Hogwarts Inside Out: Game Control Operations: On the Road

Hogwarts Inside Out: Game Control Operations: On the Road

Each time a phone rang, I twitched. If minutes passed without a phone ringing, I twitched. Miss Jerry was on the phone with a team. She was explaining something complicated, the conversation was taking a while, that was OK. But why wasn't the second line ringing? Didn't any other teams need info? I was getting nervous, wondering why the second phone wasn't ringing, the third. The info line, 1-866-411-4FROG, fed into a virtual phone bank--a VXML program that would, in turn, try sending the call to other phone numbers, a small pile of mobile phones on the living room table. When a volunteer went on-shift, they could add their phone to the rotation; if they were done and wanted to go do something else, they could take their phone out of the rotation. Fortunately, it was possible to change the configuration that the phone bank used to dispatch calls. A couple of years ago, during the Justice Unlimited game, GC had tweaked the configuration file. The new configuration wasn't quite right, and the result was that the phone bank would only send calls to one phone; if that phone was busy, it would say "All lines are busy now please try again later" and hang up. They hadn't known that anything was wrong--things were nice and calm, teams didn't need as much hand-holding as expected--just one was calling up at a time. But actually, teams were failing to get through. GC hadn't found out there was a problem until teams that could get through complained that it had taken them several tries. Now, watching that silent second phone, I worried. I wasn't the only one. DeeAnn walked over to yet another phone, called the info line. The second phone rang. DeeAnn relaxed. I relaxed. I suspect that other folks relaxed, too.

[Photo: Helpline: Cheerful Crew]

Not all the phones rang. There were four phones. Miss Jerry was talking on one. The second phone rang a couple of times. Then the third phone rang a few times. The fourth phone didn't ring. What was going on?

The Snout phone bank program is cool. You can configure one with some outgoing numbers. When someone calls, it tries each of these numbers in turn. If the line is busy or doesn't pick up before a time-out period, the program tries the next line. You can configure that time-out period.

Mobile phones are a remarkable invention. You might live in mountain view and travel to Sacramento--and yet when someone calls your number, it just takes a few seconds for the cellular system to figure out where you are and ring your phone. How many seconds? The answer seems to depend on what system your phone is on, where you are, and the relative alignment of Saturn and Mercury.

We'd set the time-out period to 24 seconds, enough time for it to place a call to a mobile phone, for the cellular system to find the phone, and for the phone to ring a few times. It so happened that Crystal's phone's cellular system was especially speedy. In 24 seconds, it quickly found her phone, rang it a few times--and then sent calls to voice mail. When the voice mail picked up, the phone bank saw that it had connected the call. And thus, instead of getting sent to the fourth phone, Teams would call Crystal's voice mail. Sometimes. Depending on the alignment of Saturn and Mercury, Crystal's voice mail might not pick up so early, the call might get redirected. Crystal checked her messages--a couple of teams calling in to confirm on some clues.

What's the right long-term solution for a GC info-line? The basic idea of a phone bank. The combination of a phone bank with cellular mobile phones seems less great. If you're running a game in your neighborhood, my naive thought is to set up GC in someone's house, and get that house set up with two land phone lines. Point the phone bank at those land-lines, maybe point it at a couple of cell phones later in the sequence.

That wouldn't work if you live in Mountain View and your Game Control HQ is in a motel room in Sacramento. I don't have a great idea for a solution there. I guess you do what Curtis did--make little tweaks, hope it works.

He took Crystal's phone out of the rotation--it worked too well, too swiftly. He added another phone's number to the rotation instead. He lowered the time-out time a little. Now it was time to test the system. Curtis called the info line. Miss Jerry's phone rang (she was off the phone by now). The second phone rang, the third phone, the fourth phone. Triumph!

Over the course of figuring out what was going on with all of these phones, I'd ended up holding a couple of them. Right now, I was holding the fourth phone, which was still ringing. I opened it up so that it would answer instead of sending this test call to voice mail. Curtis was pleased, saying something about how the system was working. I was pleased to, but also a little confused. Something was wrong. Why wasn't I hearing Curtis' voice from the phone I'd just opened up? I put the phone next to my head. I said "Uh, hello? Uhm, Ministry of Magic?" A voice came back. It wasn't Curtis. It was a broken-up phone signal, some team out in the field, calling up Game Control.

I wasn't on phone duty, but I'd watched what those folks were doing. I picked up one of the specially-formatted paper call slips to take notes. If it was just a team calling up to confirm a right answer, I could handle that no problem. I jotted down the time. I asked for the team name a couple of times, couldn't make out the noisy answer, and then they were asking a question. Oh, well, they weren't calling to confirm, but if they were asking about a puzzle I'd play-tested, I could probably handle their question OK. They were describing the puzzle--oh it was one of the puzzles I hadn't tested. OK, we had print-outs describing each of the puzzles, maybe I could skim that super-fast. I grabbed a print-out. Wow, it was a few pages. I flipped through it, looking for a summary. There wasn't one. I was all set to start reading when I realized I was being dumb. Was I really going to make a team sit there and wait while I read the instructions? I handed the phone to Curtis. He got the team name--Mudblood and Bones. Argh. I'd wasted a team's time--a team to whom I was already in Karmic arrears. How long had I kept them waiting as they told me about things they'd tried on this puzzle as I flipped through that printout? Only a minute, but that was a minute too long.

Anna Hentzel and her brothers were back at GCHQ, recently returned from the Nimbus Fish Hatchery where they'd been watching teams pick up broomsticks. They were ready for their next mission: they were planting more clues. They were delivering Lisa Long (in her role as Cassandra Cross) at Henningsen Lotus Park. They were sitting with her there, and then they were all heading up to Auburn. There was a flurry of directions, a snatching of snacks, a rush to the door, and they were gone.

This seemed like a lot of people to send out to watch over a clue or two. DeeAnn let me know part of her system: no-one goes out alone. No-one watches over a clue alone. This rule seemed a little strange to me, but it might have made more sense to me if I'd been waiting out in the woods alone with a bucket full of clues to hand out and got attacked by a mountain lion or something.

One (optional) puzzle was to be guarded by Dementors. In the world of Harry Potter, Dementors are scary monsters that can make you cold with fear. Or something like that, I'm hazy on the details. In this game, Dementors would be people dressed up in scary black costumes that could make you cold by squirting you with cold water. The people who were originally slated to be Dementors had canceled out, but coed astronomer Elena and friend-of-coed-astronomy Georgia volunteered for Dementor duty. Somehow, DeeAnn made it seem like the most natural thing in the world to switch from talking about Coloma-Auburn travel times to giving acting direction for scary monsters.

Justin Santamaria was a little surprised at how well Georgia had taken to Gaming. She hadn't actually played in any puzzle hunts before. And yet here she was, volunteering. When she'd heard that wizard and witch costumes would be useful, she'd scrounged one together from some of her mom's outfits. Talking with her was kind of eerie--she was so much in her element.

According to the schedule, it was time for me to grab six hours' of sleep. One advantage to having large numbers of volunteers was that we could take things in shifts, people could stand down, take naps. I went to one of the sleeping rooms, lay down, relaxed, steadied my breathing. I didn't sleep, though. Volunteering for GC was like playing the Game--it was intense. I didn't want to sleep--I wanted to know what was going on. I closed my eyes. I opened my eyes. 45 minutes passed in this manner. I got up, walked back down to the main HQ room.

Many teams called up for help with the Honeydukes puzzle--the one with the chocolate bars and the candy sprinkles. I was glad that I hadn't faced this puzzle, apparently it was pretty hard. The chocolate bars had the Cadbury brand name stamped on each square; this suggested an orientation for the candy bar; but folks attaching the candy sprinkles to the candy bars hadn't been consistent in which way we'd oriented the bar when attaching the sprinkles. Thus, teams who handed around the candy bars without noticing the original orientation, then tried to restore the orientation by looking at the brand name could get a candy bar turned around--making the puzzle pretty much impossible. I remembered Justin saying something about the brand name on the candy bar. Did that mean that us two had kept the candy bars right-side-up? I sure hoped so. Even teams that had the candy bars oriented correctly needed help. But some teams were into it. One team figured out that the candy sprinkles were Spongebob Squarepants characters. That was pretty impressive. And teams did solve the puzzle. Whenever a team solved a puzzle and called up to confirm, the phone volunteer would announce that the team had earned five points: "Five points for Slytherin!" Then everyone in the living room would cheer. Teams could hear this. Sometimes, over the phone, you could hear the Team cheering, too.

[Photo: Connecting Firefly to the Boombox]

The kitchen counter was now an electronics lab bench. Cary had ripped the top off of a boom-box. What was going on? Cary was working on the Firefly puzzle. I hadn't seen the Firefly puzzle. GC had planned to let us solve it in the play-test. Firefly was a complicated electronic device that played sounds and lit up LEDs. For the play-test, Cary had been putting the puzzle together, had mixed up a ground wire with a power wire--and blown up the puzzle. Cary had repaired the device. He'd been testing it out just now--and the power supply had shorted out and burned the insulation off of a cord. This was pretty scary, and furthermore meant that Firefly couldn't connect to its amplifier. So Cary was tearing apart the boom-box, wiring Firefly's outputs to the boom-box's amplifier, getting the signal across--and making sure that the resulting device didn't catch fire.

DeeAnn tried to take a nap. It lasted about half an hour. I didn't feel so sheepish about by lack of ability to sleep now.

It was a little after midnight when Team RadiKS called. Their wand seemed to be on the fritz. They'd solved a puzzle, it had told them to cast a spell, they'd cast it. And the wand had said they'd cast the spell, and said "but that spell isn't useful now." Each wand contained a timer. If a team cast a spell much, much earlier than expected, the wand wouldn't give send the team on to the next clue site. If the team cast a spell much, much earlier than expected, they weren't casting that spell as the solution to a puzzle--they couldn't have seen the puzzle yet. Instead, they were probably casting the spell by accident. RadiKS' wand thought that they were casting a spell much too early. Was its timer broken? How could we find out? Acorn would know. I went and woke up Acorn.

When Acorn woke up and reached the HQ room, he was thinking about timers and power. The timer counted time from when the device started up. If the wand got jarred enough to temporarily disconnect its batteries, the power cycle would restart its timer. Fortunately, as a good engineer, Acorn had built some diagnostic spells into the wand and left them available in the production version.

[Photo: Late-Night Wand Repair]

Thus, Curtis called back RadiKS and asked them to "drum" out the rhythm to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". The wand responded to this by displaying eight hexadecimal digits, which RadiKS read out loud over the phone. Sure enough, the wand thought that it was still Friday morning. But if RadiKS had a broken wand, what were we going to do about it? Well, we had a spare wand. It wasn't in one of the nice plastic cases--instead it was wrapped in tape like the play-test wends. Maybe we could get that wand to RadiKS? How to explain the tape? "The elf was still assembling this one when we took it out of his hand."

Soon Acorn and Cary would be out on the road, setting up the Firefly puzzle. They could take the spare wand with them, hand it over to RadiKS, take the broken wand, and perhaps fix that. Cary went over his electronics-repair supplies. "I have a voltmeter, also I have a soldering iron and and inverter, lights." DeeAnn made sure that they had snacks.

Our eyes were drying out. Was it the air of Sacramento? Was it the air conditioning? Every so often, I'd amble over to the sink and drink a lot of water. And then I'd drink some more. The air was dry, was sucking the moisture out of us. Sometimes Jim Keller wore some wrap-around glasses. He said it helped to protect his eyes from the air. I never found out if he was kidding. I was glad that I didn't live in Sacramento.

Meanwhile, the calls kept coming in. Justin Santamaria answered the phone "Mmmmmmministry of Magic," and helped a team to get their Honeydukes chocobars properly oriented. Crystal said, "Five points to Gryffindor!" and we all cheered. Jan: "5 Points for Ravenclaw." Everyone: Woo! Justin: "5 Points for Hufflepuff." Everyone: Yayy! The clock ticked on, and now teams were getting sent past the optional Honeydukes clue. I think the phone crew was happy they wouldn't be reading out the proper orientation of candy bars anymore.

In theory, Anna had driven to Henningsen Lotus park and dropped off Lisa Long (the Cassandra Cross actress), plus her brothers and Mike Durgavich to keep Lisa from freaking out being alone in the woods. In theory, Anna was periodically driving from Henningsen Lotus Park out to the main road where mobile phones could get reception, and she was calling in. Thus, GC HQ would have a conduit of communication with the Cassandra Cross folks, albeit only occasionally. But time passed with no call from Anna. What was going on? I left a couple of messages on her voice mail. Finally, Anna called back with her status. Here, I made another mistake--I didn't ask Anna why she wasn't calling in once every half hour. I assumed that everyone but me knew the plan. But Anna did not, in fact, know that GC HQ wanted periodic reports. And I didn't tell her. So we'd continue to be in the dark about what was going on with teams at the Cassandra Cross station.

A team called in to confirm their answer for Cassandra's prophecy clue. That meant that they were on their way to Cary and Acorn. I called up Cary to warn him. Cary and Acorn were in the right place--but they were still setting up the puzzle. So that was a quick call. A team called up from some place with bad phone reception. Daniel answered the phone, keeping up an Olde English accent; but they were hard to hear; after a while he said "Halloo-- halloo-- Oi've lost them!"

Communication is hard.


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