Quaking in My Texas Boots
Like swallows returning to San Capistrano or buzzards to Hinkley, Ohio, I have returned to my native land &ndash Texas. While FI headquarters remains in New York (at least until I persuade them of Texas' virtues), one of the majesties of modern telecommunications is that home base can be anywhere you are. I am a one-man mobile outpost. I assume it is only a matter of time before I turn into a Snow Crash gargoyle, collecting and disseminating information, spewing data back to central command with the hope that some of it proves useful. Or perhaps I'm getting carried away. Nevertheless, the idea of maintaining a Texas outpost strikes me as an amazing thing. That paperless office that technophiles promised the world is nowhere in sight, but, at least for folks in a business like ours, the mobile office is very much a reality. In any event, in celebration of my return to the mother country, permit me to blurt "y'all" loudly. Y'ALL!
The timing of my arrival was auspicious. Last week, QuakeCon 2003 took over the Adam's Mark hotel in downtown Dallas and became my first go-git-it Texas project. Although the event organizers might beg to differ, the most interesting day of this celebration of the online shooter has to be the first day, the set-up day, because this is the best day for people-watching. QuakeCon is, in part, a BYOC (bring your own computer) event. You haul your PC down to the hotel and set it up in a football field-sized ballroom. As giant as the ballroom is, however, it isn't big enough. There was a waiting list to get in for people who had failed to register early enough. An ordinary waiting list is one thing, but here are these people, 21" monitors cradled in their spindly arms, pushing CPUs down the carpeted hallways with their feet just on the hope (not the certainty) of getting in. The day quality flat panel monitors become commonplace is the day the activity/sport of LAN gaming takes off for real. Until then, you really have to want it to lug those heavy monitors around.
The demographics of the QuakeCon crowd surprised me. The average computer gamer (as opposed to console gamer) is purportedly nearly 30 years old, and women make up something like 30-40% of the total. Yet here in the Adam's Mark hotel, it was like a stereotype bomb went off. Women, while not a negligible presence, were vastly outnumbered by men. Also, while older folks were represented, but the mean age must have been something like 19 or 20. And, good lord, the computer humor t-shirts. It was a sea of wrinkle-clothed men, all of them either 6'4"/130 lbs or 5'8"/230 lbs, and each fully capable regurgitating the full script for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If I needed an explanation for why it is that in episode 141 of Star Trek: The Next Generation the crew was able to avoid the usual prohibition on beaming people up while shields are active... this was the crowd to ask.
Still, it's not the same kind of nerd I grew up with. Fortunately for these young men, the women tended to the alterna-chick, bringing with them their disdain for jock culture and appreciation of nerd chic. I wish we'd had those when I was in school. The men are different, too. Shooters, with their manly guns and macho mayhem, give these folks a harder edge than in the early years. We might have celebrated advancing to stage 12 of Pitfall, but you just couldn't work up the testosterone-filled taunting and smug chest-thumping that you find in the shooter crowd. Maybe it's that modern games require a set of skills that could arguably be characterized as athletic in a way the skill set for Burger Time never could.
So the core may have changed some, but it is still recognizably the core. There was a time when people like those at QuakeCon – core gamers – were all there was of the consumer side of the game business. Merely playing computer and video games defined you as one of us. With gaming gone mainstream and with the advent of the casual gamer, merely playing games isn't enough to qualify you for the techno-elite these days. The core has moved. And BYOC parties seem to be their destination. Join them the first opportunity you get because they seem to be having a ball.
I discovered, too, why it is that I will never rise out of the middle ranks of online shooter performance. Reflexes rotted by age and office work are one source of trouble but perhaps not the primary issue. These folks in attendance at QuakeCon, they don't just play shooters. They play them over and over. And over. And when they're not playing, they're talking about playing.
Gamer A: (watching a spectator monitor) What the hell's that guy doing?Sort of like that, but ten minutes long and with a much greater level of scorn for the performance of whomever they happened to be watching. By contrast, to the extent I chat about strategy and tactics in these games at all, there tend to be many more sentences in the vein of "I didn't even see who shot me. This sucks. I need a faster computer." Or maybe my gaming handle just doesn't have enough internal capitalization. All I'm saying is, it's not my fault I suck.
Gamer B: I don't know.
Gamer A: Why doesn't he just get to the tower?
Gamer B: That's usually the first thing I do. I can get there in 30 seconds.
Gamer A: That way you can cover this area here if you pick up the Fragerator X90a/3 and still see that walkway.
Gamer B: Yeah. The tower. The a/3? Dude, I take the b/4.
Gamer A: Phhhhsssh.
Gamer B: Dude.
QuakeCon includes a smallish exhibition area where a handful of sponsors set up booths to hawk their wares. They're mostly hardware vendors – a good choice amongst a crowd of people more than usually apt to build their own computers. The only gamemaker on the floor was Activision, which lent some energy to this year's QuakeCon by setting up booths in which to play Call of Duty, their forthcoming WWII-themed shooter, and, in carefully regulated increments of time, Doom 3.
The presence of Doom 3 created quite a stir. Activision manned a station just past registration to hand out appointment cards for 5-10 minute sessions of four-player deathmatch play. Based on such a short session, it's probably premature to draw too many conclusion about how the final product looks to turn out, but certain things present themselves. It's not news to tell you that Doom 3 looks good. What is impressive from a gameplay standpoint are the strands of light and shadow. When you're in shadow, you are actually in the shadow, unseen. A couple of ambushes from my opponents taught me to check alcoves more carefully before blazing past them.
The deathmatch played out in familiar form – find the powerups, find the lurking opponent, jump out your skin when ambushed. The big new toy on display at QuakeCon was the Berzerker powerup. Located at the bottom of a pit of rotating platforms beneath a periodically firing laser, this particular powerup triggers some snazzy effects. For starters, you drop your weapon in favor of attacking with fists. That's OK, though, since you'll one-hit kill anything you get your hands on. But there's the trick. You speed up, but your "vision" goes blurry making it difficult to run around without smacking into walls. On top of that, your avatar starts screaming a tortured moan. As impressive as the total visual package is, it's that moan that really caps off the visual package. Beyond that, it's difficult to report much on Doom 3. Some haggard looking developers spoke of how little sleep they'd had recently prepping for the demo, so it's difficult to know what's in and what's out. By contrast, what's not difficult to gauge was the look of dazed satisfaction from the folks who played.
It was easier to spend some time with Call of Duty which, after all, is further along in the development process. Call of Duty won't be able to escape comparisons with Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, but that may be no bad thing for instant recognition. The overriding theme of the demo on hand was controlled chaos. The demo opens with you and your AI squadmates dashing across a field littered with dead cows while artillery shells fall around you and entrenched German soldiers take shots at your exposed advance. In fact, throughout the level, artillery falls, planes buzz overhead, parachutists drift from the sky – the scene never fails to be awash in activity. If nothing else, Call of Duty figures to be one of those games you're going to want to play with the sound volume turned way up for the full effect. Objectives are laid out in orderly fashion, but you generally seem to have a choice about how you go about getting there. Importantly amidst all the chaos, a familiar control scheme and a goal marker planted on your compass keep you well oriented enough that the confusion is the right kind of confusion – that of a battle not that of impenetrable game design.
The scripted actions of your teammates are quite something to see. At one point, with the player having been a little too slow to take out an enemy tank, his AI squadmates leapt into action. Two of them ran up to the tank, unbuttoned the hatch, tossed in a grenade, backed off, then ran back after the explosion to spray machine gun fire into the cockpit to take out any survivors. I can't help but wonder how much of that you'll actually be able to track with your eyes while playing, but it certainly gives spectators something to watch. From a gameplay standpoint, it's a delicate balancing act. As a member of the development team explained, you want to have all these cool things happening, but you don't want the AI to play the game for you. I might add the related challenge of balancing scripted events with gameplay open enough that you don't feel like you're on rails. The team seems mindful of both issues, and the early work looks good. Cross your fingers. If the balance is right in the final product, there should be much to enjoy.
QuakeCon made a convert out of me. I still think I'll need a flat panel monitor in order to become a regular LAN gamer, but next year I'd like to do a bit more than observe the goings-on. With age and skinny arms comes a certain acceptance of sub-optimal shooter performance, so "ghosting" issues (or whatever it is that would cause hardcore shooters fans to scrunch up their faces at the thought of flat panel displays) don't much matter to me. Having said that, I did tie for first in my Doom 3 round. Maybe my home machine is what's holding me back.