four of us. My youngest brother, who's always been better than me at video games, has never competed in a tournament (I asked). I wasn't even a proper member of the band, but following this tournament, I'm going to start practicing with the guys and Jen. They actually had two prior bassists but became a dedicated three-piece band when both flaked out on them too many times. Well, I won't do that. When I can, I'll play bass for them, and next year, we'll be a well seasoned four-piece virtual rock band, and DysS\MemB/EreD will go for first.

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