Gamers turning their online play into business

LAN parties gather together players to connect by computer

Posted: Monday, February 07, 2005

ANCHORAGE - It's not a conversation you'd hear in a real-world battle.

"Aww, man. A tank just ran over me. Who did that?"

From across the room: "I just ran over, like, 12 of your guys with my tank."

"Oooh, I got a tank now. You guys might want to get out of the way 'cause I'm not stopping this tank. Oops! I just ran over my own troops. Sorry about that, guys."

At Gamerz Lan, half a dozen young teenagers sat at the computers, each trying to control a soldier from a simulated battle straight out of World War II. It was Allies vs. Axis, one side of the room pitted against the other.

For more than a decade, gamers have had LAN parties, where they gathered in basements or bedrooms to connect their computers through a local area network, or LAN, to play different characters in the same game. They can battle against each other or team up to fight a common enemy.

But the idea of trying to run a business off such events is new to Alaska. At least two such enterprises have cropped up in the state; both are in Anchorage. Gamerz Lan opened in October in Anchorage's Russian Jack Plaza. Vortex, located in South Anchorage, opened about two years ago.

"The multiplayer aspect of computer games hasn't been explored in Alaska yet," said Gamerz owner Ty Bate. "There's the competition and playing among others. It's a good alternative to sitting a home and playing in a room."

The gaming world is fast overriding other forms of entertainment. U.S. computer and video game software sales grew 8 percent in 2003, to $7 billion - more than double industry sales since 1996, according to a recent study by the Entertainment Software Association, the organization that rates games. In 2003, nearly two games for every household in America were sold.

By comparison, 2003 movies sales reached $9.5 billion.

Computer games are drawing some of that major Hollywood talent. Movie actor Vin Diesel recently opened his own computer programming company and released a game based off his sci-fi series featuring the character Riddick. British actor Christopher Lee - most recently known for roles in "Lord of the Rings" and "Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones" - will lend his voice to a main character in EverQuest II, an online role-playing game.

Bate, a hardcore gamer since the early Pong days, used to get his family and their computers together to play the role-playing game Dark Ages of Camelot. He even got his mom hooked.

"She's got some amazing characters," he said. "I'd connect with her and we'd play the game together. I'm a gamer, and I like to get people excited about games."

Gamerz and Vortex each have 30 computers made specifically for gaming. High-speed Internet connections allow for smooth game play and local servers allow players to save their games to continue their adventures later.

"When you're playing here, you know who you're playing against," said Vortex's Ryan Michele.

Gamers pay $5 an hour for access to nearly two dozen computer games. Vortex also offers Playstation and Xbox games.

A computer generation ago, Nathan Elliott and a small band of like-minded geeks were the hosts of Alaska's largest LAN parties. Beginning around 1996, Elliott and four other friends first networked their computers to play Doom, a first-person shooter game.

Working for GCI, Elliott and his friends had backgrounds in computers and networking, important aspects of connected gaming.

"It was cool to play in one room and play against each other," he said. But they wanted more.

The next year, they set up in the attic of a print shop owned by a friend's wife. Some 20 people showed up to play Quake. Then, in 1999, in the basement of a strip mall off Dimond Boulevard, they got serious.

Elliott and his friends rented tables and chairs for a 60-player LAN party. Everyone brought their computers and played all night long.

"We just fronted the money and then basically passed the hat around at the end," he said. "We did OK, but we decided we needed to get more organized."

Soon, they found a bigger space, set up their own servers, instituted an entrance fee and found some sponsors to offer prizes for drawings and tournaments for a two-day event. A gamer-friendly chef volunteered to cook. Nearly 100 players showed up.

"It was a lot of fun," he said. "But the problem was that by then there were so many new games that everyone wanted to play something different. We figured that was probably the best it was going to get."

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