FEATURE: Game On
the state of the Chippewa Valley's computer gaming scene
It started in 1997 as a simple birthday party. Monty Peterson and his friends got together to celebrate by networking their computers and beating the crap out of each other inside some of their favorite video games, like Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear. In 2001, they decided to make their private event into a public one, and they invited anyone who wanted to come and game to what they called 36-Hour LAN Madness. The event was held outdoors, in the parking lot of RAM Technologies, and the players, computers, and network equipment sat gathered underneath a giant fireworks-booth style tent. The players would game, it would rain, things would occasionally start on fire, and port-a-potties were the only restrooms around.
You've got to make sure everything's mapped out. You've got to know where all of your computers can be. Power's very critical. You've got to make sure you've got enough going.
Thirty-six-hour LAN Madness has come a long way since then. The event, now called AWOL LAN, upgraded venues in 2007 when it moved into one of Action City’s group use rooms. That first Action City LAN played host to 27 people and didn’t even fill half of the room the AWOL staff had rented out. Fast-forward to February 2011 and the AWOL LAN is packed, with 153 gamers and their computers spread out across six giant rows of tables. Seats for the LAN were sold out about two weeks in advance.
The atmosphere when you enter that back room at Action City is slightly intense. It’s hot, even with a couple doors to the outside cracked open, and it definitely feels like there’re 150 or so people sitting in there. The lights are dimmed so that the players can pay attention to their monitors, which, along with some random flashy add-ons inside some players’ computer towers, provide most of the light in the room. The aisles are slightly difficult to maneuver through, with computer chairs on each side and the occasional pocket of wiring crossing underneath your feet, but if you ask nicely a gamer will take a second to slide their chair in so you can get by.
There’s two big projection screens mounted on the walls, displaying action from some of the tournaments the AWOL staff is running. The staff is situated at the front of the room, their own massive computers looming large in front of them, but they’re glad to take the time to meet and talk with anyone at the event.
Monty and his crew don’t actually run the LAN anymore, having handed it off last year to some quite capable newcomers, but they still attend and play, just like they did at the beginning. The current AWOL staff is made up of six members, each of whom is just as comfortable going by his internet screen name as his real name. They’re led by Mike Koski, or Duck as he’s known on the AWOL web forums. Mike is AWOL’s PR guy and he runs all of the LAN’s tournament brackets. Phil Jordan, a.k.a. Lokie, is in charge of taking and uploading pictures and communicating with the staff at Action City. Vern Gibson, a.k.a. Twizted, actually moved from Kentucky to Eau Claire as a result of his involvement in the LAN. He’s in charge of registration and seating. Nate Peterson, a.k.a. Dirka, and Travis Paullin, a.k.a. Tar-V, keep their eyes on the network constantly, trying to make sure there aren’t any hiccups. Ben VanGoor, a.k.a. Jarhead, does whatever else needs to be done.
“(The staff is here) at eight in the morning before setting everything up,” says Mike. “You’ve got to make sure everything’s mapped out. You’ve got to know where all of your computers can be. Power’s very critical. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got enough going.”
“Our circuits could probably power a city block,” says Nate.
“Well,” says Travis, laughing, “not quite a block.”
The AWOL staff doesn’t actually get to play much during the LAN, what with everything they have to do, but they don’t mind. For them, providing a place for gamers to hunker down from Friday morning to Saturday night is a labor of love.
“We all talk all year on the forums,” says Nate, “and we get to meet these guys here twice a year. We’ve been trying, since we upgraded venues, to make it even more about the players.”
That approach seems to be working so far. The AWOL group has a real sense of community to it, a Cheers-like vibe where everybody knows your name. Like Nate said, the attendees chat all year on AWOL’s website forums. In addition, a lot of the gamers come to the LAN as clans, premade groups who often get together for their own smaller LAN parties but like the bigger playing field and larger amount of time afforded to them by the AWOL LAN.
Dan Wald is a part of UW-Stout’s PONG student group, which hosts their own LAN events throughout the academic year. When I came across Dan near the end of the AWOL LAN he was, in his own words, awake-ish. “I’ve been playing a lot of Minecraft, League of Legends, some Starcraft,” says Dan, “I just came here to get away from stuff, and it’s a good way to get together with people.”
Dan and the PONG group took up about 10 spots at AWOL, near the front of the third and fourth row of computers. They had just finished a game of League of Legends, a team-based game where your group of heroes fights another team’s group of heroes and tries to overrun their base. Dan had lost, a result of one of his teammates being given a character he didn’t want due to an internet hiccup. “It’s still been really fun though,” says Dan. “It’s another AWOL LAN.”
We all talk all year on the forums and we get to meet these guys here twice a year. We've been trying, since we upgraded venues, to make it even more about the players.
Dan realizes that the clan-based atmosphere might seem off-putting for more casual gamers who want to step into the LAN, but he says that they shouldn’t worry about it. “If you’re near a group you’ll join in with them,” he says. “You’ll start to cheer with them and yell at those guys across the room that they yell at.”
A few aisles, many discarded soda cups, a couple conked out gamers, and a bunch of potato chip bags later, I came across Dan Rosenburg and Burgy Goodburger. After a bunch of time spent playing team games like Defense of the Ancients, another hero-based game, and CounterStrike: Source, a first-person shooter, they were unwinding with some straight-up button mashing in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Burgy was getting his butt kicked, but he kept on pleading with Dan to give him just one more game. I stayed for a few rounds and didn’t see Burgy win a single one, although it didn’t really bother him a bit. An hour or so later, I came by and asked Dan if Burgy had gotten any better after I left. “Well,” said Dan, “he didn’t win.”
Right about then the lights came up, and the staff announced that it was time for the LAN’s prize giveaway. Everyone at the LAN received a ticket just for attending, and more tickets could be earned through participation and victories in the various staff sponsored video game tournaments that had been held throughout the previous 30-odd hours. The prizes ranged from Subway gift certificates to “zombie-rated” power supplies to the grand-daddy, a 42-inch TV which was bound to become some lucky gamer’s new computer monitor. The prize giveaway was a joyous affair. The gamers cheered each other on, and the staff knew the name of most every winner. Phil snapped a boatload of pictures to post on AWOL’s website, and there was a small celebration when the staff realized that they had given away most of their t-shirts to people that they would actually fit. As it came time to announce the winner of the TV, Phil and Vern pulled up the Rocky theme, and Mike started the random number generator that would choose the lucky gamer. The crowd cheered when number 53 was highlighted on the big screen, and of course, the staff knew the winner by name instantly. That’s the kind of ship they run at AWOL.
After the prize giveaway, the AWOL LAN began to wind down. As people left, they stopped by to thank the staff for another great LAN party, and many of them signed up to reserve their seat for the next 36-hour session of gaming in August. “The best moment,” says Phil, “is when someone takes the time at the end to come up to you and say thank you and shake your hand. That just makes all the problems and conflicts that we deal with worth it. We’ve got a great group of players here.”
The man behind it all, Monty Peterson, is just a simple player himself now, but he feels that the group he handed the LAN off to is doing a spectacular job with what he started. Meanwhile, he and the group of friends he started the LAN with are simply enjoying getting back to gaming. “I’ll be back to play again in August,” he says. “It was a lot of work when we were doing it, and it’s still a lot of work for them. But they’ve done a great job here this year.”
The Flow Chart of Gaming
find out what breed of gamer you are
Welcome to the Machine
how to build an awesome gaming computer
For a lot of people new to the LAN concept, the most difficult part of computer gaming isn’t switching from a joypad to a mouse or trying to decide whether Half-Life is better than Counterstrike; it’s figuring out exactly what kind of machine you need and, more importantly, what it’s going to cost you.
The good news, according to Greg Deustchlander, former co-owner of Chaos Internet Gaming, is that building a good gaming computer is really more about looking at what you’re buying rather than throwing around a ton of money.
“If you’re going as cheap as you can possibly get,” says Greg, “knowing what you’re buying will get you better performance than if you’re just spending as much money as you have.” So it’s important that before you just go and buy the most expensive item you see that you research your options. You might be able to get something remarkably similar for a heck of a lot cheaper.
... knowing what you're buying will get you better performance than if you're just spending as much money as you have ...
For more experienced computer buyers, Greg recommends the website NewEgg.com, because they have fantastic deals and promo codes that can get you top-notch items for low prices. For those who are looking at building a computer for the first time, however, it might be better if you head to one of Eau Claire’s three local computer stores, Computer Wizards (1401 Birch St.), TC Teks (127 N Barstow St.), or RAM Technologies (2828 London Road). The people there will walk you through exactly what you need to create the machine you want. A mid-range gaming PC from Computer Wizards, complete with Windows 7, is going to run you about $650, which isn’t too bad when you consider that you can use your computer for more than gaming and it’s completely upgradable later on, unlike a console system like a PS3.
One major way to save some money on this whole experience, though, and to meet some helpful people who will welcome you to the world of computer gaming, is to hit up the AWOL LAN or PONG LAN forums. People there are always selling computer parts for decent prices, and they’re usually willing to help you install them as well.
“The forums really are a great place to not only just connect with people, but to go to find parts or build specifications or get help with troubleshooting,” says Bill Schmidt, the president of UW-Stout’s PONG computer gaming group. “There’s already a lot of info and so much you can find out from just asking questions on there.”
Hall-of-Fame Games: local gamers' favorite titles
Team Fortress 2 is unique amongst first-person games because it gives you nine different classes of characters to play as and doesn’t confine you to simply choosing a gun and shooting. Each role, be it spy, engineer, or medic, offers different gameplay and assets, making for a shooter that never has to play the same way twice.
League of Legends lets you and your friends team-up and fight as champions, ranging from beastly vikings to sneaky ninjas, who have to break through enemy turrets and creatures in order to overrun their base. The best part of this game, though, is that it’s absolutely and completely free to download online.
FlatOut 2 offers a variety of different game modes, including Demo Derby and Stunt Mode, which make for a racing game that’s often more about destruction than actual racing. The good news is that destroying cars and launching your driver like a bowling ball toward a set of pins is really, really fun, so you won’t even miss traditional racing.
Worms: Reloaded is a hysterical game in which you take command of a team of – you guessed it – computerized worms. These worms, though, are armed with rockets, exploding sheep, and holy hand grenades and it’s your job to guide them to victory, which can only be achieved by destroying every single worm on your buddies’ team.
So you’ve got your PC, your friends, and your games, but now you need somewhere to play. Here’s a breakdown of local LAN venues and what you can expect to find at each of them.
Beginner: Your House
These days it doesn’t take much to host your own LAN. Most games are already Internet-based so all you really need is a connection, a router, and a decent set-up of tables and chairs to game at. Just make sure to provide some food (see Gamer’s Cupboard) and, most importantly, that you’ve got enough power for each computer. You don’t want to invite too many people over and blow a fuse.
Advanced: PONG LAN
PONG is a student group from UW-Stout that’s been regularly hosting LANs since 1999. In the past they’ve been known to bring in as many as 100 gamers for 36 straight hours of gaming, but because of the Student Center construction they’ve been forced to move around a bit and the events have gotten smaller. This may work in your favor, however, as it makes them the perfect mid-sized venue for gamers looking to branch out without feeling overwhelmed. The next PONG LAN is scheduled for Sept. 17, and for more information on the group you can head to pong.uwstout.edu.
Expert: AWOL LAN
AWOL LAN is the big kahuna of LAN gaming in the Chippewa Valley, providing 36 hours of gaming for over 150 gamers twice a year. Hosted at Action City, AWOL’s got big tournaments and big prizes, but it’s also a place you and your friends can go to just get away and game for a weekend. The whole of Action City is open to gamers who attend AWOL (of course, you’ll have to pay for it) and the LAN offers survival kits that provide everything from food and soda to Chaos Water Park Passes, depending on how much you’re willing to pay. The next AWOL LAN is scheduled for August 12, but you’d better hurry if you want to plop down your $25 for registration at awollan.com. Half of the seats are already gone.
The Essential Elements
Put on a gaming headset and it might feel like you’re listening to people talking in a different language. Here’s a guide to some lingo that every gamer should know.
A newbie or inexperienced player. “That noob; Mike doesn’t even know what noob means. What a noob.”
To completely and utterly destroy an enemy/other player. “Oh my god, did you see me kill Mike just now? I totally pwned him like a noob.”
An effect or item that increases a character’s strength. “Yeah, it was easy to kill Mike after I grabbed that buff from the armory.” (Antonym: De-buff)
A character not controlled by a player, or non-player character. “Yeah, that NPC at the shop is a real jerk. Just like Mike.”
To sit in the same spot for a long time waiting for a kill. “Mike’s been camping on top of that turret for the longest time. Let’s gank him.”
To gather experience by killing weak enemies. “Mike’s trying to farm those creeps in the middle of the map. Let’s gank him again.”
Your in-game characters will be refueling with potions, fruits, and medpacs, but you won’t be so lucky. Here’s the food and drinks every self-respecting gamer needs to survive an all-night LAN party.
Regular Potato Chips
You’re going to need a snack, but you don’t want to pick up anything heavy on flavoring (like Doritos or Cheetos). That stuff on the chips will get all over your hands and keyboard. If you’re really in need of some zest, try tortilla chips with dips. But just be careful not to drip all over everything.
Caffeine is the lifeline of most LAN gamers, the thing that keeps them alert throughout the night so they can fend off the assaults of their so-called “friends.” Energy drinks are hip these days, but they’re more expensive and they’ve typically got a lot more caffeine in them than good old Mountain Dew. You’re looking to stay awake, not tremble and shake the whole day after the party.
Pizza’s a good group dinner, and, whether you call for delivery or make it right in your own oven, you don’t really have to spend any time watching it as it cooks, so you can just keep on gaming. Just remember to listen for the doorbell or set a timer, or else your crew might go all Left 4 Dead on you.
A Place to Hang and Game
the efforts to sustain a permanent LAN gaming location in Eau Claire
Back in 1996, when the now-legendary first-person shooter Quake was released, LAN gaming was an entirely new concept. “I had always played the single-player stuff,” says Greg Deustchlander, former co-owner of Chaos Gaming Center, “and then my friend told me about this great multiplayer. And I was like ‘Well, how do you do it?’ ” After a quick crash course in IP addresses and computer networking, Greg and his friend joined into one of Quake’s multiplayer servers and started kicking each others’ butts. “He’d find me and I’d tell him to jump, and he’d jump. And that’s so cool because back then you never saw anything like that. And I’d be like ‘Shoot me with a rocket’ and he’d shoot me and I’d shoot him back.” Greg and his friend played until the sun came up, and Greg hit upon an idea that would change the next 14 years of his life. “I told him ‘Dude, this is so much fun. There’s gotta be people who would love to do this but know nothing about it.’ ”
This led to the formation of Game Domain, Greg’s first computer gaming center, in the former London Square Mall. The concept was simple. He would set up top-of-the-line computers, and people would rent out those computers for gaming. Stocked with four computers, which cost a total of about $6,000, the center grew a small following, but the idea of computer gaming, and charging for it, was so new that it just didn’t take off.
“The four computers were not very busy,” says Greg. “Everybody that came in, I had to tell them about it, which was a lot of work. I’d spend a half hour telling them what it was, and they’d say ‘Oh yeah, I’ll have to check that out.’ And then nothing.” So, after two years, Game Domain folded, but the desire to open a center where people could come together and play computer games stuck with Greg.
We were the hangout for PC gamers. It's like somebody going to a bar. You can drink at home, but you miss that whole social thing. It's that personal, being right next to somebody, shoving them thing, where people can see your facial expressions.
So when, some years later, a couple of Greg’s computer repair co-workers wanted to open their own computer repair store, Greg pitched them his idea. “I’m like, ‘Guys I do that all day long. The last thing I want to do right now is open up a computer repair store. But I did have a business I really enjoyed that I’d be interested in redoing if I had a couple of partners.’ ”
And thus in 2004, after a brief brainstorming session, Chaos Computers and Internet Gaming Center was born. Chaos opened on Clairemont Avenue with five computers, a small used game section, and a focus on computer repair as well as gaming. “Again, I bought all the high-end computers for gaming,” says Greg. “These are computers you can’t play at your parents’ house. So we’ve got $400 video cards. We put in the best mousepads, keyboards, mice. When you walk in you’ve got a nice, comfy chair, a nice desk. We wanted players to have the best so that they’d want to game there.”
And, it turned out, gamers did want to game there. “Within a year,” says Greg, “I didn’t have to explain anything to anyone.” The player base grew, the focus on computer repair started to fade, and the store started to gain hours. Eventually, the number of computers went up from 5 to 15, and the store was able to hire employees. “At that point, we were sitting with a bunch of money in savings and (besides our normal gaming) we’d throw a big LAN every three months or so,” says Greg.
Unfortunately, that’s when circumstances began to turn. The economy started to slow, next-gen console systems started to bring a higher game experience into living rooms, and, worst of all, the construction on Clairemont made it so that no one could get to the store.
“The year we picked to upgrade was the worst year we could have picked to do it,” says Greg.
Greg and his partners thought about re-tooling and re-launching Chaos as the Nomad Game Center, but then they learned that they were losing their employees and their lease. “After all this stuff,” says Greg, “we said, ‘Well, what do we think about just liquidating and closing it up?’ ” And so in August of 2010, Greg and his partners reluctantly closed the doors. But, of course, that doesn’t mean Greg’s completely done.
“I’ve got four locations set up (here upstairs in my house) for people to game on now,” says Greg. “And we can have seven in here without having to do any work. We’ll get 10 to 12 people up here for bigger parties, and that’s really all I wanted at my store, was a place for my friends to hang out.”
The social aspect, says Greg, is the thing that made Chaos what it was during the time it was open, and what makes LAN gaming a whole different experience from normal online gaming. “We were the hangout for PC gamers. It’s like somebody going to a bar. You can drink at home, but you miss that whole social thing. It’s that personal, being right next to somebody, shoving them thing, where people can see your facial expressions. We’d have events where we’d stream in game conventions, and people would just hang out and talk about games and that’s what was really fun about it.”