LAN Parties: It’s a Scene, Baby!
By Charles “Bedman” Bedford
The invention of the multiplayer game spawned a strange phenomenon called a LAN party. As LAN parties are becoming more and more common, loonygames asked Charles Bedford, a LAN party veteran himself, to share a bit of his wisdom.
1. History of the LAN party
Networks started to become useful in business settings around 1989. At that point, most of the games that were built for multi-player action were UNIX based, and had very few people who played them. Mostly they were played at universities where students had access to UNIX systems for their class work. These games were usually character based. Some of these games were Empire, Larn, Hack, Rogue, and Hunt The Wumpus. Only one of which actually pitted the skill of one player against the other in the same game. The others were score based, and kept scores for everyone on the same server who played. The next generation of games started to become popular with the invention of the first person shooter, or FPS game called Wolfenstein 3D, from id software, which was initially released as shareWare. id’s second major title was called Doom, and with that – the LAN Party was born.
Doom allowed for up to 4 players to play at the same time, in the same area, shooting each other. You could play head to head against one friend over a modem too, and this was also quite popular. As Doom’s popularity grew, more and more people would play at their office, on a network. As more people got used to network Doom, people started to have friends over to play on personal networks.
There were a large number of offshoots of Doom. Some of these are still popular today. Some of the games, like Duke Nukem 3D, are still considered classics. The engines were quite similar to Doom until id’s next major undertaking came to the market, Quake. Quake was a new and much improved game. It kept many of the things that people loved about Doom, and added a new ‘3D’ness to the game. Also – it was built for networking. From the ground up it was the first ‘client – server’ game. It supported as many as 16 concurrent players, and unlike the Doom type games, any player could come and go as they wished. This changed the way people could have LAN parties as well. Now many more than 4 could play at the same time.
There were a number of other types of games that started to get on business networks. Real time strategy (RTS) games, like Command & Conquer, were early ones. Warcraft, Starcraft, Total Annihilation, Dune 2000, and many others populate this genre of computer network games. Other categories are Flight simulator games, like Falcon 4.0, and sports games like Madden Football, and FIFA Soccer.
The first really large-scale LAN parties were built around Quake. QuakeCon in 1996 was the first national LAN party. It consisted of a huge number of people – approximately 250 – who all came to Texas to do one thing: play Quake. This has been an annual event ever since. There were over 630 people at the CPL event, which was held in Dallas this last July.
That brings us to the current day – where Quake 2 and a slew of new FPS, RTS, and flight sim games are the norm at LAN parties. As more people get interested, the popularity of LAN parties is also increasing.
2. Anatomy of a LAN Party
There are several things that are required at a net party, people, computers, games, and a network. The people must like to play similar games, for instance Quake, or Quake 2. They are usually younger, but there are documented cases of 65 year olds playing at some of the larger parties. All partygoers have computers of their own, so they typically have an interest in computers, or at least computer games.
Everyone brings his or her own PC’s to play on. Each PC has to have a Network Interface Card (NIC), which allows them to be part of the network. The typical PC today is at least a Pentium 233 with a decent graphics accelerator. 3Dfx’s Voodoo Graphics chipset cards are a minimum. At the top of the spectrum there is the Pentium II 400 (sometimes overclocked to 450 or more) and a dual Voodoo2 setup called Scan Line Interleave (or SLI) which boasts resolutions up to 1024×768 while getting more than 60 frames per second (FPS). To compare that with the minimum machine, it can usually get about 640×480 resolution with 30fps. At least those are the benchmarks for Quake2. Other game benchmarks vary widely.
Section three will discuss the games that are played at a LAN party, so the discussion on networks is next. Of course there are different network structures that can be implemented, and larger network parties have all sorts of additional issues with networking, like segmentation of the network, switches and routers, and attenuation issues. Those are all different articles on their own, but they will be touched on in the following paragraphs.
Segmentation of the network: when a network gets large, it gets cluttered with people sending and receiving information. On an Ethernet network, all the packets are sent over the same “wire”, and every NIC sees each packet. Each time the NIC in any PC wants to send, it has to wait for the wire not to be in use. When 2 NICs try to send data at the same time, it’s called a collision. As more and more computers get attached to the same segment, the collision rate goes up. So – to reduce collisions and improve performance the network is segmented into smaller pieces, with fewer computers per segment, and a router, or a switch between segments.
Switches and Routers: a network switch is a device that forwards packets to a segment that needs them, not to all segments. They don’t look at much of each packet before deciding what to do with it. It does this at a very low level, so they are quite fast. Routers on the other hand need to look at almost all of the address information to determine where a given packet needs to go, so they are slower. Routers are typically used to link Wide Area Networks and the Internet more than they are used at LAN parties.
Attenuation issues: when there is a large network, more and more people plug in hubs. If they level of hubs gets too deep (about 4 daisy -chained) then the network won’t operate properly. Ethernet uses electricity to send information. If there is too much draw or current being sucked out by many devices, then the network no longer will function. So – to deal with this problem, there is usually one person who tells everyone where to plug in his or her equipment. This person also has to deal with the other problems that people have with their networking. They tend to be a busy person, who does not get to play a lot of games while people are still setting up their PC’s.
3. LAN Party Games
The games that are played consist of four different genres that were discussed at the bottom of section one. FPS games, RTS games, flight simulation games, and sports simulation games. The RTS games are popular, but take a long time to play a single game. The pace is not furious like the FPS games, so there is time to think, and develop strategies to defeat the current opponent(s). Flight sim games are in a different category. They are seldom played at large network parties, and are typically played by people who are very interested in flying. Sports simulation games are similar, but usually played over the phone with friends, not in a large setting like a QuakeCon or tournament type setting. FPS games are the most popular of the games at network parties today. FPS games produce a reaction similar to chocolate in the people who play them. They are addictive. There is a great deal of adrenaline that goes into a LAN party where FPS games are being played.
Most FPS games don’t need a dedicated machine for the server, but there are a number that do benefit greatly from one. Quake, Quake2 and Unreal all like to have dedicated servers. It makes everyone have similar performance, and nobody has an undue advantage by running the server on his or her own PC.
4. LAN Party HOWTO
The most important issue when having a LAN party is getting the word out. Using a web page is a popular way of doing this. Popular web sites like Blue’s News and LANParty.com publish information about LAN parties. It is good to get a party listed here for more visibility. Other web resources are some of the banner ad organizations.
Local newspapers and the news media are also used as publicity draws. There are costs associated with advertising, so it is not something that a lot of LAN parties use. Getting news coverage on TV or local radio or newspaper, however, is not very difficult. Just call the organizations and talk to a reporter about your event. That might produce an article about the LAN party, which would help in the promotion effort.
Sponsors are necessary for large-scale events. The more prizes that sponsors give to the games, the more interest you have for people to come to the event. It is a win-win situation for them too, because they get publicity and visibility in the community that is going to use their product. It’s a very tightly targeted market.
The trick to getting sponsors is making phone calls. Lots and lots of phone calls. Email is also helpful, but typically not as successful as phone conversations. If you can get in front of a potential sponsor in person, that is even better. Some places to work for sponsorship are your local computer companies, but call the big names too. They love to see their name in lights.
The sponsors will come to events that are well publicized. To attract good sponsors, a good publicity campaign is necessary. That is one of the things that will help land large sponsorship deals too. If it can be shown that the website used for publicizing is getting loads of hits from professional organizations, and such – that’s a good selling point for their marketing folks.
Finding a location is an extremely important step in getting a LAN party set up and running. The first place that most people have a LAN party is in their house. That’s fine for small, less than 20 player events, but when there are going to be over 50, it’s usually too small – with inadequate power, and seating.
When the party is larger than about 20 people, then power is important, but with extremely large parties, it is a big problem. At the first QuakeCon in Dallas, there was a real power problem. They had to bring in 2 huge diesel generator trucks to supply power to the event. Plan for about 2 to 2.5 amps of power for each PC in attendance. So if a conference room in a hotel is needed, make sure the booking has been made in advance, and the partygoers understand that there will be a charge to cover costs. Other venues can be places like a business, or a warehouse. There have even been events that were held in airplane hangars.
Tables and chairs are usually a problem. Nobody owns enough tables and chairs to fill their house full of spaces for people to come over and set up their computer. Renting or asking the attendees to bring extra stuff is the typical solution. Make sure that the partygoers know about any costs that are going to be passed down to them to attend the event.
The network is a primary concern. Give all the guests IP addresses as they walk in the door, unless you have a DHCP server on your network (in which case – tell everyone to set for DHCP).
Most of the LAN party goers have a hub, or know someone who does, so they are not usually in as much constraint as tables and chairs, but most people don’t have enough ports on their personal hub to support a medium to large LAN party. Again – ask the partygoers to supply extra hubs and cables.
The key to having a good LAN party is organization. If all the ducks are lined up in a row, then everything will go much smoother. This is a major downfall of most medium to large LAN parties.
Publicize what servers will be officially supported. Try to organize which servers will be running what patches, or types of games. If possible, have the person who is responsible for each server test each configuration planned for the LAN beforehand. There is a lot of tweaking that can be done in the quake and quake II server setups, and some of it can be time consuming. Having server scripts and configurations set before the party will help the organization team to be able to help more people faster.
As mentioned in the prior section, make sure each of the games that require setup is ready to go. Quake servers need to have their .cfg files set and ready for each of the patches planned at the LAN. Quake 2 is the same. Unreal can also take some time to configure the server properly. The more testing that is done on each of the dedicated servers, the better.
Tournaments are not for the weak hearted. If the LAN party is small, then tournaments are usually not very fun, because everyone knows before it starts who is going to take home the prize. As the LAN parties get larger, and the sponsorship increases, the prizes get better. The more people are drawn to the possibility of taking home some of the prizes. The thing to stress about tournaments is that they NEED to have someone take charge of them that isn’t supposed to be playing in it. Expect this person to be very busy too. Tournaments require a great deal of organization. Not to mention, getting people to their matches on time is a serious challenge.
Each part of a LAN party needs to be organized. If there is a superman who is organizing the party, then they will accomplish all of it by themselves. This is not always the case, and other helpers are called for. At the CPL event in Dallas, there were over 50 volunteers to help out with the issues that surrounded the LAN party. Ask the partygoers for help, and chances are it will be received.
The primary duties at a LAN party are:
- check in people at the door, and optionally take registration money
- keep servers up and running smoothly
- organize tournaments, and keep matches underway
- referee tournaments
- troubleshoot PC problems
- troubleshoot Network problems
Keep all of this in mind when there’s a LAN party in your neck of the woods.
Remember that LAN parties are to have fun. Make sure that everyone does, and they will keep coming back for more next time.
– Charles “Bedman” Bedford runs BedlamGaming.net, a Colorado local LAN Party resource.
Credits: Illustration © 1998 Mike Sanzone. LAN Parties: It’s a Scene, Baby! is © 1998 Charles Bedford. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don’t do it…we’ll find you at a LAN party and woop yer sorry butt.