QuakeCon: For Gamers, By Gamers, by Dan Adams

Every year, a little town in Texas becomes home to thousands of gamers for four brilliant days of gaming.

Mesquite, Texas isn’t really the home of anything particularly famous. Or great. Or even really anything that fun most times of the year. For the most part, when you visit what essentially is a big suburb right outside of Dallas, you’ll find the typical assortment of Texas strip malls, giant cars, boot stores, and steak houses. But for four days a year, Mesquite becomes the hub for hardcore gamers in the States. In these four days, thousands of gamers will flock to the hometown of id Software, most with their own computers in tow, for the country’s biggest LAN party: QuakeCon.

Mesquite, Texas isn’t really the home of anything particularly famous. Or great. Or even really anything that fun most times of the year. For the most part, when you visit what essentially is a big suburb right outside of Dallas, you’ll find the typical assortment of Texas strip malls, giant cars, boot stores, and steak houses. But for four days a year, Mesquite becomes the hub for hardcore gamers in the States. In these four days, thousands of gamers will flock to the hometown of id Software, most with their own computers in tow, for the country’s biggest LAN party: QuakeCon.

I didn’t really know what to expect when I walked into the convention for the first time. Still tired from arriving in Dallas at two in the morning, I was a bit groggy and unaware of my surroundings, bumping into walls and accidentally feeling up women as I made my way to the center. Luckily, the shock of transition from the 90 plus degrees of hellish humidity to the ice cave inside the hotel was enough to jolt my eyes open to get a good look at the bustling crowd in the lobby. People were everywhere. More accurately, people and their computers were everywhere. Moving farther into the hotel and closer to the actual convention halls and space, my Activision guide and I suddenly ran across the registration line stretching the length of the building, making more than a few turns along the way. Every one of these people was accompanied by a PC just waiting to get plugged into the biggest LAN that I’ve ever seen.

But things weren’t always this crazy at QuakeCon. The event started back in 1996 with just around 150 people from around the US that had decided it would be fun to get together and hook all of their computers up for a large LAN party to last the weekend. Gaming, gaming, and nothing but gaming. So they convened in Dallas, had a blast, and all promised to do it again the next year.

And it started growing. Soon enough, id was really paying attention and had decided to dip their fingers in a little bit but keep it in the hands of the fans for the fans. At this point, id has one paid employee set to help set up the convention, with the rest of the show being run completely by volunteers. Eighteen or so core volunteers to set up and run the event and some hundred more to help with everything else at the show itself. It’s easy to see how all of the extra help could be needed at this point. Since its humble beginnings, QuakeCon has grown to draw over 3,000 show attendees in 2002, 1,250 of which brought their own computers to set up in the Bring Your Own Computer (BYOC) hall.

It’s All About the Games

Actually hearing about the BYOC and sitting inside the BYOC are two different things. At its core, it’s nothing more than a gigantic room inside the Mesquite Convention Center. But in a mere 15 hours, the volunteer team of network administrators and helping hands convert the room into a giant LAN all controlled by a central, elevated hub in the middle of the room. All computers have access to the eight BYOC servers running all sorts of games. You’ll see everything from Quake to WarCraft III flashing on the computer screens flooding the show floor.

But half of the time, what’s so eye catching isn’t what’s on the computer screens as is the computer itself. The room looked like a geek’s version of The Fast and the Furious with some of the most suped-up machines I’ve had the pleasure to gawk at. Richard Wong, who came from Los Angeles with his see-through, neon-lit altar to the gaming gods, says, “It just shows off your personality, you know? Lets the people here know you’re ready to play. Someone willing to spend the money on a machine like this,” as he pets his tower lovingly, “has got to love his games and has probably got the skills to back it up.” I guess there’re a whole lot of skills in the room with so many of these custom computers proudly displayed. From the black-lit ones to the painted ones to the ones with annoying flashing lights that make you want to go insane and kill someone, it was easy to tell that these people love their computers.

The Money Behind the Madness

This gigantic room is the main reason for QuakeCon to exist, and fans seem to love it like they’ve never loved anything before. Gamers will forgo showers (or any kind of hygiene for that matter), food, water, sleep, and breathing to stay on their computers. As long as their stock of caffeine remains high, so will they. “It’s cool to finally meet the people you’ve been playing with for so long but have never seen,” answers Tyler Franklin of Atlanta when asked what he’s enjoying the most about the show. “I didn’t really know what to expect from meeting some of these people, but it’s been great so far. I’m definitely coming back next year if I can.” While the crowd at QuakeCon is certainly male dominated, stereotypes seem to be breaking. I actually saw some women walking around, although a few look more than a little frightened, and the stereotype of pimply-faced teenage boys was certainly broken with clean cut, normal folks setting up their rig for the days of the show. Everybody here is here to game without the worry of being judged. Everybody at the convention is happy to be there, and it shows.

Separated by a wall from the eerily lit BYOC stands the bastion of capitalism and dream of marketing to your core audience. When QuakeCon started, there was no promotion, no hype, and little to no sponsorship. Such isn’t the case anymore. Companies are now paying good money to find their way into the halls to show their stuff to the gaming elite. Sound cards, graphics cards, gaming systems, and, of course, games are all on display for show attendees. “This is the ultimate grassroots marketing outlet to the hardcore gamer. The people that attend this are the people that set the trends in buying hardware for gaming and for what games are hot and what games are not,” explains id’s Marty Straton. “It’s only 3,000 people, but it’s also the most vocal and most active users out there. It’s important and the sponsors have realized that over the years. That’s why you get a company like ATi putting up $100,000 for the tournaments and making the event an integral part of the 9700 launch.” The value is there, and in such a communications based world as computer gaming, word of mouth can travel fast. Companies can see their dollars stretched a long ways through very little effort.

Showing new games at the show wasn’t always the intent, but the event has since grown as a way not only to promote upcoming titles, but also to give fans a little treat. Quake III was the first game ever previewed at QuakeCon for the fans four years ago, and we’ve all seen how well that went over. So the inclusion of the DOOM ///theater from E3 was no real surprise. I’m sure the rounds of applause following the showings sounded a bit like a cash register going off to the publisher and music to the developers that have been working so hard. DOOM III lead designer Tim Willits said with a smile on his face, “Hearing what the fans think about what they’ve seen and seeing their reaction to the demo has been great! These are the people that really matter, and hearing such a good response makes us all feel good about what we’re doing.” While the show’s game exhibition area has grown from a sixth of the size it was when it started and is something the show’s promoters would like to see grow even bigger, the games have traditionally been based around id. Whether it’s directly from id, such as DOOM III, or a derivative thereof by way of the Quake III engine, in the case of Activision’s Elite Force II.

Gaming Goes Professional

Sitting next to the exhibition area is a portion of the show that will undoubtedly keep growing over the years as well. The tournament portion of the show has grown from its original bragging-rights-only prize to thousands of dollars being doled out to the winners. Last year’s $50,000 Quake ///tournament was the first cash prize to be handed out at the show, a pot that has already doubled in just one year. This year’s Quake III tournament weighed in at just $40,000 but was more than made up for by the Return to Castle Wolfenstein team tournament’s $60,000 purse. This particular tournament turned into quite the spectacle during the course of the show. Teams from around the world showed to participate in the big event. Hearing German being shouted across the room to one another was pretty entertaining. And those that weren’t lucky enough to be present to watch the fireworks could even watch it online via a webcast using spectator cameras, webcams for the tourney floor, and both play-by-play and color commentators to keep everyone up to speed on the tactics and happenings in the game. It was quite the production and certainly gives some hope into the future of gaming tournaments and promises that the tourney lineup at QuakeCon will only get better.

And while it may seem a little strange coming from a show so readily about shirking real responsibility to play games for four days, but there’s some learning to be had in Mesquite as well. On the educational ticket are seminars and roundtables about mod creation and game design. “There was one mod roundtable that went so long and everybody was so excited that they opened it up for part two the next morning,” says Straton. Giving gamers and aspiring designers the help they need to get going on their mods and maybe eventually get into the business is a big thing for many of these developers. And to id, it’s more than just that. It’s the fact that these people are using their products to develop these mods. Once you get a fan hooked, they’ll be looking forward to the next iteration of your tools for the next engine. With fans getting more involved all the time in the creation of extra products for games, it’s no wonder id and other developers have started taking a hands-on approach to growing the knowledge base about such things.

The Prophet Talks

One of the big draws of the show nowadays, and one of the only things that draws nearly everybody away from their computers in the BYOC, is the opportunity to hear John Carmack speak. He’s started making it an annual event at this point, and everybody wants to listen in on what one of the smartest and strangest men in the video game industry thinks about the new technology and the way gaming in general is and should be headed. In his very singular style of speaking, his speech spirals into levels of technology that I’m almost positive that most people in the room don’t completely understand but love to listen to nonetheless. The end of the talk signals the beginning of the portion that the throng is really waiting for: the Q&A. It’s the time that the gamers get to air out what’s important to them, the developers can take notes, and some little bits of infor- mation that we’ve never heard be- fore can leak through. Of course, you can also enjoy the show of the Activision PR team, cringing every time a new question is asked that they don’t want answered quite yet. But Carmack is Carmack, so they can’t argue too much. Questions from unanswered Quake IV queries to “Will there be a chainsaw in DOOM III?” stated in a thick Texan ac- cent, the fans eat it up with the relish of a woman eating chocolate for the first time in a couple of years.

If You Built It…

With the popularity of games increasing all of the time and QuakeCon’s reputation growing as the place to be as a gamer in August, the only way for the show to go is up. When we put Marty Straton to the question of what the fu- ture holds for the country’s largest LAN party, he had this to say: “As you walk around this space, we’re kind of maxed-out and busting at the seams. It’s a good question and something that we’re going to have to think about and plan for. The volunteers just do it because they love it. It’s their spare time, so to make it much bigger would be tough – it would be a challenge. This size is great, and we have great value for our customers. It would be nice to get more people in the BYOC room. This is the first year we’ve maxed out our spaces. So we’ll look at that and look at getting a little more area for the exhibitors as well.”

Whatever the progenitors of QuakeCon originally had planned, things are definitely going to keep ex- panding as interest keeps rising. Only time will tell if Mesquite can handle the growing tide of pasty gamers looking to take their town.

-Article and images courtesy of Archive.org, IGN Unplugged, Issue 17, “QuakeCon: For Gamers, By Gamers,” by Dan Adams, October 2002

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