Sunday, June 2, 2013

Nerd Butter: LAN Parties

Nerd Butter: For everything, there is a qualifying level and then there is another, superlative, exemplary level. There are many Olympic athletes, but only a few medalists. You might be a sports fan, or you can be the guy in the stadium with baseball stitching painted in his beer belly. And so it is with being a nerd. There are nerd requisites--what I call Nerd Bread--and then there are nerd specialities--Nerd Butter. While just about every nerd should be into Nerd Bread, Nerd Butter is what sets you apart as a nerd of a special caliber. And in the end, it's the specialties that make being a nerd so much fun.

Tonight I'm going to talk about a very special piece of Nerd Butter: LAN parties. Ten years ago, I would've classified these sorts of get-togethers as Nerd Bread, but today it's a concept you have to explain to more and more people, even ones who consider themselves active gamers. A LAN party is an event where a bunch of people bring their video game devices (either consoles or computers) all to one location to play multiplayer matches over a Local Area Network--hence the term LAN party. It's a shared experience where gamers pool their resources together and condense a lot of play into a small amount of time and space.

Back in the 90s and even early 2000s (oh I feel old), LAN parties were pretty much your only safe bet to play most games with full sessions composed of your friends. Few games had dedicated servers supporting online play. Even fewer had more than the most rudimentary matchmaking systems to allow players to meet and gather on whatever servers were available. And worst of all, network connections were so spotty that playing anything more ambitious than a small strategy game was out of reach for a lot of people. Online play was prohibitive gaming for the most part. This was especially true of consoles as recent as the Gamecube/Xbox/Playstation 2 generation, where playing online was a bare-bones, on-the-rails experience without nearly as many options as gamers have today.

So LAN parties thrived as a sort of video gaming potluck. You bring your gaming rig over to a mutual location, usually packing them in side-by-side in someone's basement, and get to play your game in a totally singular experience--large scale gaming with only your friends. Usually there's also a lot of junk food and Mountain Dew involved, too, so it's even more potluck-like in that way as well. Plus, cussing out a twelve year-old over a headset is a poor substitute for being able to punch the person next to you or air-hump their head after a particularly gratuitous win. (What? Not everyone does that?) Today, LAN parties are a lot more rare due to how streamlined online gameplay is, but for a great condensed gaming experience there's still nothing like it. You can pool together 4 TVs and console easily enough, and that might support up to 16 people playing a game like Halo, for instance, allowing a lot of people who don't own the game to get a chance to play in a friendly ravenous environment.

Last month, I hosted a LAN party at my house as a small celebration of having a functionally clean basement for the first time since we moved in to our house a year ago. And if you're wondering, a functionally clean basement in this case means clearing out the den by choking out the game room with stacks of books. We were able to set up a couple of gaming rigs in the den setup side by side, and with our system setup in our living room, we were able to have up to twelve people playing at once. Halo 4 was the order of the evening, as we've all been fans of the franchise and got through our teen years making at least a couple of Halo matches a staple in every party. With a bunch of frozen pizzas and twelve packs stuffing our fridge, and bags of chips flanking it, it was a recipe for a bunch of twenty-and-thirty-somethings to relive their high school and college gaming days.

Flatulence and smack-talk included.

Since we had a pretty good setup for asymmetrical teams, with two experienced Halo players and the rest varying from moderately experienced to sheep-with-guns. We got in a few intro matches to get the sheep worked up and sharpen the wolves' teeth, and then we picked teams for that we stuck with for the rest of the night. And if that's sounds like the sort of social brutality of kids picking teams for sports, that is accurate and by design. I'm a nerd, and turnabout is sweet. Game modes played varied from Grifball to Capture the Flag and Dominion, but we also got in some fun custom matches in as well. Over the weeks leading up to the game night I'd made a couple of custom Halo 4 game and map variants. The one set was an extremely ambitious large-scale map with a variant on the Flood game type. I'd spent hours working on the map and testing quirkier game dynamics. And it pretty much flopped. After getting everyone to try it out they pretty much begged for Team SWAT. The other map and game variant, however, was a much bigger hit. It was a free-for-all game mode where the players where equipped with nothing but gravity hammers and thrown into a small symmetrical arena of death. The tight confines of the space made for great twitch gameplay that actually narrow the gap between the good and the bad players in our gaming group.

But don't take my word for it. Check out this little video I made of some of our game footage from that evening:

Yes, I was the thunderer in brown armor that dominated the match. And no, I didn't pick on the noob players deliberately. I'm not saying I didn't pick on them; I'm just saying I didn't do it on purpose. Also, if the game and map variants look fun to you, search for them online--I've uploaded them to my file share for general use. The map is called "grifophrenia" and the game variant is "grifophrenic". I'm always up for playing more custom matches, too, so if you enjoy them, feel free to invite me to a game some night after 9PM CST.

LAN parties. Good nerdy fun. Nerd Butter.

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