Remember the good old days of the LAN party? You might not; thanks to today's prevalence of broadband connections, the availability of free voice and video chat services, and the ample multiplayer support found in most modern games, you no longer have to leave your home to frag your friends.
But even though they have multiple reasons to leave LAN parties behind, gamers love their LANs. There’s a mythical quality about showing up at a friend’s door, a six-pack of soda in one hand and a monitor in the other, prepped for an all-weekend gaming session with one’s closest buddies.
But you, the aspiring LAN party host, have a more difficult quest to tackle. What are you going to do when 12 eager, caffeine-fueled gamers pack your living room with PCs? How will you address the squabbles over which games you’re all going to play? The blown power circuits from all the systems you’ve crudely strung together? The slowness of everyone’s Web connection because one of your friends is downloading the latest Game of Thrones episode?
You might go so far as to build a dedicated LAN setup directly into your home. For the rest of us, a great LAN party is still possible if you plan ahead. When it comes to LAN parties, preparation is key — and we’re sharing our clipboard. Follow our simple guide to LAN-party success and you’ll be shooting your friends in a multiplayer match before you can even finish your first party Sandvich.
Step One: Organization
It doesn’t take long for LAN parties to become organized chaos. Some of your friends may be first-person shooter afficionados who fire up an online game of Team Fortress 2 and never leave; others may broker deals and exact diplomacy via instant messaging clients running alongside Civilization 5. You might even find yourself playing nothing but one-on-one Warcraft 3 matches in an 11-person room.
Before you send out the final details for your big LAN party, use a Google Form to survey your attendees about what games they own, what they want to play, and what they’re bringing. You should also ask everyone to list their system type (Desktop? Laptop? Liquid-cooled PC megalith?) and OS, which should help you map things out and get you thinking about potential troubleshooting for older operating systems. Don’t forget to ask everyone to list their online handles and servers for the various MMOs or other online games they play, as well as their preferred Skype/instant messaging names; there's nothing worse than having to yell that stuff back and forth during a loud LAN party.
Step Two: Hardware
LAN parties, by their nature, are hardware-dependent. A proper power setup and a reliable network should be items one and two on your to-do list if you want to throw the perfect LAN party. If you think you can just be lazy about where (and how) you plug in ethernet cables, surge protectors, and extension cords, you’re in for a surprise.
We’ll start with power. If you can access it, take a look at your home or apartment’s circuit breaker and search for a label that details the electrical capacity assigned to each circuit. You need to get a clearer picture of just how much of a load the associated outlets can support in order to determine just how many systems you can power at once. But don’t confuse these two terms: An outlet rarely represents a single circuit; it’s much more likely that one electrical circuit splits a set amount of current between a number of outlets in a particular location, like your living room.
Anywhere from four to six computers is a decent ballpark number for what you can stick on one electrical circuit. You want to shoot for an electrical load of no more than 80 percent of a circuit's total capacity, which is typically measured in amps. Amps = watts/volts, so you don't want to load a 15-amp circuit with more than 1440 watts' worth of 120-volt power adapters. Most PC power supplies and laptop power adapters will clearly denote how many watts they draw at full power. The number varies when you throw laptops into the mix (less of a power draw) or tricked-out gaming desktops with beefier hardware (potentially more of a power draw).
To ensure that you have enough power for your LAN party’s PCs, you’ll want to split the total electrical load as much as possible. Use surge protectors (not power switches; surge protectors) and extension cords to split your systems across as many different circuits as you can reach.
Now that you’ve prevented a power crisis, it’s time to get your computers connected. If your LAN is limited to four players (the perfect size for a Diablo III weekend), you might only have to plug all four systems into your wireless router. Easy enough, right? You could always connect the systems wirelessly as well, but for the most consistent (and speediest) connections, it’s worth furnishing your LAN party guests with extra-long ethernet cables.
For larger LAN parties, you’ll want to get your hands on an appropriately-sized network switch. You’ll use one of this device’s ports to connect it to your wireless router, which should itself be connected to your Internet-granting modem (DSL or cable) via its WAN port (which may be labeled “Internet” port, or something to that effect). Any system you then connect to any of the free ports on your switch or router will all live within the same network — in layman’s terms, a switch merely splits one of your router’s ports into however many connections the switch supports.
Why not just connect the switch right to your cable or DSL modem? Simply put, your switch is dumb. Your ISP is probably only granting your modem a single IP address for your Internet connection, and there is no way that your switch can let every computer share this address simultaneously. A router, however, creates and distributes an internal set of IP addresses for use by any connected devices. External servers talk to the single IP address bestowed by your ISP; your router acts as the gatekeeper that distributes the data packets to the right connected systems, all of which have been assigned totally different (and internal) IP addresses than the one granted to your router by your modem.
Don’t forget: Splurging for a gigabit switch will allow any gigabit-friendly systems to share files at top speeds — perfect if you want to do a bit of hefty file-trading at your LAN party.
Depending on the size of your LAN and what games you’ll be playing, you might even consider using one computer as a dedicated server for games. That’s a bit complicated to get into within this article, but it might very well prevent one of your poor attendees’ computers from bursting into flames if he or she tries to both host and play within the same huge multiplayer match.
Step Three: Software
Remember that Google Form we mentioned earlier? Don’t forget to send out the results. More important, ask your party guests to arrive with the top games preinstalled and patched up to their most recent versions. It’s a bit of a buzzkill to have to wait for people to install, update, and configure new games at a LAN party — even worse, one person could end up hogging all the Web bandwidth by downloading a game from a digital distribution platform like Steam.
A staple of LAN parties is file-sharing. While you could always set up a share folder on your system or a network storage device for attendees to dump and grab files, it can be a bit of a pain to configure a folder on each system and hunt for them within the Windows networking structure — especially if you’re gaming with novice computer users.
This is where the free app D-LAN comes into the picture. Once each gamer installs it, he or she will be able to set up share folders, find other users, and grab files using a simple, P2P-like interface. It couldn’t be any easier to connect to your friends or search for files, and it’s a lot quicker than jumping into Windows Explorer and hoping everyone’s rocking the same Workgroup. Yuck.
And while we’re on the topic of file-sharing, make sure your LAN attendees know that BitTorrent wasn’t invited to your party on purpose. Why? Self-preservation: You want to keep yourself off the hook for anything that your friends download via your network and you want to keep your Internet connection from getting bogged down by a sea of active uploading. That’s irritating enough for party attendees trying to watch YouTube videos; it’ll cripple your entire party’s ability to jump onto a public game server for a team match.
Finally, if you’re having connection difficulties within your LAN party games, make sure your partygoers have disabled any and all software firewalls on their systems — including the good ol’ Windows Firewall. Speaking of security, it’s worth your while to encourage your attendees to run a fully updated antivirus and antimalware scan before plugging into your LAN party’s network. Nobody wants a Trojan horse as a party favor.
As a young gamer, PCWorld Contributing Editor David Murphy used to host Warcraft II LAN parties — all IPX and zug-zug, baby.