Size doesn’t matter as long as there’s enough to go ’round.

A rambling about the past nine years of LAN gaming in Melbourne

Respawn LAN v10 has been announced. It’ll be our third year running and will be nine years since the first LAN gaming event in that venue run under the banner of Shafted LAN, the team I was part of before I founded Respawn LAN.

Shafted LAN was the premiere LAN in Melbourne for, well, any LAN gaming event.  We were involved with the AGDC LANfest events and brought Australia’s largest LAN gaming event, the Shafted LAN Big Day In, to fruition.  We were involved with AusGamers and ran the only Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) official BYO PC LAN event in Australia. Things were very exciting; up until BDI, nobody knew where this whole LAN thing would go.  Then things dropped off a little.  We lost a bit of motivation, people changed and Shafted LAN wasn’t getting the numbers that they used to.  It was clear that something had to be done.  I was always talking about running a LAN event entirely under my direction.  The loss of enthusiasm from the Shafted admin team was reflected upon the community.  People were less excited.

The truth was, Shafted LAN was dying.  I didn’t expect their last event in December of 2005 to, well, be their very last.  When we embarked on injecting some flavour of New into the LAN gaming community, we saw, just one month later, an entirely new crowd come to our inaugural event.  I had hoped to capitalise on the existing community formed around Shafted but that was not to be; with a new name came an entirely new flavour of LAN gaming and the older crowd simply vanished from the radar.

Was it that people just simply moved on?  Shafted LAN was driven by a core community of what, 30 or 40 people, most of which were on the admin team with a fairly flat hierachy.  Then you had the admin assists and the players.  But that’s not how it started, just a few guys who went to the Fragware events (I had attended their second last event, number 13, at a church hall) and decided it was time to start their own.  Since then, the core gamers who drove Shafted LAN had moved interstate or overseas, had jobs, met girls and got married and life has simply moved on.  Perhaps I picked up the tab at the right time and it was even a slow start as the LAN community was already breathing its dying gasp; QGL in Brisbane stopped running their events and we saw a downturn in numbers for attendance.

That community, the pub nights, the Tasty LANs, it was all fun and games.  Literally.  We were one lively social bunch and I have held many fond memories of those times since and I can say that it’s good to see that same sort of community form around Respawn.  Sure, there are disagreements, tension between people.  You get that with any social crowd but it shows in our events now that we have a very solid following.

But I reflect upon the last nine years of LAN events in Union Hall and I realised that back then, there was a certain spark to those events.  Kind of like meeting that special girl for the first time; you know there’s just something magical in the air.  It was a very new thing, nobody knew where LAN gaming would go.  The leader of Shafted LAN had grand plans of infusing a LAN with a rave-like atmosphere which, funnily enough, materialised on its own by a completely different community forming Bluewire LAN.  The key was to create an immersive experience, not just a place where people dump their PCs and sit in front of screens but a social environment where people interact and get involved.  I will never forget the amount of excitement you’d witness when people were entranced by their games of Quake 3 or Counter-Strike, shouting and general mayhem which related to the game.

I don’t see that anymore, in fact, I attended a LAN event last weekend where I swear I could have fallen asleep in the middle of the venue due to the low level of noise in the hall.  People just weren’t getting excited anymore.

Back when Shafted LAN was big, broadband had only just taken off.  Optus Cable Internet was released in mid-2000, a few years since Shafted LAN had started running – back then, Telstra’s BigPond Advance product was the only cable Internet service and was priced at $65/month with 100MB of included download and additional traffic was a whopping 35 cents per meg.  The other option was to use a dial-up modem but the high ping times detracted from the gamer’s experience.  So Optus came along, offered unlimited downloads and lots of gamers signed up, however coverage was limited so not everybody could sign up for a few years.  ADSL was only available a few years later so many homes were left with dial-up as their only option – or just pop along to your favorite LAN party for some low latency gaming action.

But it was summer of 2002, in January, when the largest Shafted LAN event was held, packing over 460 people into union hall at La Trobe University.  Known as the ‘nerf gun’ Shafted, we gave everybody a Nerf gun as they walked through the door.  It was absolutely hilarious and it’s always the iconic event that attendees have always spoken about since.  Broadband was becoming popular and so was the event, pulling 350 people on a regular basis every two months and topping out at 1000 players for the Big Day In a year later.  So we can probably debunk broadband as the catalyst here.  World of Warcraft only came a few years later, although MMORPGs such as EverQuest were around at the time – and yes, some of the older gamers have taken up WoW instead of their regular casual gaming of CS and Quake-style games.

So that’s not it.

The professional gamers who lined up at 10am to get stuck into the Counter-Strike competition of those early Shafted events had since found home in LAN gaming cafes which was a radical change from when Shafted LAN was the centre of the Victorian CS community.  These LAN cafes would make it easier for teams to play for a few hours with less committment – they’d no longer have to lug their PC and LAN cafes were more adaptive to these players bringing their own mice and keyboards.  These guys were, however, a minority.  A significant minority but they weren’t the core driving force of those 400 plus player events.

Back when Shafted was in its prime, there were a few games that were popular.  You either played Counter-Strike or Quake.  There were three versions of Quake – QuakeWorld (Quake 1 but optimised for multiplayer gameplay), Quake II and Quake III Arena.  Quake 2 had a somewhat cult following due to its slow game speed compared to the intensity of QW and Quake III Arena.  Professional gaming popped on the face of the earth with people like Fatal1ty attending the CPL Pacific event to claim first place in the Quake III Arena competition.  Other games, such as Team Fortress, Capture the Flag (both QuakeWorld based), Starseige Tribes and Unreal Tournament were still popular but substantially less so.  You were either a CS player or a Quake player (or if you played real-time strategy, Starcraft was the only one you’d play).  You’d go to a 300 plus player event and you’d play one of a few games so there was always a chance – a strong chance, that a large game was going to take place of your favorite game.

A few things changed since.  Battlefield 1942 came out, popularizing the world war II theme for gaming.  The simplicity of its gameplay was alluring and this game took over LANs for a brief moment in time and some of us even thought that it might displace Counter-Strike but this was not so; the tournament capabilities of Battlefield 1942 were lacking in comparison and game bugs weren’t resolved until the game was several months old.  Warcraft III came out, living up to the hype and anticipation that only Blizzard can do, giving the real-time strategists two choices.  A Battlefield 1942 mod, Desert Combat, split the community between those who played the original game and those who enjoyed the faster jets and helicopters that Desert Combat offered.  Battlefield II came out a few years later, Medal of Honour blipped on the radar for a second before it faded into the distance.

Then there was the biggest new release of recent times – Half-Life 2 and bringing with it, Counter-Strike: Source.  Some gamers stuck with the older game as the physics engine and gameplay are substantially different and some moved to the newer version.  With every game release, we had fragmentation.  Some stayed, some moved on and before we knew it, we now have 300 or so players rocking up to play 50 different games. So now the best way to actually play Battlefield 1942 is online – at peak times, because that’s the only time you’ll find enough players on the server to play a functional game.

New games such as Far Cry 2, Quake 4 and so on, only last a short time.  The gameplay doesn’t feel as exciting  as the older games.  This is not in my head – I have much more fun playing the older games than the newer ones due to the simplicity and of course, most new games are all team-based, requiring a lot more effort and committment to play.  QuakeWorld was largely duel-based or free-for-all so you could jump in a server, play a few rounds and that’s it.

In case my rambling hasn’t been coherent, I’m pointing the finger squarely at the game industry.  Want to know the secret to the Nintendo Wii’s success? SIMPLICITY. The games are developed and engineered to be fun and enjoyable and it’s different.  It’s not like we have Call Of Duty trying to be just another Counter-Strike or Battlefield because an imitation is never going to match the original.

We’ve been talking, the Respawn group and have also noticed this disturbing trend.  Can we do anything about it? We’re going to try running an old school LAN event so that we can have an environment specifically created to play these older games.

Sadly this won’t address the fragmentation, the core reason why the the community isn’t as close-knit as before.  For this to be solved, we need a killer game.  A game that’s fun, enjoyable, accessible to all in terms of skill, yet advanced enough to allow scope for professional gaming.  A game that doesn’t necessarily require a team to play so anybody can join a server and participate.  A game that can bring the community closer together and unify those fragmentations this very industry has been successful in creating.

Until then, anyone up for some Quake III? Drop me a line.

-z

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