What kind of event could bring out almost a dozen thirty-something guys on a cold Massachusetts night in the dead of the winter? Super Bowl party? Car show? Think again: Once a month, in a house just up the street from my home, I get together with about 10 guys to partake in the latest form of male bonding. It's called deathmatch. And the game we play is Halo 2, for the Microsoft Xbox.
The notion of multiplayer deathmatch—in which individuals pit their skills in first-person shooters against other live opponents—is nothing new. A decade ago, I used to gather with three other compatriots in a local college's computer lab after it closed for the afternoon each Saturday. The game of choice was DOOM, a DOS-based title that was painfully hard to set up for deathmatch events because it relied on old-fashioned networking technology (Novell Netware, which the lab used) and some mind-numbingly silly pregame calisthenics—that is, everyone had to log on to each game session simultaneously or they couldn't play.
I've played many games online over the years, and as each game generation comes and goes, and as Internet access and networking speeds improve, the process gets easier and easier. Today, multiplayer game servers are available all around the globe for both PC and some console-based titles. But playing against people virtually is one thing. Playing against your friends while in the same room is another experience altogether. There's screaming, of course, and the inevitable taunting. Players name their game personae after the host's ex-girlfriends ("Crazy Julie," "Kate") just to get under his skin. When someone scores a "Killtacular" (four enemies vanquished simultaneously), the cheers and groans can be heard out in the street. And when each match ends, we compare medals and other statistics in the same way that baseball fans can quote team records and individuals stats.
What's amazing is that none of these guys—with the exception of a graphical designer and me—are particularly into computers. They're not geeks at all. But we can handle the networked gaming scene solely because the Xbox, unlike the PC, makes it incredibly simple to set up these kinds of matches. And if you have a modern game—such as Halo 2—that can take advantage of virtually unlimited numbers of players, all the better. The more the merrier.
With the Xbox, Microsoft should be credited with making the arcane process of setting up multiplayer games virtually foolproof. Before Halo and Halo 2 on the Xbox, you almost needed an advanced degree in networking technologies to figure out how to get the best experience. With the Xbox, it's just plug and play. We use an 8-port switch and a bunch of Ethernet cables, and each month the guys just show up with their Xbox consoles and, in some cases, their TVs. I bring two Xbox units to each event, as well as the small 13" TV that's part of my home office's media center setup. Some people share TVs (and Xbox consoles) in split-screen arrangements. At the most recent event, for example, we had 10 people on seven screens. Getting everything going required no configuration. We just plugged in our machines and dove into the mayhem. Pizza and beer are optional.
While I'm on the subject, I'll get you next month, "El Jeffe." Who the heck fires off 2098 rounds of ammunition in one game, anyway?