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Xbox 360 makes desert debut

More than 2,000 gamers descended on the Mojave Desert for the official Xbox 360 launch party. Photos: Zero Hour for Xbox 3601

PALMDALE, Calif.--Brian Batson is about to get a brand-new Xbox 360. But as a member of the Air Force stationed in Japan, he's not anywhere near a store selling one of the next-generation video game consoles.

Instead, Batson's mother, Terri Potter, and grandmother, Joan Harries, came to Microsoft's grand Xbox 360 here Sunday night to buy their son one of the coveted machines. And befitting their mission, the two women were wearing signs saying "I'm doing this for my son" and "I'm doing this for my grandson."

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Video: Gamers spend long day in Palmdale
Microsoft launches Xbox in the desert.

Though not game players themselves, Potter and Harries joined thousands of gamers in a love-fest for the new console. The so-called "Zero Hour" event, Microsoft's attempt to throw a party specifically for gamers, is being held for 30 hours--from Sunday night until 12:01 a.m. Tuesday--in a 200,000 square-foot hangar in this desert town an hour outside of Los Angeles.

And to those who came to the event--from nearby and around the world--the chance to be one of the first people to get their hands on an Xbox 360, and to try out the 18 launch titles was well worth the effort.

"I'm a huge Xbox fan," said Preston Thorne, one of 360 winners of Microsoft's Hex 168 competition who were given all-expense-paid trips to Palmdale, free Xboxes and other goodies. "This is sweet. Even if I hadn't won, I was going to try to get tickets."

Xboxes are planned to go on sale nationwide at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. A basic Xbox with a wired controller will sell for $299. A premium version with a wireless controller, an external hard drive and other extras, will cost $399.

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Despite the presence of at least 2,000 Xbox fans Sunday night--with more expected before the end of the event, since Xboxes were not planned to be sold here until around 9 p.m. Monday night--tens of thousands more were unable to win tickets to the invite-only event. And that added to the allure of the event to some.

"I love how they kept it secret," Thorne said. "It's all about the gamers and not about celebrities. They're bringing in the Fragdolls (a women's professional gamers team)...but not Gwen Stefani. All the celebrities are gamer celebrities."

To J. Allard, the head of Microsoft's Xbox team, such reaction on the part of fans was exactly the point of holding the Zero Hour event in this remote location.

"It's for the fans," Allard told CNET "E3 (the video game's business' biggest annual convention) is an industry event, and we wanted to do something for gamers...We've never done an event of this scale for the gamers. Thousands of gamers came here from all over the world and are not only enjoying themselves, but are meeting each other."

Allard said that many users of Microsoft's Xbox Live service--which allows gamers to play games like "Halo 2" against each other online--had come to the Zero Hour event and met for the first time.

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Ultimately, he said, having an event specifically for gamers was like bringing old friends and relatives together.

"This is our family," Allard said. "It's kind of like our homecoming."

Many of the fans in attendance would surely agree. The gates to the event opened around 4 p.m. Sunday and hundreds of them sat around in the rapidly cooling evening air waiting for the doors to the giant hangar to open.

In line, dozens of gamers--most sitting on white bean bags, or "marshmallows"--were playing games on cell phones or handheld devices like Sony PlayStation Portables or Nintendo DSs.

Daniel Marinoff, a 21-year-old gamer from Seal Beach, Calif., said he wouldn't have missed the Zero Hour event for anything.

"Hey, forget school and forget work," Marinoff said. "I'm just going to skip work on Monday."

Marinoff said he had attended the launch event for the original Xbox, in 2001. But he said Zero Hour was much more impressive and that he felt lucky to be part of the invite-only crowd.

However, he added, he took issue with the fact that all food and drink at the event was being sold rather than provided free of charge.

"When you're charging for water and food, and you know people can't bring in these commodities themselves," he said, "it feels like price gouging...You have an exclusive (group). Treat them as exclusive."

Still, Marinoff did say he was grateful for having been given a $40 sweatshirt and $30 Xbox memory card--as were most in attendance here--upon entry to the event.

At precisely 7 p.m., in a scene eerily reminiscent of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the doors to the hangar opened and bright light glared out into the dark where the 2,000 gamers were waiting.

At that point, the gamers flooded into the hangar where they immediately began to play with the more than 500 Xboxes that had been set up inside the giant space. All around the hangar, the sounds of shooting, racing, football games and others blared as nearly everyone tried their hands at one of the 18 launch titles.

"Everything's good about (the Xbox)," said Todd Schwarz, 28, who had come to Zero Hour from Los Angeles, and was deeply engrossed in Activision's "Call of Duty 2." "It's a great machine. The graphics are the best part."

Zero Hour for Xbox 360

Indeed, on the hundreds of high-definition monitors scattered throughout the hangar, graphics unlike that of any video game console ever seen before brought smiles and cheers from gamers.

Yet, despite the more than 2,000 gamers in the room, it didn't have the overcrowded feel so common to E3 and other game events.

In any case, as gamers dug into games like Electronic Arts' "Madden '06," Take Two's "NBA 2K6," Sega's "Condemned" and the rest of the launch roster, Allard was taking pride in finally completing his years-long task of getting the new Xbox to market and to the gamers.

"It's super exciting because we've taken a customer-centric approach," Allard said. "People come up (to me) and say, 'You took my feedback.' It's really validating and motivating. These are the people who kept us honest for the last several years. So it's a joy to hand it over to them."