Living the dream at sea
I went on a video game cruise for a week. What an asshole, right? You can't say I didn't invite you! I did an interview with the founders a while back. It's annual and open to the public.
Joining GaCuCon, aboard the Carnival Sensation, was one of the most luxuriously dorky gaming things I've ever attended in my life. Did I have fun? Hell yeah. It's hard to criticize a venue with non-stop food, vices, and video games. Did everything go smoothly? Of course not. It was the first year and we were on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean with giant waves and satellite internet. Three Florida men with a dream came up with this ridiculous concept, and being a native Floridian myself I couldn't pass it up.
Here's what went down, eh, terrible choice of words. Here's what's up. Nobody drowned, I mean. Oh, bother.
Above: Our Cruise Director yelled and sang (40 more pics in the gallery)
GaCuCon was actually a two-part event: a large kickoff party on land, followed by a smaller gathering of gamers aboard a cruise the next day. All the equipment from the land event is packed up and then put on the ship, and they throw (an almost non-stop) LAN party onboard until we're back to civilization. The voyage went from Miami to Key West, then Cozumel Mexico, and back with one full day at sea.
Below: Here's a video with the developer that made a themed game GaCuBrawl just for the cruise. It's not as polished as Brawlhalla, but it's a fun party game and was just 10 days into development when I saw it. You can download it right now for free from itch.io.
Day One - Checking in
I boarded the ship around noon, just in time to grab a coffee and a table on the outer upper deck. To check in you must present a passport (requirement), a credit card, and sign some waivers about being in proper health: I swore to Carnival staff that I wasn't deathly ill, pregnant, nursing, or nursing an ill and pregnant nurser. You then get a funny money card and your photo taken. GaCuCon put a dirty journalist payola ($75) in my account to blow on frozen girly drinks, which is exactly what I did. The view from the upper deck was ridiculous. After checking into the room (spacious!), everybody was summoned on the main deck for the world's longest emergency briefing. Afterwards, everybody ran back to their emergency liquor stations. I never got to meet him, but Captain of the ship welcomed us on board. I'm pretty sure he was Zlad on the side.
How many times can you eat lunch?
The ship was massive. I tried to walk through as much of it as I could, and I'm sure I didn't see parts of it. I had been on a smaller Bahamas cruise before, but never quite on a ship like this. I'm told this isn't even one of the biggest or newest ones. It reminded me being at a Las Vegas hotel, complete with priceless people-watching. The weather was also pretty sweet: even at the end of January it was sunny enough to get burned, but after the sun went down it wasn't cold enough to demand winter gear. The GaCuCon bossen instructed us to chill and relax on the first day, then regroup for dinner. This proved to be tricky when there were seven different restaurants onboard.
With light first day plans I focused on my other passion: Eating. Some people checked in early and were already on their fourth meal. I wasn't expecting great food at all, and that ended up being one of my favorite things. I didn't have a bad meal or even repeat the same dish twice. The buffet in particular was serious business, with rotating port of call specialties each time the ship docked.
Anatomically speaking, my titties were out
The people watching was also top notch. Carnival ship attendees tend to skew a little younger than most cruise lines, so apart from the mostly male GaCuCon attendees, there was a naturally occurring overflow of jailbait, college meat, vacationing couples, bros with popped collars, and a lot of people from different countries in ill-advised swimwear. After the charm of being half naked in Winter had warmed off, I started seeking other GaCuConners, but that proved to be tricky with the gaming room still being set up. They had to break down all the gear from the land event and start over, which was brutal for staff.
A lot of GaCuCon attendees accidentally got split up on the first day. Carnival employees provided different dining instructions (they guided us based on our ID cards), and my GaCuCon program itinerary wasn't specific, so I ended up at the wrong restaurant with a few others. There was also the Carnival staff up-selling upgrades at every corner, so maybe more than a few were snake-charmed into dining with the Captain.
The error worked out in my favor: I had the pleasure of dining with Riot Games design director Greg Street) and his brother, James. The restaurant fed us well, and I got hear all about every future League of Legends secret for the next billion years. Totally. There were also a few competitive gamers onboard, and it was eye-opening to listen in on war stories and the drama that goes down behind the scenes. These guys train like animals, flying different people in to their bunkers, traveling with out-of-pocket costs to get turned away, and so on. Respect.
After dinner a few people played board games, some people tried their luck in the casinos, others hit the night clubs, there was a filthy comedy show, and a cheesy rendition of Studio 51 in the theater. This is where the point of the gaming cruise comes in: If none of that appeals to you, there's mad CounterStrike going on a few doors down and a little built-in family that likes a bunch of the games you do.
I love that aspect about PAX, and that same charm was strong at GaCuCon, though with a decidedly lot fewer people and games. That's about the worst thing I can say about GaCuCon. A few of us ended up at a piano bar that night watching a birthday boy get his tiny penis ripped to shreds, just like they do at Howl at the Moon. In their defense, they did plan other stuff to do. A program guide challenged us with an onboard treasure hunt for exclusive year-one convention booty. We were on island time -- but the scale of the ship meant there was always something to do, and time went by fast. In the back of my mind I was totally this guy. There were exploding kittens when it was all too much to bear.
We must game on a cruise a ship. Now what?
By day two, I had adapted the regiment of a baby penguin. I would wake up early to stuff my beak at the buffet with my brothers, and then follow around our favorite Event Wrangler while half their staff prepared the LAN room. I have a really cute selfie of the breakfast buffet of everyone looking super-trashed from the night before, so that's not going in the photo gallery (among other things). Instead here's what the LAN tables looked like during setup:
Real quick, let's back to the star of GaCuCon -- the food. Dude.
The food situation was flawless. When I'm at other conventions I can barely get a hot dog and a coke for under $10, so this was most pleasing. Sure, the price of food is somehow built in to the package deal, but since I'm also getting room, board, and a vacation out of this I'm having a hard time figuring out how cruise ships make money. Probably the upgrades, which I'm refusing left and right.
On top of that there was complimentary breakfast delivered to my room, which went straight into my mini fridge for all-hours snacking. Whatever weight I lost at the event I covered in Taipei was completely undone. Pizza Pirate had like six different kinds of pizza and I rocked them all, after 2 am, just because I could. Most things are included at no cost, so you can go get a turkey wrap followed by a 4-cheese pizza followed by ten cups of ice cream followed by diabetes a la carte. I was exercising my right as an American, dammit.
On the business side, I could tell that the GaCuCon staff ran into some unexpected glitches that pushed our schedules back. Some creativity was required to adapt to a cruise ship conference room into a LAN party. Most people didn't really seem to mind after they got a proper Rock Band setup going off to the side. We woke up docked in the Florida Keys, so that morning some people went to the Southernmost Penis tip of America, others went bar-hopping, some checked out the Hemingway house, and others parasailed and rented jet-skis.
By mid afternoon most people were back in the game room, where I helped put on a 2-hour question and answer panel. The first question was adorable: "Do you guys do that for a living, full time?" Back in 2006, Fatal1ty (who just goes by "Jonathan" in real life, btw) had already won $300,000 while eSports was figuring itself out. CBS didn't even know what to call him so they went with CYBER ATHLETE. He told us a little about the early days when he was struggling and getting by selling oversized mouse pads. The guest from Riot Games, Greg, used to be a scientist who felt guilty about running home to game instead of putting long hours at the lab. As for me, I talked about finding my way through making fun of press releases and how it's ok to be weird. We talked about all kinds of stuff, but it mostly came down to explaining our early hustle -- how to break in and all the stuff we tried that failed. There's more people that want to work in the gaming industry than there are actual jobs, and trying hard while also getting creative when the door gets slammed on your face makes all the difference.
After the panel, we took a short break everybody helped put finishing touches on the LAN party. Even Fatal1ty rolled up his sleeves and set up a subnet for a pickup game of Quake. I helped revive a computer that wouldn't post after it was unpacked from the shipping crate (it was a tiny gap between the motherboard and PCI-e card, the damn thing must have separatedin the packing process). Full-service guests! When any inconvenience was solved, we toasted and cheered. It felt like a little family just throwing together a quick LAN in the man cave, except that we were in the middle of the ocean.
What wasn't malleable was Carnival's unpredictable Internet connectivity at sea, so we couldn't download extra stuff as fast as we wanted. We also couldn't have guessed in advance that there's no way Vive lighthouses can work as accurately with the movement of the ship. That's just the sort of thing we learned.
By the evening everything was running smoothly. Over the next few days people competed against Fatal1ty for prizes like Amazon Fire TVs (and one guy won a full Oculus Touch kit during the land event). Other curious cruise-goers started to sneak in. The cruise ship staff seemed to get a kick out of it too -- I saw a couple of guys stop by on their breaks and just stood there with ear to ear grins watching the people get their games on. GangBeasts was easily the community favorite. It's one of those games that's hard to get into on your own but when there's four people in the room it delights and tortures your organs.
I was worried that I'd get dizzy gaming on the ship, and that wasn't an issue. Even when the ship was most rocky, I didn't get dizzy or puke-faced. I can't say the same about demo'ing The Screamer in VR. That will fuck you up, guaranteed, no exceptions.
Then we hit Mexico
80-degree weather in the middle of Winter, not bad at all. After we hit land I was expecting some sketchy taxi situation and elbowing touts, but there was none of that at all. Cozumel was just as nice as the Keys. Some people went out on jeeps to see the ruins, some went cave diving or to see the reefs. I got some sun. I may have ended up at a place called "Los Tres Amigos" where people quietly read newspapers and snacked on low-carb Mexican cuisine, dressed their finest Sunday church clothes. I saw una amiga get baptized three times, as they regularly do (not my video). I mean, it's Mexico. Good times were had.
I have to go back to normal life after this?
The last day is spent cruising back to reality, so I had a chance to check out some of Carnival Sensation's stuff, said goodbye to the buffet, wrote a thank you letter for my cabin attendant, and packed my bags. Back in Miami, some people booked extended excursions while others flew back immediately to their frozen tundras. My folks retired in Florida so it was nice to visit the fam.
With so much universal appeal for videogames and millennials being able to afford stuff like this now, something like a GaCuCon should be standard on all cruises (as opposed to abandoned arcade machines in a dirty corner). I hope it's a thing that catches on. Until then, all things considered (and all foods consumed) it was pretty economical vacation package. If you book waaaay ahead of time it's totally sensible. They were probably not allowed to sell wristbands to other guests, or there would be dudes in the jacuzzi hawking Rolexes.
Speaking of betas, GaCuCon knows they have a few issues to resolve. GaCuCon was intimate, which is a compliment and a problem. Electronic logistics aside, they're at a content disadvantage as no major players debuted new games on the floor. The organizers took on a lot as both our entertainers, wranglers, problem solvers, and fix-it men. From a press perspective I didn't have a lot to do after the land event, but that ended up being a plus for devs and customers that wanted to pick our brains.
GaCuCon knows that to become a bigger success, they must attract more content and more guests -- a sort of thing that happens slowly over the years. This will be an overnight success someday. Until then, it's a family affair. I went in not knowing too many people and left with friends I can't wait to see again, and that's hard to put a price tag on.
In the end, it was good business for them, so GaCuCon is sailing again in 2018. Would I do it again? All week long.
Disclosure: GaCuCon provided travel and liquored us up gloriously.