Gamers fill every available space of the cramped Mana Bar in Melbourne, sipping at coloured cocktails in between rounds of Super Smash Bros. In the corner of a dim, low-ceilinged backroom, a group of players wield plastic musical instruments; in another, a man wearing headphones stares rather intently into his game of L.A. Noire. Posters for up-and-coming video games are plastered across the walls and the room's single window. The unlikely heart of this backroom, however, isn't the flashy graphics of games being played out on giant screens.
Instead, nearly a dozen people are clustered around a clunky, anachronistic-looking arcade cabinet. Its sides are decorated with an adorable, pastel-coloured burst of gaming characters. It shudders beneath the stress of two players pushing frantically at its joysticks as their two pixellated characters spar on the angled screen. Finally, one player falls to the other's sword. The two shake hands, take up their beers again, and move aside for the next people waiting.
This is the Winnitron AU, the Australian contribution to a global network of seven Winnitron arcade machines. It looks like a quirky source of fun amongst all the sleek consoles and sophisticated drinks, and judging by the numbers it draws, it's one of the Mana Bar Melbourne's biggest attractions.
But just how did a Winnitron come to be here in Melbourne? Who put it together and why? I put on my Atomic sleuthing hat and set out to investigate, and ended up learning that the Winnitron AU is more than just an arcade machine: it's made unique from its overseas counterparts by its significance in the local games development community.
The Prime Suspects
The first iteration of the gaming cabinet, the Winnitron 1000, was conceptualised and brought to life in 2010 in Winnipeg, Canada, by an enterprising mob called the Bit Collective. It debuted at Winnipeg's first game jam that year, and set off a chain reaction of similar arcade machines being built across the world under the Winnitron name. Today, versions of the Winnitron can be found in the Netherlands, the United States, China, and New Zealand - but only two existed before a pair of Melbournians decided to create their own.
The Winnitron AU project was put into motion by a duo comprising James Rhodes, university student and part-time programmer, and John Sietsma, a developer who works on the tech side of alternate-reality games. The two are active members of the Melbourne games development community, but had had little contact with each another until their mutual interest in the Winnitron 1000's story emerged.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'Wouldn't it be cool if Australia had a Winnitron?'" James told us. "And then a few days later, on Twitter, I saw John tweet out, 'Australia needs a Winnitron!' I knew I wasn't the only one then, and I kinda just thought: we can do this, we can make the Winnitron in Australia."
"Games in Melbourne are a lot about the community," John adds, "a lot about people getting together for public play. And I really liked the idea of people being able to get together and play a game in an actual place, as opposed to at home or online. So yeah, I put out the call to get an idea, to gauge interest - and James was just super, super keen."
It's a unique gaming platform, both for the people who make games and the people who play them. It was something that especially intrigued James as a hobbyist game developer.
"If you play a normal game on the PC or on a console, you might play multiplayer, but it's usually an over-the-internet kind of thing," he explains. "The Winnitron seemed like an interesting platform to develop for, because it's not a format that a lot of games come in these days. It gets people together to play in person - in our case, in a bar."
"It's a completely different context to play games in these days, and it makes developing a little different, too."
Both James and John began to share their plans for the arcade cabinet at Melbourne's meet-ups for the Independent Game Developers' Association, which see dozens of game developers get together each month to discuss the industry, share their expertise, and promote their games. Naturally, the pair found a very enthusiastic audience here to support them from the very first moments of their Winnitron journey.
But how did the Winnitron AU end up at the Mana Bar? That happened to be a great bit of luck and timing: the Mana Bar's owner, Guy Blomberg, had been organising the refurbishing and opening of its second branch in Melbourne at the same time.
"People at the IGDA suggested we try to get the Winnitron AU housed there," James says. "I didn't think anything would come of it, but then we met Guy when he came down to Melbourne to judge the Global Game Jam in 2011."
"We hadn't even begun building, but John and I approached Guy anyway and talked at length about it and he said, 'That sounds great, we'd love to have it in the Mana Bar.' It gave us some real incentive to finally get the project underway."
John adds, "James and I both managed the project and got it happening. We commissioned games for it, so that it had a healthy amount of content once we had it up and running." While James put in the most manual physical work in bringing the Winnitron's pieces together, John was the primary financer. He estimates the overall cost to be about two or three hundred dollars - not a bad price at all, given the hours of entertainment it's provided since its launch.