February 18, 2005

NewsForge writer rises to LinuxWorld gaming challenge

Author: Jem Matzan

It began with an email invitation to play in the Celebrity Challenge with an open source community leader and AMD and Sun Microsystems executives on Tuesday morning at the LinuxWorld Convention and Exposition in Boston. The game was not unfamiliar to me: Unreal Tournament 2004, which was released last spring and works wonderfully on GNU/Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. Although I missed my home setup -- the 64-bit edition of UT2004 running over 64-bit Gentoo on my Athlon 64 system -- all the players were on a level playing field, as we were all equally disadvantaged. But the stakes were high and dozens of people were watching us prove that GNU/Linux is not just for servers and workstations.

The other Celebrity Challenge guests were John Weathersby of the Open Source Software Institute; Graham Lovell, senior director of x64 servers in the network systems group at Sun; Ben Williams, vice president of commercial server and workstation business at AMD; and Margaret Lewis, enterprise software strategist at AMD. We played a couple of practice rounds, then played for real. The other participants had little experience with first-person shooter (FPS) games, and most of them had never played any of the Unreal or Unreal Tournament games before. I won all of the matches. It wasn't entirely fair, as I've had quite a bit of experience at UT2004.

Later that day I played in a preliminary elimination round and a semifinal round, from which one other player and I would go on to the final match on Thursday, the last day of LWCE. I took first place in the semifinal, and the second place winner was Tim Brown, who had been there for his company -- Tim Horton's -- but returned on Thursday for the sole purpose of playing in the final round of the tournament.

The stigma of gaming

After my semifinal win, two of the contestants were commenting to each other that the people who win these kinds of tournaments "probably don't have jobs" and insinuated that people who are good at computer games can't have any sort of social or productive work life. Playing computer games -- and doing well at them -- is often looked down upon by others. Especially if they lose.

The hardware

The six game stations and the one game server were all running Java Desktop System 2 on Sun Java Workstation W2100z computers. Each had dual Opteron 252 processors, 4GB PC3200 RAM, a 73GB SCSI-320 hard drive, and an 8X AGP video card based on the Nvidia GeForce Quadro FX3000. These machines are aimed at Sun's traditional workstation customer base: high-end desktop graphics rendering for oil and gas companies, scientific and medical visualization, and CAD/CAM. While the system is not a new design, Sun recently lowered their prices and upgraded the their processors to make their price/performance ratio more attractive.

Sun told me it is working on equipping this system with PCI Express instead of AGP. PCI Express would allow a much higher degree of upgradability while increasing available video bandwidth.

The tournament's operating system platform was 32-bit, which was a bit of a disappointment because both the hardware and the game can run in 64-bit mode -- that's how I run it at home. There is a difference in frame rate in favor of 64-bit, but it's not very obvious. The best way to improve game quality is not by adding more and faster processors or more RAM, but by increasing the rendering capabilities of the video card.

While the hardware handled everything well enough, I noticed that the detail levels in the game were left at their defaults. To really test the system's capabilities, the game organizers might have turned the levels up to their maximums.

The final match

I called my girlfriend on Wednesday night and told her that I had made it to the finals undefeated, and that my last match was the next day. She was somewhat intrigued that I'd gone on a business trip and ended up playing in a game tournament. "And you're going to win, aren't you?" she chided.

I woke up late on Thursday (never trust a hotel alarm clock) and hurried to catch the start of the last day of LWCE. I managed to get some work done before game time. The other players in the finals were Ryan Bates, a sysadmin with O'Reilly; Joshua Nichols, a student at RPI; Tim Brown, who was there just for the glory of playing in the UT2004 finals; William Sanchez, a regular conference attendee; and Timothy Pomeroy, an IBM employee.

Surprisingly, only Ryan was a regular UT2004 player. The others were familiar with FPS games, but had not played UT2004 much or at all before the LWCE event. Of all of the participants, only William and myself were GNU/Linux gamers -- the others didn't play games all that much, or played only on Windows.

I was assigned the fourth game station, and this time we were allowed to put in our own names instead of the generic "Gladiator #" player IDs.

The map was Deck 17, which I had only a passing familiarity with. I'd played that map before, but I wasn't as much of an expert on it as I was the other two maps that we'd played on for the first rounds. I took the opportunity to explore the map a little while in flyby mode before the match, trying to remember where the most effective close-combat weapons were.

The practice match was close. For a while it was too close to call, with all of us slowly amassing a handful of kills. Then, somewhere around my tenth frag, I got into the game and racked up several double and multi kills. Ryan was close behind me in terms of numbers. The rest of the match was a battle between us, but I ended up winning the practice round.

Confident that I had a chance at winning the whole shooting match, I went into the final round with cold, sweaty hands and a smile on my face. Looking around at the other players, I didn't see anyone else smiling -- this was serious business, after all.

The final round started out much the way that the practice round did, except I didn't pull ahead at first. Ryan and William both kept a 1-2 frag lead over me for several minutes before Ryan buried William. I caught up, tied the game, then took a narrow lead before a short string of unlucky respawns got me three deaths in a row with no kills. With little more than a minute left in play, I found a flak cannon and a rocket launcher just lying around, and used them to frag my way into a 10-kill rampage, finally pulling far enough ahead that all I had to do was take it easy for the last 30 seconds. Of course, it would help if I could stop Ryan from getting more kills. And as if delivered by my request, he happened to drop in right in front of me while chasing after another player. I wasted him with the sniper rifle and got a few more rocket kills in the last seconds of the game to come out on top, with a score of 29 to Ryan's 21.

Truly a glorious victory, especially considering my comeback in the
last portion of the match. Unfortunately my emotional high was diminished by the
fact that my boss forbade me from accepting the grand prize -- one of the gaming stations. But I got
my photo taken with various execs from AMD
and Sun Microsystems. I shook a lot of hands and thanked some spectators
for their support, and went straight back to work -- writing this article.

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