My Visit to the USA.


I spent one week in Dallas. For the second week of my trip, I went to see a friend in Tacoma, Washington State. Whilst there, on 19th October, I went to see NOA's HQ in Redmond, which is a suburb of Seattle.

[Mt. Reinier] (741x545 121K JPG) This image was taken a short while before landing at SeaTac airport. It shows Mt. Reinier, from about 14000ft up (the mountain itself is over 17000ft high). The picture is not as clear as some of the other mid-air pictures I took because the window was covered in scratches (causing unwanted glare and reflections). Shortly after the plane passed Mt. Reinier, Mt. St. Helens became visible on the horizon, though not sufficiently visible that a photo would show it clearly. The view was certainly spectacular - definitely sufficient reason to take a video camera when I visit there next time.

When I arrived at the hotel in Tacoma (The Days Inn), the first thing I did was to phone my friend in town. We talked for 3 hours! :D Free local calls! What a brilliant concept the Americans have! In the UK, local phone calls are definitely not free. Heh, the following night, something was wrong with the cable 'pay per view' system in the hotel and, after asking the hotel staff if it was ok, I watched 'Crimson Tide', 'The Specialist' and one other movie (I forget which) for free! 8D

[Mt. Reinier] (808x540 152K JPG) This is one of the smaller harbours in Tacoma. I took the picture because of the really cool-looking sky, with Mt. Reinier on the horizon. Tacoma may be an industrial town at heart, but many parts do not feel as such and have more of a seaside resort atmosphere to them as this picture shows (note: sorry about the 'vertical' banding effect in some of these images. The scanner I used is responsible for that; sometime I'll rescan the photos with a better quality scanner). Incidentally, I was told that the local name for Mt. Reinier means something like 'wandering spirit'; certain weather conditions can make the mountain look as though it has completely vanished - legend says the mountain likes to go walkies now and then. :)

[SeaTac Road] (808x530 147K JPG) This is the main highway that links Tacoma and Seattle (I believe we were heading for Seattle at the time). Some of the things that appealed to me as a visitor will be commonplace for a local citizen, but it is these nuances that are often the most memorable for a tourist. This picture is typical: roads as straight as this in the UK are very rare - the opportunity for a nice perspective shot was too good to miss; the dedicated left-hand lane for busses and car pools only is a good idea and not something to be found in the UK either; I also noticed an extra central lane on many highways which could be defined to have its traffic flowing in either direction, depending on the necessity (eg. rush hour). All good ideas that other countries should learn from. Heh, on the comical side, I remember seeing a sign for a place called 'Pyallup' - nice accidental road-related pun there. :D

[Space Needle] (547x771 135K JPG) Players of PilotWings64 should recognise this landmark! It's the Space Needle in Seattle. I was very impressed with the screenshot from PW64 that shows the Space Needle, mainly because I recognised it straight away - something that the creators of PW64 would no doubt be pleased to hear. I obviously would have liked to go up to the restaurant at the top, but could not afford to on this occasion (maybe next time). However, I did get to see many other sights around Seattle, such as the large market that's there (those flying fish at the fish market have to be seen to be believed!). Btw: Tacoma Dome looks much better than King Dome! :D

One thing about Seattle that struck me was the way some of the streets slope down rather like the way they do in San Fransisco (at least the way S.F. is often depicted in movies); by that I mean, for instance, the way East/West streets may be fairly flat, whilst North/South streets are very steeply sloped. Actually, this is one reason why I like watching 'Frasier' - the setting seems far more familiar having been there. One of the most enjoyable 'moments' I had was on the corner of... 3rd and Pine I think... waiting for the bus back to Tacoma. I had a sudden great sense of definitely being somewhere completely different to that which I was used to - the people, sounds, sights, everything (this is not the kind of thing one can capture with a photograph or movie). I can see why world travel can become so addictive - without a doubt, my overwhelming impression of other places is not that such places or better or worse than what I'm used to (such feelings would be the height of arrogance), but that such places are different. It's this variety which makes the world so special and is what I find so appealing as a visitor. Whever you may be as you read this, I strongly recommend that, some day, you go on holiday to somewhere that's nothing like your normal surroundings - it'll broaden your mind and worldy awareness in ways you can't imagine. As the saying goes, I'll be back... :)

[Hat 'n' Boots] (807x503 124K JPG) I've been told that this is a national landmark, but what is it called? And what are the structures made of? Fibreglass? Makes me wonder whether some giant Texan visitor has sunk into the depths of downtown Seattle. :D (or is this in Tacoma? I can't remember). Heh, considering the kit I was wearing during my trip (see next image) I had to take this picture. :D There were many sites in Tacoma and Seattle that I didn't take pictures of, which is something I regret; eg. the huge paintings which are on the sides of buildings, etc. I also wish I'd taken the time to have a look round that Harley Davidson showroom in Tacoma (it was practically next door to the EconoLodge). Ah well...

[Mario Statue] (631x534 139K JPG) Aaagh! 5 foot high Mario! Run for the hills! Actually, even finding my way to Nintendo's HQ was an interesting experience: the free bus phone help line is a great idea and I like the underground bus terminal in Seattle - a lady next to me on the bus said she likes the round lighting fixtures in the tunnels which make her feel like she's in a 'Star Wars space tunnel' when the bus leaves the terminal! :D Eventually getting to Redmond, I found NOA's HQ amongst a large number of computer-related company sites. I was originally to meet with Perrin Kaplan (Corporate Communications Manager), but an unexpected meeting she had to attend prevented that from taking place, so instead I was taken on a tour of the buildings by another member of staff. This picture was taken in a large showroom, a place where NOA have set up dozens of stalls showing all the different systems they sell and the myriad ways in which their products can be displayed and sold in stores. I expect it's changed somewhat now that the N64 is on sale.


(1264x252 171K JPG) This is the main showroom at NOA's HQ. From this viewpoint, the Mario statue described above is way out of sight on the far right. Note that this image is a panorama constructed from four separate photos and so is very wide with a large perspective curve. Each image was reduced in size by 50% (a full size panorama would not fit even on a very high-res monitor) and then carefully merged together to make the edges match as accurately as possible. You can download the four original separate images if you wish:

Far Left Image (808x546 165K JPG)

Mid Left Image (808x546 195K JPG)

Mid Right Image (808x546 180K JPG)

Far Right Image (808x546 177K JPG)

Entertainment System] (808x544 194K JPG) This is an interesting picture, showing one of the in-flight entertainment systems currently being designed for commercial passenger aircraft (Virgin Airways will be one of the first companies to install such a system in their planes). Each seat will have its own LCD screen, allowing one to watch movies, access shopping networks, banks, play computer games with/against other passengers (multiplayer Quake at 34000ft! 8), watch TV, etc. Is anyone ever going to bother looking out of the window again? :D Notice the control pads sitting on the seat. To the right of the picture, an arcade Cruisn' USA unit can be seen - it was free to play as it's there specifically to show off the game. Yes, I had a go. :)

[Mike Rasciner] (466x710 142K JPG) This is Mike Rasciner of Team Nintendo, the group of expert people who answer all the phone calls which NOA's HQ receives about their various games. Mike showed me round NOA's HQ. If you phone up NOA's game query hotline, Mike is one of the people you might speak to. As you can see, the Mario statue is huge! :D

Mike showed me some interesting things around the NOA complex. One fascinating room was where the people who answer your game questions are actually trained. Mike told me that a basic phone operator must know the current top 3 games off by heart, every part of the game, completely. Apparently, the best and most knowledgable operators know at least the top 20 games completely. What I saw through a door window panel was a room where trainees were being tested on their knowledge of the games they were learning. What a job, eh? Learning a computer game off by heart for a living! And sitting exams on your knowledge of the games! (this is what was underway in the room I saw)

Each operator has their own desk area. Available to them is one of every type of game unit NOA have ever made (Gameboy, VB, NES, SNES, N64, etc.), plus a selection of current games. The operator has a computer which gives access to a vast database containing thousands of answers and help information for every Nintendo game imaginable. The system is designed so that even if an operator does not know much about the game being queried, the operator is guided via a series of questions they can ask the caller in order to help them find the information the caller is looking for; I was told that if an operator was asked a question on a game they know nothing about, then the system would enable them to answer at least 95% of possible questions which might be asked.

When I was there a year ago, much of the database structure for games such as Doom64, etc., was already set up. What was not yet included were the actual game details. What really impressed me though was the care which had been taken in the design of the database system: for each game, any question a caller might have can be answered in several different ways, depending on how strong a hint the caller wants. eg. if a caller just wants a small hint, like where to find a secret passage in a castle, the operator might give the 'low-detail' answer such as 'Try the south side of the ground floor'; but if the caller is completely stuck after already searching, the operator can use the high-detail answer such as 'Go to the dining room on the ground floor. There is a book shelf by the fireplace. Press the third book from the left to reveal a secret passage.' I think there were 3 or 4 different levels of detail available for each answer to a question, enabling callers to get as little or as much information as they want. An excellent system, IMO.

There is also a vast store room containing copies of every game that NOA has ever made. Thus, an operator may locate a particular game and play through it with the caller, etc., to find the required answers, or just to learn more about that game if necessary. Each operator is given one of every kind of game unit NOA has made to take home for free so that they can learn the games in their own time if they wish, and also just as a gift.

The room where the phone operators are based is huge, laid out much like an open-plan office with low wall partitions just below head height between desks. A large read-out display hangs overhead, showing the number of incoming calls active, on which call lines, what calls are currently waiting, etc. There were at least 100 people in the room, I am sure. Perhaps more. Long walkways separate groups of desks to enable easy movement; these walkways have names based on NOA's games, eg. 'Killer Instinct Alley' and 'Star Fox Boulevard', etc. (yes, I know, I should have taken a picture. Too busy taking it all in I guess. *sigh*) There were alot of nice touches like this, items of humour around the place, etc.

I walked past the desks where is written, but the editors, etc., were not present at the time. I've since discovered that they were there that day, so I might have walked right past them and not realised it. :D One of the funniest things I saw was in a connection corridor between two buildings: all down the corridor were placed large 'gravestones', probably made out of painted plaster or plastic, each engraved with the name of a rival console. I wish I'd taken a picture of that scene but for some daft reason I didn't. One gravestone had 'Saturn' written on it, another had '3DO', and so on. Nice touch guys! :D

I didn't get to meet Perrin Kaplan because she was unexpectedly busy that day, but I was shown round NOA's HQ and it was a most enjoyable tour. The place has a very 'alive' feeling to it, as if the staff are very aware that their work brings enjoyment to vast numbers of gamers across the nation.

Prior to visiting NOA's HQ, I had the honour of having lunch with the lady who is (or was at that time) NOA's Public Relations Manager for the Nintendo64, namely Eileen Tanner, in a restaurant in Tacoma. Without Eileen's help, I would never have been able to visit NOA's HQ (she arranged it all), so I am very grateful to her for all her help. She's sent me many press releases (640x480 112K JPG), screenshot slides, etc. over the past year or so. Alas, I didn't take a photo of Eileen, but suffice to say that her work does great credit to NOA and the PR company she works for (Golin Harris Communications Inc.), so thanks Eileen for all your excellent help! 8)

[NOA's HQ] (808x542 181K JPG) So what does NOA's HQ actually look like, you might be wondering? I'm not sure what I was expecting to see, perhaps the kind of large glass expensive building that's typical in Dallas. What I wasn't expecting was a large, well laid out, corporate rural paradise with plenty of walkways, easy road access and many trees. It didn't feel like an industrial park at all. Most of the company headquarters in the area were similarly styled; without a doubt, the architects and planners deserve some good credit for their work.

I was sorry I had to finish my visit that day, but all good things must come to an end (the NOA staff are an understandably busy group of people, especially as the Shoshinki show was drawing near). Perhaps I will visit again another day. I'll certainly visit my friend in Tacoma again (besides, her Mum promised to take me to see Mt. St. Helens. :D)

My thanks to all those who made the my journey possible, to the folks at Id Software, Paradigm Simulation Inc. & Nintendo of America, to the staff of the hotels I stayed in (The Comfort Inn in Dallas, The Days Inn & EconoLodge in Tacoma), to the airport staff, taxi drivers and all the other people I met along the way (including that guard at Dallas airport who thought I was an O.J. Simpson supporter because of my 'Slaine' 2000AD badge! :D). Keep safe and hopefully I'll see some of you again in a year or so... :)