Wednesday, December 14, 2011

LAN-party house: The Back-story

My post about my house has gone viral and generated quite a bit of interest. I'll need to write quite a few posts just to answer all the questions people have.

I will get into technical details soon, but I want to start out with a little back-story.

History of LAN Parties

I hosted my first LAN party at my parents' house on my 14th birthday, in 1996. We played Doom 2. We had previously played it in two-player mode using two computers connected by a serial cable, but this was the first time we actually had a network set up allowing an amazing four players at once. We had three 486's and one Pentium machine. The worst machine of the bunch literally displayed two or three frame per second, while the Pentium ran silky-smooth allowing that player to run circles around everyone else.

It was so fun that we literally stayed up all night long playing.

At the time, LAN Parties weren't yet a thing -- we didn't even know that they were called that. But as multiplayer PC gaming improved, they started popping up all over the place, independently. I know of no particular guide or standard governing how a LAN party should work, yet everyone seems to agree that they should last at least 12 hours, often 24 or more. They're just that fun.

I had hosted or attended perhaps 50-100 LAN parties before building my house. They were all private affairs, usually involving 8-16 friends gathering at someone's house or apartment. There are professionally-organized LAN parties with hundreds of attendees, but I never really liked them. For me, it's not just about playing games, but playing games with your friends, being able to yell at them across the room, and talking face-to-face about how crazy that last game was. Sometimes it's even about gathering around one guy's screen while he plays a funny video on Youtube. Gaming is a medium -- and a very fun medium that never gets old -- but not the end goal. So for me, it's all about the private LAN party with a small group of friends.

Wanting a House

When I moved out to California to start work at Google, I was stuck in a small apartment with absurd rent. For the first time in my life, I didn't have a space where I could host LAN parties. I had friends who hosted them in their somewhat-larger apartments, but I missed running them myself.

Meanwhile, aside from that absurd rent, I basically spent money on nothing. I didn't know what I was saving for at first, but I just didn't feel any particular need to spend. I had food and enough video games to occupy my time... what more did I want? Slowly but steadily, the money started piling up.

A year or two later, my dad designed and built a new house for himself. It's then that I started getting ideas. Maybe he would design one for me? If so, I could do anything I wanted with it. I could customize it for any purpose, not limited by what "normal" people want in a house. Obviously, as a software engineer, I wanted something that I could wire up with lots of home automation. But even that is fairly normal these days.

What really interested me was how I could optimize my house for LAN parties. There would need to be two rooms, one for each team. There would need to be convenient places for the players to sit. Tables take a lot of space and separate people from each other -- what if they could sit around the walls instead? Indeed, what if the game stations were built into the walls? They could fold up when not in use, with the monitor raising to eye-level where it could display art or something.

At this point, I knew what those savings were for.

Finding the Space

Housing in this area is ridiculously expensive, though, and even after four or five years I had trouble finding anything I could afford. There are no empty lots here, so I'd have to tear something down, and even a run-down house in a bad neighborhood costs $450k in this area. I didn't even bother looking in Palo Alto -- it was way out of my range. That is, until something really lucky happened. A commercial establishment bordering an older residential area of town had some extra land that they weren't using. In 2009, at the low point of the recession, they put this sliver of land up for sale. I was lucky enough to look at exactly the time they did this, and with the help of a loan I was able to pick it up for a price I could actually afford.

This was actually happening! The lot was small but with good design my dad could make it seem big. While he worked on a design, I fleshed out more of the technical details.

Completing the Design

Originally I thought that guests would bring their own computers and attach them to my stations. But as I thought more, I realized that there was a huge opportunity here. While packing up your machine and dragging it to the party is part of the fun, it is also a source of problems. Half the guests show up without the right games installed, and have to spend a long time copying (often, pirating) them before they can play. Often someone's computer doesn't work with certain games. Maybe it's too old, or they have a configuration conflict. Either that person gets left out, making everyone else feel bad, or people have to play some other game instead, starting the whole process over. Often, that person spends hours of time trying to fix their computer instead of playing games.

But what if all the machines were already there, with identical hardware, already configured and tested and ready to go? Most people wouldn't consider that an option, due to the obvious expense. But I was building a house; the cost of a bunch of computers was small in comparison. So I arranged for the house to contain a back room where all these machines could live, with cable tubes passing through the foundation to all of the individual game stations. I told my dad that this room was to be labeled the "World Domination Room" in any plans, and so it was. I wasn't sure if I'd have the money to put the computers in right away, but I wanted to be ready for it.

As it turns out, when all was said and done, I just barely had enough money to install all the machines immediately after the house was completed, while narrowly avoiding the need for a "jumbo" mortgage (which I probably couldn't afford). I had saved maybe 50% of my salary over six years, and had only a few thousand dollars left over in the end. It took two years from the time I purchased the lot to the time the house was completed, with weekly and often daily effort needed on my part. But to me, it was worth it.

Doing Something Crazy

I hope my project inspires others, not to do exactly what I did, but to do something crazy of their own.

Judging from the reaction to my house, one might wonder why you don't see lots of people doing this. Most people seem to conclude that it's something only the ultra-rich could do. But even if that were the case (it's not), then why haven't other ultra-rich people done it? As far as I can tell, no one has done anything like this.

The answer surely comes down to the fact that what I did is just plain crazy. I saved half my salary for five years and put in a massive amount of my own time and effort towards building this house, all just to host monthly parties that aren't all that much different from the one the kid down the street is holding in his parents' basement. Who does that? Was that really worth it?

I think it was, not just because I can now hold LAN parties with slightly less friction than most, but because I can point at this utterly absurd, crazy thing that I did and say "I did that, and it worked, and people think it's awesome."

I obviously spent a lot of money on my "awesome" thing, but there are plenty of awesome things you can do without money. The only real requirement for something to end up awesome is for it to start out crazy. Because if it doesn't start out crazy, then that means everyone else is already doing it.

So if you have a crazy idea that you like, pursue it. Ignore people who say it's a waste of time or money. Those people are probably wasting their time watching TV and wasting their money on jewelry -- you know, "normal" things. Or maybe they're saving to buy a big house with an enormous lawn that is exactly the same as all the others around it. And as they mow that lawn over and over again, they'll think "Look at me, I have a big lawn, I'm so great", but no one will care. No one will ever post pictures of their house all over the internet. I'd rather waste my time and money on a crazy idea that didn't work than end up being generic.


  1. *applause*

    Maybe my idea about building myself a custom desk with built in fans isn't so crazy...

  2. I'd love to learn more on how you setup the netboot with master/replica. Any chance you could point me in the right direction?

  3. @Taterade: Do it!

    @Sean: Yes, I'll be getting to that soon. I have a lot of blog posts to write. :)

  4. Damn'it because of you I started looking for some land to buy :D

  5. I have been wanting to set something up like this all my life. 22 now and working on buying my first home in 2012 and would love to know how you setup the network (looking forward to that). Also the idea of having the PC stations fold up is awesome. Could you go into some detail on how it was built? I see the monitors are on rails and the bottom flares open to hold the table top? Where do the accessories go? Beautiful house by the way.

  6. Can you post the blueprints for the house? that would be awesome!

  7. Dude, what if the chairs rose from the floor like how the computers fold out? That would be so money lol...

    Tell me you didn't at least think about it..

  8. Hey, I am purely interested in the whole building process. I am in school for architecture so I was wondering if you had any pictures during the building phase and what not. Thanks man! Love the house.

  9. I'll see if I can include the floor plan in a future post.

  10. Hi there, have you considered hosting a Home Story Cup style lan event?

  11. I never respond to blogs, but I must this time. Your house is an inspiration to all geeks with "crazy ideas". The way you saved and drove this "vision" to completion shows not only determination, but passion and from my vantage, Google did well by hiring you.

    Keep it up, my friend.

  12. Kenton! Simply Amazing! Having recently built myself a Windows Server for file sharing & backups within my home network my bro asked if I wanted to go grander and build a rack mounted server stack from some parts he can get hold of. His dream is to build what sounds to me like a cloud or remote gaming server for a similar thing! Your project is inspiring dude!

  13. :D!!!
    Im very impressed Kenton. I am definitely going to try something like this when i grad and be employed. Unfortunately, I dont have a master architect as a father (he did an amazing job in such small space!), so if I were to do something crazy like this (which I have though about), I might have to hire your father. LOL.

  14. My parent custom-built a massive table to support our gaming needs. This includes normal stuff like Catan, but also our annual tradition on my birthday of having a mega-game of Avalon Hill's Civilization, using the rules which adapt it for a massive number of players (24 max, IIRC).

    I went to Kinko's, printed an 8-foot long board (essentially a vinyl banner) in full color (~$400) and built a full set of pieces for all the possible players.

    Every year on my birthday, we gather at my parents house and completely nerd out all day long.

  15. Well done, Kenton! You have burnished the reputation of Google and Google employees everywhere! I hope you will get the the COW Win7 driver working soon, since I'd like to experiment with that myself using an Ubuntu iSCSI master file server.

    You have my Respect.

    John McCluskey

  16. You sir, are a demigod!

    I've read that true wealth means having enough money to do the things you want, and actually doing them.