This afternoon I visited the I-16 LAN
event with our marketing lady. My transport curse seemed to be in full effect for most of the day - although thankfully the results were not as catastrophic
. The plan was to drive to Finsbury Park
station (Babette having mistakenly driven into work this morning instead of taking the tube), take the tube to London Paddington
and then a Thameslink
train out to Newbury Race Course
. For the first leg, we couldn't find anywhere to park so had to abandon the car to inevitable ticketing. On reaching Paddington
, I was left to buy the tickets, from a strangely confused railwayman.
"Two returns to Newbury Race Course please."
"There isn't a race on today, mate."
"I know, I'm not going to a race..." (What do you take me for, some kind of mug?)
"The station's only open when there's a race on."
"Well, two to Newbury town then."
"OK, get on the - woah, no, wait, get on the Swansea train and change at Reading."
Needless to say Newbury Race Course station was open (I say open, I mean, the train stopped there, it's just a bus shelter and some steps basically). The two trains were jam packed with commuters, even though it was the early afternoon. Thank goodness we can put all of this on expenses.
Approach Newbury Racecourse grandstand. A couple of towering, deserted-looking buildings, one of which is draped in a huge Vodafone logo. As we get closer some young men clad in black stumble out of a side door, hunched and squinting in the sunlight. This was the place. I-16: Four days and three nights of fragging and caffeine. Tickets are £60, bring your own PC.
Inside the darkened hall there are row upon row of PCs set up on low tables. There are over 400 gamers attending the event, and this is one of the smaller ones that they run. Some of the cases are modded in wild and inventive ways (translation: they have viewing panels and blue LEDs), proof if any were needed that these are the 'élite' of PC gaming - or at least the ones with the greatest disposable income and the least discretion. One truly impressive rig is housed in a completely transparent plastic shell. One row near the end is manned by members of the same clan all clad in jerseys with their handles emblazoned on the back.
On one side of the hall there is an enclosure where a small team of administrators tend to a truckload of rack boxes - the game servers. At the far end of the hall there is a sign-in desk and a hospitality area. The organisers are selling games, exotically-shaped mousemats and 'witty' t-shirts (0nLy L@M3RZ 5P33K L33T), and there is a refrigerator cabinet stacked with cans of Red Bull and Jolt Cola (seemingly imported, if the FedEx labels on a nearby stack are anything to go by). Most importantly of all there is the Domino's Pizza ordering desk. Pizzas can be delivered directly to your seat. We are introduced to the head of the operation, a stocky, white-haired man of around retirement age, who seems to have some knowledge of running events like this (having headed up over a dozen previous I-numbers), but there is a lingering impression that he's been brought in by his sons to keep him occupied in his old age...
He gives us a tour of the site. (The point of all this, in case you're wondering, is because we are planning on showcasing a game at a sponsored area at the next event, I-17, in late August.) The first thing we are shown is the PlanetSide area, an enclosure of about a dozen PCs which has been sponsored by Sony Online Entertainment, Ubi Soft and Intel to showcase the PC version of PlanetSide (on Pentium 4 machines). They have even plumbed in a 2-megabit ADSL connection so that attendees can actually play the game 'for real' (it's an online subscription-based title). An Ubi Soft suit is hunched intently over one machine. Another of the machines is being played by possibly the single largest human being I have ever seen. Seriously, this guy is about the size of a caravan. Try not to stare. Suddenly understand the commercial importance of the pizza desk.
The organisers have hired out the entire three-storey centre. The top two floors are not being used for much at this event. On the top floor the bars are open and a group of the tournament staff have set up a projector and a set of Sirocco Crossfire speakers, and are playing Monkey Target.
Eventually we manage to drag the core of the staff to one corner and talk turkey. As I previously mentioned, Multiplay UK is run by an old guy and his (at least four) thirty-something sons. Sitting around a table with them is like something out of Thunderbirds. Fittingly, the deal they propose has some strings attached (sorry). One of the sons is the mouthpiece of the team, and tries to convince us to hire an excessive number of tables and computers.
We eventually manage to get away at around 1700 hrs. On the ground floor most of the players have manned their stations and the temperature of 400 bodies, PCs and CRTs is oppressive. Outside it has started drizzling, which is almost refreshing. We leave the gathering of fanatics to their bloodbath, and head back to Paddington.
I'm invited to the leaving do of one of the old employees at work, but I decided to turn it down thinking that I could slip home and get some writing and sleep done, instead of travelling on yet more trains. London Transport had other plans for me. I get to King's Cross St. Pancras, and find that the Northern Line isn't going through Camden - signal failure. I take the Victoria Line to Euston and find this is still the case. I wait on the platform for a while, but this doesn't work. I grab some food at McDonalds (I must have been really hungry) and wait for a bus. A Critical Mass slow cycling protest goes past at one point. Like that has any effect on a city already at a standstill... Announcements at Goodge Street see more stations wiped off the map in WarGames fashion. Signalling failure is still cited as the cause, although everyone has noticed the increasing number of police vehicles gravitating to Euston and King's Cross.
Eventually a bus arrives heading for Archway. While I'm on the bus I overhear a phone conversation revealing that the tube is back in action. I get off the bus at Tufnell Park station and get the tube up to Finchley Central, where I note down the events so far and draw some cool tanks 'n stuff.
That doesn't sound much like a horrible transport experience, but it took a lot longer in real life, or at least felt like it.
The LAN tournament was cool. If things go to plan, next time I'm going to be there for the duration...