[We originally - and accidentally - ran this 'Game Anthropologist' column on Quake Live before the embargo was up. Now that the game is officially launched - and we have comments from John Carmack over at Gamasutra, with a bigger interview to follow, we're re-running Mike Walbridge's piece.]

“Man, it has been a long time since I played THIS game,” I wrote, hoping to break the ice.
“Welcome to 1999,” someone replied.
“The crazy thing is...some people never left,” another said.

We were all dead, waiting our turn; we're playing Quake Live's clan arena, a mode where the teams square off and each player's death merits no respawn until the next round. We call get maximum armor, health, and weapons, pounding each other into oblivion.

There's also duel, which pits players one on one while the rest wait in line to face the challenger. The list of spectators is a virtual list of quarters lined up on arcade machine. The atmosphere of the site, with its ladders and stats, is almost like a chess club. Quake Live is a bold and new move—it is absolutely free, and it is better than the Quake 3 I repaid twenty dollars for about five years ago.

The download did not take very long; while I waited for the full installation I was offered to do the tutorial level. A woman with a calm mellow voice introduced herself as Crash, whom I recognized from Quake 3.

She walked me through a small level and explained all the weapons and powerups. She was talking in the tone an elementary school teacher might take with a child who tries hard but is failing and needs extra attention and explanation.

“Okay, now let's practice!” Crash said. “You shoot me, I shoot you. Simple, right?”

The sense of competition may be at its peak; right now, Quake Live is in an invite-only stage of beta, and the people most interested are the old Quakeheads. The only advertising is for QuakeCon, which reminds me of the way a new TV network has a higher ratio of advertising for its own shows.

The advertisement has two Fatal1ty-ish guys in the corners (one looks just like him) with the date and location: August 13-16th in Dallas at the Hilton Anatole. Everyone is conscious of how well he is doing; every single kill and death is a permanent part of your stats and almost every stat ranks the thousands of players.

My highest rank is on the frag list: I'm 5,576 of 27,535. Thousands at the bottom didn't get a single kill after playing for some minutes, but that will be different by the time this is printed.

Another guy quips: dammit my wife is vacuuming everywhere, I'm so distracted
Me: Heh, I wonder how many Quake Live players are married
Asinine guy: that's a dumb question
Me: Why is that a dumb question?
Asinine guy: it just is

Later on, asinine guy starts talking about his penis and arguing with someone else. But no one else joins in. No one even says “guys, c'mon”, so I resist the temptation to. I wonder if all the silent players are married, like me and the guy with the vacuuming wife.

One guy's name I recognize: Id fake_id, a guy who is at the top of one of the ranked leaderboards. Rocket jumps are something I'm familiar with; I've heard of rocketing off the wall in a sideways manner, but here's a new one: using the plasma rifle to float off the wall, through the air. This guy can literally fly.

He drops. He switches to the long range rail gun, a sniper rifle of sorts. While falling, the wall ends, opening up a brief open space that gives him less than two seconds to aim through it; on the other end of the map is the last guy on the other team. The rail gun sounds lasery, old, retro, just like I remember it. That's the last of the other team. My team wins again. I got 3 points, but no frags that round.

I leave the first server, feeling out of my league there and tired of being ganged up on. I go to a duel server, and within five minutes it's me versus someone who is highly untalented. I beat him, 20-3.

Then the M1kenoid comes along. He's been throwing smiley faces and correct grammar all over the place. He build up a lead quickly, 17-2. He beats me to the megahealth by inches numerous times. At one point he gets out his gauntlet, a weak melee weapon. It takes 4-5 rockets to take him down. “Don't be insulting,” I tell him.

“I'm not,” he replies. Oh, he's just having fun, he says. Fun! I lose, 19-3. He leaves at the last moment, giving me a win and putting himself at the back of the line. Maybe he can sympathize with why I thought he was taunting me. The next guy who comes along is not as good as the last one, but he beats me; it's a boring, low-scoring match in the single digits. It ends due to the time running out. I get behind M1kenoid in line.

The line will be a bit for either of us. “What's the respawn time on the megahealth?” I ask sheepishly. “35 seconds,” M1kenoid replies. A few seconds pass. “25 for the weapons and armor.”

“Man, you are old school,” I tell him.

“Not really,” he replies. “I've only been playing since September. I've been practicing a lot though.”

I alt+tab. He's got a lot of games under his belt.

“I think I'm getting the hang of it,” he says.

The strangest thing about Quake Live and its features is the curious blend of how friendly it's attempting to be to people of various skill levels. Any time a server is moused over in the browser, it tells you how you would stack up against the people within the server, with ratings like “easy” and “very hard.” That, along with the tutorial, shows that the free price isn't the only thing Id is doing to make Quake accessible to the masses.

Still, the vast majority of playtime seems to be from serious players; a significant minority has played anywhere from five minutes to at least half an hour without scoring a frag. The precision of the stats and ranking system, along with the first ad, remind you of exactly how good at Quake you are.

The blending of free-to-play, casual-style gaming with a very old and competitive player base could result in driving away those that lack experience or skill in the game, but I get ahead of myself; free is free, gamers are cheap, and Quake's international success has yielded a lot of unfamiliar flags next to some player names. In the world of PC gaming, Quake is becoming the violent chess, an international pastime.