LAN parties have become the great American nerd pastime, at least among my group of friends. D&D is out and L4D is in. (Sorry, d20 fans.) If you haven't gotten together with a bunch of chums, connected your PCs together, and proceeded to frag each other in a caffeine and pizza-fueled stupor until the sun comes up... well, then you just haven't lived. And yes, if just reading that sentence embarrasses you, it is as nerdy as it sounds.
Alright, so maybe you've thought about hosting one, but you don't know where to start. Perhaps you've been invited to one in the past, and you weren't quite sure what to expect. I've been to enough LAN parties over the years to know what works and what doesn't, and in my continuing effort to enrich the lives of people across the globe through my geekdom, I'm going to give you the roadmap to victory.
What to bring as an attendee
- Computer: You'd think this goes without saying, but somehow it doesn't. Bring a PC that can run any of the games that are likely to be played, and be ready to go. That means having your drivers up-to-date and your system in working order. Don't be the guy who shows up with a box of parts, or worse yet, a half-broken computer that needs someone else to figure out what's wrong and make a Fry's run. Not only are you wasting space, you're preventing other people from enjoying the LAN party.
- Games: Another no-brainer, right? Have the games that you intend to play installed and patched up before you show up. That goes for mods, as well. My personal favorites for LAN parties are the Worms series, Counter-Strike: Source, Team Fortress 2, and Unreal Tournament 2004. Of course, I can't forget the darling newcomer: Left 4 Dead. Other fun titles include Natural Selection, Warcraft 3 custom maps, and Company of Heroes, but only if everyone knows how to play. The best LAN party games must be quick to pick up, yet difficult to master. If the basic learning curve is too steep, it'll take too long for new players to figure out how to play and they won't have fun. I think that's what makes Call of Duty 4 one of the most successful multiplayer shooters in recent history and such an absolute blast at LAN parties. The fact that it can run on a wide range of computers yet still look great on high-end machines doesn't hurt, either.
- Monitor: LCD displays are preferred, since they generally take up less space than CRTs and leave room for more people. Sometimes, a jerk like me will show up with a 30" LCD—that only happened once, though, and I won't do it again. I promise. (Before you ask, I'll admit it: yes, I did it for the e-cred.)
- Mouse pad: You still own one of these, right? Sure, plenty of gamers use their optical mice straight on their desks, but you never know where you'll end up seated at a LAN party: sometimes it's a table, sometimes it's a kitchen counter. Regardless, a proper mousing surface is never a guarantee, so a mouse pad can save the day. I prefer my vintage 2001 Max Payne pad, but any flat surface will do. Just bring a pad of legal paper if you have to.
- Headphones: Don't be that guy—just don't. Everyone hates that one dude who shows up with his obnoxious 2.1 speaker set, which is always worsened by his terrible taste in music (typically J-pop and techno). Hearing noises from the same game from across the room can also be an annoying distraction, and it makes it that much harder to use sound effectively while playing.
- Surge protector: In theory, everyone shouldn't have to bring one, but extras can never hurt. The worst that can happen is that your surge protector goes unused and stays in your backpack for the evening.
- Ethernet cable: Don't put the onus on someone else to have one for you. Bring your own cable to get on the network—the longer the better. Even if you get to sit right next to the switch, someone else might end up further away and need to trade with you for the evening.
- Extra stuff: Whatever you have spares of, bring to the LAN party. Someone will invariably need them. Also, talk to the host to find what they might be short on, and see if you can help fill the gaps.
What not to bring as an attendee
- UPS: I realize it can be a terrifying thought that your PC might not properly shut down in the event of a blown breaker (or that it won't receive the clean power such a unique snowflake deserves). But guess what? You can do without it for one night. Bringing a battery you can barely carry to a LAN party only makes you look like a complete dork, which is pretty impressive considering the company you're in. Man up and plug into the same surge protector as everyone else.
- Your kid brother: He's annoying, and no one likes him anyway. I especially don't like him when I discover he's "just filling in" for me after I walked away for 30 seconds to grab a soda. Get off of my computer and get out of my house, you damn moocher.
- Your girlfriend: I don't know why people insist on bringing their girlfriends to LAN parties. She'll either spend the night in front of the TV completely disinterested, or she'll sit right behind you cheering on your every move—even when you're losing. Maybe you're trying to show her off, but I've got news for you: she's a girl at a LAN party. She can't be that great, unless of course she's got her own computer and participates in the multiplayer carnage. In that case, she's pretty cool in my book and I'm officially jealous. Mission accomplished, jerk.
- Your sister: You will hate yourself for it. You're just going to have to trust me on this one.
What to have as a host
- Space: Lots of it. Inside the house is preferable, but a garage works well in a pinch. The most important things to consider when judging a space for a LAN party are accessibility of power (use extension cords if necessary) and airflow. Densely packed nerds and high-performance computers often result in a stuffy room if windows and fans aren't available. Also, come up with a layout that doesn't require people to climb on top of each other or trip over cords when they need to move. There's nothing worse than having your monitor go black because someone tripped over a power cord while going for a Mountain Dew.
- Tables and chairs: Banquet tables and folding chairs are the way to go, but improvisation isn't out of the question. Dining tables work just as well, and just about any flat horizontal surface should do the trick, too. I dont recommend the floor, however.
- Network switch: The size of the switch well determine the maximum number of attendees, but don't be afraid to use more than one. We primarily use a 24-port Gigabit switch, but if several players end up in another room, we'll toss another smaller switch in there with them. That way it's just one cable running between the two rooms. And while Gigabit is extremely convenient for transferring files, it's by no means a necessity for gaming.
- Internet connection: It's a LAN party, why the Internet connection? Simple: you never know when you'll need a patch, mod, or a driver, so having an Internet connection handy can save a headache.
- Munchies: Chips, pretzels, Chex mix—I have yet to find a snack that nerds won't consume. Get whatever is cheap and really bad for you. Those are the best LAN party foods.
- Beverages: Get a couple cases of soda. LAN parties run on Mountain Dew. Even better: if you're of age, grab some alcohol. Drunken Worms tournaments are absolutely hilarious—just make sure you've got room for people to crash for the night.
- Fast food: Know your fast food in the area, especially what's open late. Midnight In-N-Out Burger expeditions have become a staple of our LAN parties, but ordering in pizza works well, too. It solves the whole "having to leave my computer" thing that nerds can be so vehemently opposed to.
- Other activities: Let's face it: there's downtime during LAN parties. Games take time to install, food takes time to be consumed, and players take time to argue over what game will be played next. Beyond that, you just need to take a break from marathon PC gaming and unwind sometimes. That's when you'll be happy to have other things to do. A big hit at the events hosted in my home are the billiards and ping-pong tables, and Rock Band has become a crowd favorite in the last year or so, too.
What not to have as a host
- Non-participatory attendees: Kick out anyone playing MMORPGs or single-player games. I don't care how "phat" their "lootz" are or if it only takes two minutes to show them off. If they're not playing LAN games with everyone else, they're wasting precious space. Tell them to get into the action or get out. This goes doubly for people who show up just to leech files.
That's it! This might seem like a lot to manage, but once you get into the routine, you can have a LAN party set up in less than an hour. Next week: how to properly hit on someone's sister at a LAN party.