Today, QuakeCon is the largest LAN party in North America. Thousands of people pile into a hotel in Dallas to play games with friends, compete in tournaments and have a good time.
But when it started in 1996, QuakeCon was much smaller -- and not official. A small group of gamers who were fans of Id Software (which was based in Mesquite at the time) and enjoyed playing online as a group got some space at a hotel in Garland, took their computers there and spent time playing games together.
"It was really a humble beginning, and I'm not just saying that as a story," Tim Willits says, chuckling. Willits is the creative director at Id Software, and he's very proud of the fact that he's been to every QuakeCon over the past two decades.
"The first one had 32 guys, I think," he says. "We had the demo version of Quake. Clans started to form and buddies started to play together and it was so, so different. So a group of guys, not organized by us at all, decided they were going to get together at a hotel somewhere and call it QuakeCon. And they decided, 'Well, we'll have it near Id, do maybe the Id guys will visit.'"
They did. John Carmack, co-creator of Doom and co-founder of Id Software, gave what he liked to call his "first keynote" in the parking lot of that hotel. He would continue to give keynote addresses (which were often long and filled with technical jargon, which was perfect for the hardcore QuakeCon crowd) until he left Id in 2013.
And of course, that small group of original QuakeCon attendees played games -- enough to cause a headache for their hotel. "They got a little room, they brought their computers, they power drained the room and the hotel got mad at them" Willits remembers.
"But it was just a group of guys that just wanted to get together and see the people that they played with online, and that's almost exactly the way it is now, it's just way bigger."
QuakeCon hopped around quite a bit in those early years. It was held at a Holiday Inn in Plano in 1997, the Infomart in Dallas in 1998, the Mesquite Convention Center in 1999, and so on, with Id Software becoming more and more involved before finally taking on QuakeCon management themselves. Eventually they found a good, steady home in the Hilton Anatole, and Willits says both parties like it that way.
The location is good and there's a lot of space, but Willits says it's the fact that the hotel staff understands QuakeCon that makes the partnership ideal. "Because we're a bit of an alternative convention, you know?" he says. "We're not A-Kon, but you know. But this hotel gets us. They don't have any problem with us. It's one of their favorite conventions, they've told me that, because everyone is so well behaved. We don't have people causing trouble in hotel rooms, we don't have people breaking stuff and fighting. We just have guys like you and me that just hang out and play games and have a fun time. So they've been great to work with."
But the Anatole isn't the largest space around, either, and every year, QuakeCon's BYOC (the "Bring Your Own Computer" area that is the convention's biggest draw) is full of people. Would QuakeCon ever move?
"People always tell me, 'Hey, you guys can grow and get bigger and you could go to Las Vegas or be at the Dallas Convention Center. But this is a good size," Willits says. "We have areas that we can expand on, like tabletop gaming, which hopefully next year will be even bigger, but we kind of like this size. If it gets too big then it becomes a business more than just a fun convention."
Which isn't to say they have never thought about moving. Willits tells me that even before Id Software was acquired by ZeniMax Media, they had considered leaving Dallas for a bigger venue. But the employees at the company weren't fond of the idea.
"We actually looked at convention centers in Reno," Willits says. "We thought Reno would be great because it's so close to San Francisco, so we could pull those people in. So we pitched it to our senior staff and said, 'Hey, we're thinking about moving QuakeCon to Reno.' That did not go over well at all. The senior staff was like, 'Hell no, you are not moving to Reno.' So we were like, 'OK, we're in Dallas.' So we needed to find the biggest place in Dallas that we could work well with, which is why we're here [at the Anatole]."
The Doom 3 multiplayer year
When talking to Willits about QuakeCon, I asked for some of his favorite memories. The first thing he said was, "The Doom 3 multiplayer year was crazy."
"Robert Duffy and I and a couple of the programmers were trying to get the Doom 3 multiplayer build to work, and we literally started on Monday, and it was just not going to work. We had Intel and AMD machines mixed together, and back then that was a problem. We had some video card issues, Nvidia [was] shipping cards to us overnight. And we finally got everything working. Literally 45 minutes before the exhibit hall opened, we finally fixed it.
"So we went up to our rooms and we had about an hour of sleep. Then we had to get up and do QuakeCon. It was a mess. I think now I'm too old to do that."
"We used to do the shaved head stuff, which was fun. We would, with a shaver, shave Quake symbols into people's hair and give them prizes. That was fun. We should bring that back some year."
Beating the fans by controlling the rules
"A few years back we did the Nvidia/id Software challenge. So in Quake III, the very last level, the space map, at Id we played 2v2 CTF [Capture the Flag], which no one in the whole world plays 2v2 on the space map. It's really tiny and the map has this strategy to it that really takes a lot of practice to get down.
"So we'd play it at work a ton, and that year we had a deal with Nvidia that we would challenge anyone to a 2 vs. 2 match on that map. People would joke and say, 'We don't like that map!' and our response was, 'Well, it's our convention and we want to play on this map.'
"And we thought that we would actually get beaten, because these guys here are so much better than we are. But no one ever beat us. And we were supposed to give video cards away when someone beat us, so eventually we just had to put names in a hat and just draw names and give them away."
"Crazy rules on a map nobody plays. That's how you beat your fans."
The most dedicated volunteers in the business
"We have some volunteers that are professionals in the industry. You know, IT experts.
"So these experts take their own vacation time, they take time away from their busy lives and come here, and the reason it's run so well is because these guys are pros. One of our network guys is head of IT for a major health insurance firm in the US.
"We usually use the Cisco rack-mounted servers, and the blades were about $50 thousand retail apiece. And they would ship them to us, we would use them for the convention and we would ship them back.
"One of the blades came and it was busted. All beat up. And the guys at the NOC [Network Operation Center] were like, 'We are screwed.' And one of the volunteers went to his company, which was a Fortune 500 company here in Dallas, pulled out the same blade, brought it to QuakeCon, stuck it in our NOC, configured it, we ran QuakeCon, he took it out Sunday, brought it back to work and by Monday no one ever knew. That's dedication."
I asked Willits where he sees QuakeCon five years from now. Because their owner, ZeniMax, is a publisher, QuakeCon can never be an all-purpose gaming convention like PAX, which hosts games from a wide variety of publishers and developers, including a lot of ZeniMax competition. But Willits is OK with that, because he doesn't want QuakeCon to become a "business." In his mind, it should always be a gathering of like-minded fans that want to play games together.
"So we need to expand in areas that would be attractive to our QuakeCon fans but also fit into our wheelhouse," he said. "So like the tabletop gaming. There's a huge crossover with the BYOC folks and tabletop gaming. And that's why this year it's bigger than last year. So there's an area we can grow.
"Panels and education is [another] area where we can grow. We've talked about things like Maya classes and 3D Max classes and animation classes and things like that. Those things would be great."
Willits mentioned other things (like having guest speakers or authors come to the convention), but he stresses that the core of QuakeCon is the BYOC and the tournaments. So they need to be smart about how they grow. "We want to keep that grassroots feel," he says. "It's more of a convention of people and gaming."
You can find more oldschool QuakeCon photos on their official Flickr account.