Back in the day, owning an Alienware PC was the sign of having way too much money. Only the richest parents could afford one. They weren't gaming machines: they were status symbols for nerds.
Back in 2005, I used to own an Alienware Aurora PC. But it wasn't paid for - it was a prize from a competition run through EA's Australian website. And almost 12 years after the fact, I feel comfortable in openly admitting that I won that PC with less than reputable methods.
The Alienware PCs were part of a giveaway that EA ran to drive people to a relaunch of the site in early 2005. It was called EA Play, which people might recognise now as the name for influencer-driven, ticketed mini-convention that EA runs before E3 these days.
But back in 2005, it was really just a big hub for fans of EA games. There was a section for demos and patches for Most Wanted, Battlefield and Lord of the Rings; there was a section for press releases and announcements for various games. The site was updated with localised release dates and prices for EA's games, and there was even a section for licensed music that EA used in some of their games.
Most importantly, there was a hub for promotions. It all kicked off with a $35,000 spree that run from March to April, giving away Alienware PCs, games, Logitech speakers, joysticks, even pizzas at one point.
The big daddy: an Alienware sweepstakes, with 30 separate Alienware Aurora 7500 PCs to be won.
Like many early internet-era draws and competitions, the draw mechanic was simple. Once you'd registered an account on the EAPlay website, you were given a referral code. Hardly the most secure entry mechanic on the internet - can you imagine trying that these days? - but people were more comfortably clicking random URLs than they were entering their credit card details back then.
For every five users that clicked on that referral code, users got an additional entry in the draw. The winners were drawn at random, although given that people had the capacity to influence how many entries they had, it was really a cross between a popularity contest and pot luck.
Being familiar with the Quake scene and a competitive Counter-Strike 1.6 player at the time, I did what anyone would have done as a first resort: started spamming links on IRC.
Unsurprisingly, it didn't work that well. After a few days of respectfully dropping URLs into some of the larger competitive Australian channels, like #pantheones (or maybe it was #pes by that stage) and some private groups, the referral count totalled a miserable 50.
In hindsight, 50 isn't actually a bad number - that's 10 entries in a draw to win one of 30 gargantuan PCs! But figuring that other people would be trying their hardest to maximise their chances, I came up with a second plan.
URL shorteners are a dime a dozen these days. The functionality is often built into a lot of apps and social media services now. But they were just getting off the ground in 2005, and coupled with the lesser scepticism around clicking on links, that opened the door for an opportunity.
But it wouldn't be enough to just shorten a URL and throw it at people, I reasoned. People would ask why this random URL was appearing and why they should click on it. I had to give them a reason.
And that answer? Ego.
Gotfrag is dead these days, but a decade ago it was the hub for competitive Counter-Strike chatter. There were other websites based in Europe, but Australians had the most in common with Americans, so Gotfrag was our second home.
And as you'd expect, the forums were filled with a lot of egos. So I used that to my advantage by pulling out an old screenshot, one of my best performances to date. It was back in the day when counter-terrorists still got +3 frags for defusing the bomb, so the score was unnecessarily inflated. Nonetheless, 49-7 is a pretty good score for a single half of Counter-Strike.
I took the URL for that screenshot, and used a link shortener. I then took the URL for my referral link, and shortened that as well. Once I had those two links, I created a new thread on Gotfrag and created a post, titled "Your Best Score Ever". (I tried finding the original post, but forum searches don't work and you can only dive so deep through the Web Archive.)
From there, the thread was pretty simple: a quick line about the best score I'd ever gotten in a half, followed by the first shortened URL (to the screenshot), and then the second (to the referral link). "What's your best scores in a half," the post continued, or some version thereof.
It was pretty straightforward: show off your stuff, or more importantly, come to the comments and shit on how I'm actually really bad and why I'm *really* bad. And as you would expect a bunch arrogant CS players to do, they did.
In about a day, the amount of referrals had soared from just over 50 to around 1000. I went from having 10 entries in the draw to a veritable shitload. I didn't actually have any idea in mind of how far things would go, partially because when you're just posting on a website you never quite know exactly how large it is.
That became a problem, because not long after EA announced on their forums that they were cracking down on fraudulent applications. Others had been using bots or other methods to spam their referral links to levels EA were uncomfortable with (although no numbers were given). Anything beyond 1000 would be flying too close to the sun, so I went back to my dodgy thread, admitted to my crimes, and waited for my punishment (a ban).
It took around 24 hours before Gotfrag admins acted, by which time people were still arguing about their own scores. Some extra referrals came in, but the cord was cut soon enough, my account on Gotfrag was banned, and my referrals stayed well away from the banhammer.
A few months passed, as I patiently waited for EA to draw the winners on their site. I don't remember receiving an email, but I remember seeing a post with my name it on the EA Forums - I was getting a brand new PC. There was no word of when, only that I'd have to sit patiently.
The plan had paid off.
A few days after Christmas, we heard a truck coming out the back. You could hear it from a mile away - it was still a dirt road then (even in 2005!) and it was comfortably the largest anything that had gone down that little road in months.
Thanks to the delivery driver, we plopped the gargantuan Alienware box on the kitchen table. It was unexpected; my mum had a family friend over, and they were catching up over a cup of tea. We unpacked the box, and placed the Aurora 7500 case on a towel.
"What it is," the family friend asked. I told her it was a PC, and I'd won it through a competition. She asked me how, and I told her the full story above.
I still don't know whether she believed me or not. But it didn't matter - that Christmas, at least, I felt like a champion.