Saturday, June 2, 2018

LAN "Party"

Not that I ever attended a LAN party. And not necessarily because I didn't want to. Most of my friends just don't happen to be computer geeks. We did make some attempts, a long, long time ago though... which were... sort of traumatic.

Image visiting the cinema... Pop-corn standby, 3D glasses on, drum solo, MGM lion roars, exciting intro music builds up the tension, you are more ready than ever... But the screen-curtains refuse to open. After 10 minutes and missing the whole introduction, the issue is solved and the curtains open, almost, for 80%. Well, that sucks, but at least we can finally see the action now. But oh shoot, the curtains malfunction and close again. Your girlfriend is sick of it and wants to go home. She doesn't understand the whole vibe around Star Wars anyway. As a die-hard fan, you are more patient and convince here to please give it some more time. Eventually the problem is "fixed", but without audio. Instead, a guy does all the voice-overs, as well as the "kaboong" explosions and "tjoe tjoe tjoe" laser blasters. Again, as a die-hard fan you just try to enjoy the ride and squeeze out excitement, but deep in your heart you know better. When the show is over, your girl says Star Wars is the lamest movie ever, and next time you'll go alone to Tobacco or whatever that ape is called.

Got some internet? Beep beep oink oink, 1997
That pretty much sums up my experience with PC network gaming. Back in the day, it was technically possible to play a PC game together. Technically. In reality, loads of obstacles had to overcome. One major problem was connectivity itself to begin with, which is pretty mandatory. Homing pigeons were still faster than internet, and moreover, every "internet-minute" costed money. If you got allowance at all from your parents, they would say "1 hour only, God dammit!". But you know how long it can take to finish a match of Total Annihilation. Or your mother wasn't aware of your battleplans and would pick up the phone to call Betty from work, disrupting your dial-up connection.

Remember them? Now most of my multi-player fun came from the handsome N64 faces at the bottom-right.

Most games didn't even have TCP/IP connectivity back then. Typically, you had to make a local IPX network, with a special cable. But who the hell has 2 computers? A laptop was something only the Men-In-Black had on TV. And computers were too expensive to own two. Even rich people wouldn't have two computers, because really, what's the purpose of that expensive, heavy piece of dust collecting metal-plastic junk anyway? Your mom didn't buy her shoes via internet yet, and unless dad had an office-job working with spreadsheets, he probably wouldn't know for the love of God why somebody would ever need a computer either. Your little brother liked Nintendo games, but was still too stupid to use a PC. Only you, you nerdy geek, only you would use it. For your nerdy games and doing other geeky dorky thingies on it. Nerd.

A friend with two computers was worth gold. And I'm not sure why and where that other computer came from, but actually I had a friend with two computers in their "hobby room". I smell a golden chance... A chance to play Grand Theft Auto (1) against each other! Unfortunately that second computer was an older piece of shit, of course, so we could only play a handful of games. But yes, it worked! Sort of. GTA(1) got boring quickly, just playing one on one in an otherwise empty city. Ah, there he is on a motorcy- poop he ran over me, now I'm dead. He kills me, I kill him, he kills me...yawn. Isn't there another game we can do? Quake 1 maybe? Nah, he isn't much of a FPS guy. And Total Annihilation? Doesn't work on computer #2... Maybe we should just play Mario Kart or Goldeneye on the N64 again...?

One year later, 1998.
A grasp from 1998, the 3D era still in it's early days, but already producing lot's of (PC) shooters - typically with some form of multi-player (Deathmatch).
Found me some extra friends in the ninth grade. And one of them (the richer one) actually had his own computer, so he could do whatever the dang he wanted with that thing! No parents-permission needed. I smell a chance to play Red Alert! Not with 2 but with 3 players this time! How bad is that. So, on a hot Friday afternoon, after school, I proposed this guaranteed-to-be-awesome idea. All right. So my two friends hauled over their PC to the others house, piece by piece, on foot. We didn't have a driver license yet, and a monitor alone would typically weigh about 40 to 50 pounds! As the computer geek, I had to assist so I shuttled between houses on my bicycle. Crap, don't forget diner at 17:30. Racing back home, hi mom - hi dad – blabla everything good at school-gottago-bye > racing 5 kilometres back to my pals that were still having diner. Argh, my patience hurts.

Now the next question is, what are we going to play? Let's see, what do we have in our (half illegal) floppy/CD pile? Duke Nukem? Tried to install, but floppy 3 was corrupted. Doom? Nah, too old. Half-life! Yes totally awesome, but too new, station #2 can't run that. Carmageddon? No multiplayer. Quake 2? Got only 1 CD. Transport Tycoon? Doesn't support a dial up connection. Eventually all that was left, was Theme Hospital. So I raced back home with the CD, installed it on my own computer, raced back to my friends again, as we forgot something. And that same evening I would get ping-ponged a couple of more times, trying this, cracking that, CD here, forgot a cable there. Then finally, around 23:30, we were playing Theme Hospital. And 30 minutes later it was bedtime.
 That's me. After trying to setup a multiplayer-game.

All those hours and many bicycle kilometres, to build a lame hospital together over a laggy (and money costing) dial up connection... Was it worth it? Now I totally dig Theme Hospital, and just the idea of being connected and seeing your friends in-game had magical powers back then. But in all honesty... Theme Hospital isn't exactly THE game you must play with a friend. We had some more success with Red Alert the next day, but still, all that effort. Again, I'd probably prefer playing Red Alert alone. A typical battle would consume 3 hours at least - if the connection didn't time out, if mom didn't disrupt the line by picking up the phone, and if your friend didn't have to shutdown and go to bed. The worst thing is that you can't save these online sessions. But anyway, being equally strong would end up in an endless World War 1 battle. At some point, one would tip over, and then spend the next hour(s) losing, frustrating slowly. I had a great time losing over the past few hours. NOT. You cheat, and you suck, you only use Mammoth tanks and I never play Red Alert with you again.

One year later, 1999. 
Lot's of PC multi-player potential. Yet I think the most fond memories come from that school-vacation, when we hired Smash Brothers from the video store.

Now after working a whole summer long, packing cat-munchies and Chinese beer, we would belong to the elite class with two computers. I made enough money to buy my own first computer. Now finally we could play all these games, without having to ride a bike 300 times, without having to hurry & pay per minute, and eventually even without friends, as I had a little victim brother. GTA, Quake, Age of Empires, Half-life, Total Annihilation... Too bad the whole experience wasn’t that great again. If it weren't all the hacks, cracks and patches required to get it even working, then the game itself just wasn't so much fun. Although Age of Empires (II) was nice, I just don't like the Deathmatch type of game. Two players only to fill up the room isn't a whole lot anyway, but gunning and running circles around each other is just, I don't know, stupid.

When it comes to (PC) Multiplayer gaming, Frustration #1 would be hardware & connectivity, Frustration #2 the goddamn awful amount of messing and fiddling around to get it working (a bit). And frustration #3 would be the lack of CO-OP games. Old uncle Duke and Doom would offer it, but ever since developers seem to forgot about it. Whether it’s Quake2, Half-life or Command & Conquer, either there is no CO-OP or you are at the mercy of poorly working mods. As if setting up these games isn't hard enough already, dealing with half-working mods that require patch 254.08x and too many console commands is even worse. And if you can't actually save your progress, it still feels "fake". It's not that you start and finish entire Half-life with Sven Co-op in a single session. Single session my ass, even with a wired network the game would freeze, or players would get stuck as the single player campaign was never really meant to be played together. And even though it's pretty much fun to shoot soldiers with a friend, you typically finished the main story about ten times already, and your little brother sucks at playing this game, so he is more of an annoyance than an actual help.

1999 had one big exception though: Hidden & Dangerous. If you ask me, this game was born for teamwork. And hell, it actually had built-in coop functionality! Not a few lousy extra maps, but the entire campaign, with a SAVE option. It was perfect... except that the game itself is just buggy as hell. Now the weird mods and phone lines weren't killing me, but the quirky physics and game-crashes were. Nonetheless, I found it great -as long as it worked. My little brother probably had a bit less patience with this flawed World War 2 game, but he didn't get a choice.  Do as your brother say. Around the same time, games like Delta Force had co-op as well, but the enemy A.I. was so bad that you wouldn't need a partner for that really.

This game was hard as hell. Unlike most other games, some help from a human sniper could make the difference. If he didn't fell through the floor.

The years after,
we played some more games varying from Unreal Tournament to Battlefield to racers. But in general, those three frustrations remained. It would have been awesome to play Half life2 or Far cry together right from the start, but typically there was no co-op to begin with. Until some years later, when some shitty mod would enable it. But by then the game was washed out, and it would still take 4 or 6 hours to even get started. As my little brother wasn't so little anymore, his "cooperation" with this nonsense would wear out as well. 

Tons of (good) games, but only few offered coop (Perfect Dark). And why did games like the Sims never get a decent online function? I can totally see myself building my own house, and pissing in my neighbours garden.

Now I can hear you thinking, but how about the more recent games? Minecraft, GTA V, or World of Warcraft, just to name a few. The days of dial up connections are over, there is turbo world-wide solid internet now, and you are only a few clicks away from joining a game. No excuses anymore!

Well I suppose that's true. But I just missed the boat really. When I was ready for it, games and internet weren't ready yet. When the games and internet got ready, I grew tired of it. As I said, my close friends have never been hard-core gamers really (or they hide it very well, we still come from a generation were a gamer equals dorky). We got busy with jobs and kids, not so much into gaming anymore. And as for online communities…

Back in 2001, my dad was about to get cable internet which finally meant unlimited internet. While doing that boring packaging vacation-work again for some computer upgrades, I fantasized about playing Operation Flashpoint. OF was one of the first military simulation games that would allow “massive” online battles. You could join a clan, fill in your role as a sniper or medic. Even Pok√©mon or a bowling game has such features nowadays, but back then such an idea was beyond awesome. But for some reason I never got into it. Maybe because Operation Flashpoint was a bit stiff and dull. Anyhow, I was a bit shocked when playing Battlefield 1944 online for the first (and last!) time. Tactics my ass. This wasn't about cooperative gameplay. Every individual would run into war like an idiot, got shot 2 seconds later, then respawn and do the same. Over and over again. So I just stole an aircraft carrier and "drove" it upon Iwo Jima beach. My fellow soldiers couldn't laugh with that though. They're so edgy and serious about this whole game. Except for Ed. Ed bumped into me with his jeep, carried me on the frontcover of this jeep, and drove into a ravine. Ed was fun.

Either play the game very serious, like this guy, or just mess around and have a laugh. But neither happens in an open game that attracts both jokers and furious nerds.

Eighteen years later, 2018
"Dad, what are we going to do?", asks my daughter, who is bored. I don't know... do your homework maybe? "Shall we play a game?". Usually dad is busy working, but sometimes I think "why not"? But then also, "which game?". I could play Zelda and she would watch. But just like twenty years ago, the best experience is to play together. In theory... But no Deathmatch stuff. As I still have some geeky dorky nerd blood in me, I would win every game of Mario Kart, Street Fighter, Doom, or whatsoever. No, let's play together. Maybe it didn't work out too well twenty years ago, but things evolve right? Internet has become unlimited and superfast indeed. We have two portable computers (though the older laptop is getting REALLY old). Thousands of games have been created in the meanwhile, and I have become a programmer -I can actually MAKE my own games (well... more about that in another post)- what could possibly go wrong this time?!

One week later, 2018 - June. Jesus, damn sheep balls, poop, idiots. It still doesn't work. Maybe I just wasn't meant to be a multi-player, but darn floppy disks on a stick. So I said "yes honey, let's play Red Alert 2" together. Older game should work fine on that slower grandpa laptop, and RA2 has built-in coop maps, interesting. Now the trouble-list is endless, but I'll try to sum it up.

First, RA2 didn't work on my (modern) computer. It worked before, but for some reason it just freezes at start-up. Fortunately, a billion others had the same problem according to the internet, so dad can fix that honey. Two hours later, I'm still browsing forums, and little girl has to go to bed. Tomorrow sweety (you must understand, kids only have 2 minutes patience, not 2 hours or 2 days). Eventually, it works, kinda. Now the other computer. I'll try to start EA Origin and download RA2 for free, as a I did before. 
But hold on. You can't use your origin account twice! Sigh, made another account for my daughter. Then figured out Origin doesn't fully work anymore on Windows Vista, so I couldn't download RA2. Besides RA2 isn't free anymore! Got to pay for it. Well fuck that. I downloaded it legally for free before, plus I bought it a billion years ago as well, I'm not going to pay again. Patch here, crack there... and the game launches. And crashes. Some more patches, smoking some more crack... Eventually I got past that, but now it says you need the IPX protocol. Shoot, of course, old games = old technology. Downloading yet another tool that emulates IPX over TCP/IP. Cable in, Wi-Fi out, doesn't work, fiddle here, tweak there... FINALLY it works, after a day. Let's go daughter, this is how you play Red Al- "Dad, my game doesn't respond anymore". It froze. We tried again, now it finally worked somewhat, but then stupid mom called again "Guys, diner!". God dammit. And of course you still can't pause or save the game.

And then the mouse died
Red Alert 2 was just too instable. We tried Portal 2 before, but that wasn't ideal either, as I solved 99% of the puzzles, being the older and wiser one. Then I figured, "wait a moment, BINGO: Left 4 Dead 2". Of course! My girl is getting 10 years old within a month, and as a teenager, I'd say you can legally shoot zombies. Well maybe not, but what other options do I have to be a good dad here? Exactly, none. 

Of course, Steam wouldn't run on 2 PC's either. And sorry Valve, but again I'm not going to buy a game twice. Even if this will succeed, my girl will probably play it two times, then forgets about it. You know, kids these days... they suck. Fortunately there are tutorials on the internet that show you how to play L4D2 offline, without cracks. So that is still sort of legal, right? Wi-Fi out, cable in. Computer doesn't ping the other, fooling around with dynamic/fixed IP addresses, typing all kinds of console commands in the game - yes this is all very normal if you just want to play a game with your kids quickly. Did I say I was a geeky dork? Hey... it works! Oh, no it doesn't. Not because of the game, but because we only have one mouse in this house, and a touchpad just really doesn't work with shooter games. C'mon Julia, into the Dad-mobile! We raced to a nearby shop, bought a mouse, raced back and played the game. For 20 minutes, then the new mouse was (left for, haha.) dead. Really?! REALLY?! I'm not kidding, two weeks earlier I bought another mouse already (I was getting prepared for this!). And as soon as I opened the box, the cable just snapped. Made in China. And now the left (shoot) button and this other mouse stops working after @#%\+! 20 minutes?! I smashed the mouse on the table, ripped the cable in half, and threw it in the bin. Motherfucker! I'm a good example for my children.

I might buy a more expensive gaming mouse tomorrow, as L4D2 was quite promising. But damn, how hard can it be to play a game together? Frustration #1 "Connectivity" can be scrapped from the list for modern games but replace that with needing two copies of a game. It’s ridiculous. In this house, I have 2 legal copies of GTA V, yet we can't play it together. Because one is on the PS3, the other on the PS4. Do you really think I'm going to buy that game for a third time? And on the PC, especially the older station for player #2, there is ALWAYS something wrong. Windows outdated, not enough space, no fucking floppy drive, no mouse, issues with the net-not-work, patches... ARH! And if it works, again there is no co-op, the progress doesn't get saved, or the rules are too easy so nobody dies, which destroys the challenge and whole purpose of trying to beat a game together.

You know what, when we had a SNES in 1993, we actually could play Mario Kart, Double Dragon, Contra and countless of other games together, in co-op mode. Maybe I should just stick with console-splitscreen games, but I doubt if there are many of those nowadays. Or... make my own multiplayer co-op game... if it weren't I'm so busy with work and building a house these days that I can't even spend time on that other hobby project... what was it called again, oh right, Tower22.

How hard could it be?

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