Omegathon born: Behind the scenes of one of gaming’s greatest spectacles
“We went to him,” Penny Arcade's Robert Khoo told me when I asked how Spy Party was selected as the final round of this year's Omegathon. “That's the way it always is.” It takes a certain type of game to make a good Omegathon event: It needs to be competitive, interesting visually and, above all, fun to watch.
It's not often that you get an email asking if your game can be the main event at one of the industry's largest annual shows, and Spy Party creator Chris Hecker didn't have to think about it.
“I said something along the lines of 'Hell yes,'” Hecker told the Report. But it's not easy to put an event of this size together, or to keep it quiet. This is how the final round of the Omegathon goes down.
“Get him and bring him here”
The Spy Party booth was busy throughout most of the show, and was staffed by community members who knew the game inside and out. It was my job to grab Hecker and transport him, along with the laptops needed to play the game, to the theater without anyone knowing what we were up to.
When anyone asked questions, I told them I was getting a private demo of the game.
I was still paranoid about being spotted, and Hecker recognized, while walking over to the theater. In fact we rejected the idea of Robert Khoo picking up Hecker in case anyone was able to put together what was happening; he's much more recognizable than I am on the show floor.
We also needed someone with an All-Access badge to make sure he was able to get behind the scenes of the theater in plenty of time to get everything set up, and this gave me an excuse to follow the event's final moments before the show.
Jerry Holkins and other behind-the-scenes crew look on as Hecker describes how to show the game on the theater's big screens. The original idea was to flip between the Spy and Sniper's screen from time to time to give the audience both views, but that was ultimately rejected in favor of putting both screens side by side.
No one was interested in relying on an Internet connection, so Hecker came up with a solution to use hacked-together LAN support. “It’s crazy, that’s why I needed to set it up myself. If I got hit by a bus, it’s all over, you’d need to pick another game,” Hecker said. “No one but me could set this up… it’s cobbled together, running a local version of the Internet.”
The production crew discusses how the event will play out, and you can see the amount of systems and displays it takes to keep everything up and running. Chris Hecker watched the matches from this space.
The monitor near the middle of the screen shows every feed from the cameras on the floor, allowing whoever was in charge of the final production to show the best possible view of the action on the big screens.
“The worst-case scenario is that one player will have played the game, and the other hasn't. In that case, they'll just be mowed down,” Hecker said. He brought up the idea of allowing a handicapping system in case one player was familar with the game, but Robert Khoo rejected the idea.
“No,” Khoo said. “Let him be mowed down.” This is the Omegathon. An omnivorous appetite for games will only work in your favor.
The empty theater, as the game is assembled and tested.
Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins practice the game. They'll play the first round in front of the crowd after Hecker explains to everyone how Spy Party is played.
The game is only one part of the event, and stagecraft is an important piece of the puzzle. These Enforcers actually played the part of the cocktail party guests in the background of the stage, making it look like the players were actually inside the world of Spy Party.
Travis Eriksen and Angela Thurston, the “Omegatechs,” pushed for this bit of theatricality. “The first theatrics, Robert was like no, we’re not doing that,” Eriksen explained. “We’re doing the tux reveal and then we’ll walk them out. I said this was better.” His instincts were right, the audience went crazy when the real-life Spy Party set was revealed.
“They looked marvelous, milling around,” Jerry said after the event.
Chris Hecker explains the game to the two final Omeganauts. They may look relaxed, but the grand prize was an all-expenses paid trip to Tokyo for two. The stakes were high.
The calm before the storm. The crowd is in the building, and the performers are safely hidden behind the curtain. At this point Mike Krahulik begins jumping up and down to get his energy up for the big reveal.
“For 30 or 60 seconds, this was him,” photographer Dabe Alan said, pantomiming a kind of jumping, hand moving action. “Jerry was pacing in place.”
The theater, filled with people. Mike and Jerry came out in jumpsuits to applause. “Can we get some class up in this motherfucker?” Jerry asked, and they stripped down, revealing matching tuxes before revealing the final game: SPY PARTY. The crowd went crazy, and the live-action Spy Party scene was finally revealed.
It was hard to see from some of the seats, but in an added bit of fun Penny Arcade placed someone in the stands to point a laser pointer at random people on stage to mimic an actual round of the game.
The first match went well, and Chris Hecker did a good job of explaining the game's mechanics to the crowd. “That’s from four PAX's, year after year, we have that nailed,” he told me later. After giving so many demos to so many people who may not have heard about the game, Hecker has the patter down cold.
Eriksen flips the coin to determine who goes first. You can see one of the pipe-cleaner sculptures that served as the statues from the game in the foreground. The other one, not pictured, was a replica of a Deep Crow.
Penny Arcade culture, in-jokes, and Easter Eggs often litter these events.
It's customary for Mike and Jerry to taunt the final players with jokes about their play, but this was deemed inappropriate in a game this tense. The two men walked the stage, however, and did their best to hide their reactions so as not to tip off the players.
Things are beginning to heat up. During the final round, Nantucket had a lead of four to three, and decided to try a risky strategy: He would do nothing.
The computer would retain control of his character, making his movements impossible to spot. The goal was to run down the clock, and try to get the sniper to fire at a random target in panic.
“I knew he’d take a shot, and I just banked on it,” Nantucket told me later. “I knew it would be just the ballsiest thing. And he would think that I wouldn’t do it.”
There was some fear on Hecker's part that the audience could yell out information that would help a player on the stage. The capacity crowd had all the information needed to sway the outcome, but stayed nearly silent through the entirety of the event.
“That person would get destroyed,” Mike told me when I asked if he was scared about anyone tipping the game.
Jerry had reassured Hecker of the same thing before the event began. “They will be very, very good,” he promised.
Just like that, it was over. The Omeganaut took the shot, hit a random person at the party, and Nantucket won the event. “At 30 seconds the timer begins to beep,” Eriksen explained to me. “He said he got nervous and felt he had to take the shot.”
“If he had not fired, he would have won,” Nantucket explained.
Nantucket celebrates his win as Jerry looks on. “It was the perfect play,” Jerry said to me after the event.
The crowd went crazy when the incorrect shot was taken, and Nantucket was overjoyed that the strategy worked. He later said that he even twiddled his thumbs under the table while holding the controller to give the illusion that he was moving the character around the screen.
Chris Hecker comes on stage to congratulate the winner. The entire event, complete with costumed performers, multiple rounds of the game, and a giant, appreciative audience, went off without a single technical issue.
Ladies and gentleman, your 2013 Omeganaut, excited about his trip to Tokyo.
“I thought 'oh my god, I just won,' and I put my hands up,” he said, describing the moment he heard the sniper's shot and knew the laser wasn't on his head. A few minutes after our interview he walked out of the now-empty theater.
The second-place winner is guaranteed a spot in next year's Omegathon, where the whole process will begin again.