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About Computer Gaming At Conventions

by Matt Arnold last modified 2006-09-21 11:53

The hit-and-miss history of computer gaming at Penguicon and other conventions I've seen, and how to nurture it.

I've brought at least one of my desktop computers to the last three Penguicons, and always bring along my game CDs in the hope of finding someone to set up a local area network and play. It made sense at the time, given what I was thinking.

Premise one: One of the many reasons to go to a convention is to find people to play obscure German board games with, or to participate in a Live Action Role Playing Game. These are activities that you can't do alone, and it's difficult to find participants out in the mundane world, so you find them among your kindred spirits at a convention.

Premise two: Playing multiplayer video games on a computer over a network requires multiple people. But the anonymous strangers you find on the internet are all unevenly matched with you. They sometimes cheat. Their internet connections are slow (or yours is). They usually quit thirty seconds after the game starts. They sometimes hurl verbal abuse at you. You need to do it with someone you can see with your eyes so that there are social deterrents to fun-ruining behavior.

I used to think premise one plus premise two should equal this...

Conclusion: Multiplayer computer games should be a popular feature at conventions.

The premises are true, the conclusion often is not. Despite hectic activity running other events all weekend, I would happily have played, but I've never played even one computer game at Penguicon. It took me a while to discover the reasons for this, but not before two years of unsuccessful attempts to attract players to scheduled computer gaming on a truly impressive server provided and administrated by Tom and Dan Skelton. We even toyed with the idea of purchasing a library of fully-licensed game disks so people wouldn't have to bring their own games.

What I left out of my premises is that convention attendees don't like lugging their desktop computer, monitor, and peripherals. Laptops abound, but most good games don't run without CDs, which their owners didn't bring. Thus far, so far as I know, I am the only person who brings a personally-owned desktop system and game CDs to Penguicon. The rest of the desktops belong to the convention's complimentary Linux computer lounge and don't have fun multiplayer games installed.

I imagine a Linux partisan suggesting Tux Racer. No, I'm sorry, they're not going to sit down to a game of Tux Racer when they could be sampling the cerebral stimulation and sybaritic delights elsewhere in the Penguicon pleasure dome. Games here must be first-rate, like StarCraft. I saw somebody playing StarCraft under Wine in the computer lounge; as a demo of the capabilities of Linux, that rocked. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to be networked. Non-multiplayer games don't bring much value to the convention-going experience. You could do that alone at home.

A brief side note about the uncomfortable relationship between Linux and gaming: I'm sincerely sorry to the two people who used to complain about the presence of my Windows machine next to my Linux box at Penguicon, and complained about the XBoxes which some kids were having a lot of fun with-- but Penguicon is about fun first. Preferably the fun is with SF and/or computers, but we're not even picky about that. Notice I did not even specify what kind of computers, so long as they're hackable to run open source software, and Windows and XBox both are hackable in luscious and salivating ways. We are just not in the business of policing how people are having fun.

So, what to do? Whenever I attend a convention that has a computer gaming room, such as Marcon or Balticon, I make sure to ask somebody how they got such a feature, and why it's so well-attended and organized. In some cases, a company set it up for the convention as a form of publicity. In other cases, there were pre-existing groups who got together outside of the convention for LAN parties, and threw them at the convention for themselves and the other attendees.

So, I'm starting to host LAN parties. I don't know if this will kickstart computer gaming at Penguicon, but that's OK, because it's fun no matter where it is. I've hosted the first one and it was a lot of fun. The only question now is what games to play. My own personal favorite category is Real Time Strategy, and I'm a fan of Red Alert 2 and Homeworld 2. Our Head of Operations, Gerald Gentry, is one of the many fans of the RTS "Total Annihilation". Total Annihilation most promising candidate for future LAN parties. It's an older out-of-print classic with a persistent fan base. One of the reasons Total Annihilation seems to have been the oldschool king of RTS is its infinite customizability and expandability by the volunteer efforts of its fans.

Yes, I know those games aren't Open Source. Let us speak about that frankly and without sentimentality. At this stage in history, fun multiplayer computer games that run on *nix are rare and precious. Some great games such as Quake and FreeCiv were released into Open Source and made free of charge, but wouldn't exist and be popular were it not for their original closed-source development model and business model. Volunteer effort is incredible at creating new content for existing closed-source games such as The Sims or Half-Life. But original games that are all-volunteer efforts are either something simple like a bubble-bobble clone, or they lack spit and polish and they have an enormous learning curve which almost requires you to be a hacker to get them running and get content running on them. There is a lot being done by Open Source game developers to change this situation, but that's how it stands in September 2006.

Here's a case in point of a promising but user-unfriendly game. Total Annihilation is being cloned as an improved Open Source project. This fully 3-D game engine, under the development name of "Total Annihilation: Spring", accepts all the maps, units, scenarios, music, A.I. scripts, and other content fans have created for the original over the years. The "Spring" clone is currently not ready for general consumption, because when you start it it expects you to build everything from scratch, or know where to get it on the internet, and how to get all the pieces to work with each other. There's no competent documentation to speak of, so the learning curve is impassable. But someday, someday, this will be one of the greatest fan-created game adaptations since Counter-Strike.

Until the day Spring is ready, Gerald plans to bring the original Total Annihilation disks to the next LAN party at my house in Redford , and has a record of perfect reliability getting it to run over a network. Speak up to join in!

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