PC Gaming During Deployment

Gamers are everywhere, to include within the ranks of our military.  A vast majority of our military play video games.  They are fun, can be picked up and put down in quick bursts, help eat up time and most importantly, can bring us together.  Here is some advice I took when I was faced with an overseas deployment.  I had no clue what I would be going into and if I would have an internet connection or not so these steps are what I did to ensure that I was well-prepared for a long period of time without digital access to the outside world.  Here are some steps to keep you gaming during deployment.

Step 1: Acquire necessary hardware

If you don’t know me, I’m a hardcore PC gamer.  I went right for a gaming-capable laptop.  My budget was tight so I was only able to afford a laptop that wasn’t top of the line.  I picked up a Sony Vaio that had a Geforce G210M graphics card.  It was able to run all of the games at the time, although not at the greatest graphical quality.  The top choice at the time were the Asus G-Series laptops – a few of the guys I was overseas with had them and I’d highly recommend them.  Alienware is great but very overpriced – a few guys had them but honestly they paid way too much.  They could have purchased an Asus laptop and many many games with the money they spent on their Alienware.

On top of the laptop you’ll want a mouse – preferably a non-wireless mouse, so you don’t have to worry about finding batteries – they can be scarce.  Get a mousepad that you can fold, twist, bend and roll without damage – I went with a cheap old school neoprene foam mousepad with cloth top kind of like this one.

You’ll also want a portable hard drive that doesn’t need a power supply.  I picked up one of the Western Digital Passport series of ultra portable hard drives.  500 GB was plenty for me.  Western Digital currently offers a variety of portable hard drive solutions.    In fact, suggest to all of your buddies that they get a portable external hard drive so they can bring their external to you instead of you bringing your external to them when they want a piece of software or movie that you have – that way your external doesn’t go missing or get dropped.

Get yourself a simple headset with microphone boom.  I prefer the Logitech VOIP Headsets.  I’ve had two and I swear by them.  I prefer the USB headsets because it gives your computer two separate audio devices and there is a lot that I can do with that.

Last but definitely not least, you’ll want a portable surge protector that actually offers some surge protection.  Often times when overseas you’ll be running on poor quality electricity provided by barely operational diesel generators that like to spike and dip in voltage output.  I’d rather my $30 surge protector get fried than my laptop.  Fortunately, Belkin makes a portable surge protector that I found perfect for my uses.  The BST300bg will give you 3 protected power ports and 2 USB charging ports on a swivel mount that you can plug in anywhere.   If you don’t go with my suggestion, make sure it is an actual surge protector and not just a power strip – a lot of people don’t understand the difference between the two anymore.

Step 2: Prepare yourself

The best advice for this step I can give you is to think of everything.  Download every piece of software you might need.  I went with a slew of software selections and tested out a ton of software to make sure it was going to be what I’d need to get the job done.

Your laptop probably won’t be just for gaming.  You will more than likely watch TV shows and movies on it.  You’ll probably do some photo and maybe some video editing. Maybe you are or will enroll in online college. The sky is the limit and having a laptop well-prepared for a deployment will go a long way.

Here are some software titles that I found extremely useful while I was overseas:

  • MagicISO – ($29.99) – MagicISO is a powerful CD/DVD image file creating/editing/extracting tool. It can open / create / edit /extract CD/DVD image files, and it can convert bin to iso and back as well as make ISO files from DVD/CD-ROM or hard disk, and handle bootable information.
  • Fotosizer – (Free) – Fotosizer is a free batch photo/image resizer tool. It lets you resize hundreds of photos in a matter of minutes in a quick and easy way.
  • Renamer – (Free) – ReNamer is a very powerful and flexible file renaming tool, which offers all the standard renaming procedures, including prefixes, suffixes, replacements, case changes, as well as removing contents of brackets, adding number sequences, changing file extensions, etc. 
  • Daemon Tools Lite – (Free) – Most popular product that offers easy tools for making simple disc image files and emulating virtual CD/DVD drives.  NOTE:  When installing read carefully or this will install some adware on your computer!
  • PDF Architect – (Free) – The key feature that I found extremely useful was the ability to “print” to PDF.  I didn’t have a printer while I was overseas and this let me save everything that I needed to print to a PDF file that I could then burn to a disk and move to a computer that did have a printer or email to someone that had a printer.
  • D-LAN – (Free) – This wasn’t available when I was overseas but I wish it had been.  This sets up extremely easy and fast file sharing across a network.  I’ll explain why that is important later on.
  • VLC Player – (Free) – Hands down the most versatile media player out there.  A must have for anyone deployed.  Simply put:  you won’t have to deal with codecs because this one has them all.  It plays pretty much any movie you can find out there.

MagicISO and Daemon Tools Lite are both critical if you have a lot of game disks that you normally play off of.  Disk drives crap out quickly in dusty and hot environments and game disks tend to get borrowed out or “lost”.  Before I left to go overseas I created digital copies of all of my disks into a .ISO file.  MagicISO allows you to do that and Daemon Tools Lite allows you to “Mount” the digital image so your computer thinks it is in a disk drive.  You can probably see how this is a great way to play games.  Save all of your ISOs to that external hard drive that I suggested, this will make sharing easier if your buddy wants to play a game that you have.  Don’t forget to copy all of the CD-Keys and serial codes for your games – I just took a picture of them and saved each picture to the same folder I saved the disk images.

If you are a Steam user, make sure you download and install every game you own ahead of time, run them on steam and then set steam to Offline Mode.  Once in Offline mode try to run all of your games again.  If any fail to run, go online again, launch the trouble game, play for a bit, and then go back offline and try all of your games again.  Downloading them overseas, especially in Afghanistan can take weeks, if not months if you even have an internet connection.  When I say install everything, I mean it.  I played the entire Half-life series, the entire Quake series, Diablo 1 and 2 and then did all there was to do in Oblivion with three separate characters and then ended up making custom scenarios for ArmA 2: Operation Arrowhead.  I never thought I’d burn through those games in a year but I did in only six months.

Test everything before you go.  Then test it again.  You might be offline for a very long time.  You’d be amazed just how dependent on having an Internet connection some software can be.

Step 3: Get There Safely!

Getting there with all of this equipment might be more daunting than you know.  I found it best to carry it all with me as carry-on luggage.  Reason being:  military flights overseas are typically very hard on luggage.  Luggage gets loaded and unloaded more times than most people can count and is handled by the lowest ranking individuals that typically just want to be done with luggage detail as quickly as possible.  I bought a heavy-duty Pelican laptop case that let me remove the foam to create inserts for all of my equipment and it did the trick nicely.

Overseas-1Once I was established at my permanent place of duty, I made sure to set up a dedicated desk location for my gaming operations.  I used a large gear box as my desk (see the image to the left) to permanently seat my laptop.  I saw too many laptops break because people didn’t have a dedicated station for gaming – they’d play on their laps in bed and fall asleep while watching a movie to wake up to their laptop split in two from hitting the floor after they rolled over in their sleep.  The key thing is to keep your computer as safe as possible – keep drinks away from it (I was a huge violator of this rule).  Just keep in mind that if your laptop dies, you will be out of one for a very, very long time so be sure to take every precaution!


Advanced Stuff for Advanced Dudes

Perhaps you are an above average tech geek like myself.  I was fortunate enough to have some solid computer networking experience and skills when I deployed.  I used this to help out myself and everyone around me with some great results.  Good computer networking skills can really liven up morale during deployment.  Don’t let them go to waste!

Here’s my situation and what I was able to do to help out:

My unit was on a tiny base.  We had internet but it was through government-provided computers on a government-provided network.  We could not connect our personal computers to the network to get online and we were pretty much limited to using a several-years-outdated version of Internet Explorer on the government computers to access the Internet.  So the 34 of us pooled our cash and bought the equipment for and subscribed to a commercial satellite internet connection.  It wasn’t cheap but with 34 guys pooling money each month we covered it.  It ended up being about $30-40 a month depending on how many people paid for internet that month.  We set up the connection and shared it via a wireless router in our living quarters.  Since not everyone paid for internet each month we limited connection by MAC address.  We got a list of everyone’s computer MAC address and those that paid got access for the month, those that did not pay had their MAC removed from the router’s “allowed access” list.

This worked out extremely well for the duration of our deployment.  The speed wasn’t blazing fast but during non-peak hours it was fast enough to do a video chat with family back home and make VOIP phone calls for free and we had to organize a few things such as large file downloading – more on this later.

Like I said, the connection wasn’t very fast, but we were able to play a few games online – the games that don’t rely on latency to be low.  Guys were playing games like World of Warcraft and Eve Online.  I was even able to log into Planetside 1, but was somewhat limited in what I could do and I wasn’t able to play in large-scale battles because there wasn’t enough bandwidth to stream the game data.

It didn’t end there though.  Because we were all on a LAN it enabled a lot more options to be used from my skillset.  I set up my computer to share my collection of game disk digital images and my movie collection, allowing them to stream movies from my computer without bothering me.  Everyone gave me any movies that they had and I added them to the collection.  My movie collection grew to the point where I needed a 2,000 GB hard drive to contain the collection.  At any given time I had between 2 and 10 people watching movies out of my collection.  It really boosted morale for the guys to have such a huge collection of movies to choose from right from the comfort of their bed.  This is where I wish I had D-LAN.

D-LAN-1Install D-LAN on your laptop and tell it where the files on your computer that you want to share on the network are.  Do the same for all of your friends that are on the same network as you.  Preferably set the default download directory as a shared directory.  Done.  D-LAN will seek out other D-LAN clients on the network and you can search and browse for files.  It goes by hash too, so if you are downloading from Bobby and he turns off his computer, it will continue the download from any other D-LAN client that has the same exact file.

A few guys had brought their X-Box’s so we went one step further and put those on the network to enable linked gameplay.  We had 4 of the consoles on the network at one point which enabled 16 of our guys to play games together.  It was a great team-building activity and a lot of fun to run makeshift tournaments.  People were also playing games over the LAN on their laptops, too.  We had a few Quake 3 Arena tournaments.

If you plan on doing this, I suggest that you do some serious research into a protocol named QOS and do some solid searching for a router that has some good QOS options and performance.  Don’t skimp on the router because it will be your single-point-of-failure/degradation.  Good QOS will keep your more important internet traffic running smoothly so that idiot that decides he wants to download all of the warez on Limewire throughout the day doesn’t keep the husband from being able to call his children over his Google Voice account.

That brings me to another point – Google Voice – Get it and make sure all of the guys you are deploying with have it.  What is Google Voice?  To a service member overseas, it is free text messaging and voice calling in both directions from your own personal 10-digit American Phone number but from your computer.  Friends and family back home won’t know much of a difference – they’ll be able to text you and call you just as if you are back in the states.  The best part about it, as long as you are calling another 10-digit (+1) phone number, the call or text is 100% free.

Since you will be sharing a satellite connection with very limited bandwidth (I think ours was like a 1024 kbps up/down connection) with at least 30 other people you are going to all need to agree on when do to Internet heavy lifting.  That is large file downloads.  Unless you really tweak QOS just right, they WILL saturate your connection and bring simple things like web browsing to a standstill, infuriating all who attempt it.  I was designated the “go-to” guy for downloading.  Guys would come to me and ask for whatever it was that they wanted and I would queue it up in my “download manager” which ran on a schedule – I’d download when most people were sleeping and set it to a 75% bandwidth limit – ~768 kbps, which was 75% of the available bandwidth – that way if someone wanted to get on they could.  This worked much better than having 15 guys all trying to download large stuff at the same time throughout the day.  That and you’d never believe how many times the same file is requested on the same day – imagine how much bandwidth would have been wasted if 3 people all downloaded the same 4.3 GB file from the web!  That’s 8.6 GB that could have been used for something else!

And in closing, if you are selected as the network admin of your overseas network, regardless of rank, never be afraid to put your foot down.  If someone decides that they can do their own thing by downloading crap from some P2P network whenever they want and it starts to step on legitimate network traffic, knock them off the network by removing their MAC address from the access list.  They’ll come to you because their internet doesn’t work and ask you to fix it.  At this point, play the game, “check out their computer” and then tell them that it appears they have been disconnected by the router due to excessive and abusive downloading that was causing the internet to slow down to a crawl and then explain to them that they should go through whoever it is that is the designated downloader.  Just to be safe, set a QOS rule for their MAC Address that puts them as the lowest possible priority.

Have you been down range?  Do you have any tips for the soon-to-be-deployed gamer?

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