When it comes to home networking, the killer application for me is network gaming. There's nothing like going head-to-head with your friends, stationed at different rooms in your house, with echoes of the action rattling down the hallways. If you have a home networking system with several game-ready PCs already linked, you're just a few phone calls away from a gaming heyday.
But even if you have only one machine in your house, with proper planning you can host a bring-your-own-computer party and quickly set up a multiplayer gaming network. If you consider network connections, network configuration, and power and heat ahead of time, you and your friends will save yourselves countless headaches when the gaming commences.
Not all the PCs you game with need to be cutting edge. Sure, everyone would like a top-of-the-line Alienware Area-51 PC with a 1.8GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 128MB of RDRAM, and NVIDIA's GeForce3 64MB Double Data Rate (DDR) video card. But not everyone needs such a system (which runs about $1900) to play. The software for many games, such as FASA's MechCommander Gold, automatically shifts the role of host computer to the most capable system.
Organization is the key to a fun day. When you've decided where to locate PCs, map those positions on paper. Then, use this map as the key to your PC network names, IP addresses, and electrical circuitry. Be sure to keep your PC network names simple.
If you already have a home network, make sure that you have enough ports available in your hubs in each room where you plan to locate PCs. I recommend that you keep extra Category 5 cables on hand. I also recommend that you have enough cable to work around furniture--RJ-45 inline couplers are handy for this purpose.
If you need to keep your existing cabling undisturbed or plan to host frequent LAN parties, consider investing in spare hubs and cables. NETGEAR, Linksys, and several other manufacturers market packages for about $100 that include a four- to six-port Ethernet hub, two 10Base-T/100Base-TX PCI cards, two 25-foot network cables, and a user guide.
If you have IPX and TCP/IP protocols loaded on your PCs, you can play 99 percent of the network games on the market. If you don't have IPX or TCP/IP loaded, you must load them before you can play network games. Let's step through how to load these protocols on Windows 2000 and Windows 98 machines.
Loading IPX. To install IPX on Win98 machines, open the Control Panel Network applet, click the Identification tab, then enter a suitable name for your workgroup. Depending on the file-sharing properties of your friends' computers, you might be able to see the computer but not its files. To install IPX on a Win2K machine, open the Control Panel Network and Dial-Up Connections applet. Right-click Local Area Connection, then select Properties. Click Install, select Protocol from the network component list, then click Add. Select IPX from the Network Protocol list, then click OK. (Make sure you have a system disk on hand: You'll need it to load protocols.) Note that if you're running IPX, you need to keep everyone in the same workgroup.
Loading TCP/IP. Blizzard Entertainment's Diablo II is a good example of a TCP/IP game. To join a hosted game, you need to know the IP address of the host computer. You can simplify TCP/IP address problems by giving each computer on the gaming network a new TCP/IP address. Pick a scheme and stick with it--for example, start downstairs and work your way up. If PC A is 10.0.0.1, then PC B can be 10.0.0.2. (If you have an unoccupied place in which you'll set up a PC later in the day, make a note on your network map, then leave that IP address vacant. Don't throw the network map away when you're finished: It will make your next LAN party much simpler.)
To set the IP address in Win98, open the Network applet, then click the Configuration tab. Scroll down the configuration list until you see a TCP/IP protocol bound to your NIC. When you find the TCP/IP protocol bound to your NIC, click Properties to see and edit the current IP address. To load TCP/IP in Win2K, open the Network and Dial-up Connections applet. Right-click Local Area Connection, then select Properties. Select the TCP/IP protocol from the list, click Properties, enter the IP address, then click OK. As long as you're making everything uniform, fill in the subnet as well as the IP address. The old and trustworthy subnet number 255.0.0.0 works well. (For more information about IP addressing, see "Further Reading.")
Power and Heat
A power map is just as important as a map of PC locations and TCP/IP addresses. For example, you might plug a computer into an outlet only to discover that a light switch controls that outlet. You don't want your friends' PCs switched off in the heat of a game. Most circuit breakers are 20 amps and support six to eight PCs, including monitors and speakers. Mapping the circuits is a two-person job--one person to switch circuit breakers on and off, and a second person to run from outlet to outlet with a lamp, mapping which breaker controls each outlet. If you live in an older house with original wiring, you can use receptacle testers (available at hardware stores) to verify the polarity and ground. Keep in mind that the circuits extend to the rest of the house. For example, the dining room might have space for six PCs, but the refrigerator and ceiling fan in the nearby kitchen might be on the same circuit. You might have to run an extension cord in from another room. Refrigerators, kitchen ranges, furnaces, air conditioners, washers, and dryers are some of the most power-hungry appliances.
Similarly, don't do anything that interferes with the air conditioning circuit breaker. Larger monitors and more powerful PCs generate a lot of heat, and the problem is compounded when those machines are running in one room. By strategically placing a few fans around the house, you can channel warm air in the direction of the warm-air return vent and prevent hot spots from forming around operating PCs.
Troubleshooting Your Gaming Sessions
In theory, your gaming sessions should go smoothly. However, here are a few things that might go wrong and tips for fixing these problems.
Technical problems. Unplugged power connections and switches are the most common mistake. Also, be sure to check your network connections. Are the cables plugged into the hubs and NICs? Are the hubs receiving power? Make sure that all the players are in the same workgroup (for IPX games) or that everyone has a different TCP/IP address.
Game-related problems. Make sure everyone is using the same version of the game you're playing. Most games require that all players use the same version. (The version designation usually appears on the startup screen.) You can download patches from the game manufacturer's Web site. Because all your players are on the same network, sharing the latest patch across the LAN is easy. In addition, some games (e.g., MechCommander Gold) require that each PC has the scenario maps loaded.
A hassle-free day makes your LAN party that much more fun. After you've set everything up correctly and have the same game version loaded on everyone's PC, you'll be sure to have many hours of happy maiming, racing, or adventuring in whatever flavor you desire.