Community service: The story of Chicago's Indie City Arcade cabinet

How a pair of public game projects and a loose local indie scene came together to create a free-to-play arcade cabinet full of drinking-themed games
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"Serious business mode. Things are majorly broken."

It's the evening of Saturday, February 23, 2013. In two days, the collective of Chicago game developers behind the Indie City Arcade project will install a custom, free-to-play cabinet in the city's premier arcade bar. One day after that, the cabinet will officially launch with a party that at least 200 people have expressed some level of intention in attending, if the Facebook event page is any indication.

Right now, though, something is amiss. The above message from Rob Lach kicks off a foreboding new thread titled "Shit's Fucked" in the project's Google Group.

Lach, posting from the account of compatriot Benn Marion, explains how the malfunctioning I-PAC controller that keeps the buttons in check is now fully busted, with a series of faulty circuits and irregular LED flashes signaling an ominous roadblock to the planned launch. The board supplier is based in the U.K. and there's no time to order a new one. Contingency plans are floated. "Will have to make decisions soon," the post reads.

Furthermore, Lach — who spearheaded the technical development of the cabinet over the past several months — believes he has contracted influenza and hasn't been sleeping. "I will probably need to get at least 2-3 hours of rest as to not push this into literally deadly territory," he concedes, flatly adding, "Drama, right."

Yet on the night of the event, dozens of local game enthusiasts, fellow developers and other curious parties file into the Emporium Arcade Bar amidst a late winter snowstorm, unaware of the myriad breakdowns that filled the prior hours. The 13 original games within the cabinet — created during a month-long, drinking-themed jam — enrapture players with competitive play and disparate aesthetics, igniting uproarious laughter amidst a constant crowd around the screen. And the cabinet itself, upright and radiant with a glossy Chicago flag pattern painted on the sides, outshines the faded retro favorites it rubs shoulders with.

What began in 2010 as an idea between friends snowballed into an effort to bring awareness to the burgeoning local indie scene. However, in becoming a wide-ranging collaborative project — with dozens of people ultimately chipping in time, tech, cash or know-how — Indie City Arcade not only spotlighted the community, but also helped create it.

The initial pitch

If memory serves John Murphy, currently part of the Young Horses team at work on Octodad: Dadliest Catch, the idea for the Indie City Arcade first emerged in November 2010. Along with Jake Elliott, co-creator of Kentucky Route Zero, and local designer Ben Cabot, the trio envisioned a custom arcade cabinet housing original games, created in the mold of the Torontron and Winnitron units.

While those efforts spawned from what the group perceived as more established indie development communities, Chicago was (and is) still very much a work in progress. "The Indie City Games group is about really trying to coalesce a group of indie game developers in Chicago, and that's still an ongoing project," says Elliott.

Indie City Games is a collective formed in May 2010 by game designer Erin Robinson, freelance writer Jenn Frank and Scott Roberts, an associate professor at DePaul University. While Robinson and Frank have since left the city, the public meetings still continue on today at DePaul, where local developers offer tools, discussions and postmortems on their games.

6

What Elliott saw as an intriguing twist on the indie cabinet theme was the idea to have the machine move from location to location within the city, each time highlighting a new set of games built within some common theme. As such, it might generate a following or tradition, even, all while courting unaware citizens.

"That's why this cabinet functions a little bit differently, and why we have this idea of it being a platform that moves around different spaces in Chicago," Elliott says. "It has kind of a community outreach focus, rather than showcasing existing games."

The idea was proposed to the wider Indie City group after the new year, and by the end of January, two additional members came on: Devon Scott-Tunkin, also of Young Horses, and Andy Saia, who currently works on slot machines for WMS Gaming. It was Saia who suggested contacting Star Worlds, an arcade located in DeKalb that has sucked quarters from students at nearby Northern Illinois University since 2004. "They were like, 'Yeah, we've got a cabinet, we'll give it to you,'" says Saia.

Group members rented a van and drove the 60-odd miles west from Chicago to Star Worlds, and just like that, they had a cabinet — but it was cumbersome and extremely heavy, plus it lacked wheels. Saia's apartment door had to be removed from the hinges just to store the unit. As an older, traditional arcade cabinet, it required a lot of retrofitting to accommodate the PC-centric design they had in mind, and development progressed slowly. Members came and went, with the project's crew becoming "large and amorphous," says Elliott.

In September 2011, the team connected with Boiler Room, a sit-down pizza place in the Logan Square neighborhood that hosts Pabst Blue Ribbon-themed bingo and has restrooms inspired by local subway cars. Elliott says Boiler Room was excited about the plan, and ideas for pizza-themed games started filling the members' minds — but the eatery simply couldn't accommodate what he calls a "comically huge" cabinet.

Later in the year, members continued to meet almost weekly for the project, but primarily settled into a routine of downing beers and playing NBA Jam on the cabinet. "'Best laid schemes vs. NBA Jam' is an old story, because it speaks to the human condition," Elliott says.


Two become one

Rob Lach, meanwhile, had his own plans for introducing Chicagoans to unique video games. After working briefly for EA Tiburon in Florida in 2008, he opted to strike out as an independent developer and eventually returned home to Chicago. Last year, he released POP, an experimental PC and Mac game that earned an honorable mention for the Nuovo Award at the Independent Games Festival.

What Lach hoped to do was install custom arcade cabinets at Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train stops, each filled with local and international indie games — and his plan was getting somewhere. He worked with the Illinois Art Council to make inroads with governmental organizations, and in addition to the CTA, also had positive interactions with the Department of Transportation and Department of Streets and Sanitation; however, neither offered locations with the kind of ideal foot traffic as train stations.

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Paul Kermizian

In December 2011, after attending an Indie City Arcade meeting, Lach reached out to the Indie City group to detail his project, seek opinions and potentially share ideas about process and game launchers — but decided to continue on his project separately. Through the City of Chicago's director of cultural planning, Julie Burros, he was able to arrange a detailed sit-down meeting with the CTA, where they discussed vandalism concerns and rollout plans.

By the spring of last year, "it seemed pretty turnkey," Lach says — but shortly after setting the final approvals meeting, he received a call telling him the CTA was no longer up for it. "I don't know exactly how and when it fell apart, but I assume it just reached someone who had the final say, and it was shot down," Lach says.

Lach has not ruled out the idea of pursuing it again in the future, but at the time opted to turn his attentions towards Indie City's slow-moving project. "As the CTA project sort of collapsed, I just started working more on this one," he explains, "because it's a great thing for the city, and I became more attached to the group."

Despite his plan's demise, the timing was fortunate. While the Indie City group had a cabinet, it was difficult to work with, and the plans to install it in the pizzeria had faded. But in February 2012, member Benedict Fritz caught word of a MAME cabinet listed on Craigslist for $100, and when they inquired, the seller ended up being an old friend who had participated in game jams with others in the group.

Now the team had a better cabinet, fresh talent and some added drive to finally follow through with their plans. It would still be a few months before they pinned down some of the most essential details, but despite members being distracted with their own game projects and/or day jobs, the project kept simmering in the background. "It seems that whenever anyone loses interest or is just burnt out from it, someone else will get excited and get everyone else on board," says Saia.

Emporium epiphany

From its earliest days, the group wanted the cabinet to host titles spawned from a game jam, based on a theme inspired by its intended location, but they hadn't made inroads on securing a spot after the Boiler Room idea fell through.

Enter Emporium Arcade Bar, which opened in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago in June 2012. Danny Marks, who owns the bar with his brother Doug, formerly managed Brooklyn's popular Barcade, and Emporium follows that well-oiled model almost identically, serving up about three dozen classic arcade coin-ops plus numerous beers on tap. "It was great that Emporium opened, because it was someone else that cared about arcade cabinets and understood our project," says Marion, who handled painting responsibilities for the cabinet.

Jake Elliott first reached out to the establishment in August, and had a fruitful in-person meeting with Danny Marks in October. "I thought it sounded pretty cool and right up our alley," says Marks. He encouraged the group to consider the durability of the cabinet, due to the prospect of drunk and unruly patrons, but otherwise told them to do their thing and loop back when it was nearly ready. "I have nothing to lose by saying, 'Cool, keep me posted as to how it works out,'" he says.

3

Shortly before pinning down a plan with Emporium, the group also received an unexpected infusion of cash from Dave Lang, the CEO of Wreckateer developer Iron Galaxy Studios. Lang contributed $400 towards fixing up and finishing the cabinet, saying that he wanted to help but couldn't get really involved on a day-to-day level. Adds Saia, "We really had a ton of help from the entire Chicago community," noting donations of time, money and computer parts from various parties.

With the bar locale secured, the theme became obvious: drinking-inspired games. And thus the Six Pack Game Jam was born. Recent Chicago transplant Greg Wohlwend, co-creator of Hundreds and Gasketball, volunteered to design the branding for the event, which spanned a month from December 6, 2012 to January 6, 2013. And it welcomed developers from anywhere, not just the city or even state, despite the cabinet's Chicago focus.

"I feel like the scene is very open and all-encompassing, and trying to bring people together," says Lach, "so why even put that restriction out there?" Phil Tibitoski, also of Young Horses, sees limiting the jam to Chicago developers as an unneeded barrier with the cabinet being a platform for experimentation. "Other groups are very curated, at least from what I've seen," Tibitoski says. "I think we're more about letting people go wild with whatever ideas and games they have."

Jam session

It's January 6, the final day of the Six Pack Game Jam, and we're watching digital yeast flit across the TV in Andy Saia's apartment.

A few of the participating developers have converged for an impromptu meet-up to crunch on their games before submission, and everyone's taking turns showing off their work. Fermentatron, from Kyle Bailey (Phosphor Games) and David Mann (WMS Gaming), puts players in the role of yeast aiming to pick up sugar while avoiding bacteria. "The whole idea is that you're trying to not die while increasing the [alcohol by volume] of this liquid," says Bailey.

Having started to homebrew beer a year prior, Bailey decided to try and translate that activity into a simple game for the jam. He says the month-long nature of the jam made it much more appealing than the usual cram session approach of most. "The way I always saw it was: Give up your weekend to make something that might not be awesome," he says. "And for me, I'm literally at work all the time doing this. I don't know if I necessarily wanted to do that."

4

Next is Super Blackout from Whitaker Trebella, creator of iOS puzzler Polymer and composer for several other mobile titles. Lightly inspired by classic arcade hockey game Hat Trick, it's a competitive two-player game where pixel people procure beers, drink them and try not to soil their pants in the process. However, the other player can swat the drink out of your hand. "I wanted to make a game like [Hat Trick] where it was really simple, but you ended up yelling at the other person or at the arcade cabinet," says Trebella.

Ryan Wiemeyer, designer for Organ Trail developer The Men Who Wear Many Hats, fires up his game last — and it's a head-turner. Max Gentleman Presents: A Gentleman's Drinking Game looks like a ready-to-publish mobile or tablet game, with distinctive art design and polished animations. The sight of well-dressed, mustachioed men "jumping" their stacks of hats to avoid thrown drinks in the air has the amassed developers playfully second-guessing their own jam contributions.

"This is embarrassing," says Trebella.

"I just feel horrible. I've never made a game in my life," says Bailey.

The elaborate title was inspired by a spam email with the term "Max Gentleman" in it, which prompted Wiemeyer and studio co-owner Michael Block to consider what that theoretical game universe looked like. Another equally odd influence: Snoopy's Silly Sports Spectacular on NES, a game that featured the titular pooch carrying a shaky stack of pizzas, which the towers of top hats somewhat resemble. "I don't know why," Wiemeyer says. "I didn't really enjoy it, but it made a really strong impression."

By the end of the day, 13 total games made it out of the Six Pack Game Jam and eventually onto the cabinet CPU, including Beer Death Match by Saia, Craig Stern and Dan FitzGerald, and Rum Runner by Ben Perez of Trinket Studios. Interestingly, only a few of the folks behind the cabinet project itself opted to create games for the Six Pack Game Jam; Lach himself says he started one but "felt like something was there" and decided to continue developing it further separate from the jam.

Moment of truth

With the games completed, a date was set, and thus began the mad rush to complete the last details. Marion teased the rest of the group with photos of the sterling paint job he'd been working on for weeks, which took some cues from Wohlwend's poster design, and figured out how to get the marquee the group had ordered — with the pixel version of downtown Chicago's skyline — to light up as intended. Lach worked to make sure that the technical side of the cabinet functioned as needed and that each game ran properly. Others spread the word and planned for the installation.

As for the launcher — the essential bit of software that points users to the games — that came together quickly just before the installation, thanks to Elliott. "When I started designing the launcher, it was during football season, so I had this idea about a bar being staffed by bears," he says, referring to the hometown NFL team. "But football season was over by the time I finished it, and all that sort of survived was the bear."

At least it fits the theme of the game jam; as the bear, you wander a pub filled with tables, each holding a drink that corresponds to one of the 13 games. Drink one and the upright mammal will pass out, intoxicated, which leads to the game of choice. He can also bash into human mannequins that fling away erratically, just for kicks. "I put in these ragdolls to have some element of casual violence," Elliott says.

Yep

Amidst what he calls a "dextromethorphan haze," Lach managed to bring that faulty I-PAC controller back to life one day before the installation. "Mr. Marion's paintjob seems to given the controller an undeserved sense of confidence," he says in a Google Group post. But it wasn't the last of the late issues to emerge. For hours on the installation date and prior to the launch party, several members worked to address unexpected issues, such as launcher bugs and a broken joystick base — the latter of which benefitted from Emporium's own spare parts repository.

With less than 10 minutes before the scheduled launch, the team firmly affixed the control panel, pushed the cabinet back against the wall and stepped away for the first time. That dream, the one about a custom arcade cabinet filled with unique, original games that might help spotlight and further build a community, had been realized. And as players constantly surrounded the glow of the display all evening while the beer poured and conversation ensued, the amount of enjoyment and camaraderie even seemed to surprise those who had put their hours and attention into that long-held vision.

"Video games only really exist when people play them."

"It's just awesome to see people interacting with this thing that we've been dreaming about and working on for so long," says Tibitoski. "We've all put stuff online, and that's cool and crazy in its own way, but to have people be physically there while you're watching them playing your game, on a cabinet in a public location while other people are watching, is completely different."

Trebella loved being able to view people playing and enjoying Super Blackout, and says he was honored when Elliott told him he enjoyed the game. "It's so cool to be on this machine with so many other people that I totally respect, and all these other games that are totally impressive," Trebella says.

"Video games only really exist when people play them, so it's awesome to see people playing them in this context," says Elliott. "It's also really fortunate that we ended up working with Emporium to use this space as the launch for it, because it's a space that lends itself well to a bunch of people crowding in, partying, and experimenting." He then adds, laughing, "If something goes wrong in a bar, it's OK. It's a clumsy space."

Yep

How long the cabinet will remain in Emporium is unclear. It may be weeks or months, depending on how worthwhile the arrangement is to both parties and when the group wants to push ahead with another game jam and location. Asked before the launch party, owner Danny Marks replies, "Worst case scenario, if it doesn't work out, I'll just take it and put it in the hall, and put Centipede back out."

Initial indications are that local players are interested, though how the cabinet fares alongside the likes of Mortal Kombat and Tapper after the initial glow fades remains to be seen. In the days following the launch, the team found a few dozen Emporium tokens lining the inside of the cabinet; the free-to-play signs hadn't quite been clear enough, it seems, and the group hadn't taped over the coin slots.

At the very least, the positive early result has shown the Indie City Arcade crew that their Chicago compatriots will come together around a common cause such as this. And they'll be better primed for next time.

"If it's in a coffee shop, a library, a salon or a sex shop — we have all these ideas about points where we can intersect with other DIY cultures in the city," says Elliott. "We will have a little bit of confidence, having had this great test bed, where we can say, 'It will go mostly OK. It's not going to be such a mess like it was this time. We sort of know what we're doing now.'"Babykayak


Photos by: Cory Schmitz
Layout/Design: Warren Schultheis



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