HTML5 Game Development: Tennent’s Arcade

Over the course of the last 20 years I’ve done a fair bit of game development. Starting in Asymetrix ToolBook in the early 1990s, I then moved onto Macromedia Flash, Adobe Flex and OpenCV as each of those platforms evolved to be the cutting-edge of high-quality, rapid app development.

In that period I developed dozens of interactive exhibits and educational games, many of which can still be found running in visitor centres for SSE, Scottish Power, Glasgow Science Centre, Birmingham ThinkTank, GHA and Aardman Animations.

I’ve had a few years away from game development as I focused first on the challenge of growing audience and revenue at Newsquest Scotland and, since the summer of 2015, taking on my role as Deputy MD at Bright Signals where, most notably, I developed the T5s football action replay camera system that has featured on Fox Sports, the Late Late Show and the Lad Bible, and has racked up more than 50 million views online.

But when the opportunity came up at Bright Signals to develop a series of retro-inspired games for Tennent’s, I knew I had to get back to the coal face of programming… it was just too cool a brief to pass up.  Here’s the trailer video for the system we developed:

Working with the guys at Something Something in Edinburgh, I was involved in every step of development from initial brainstorming through to gameplay development, programming and testing.

cab2The games

We quickly settled on four games that we’d develop:

  • Chap Door Run: A parallax side-scrolling sprinting game in the style of Track & Field but with a Scottish twist… instead of trying to beat competitors or a target time, you’re knocking on strangers’ doors and trying to run back to the safety of the pub without getting caught.
  • screen_shot_2016-07-01_at_10.11.19Wally: The original Scottish street game – one ball, one wall, that’s all. Kinda Breakout meets the original Mario Tennis, but with some glass bottles (literally) thrown in for good measure.
  • Wally Tennis: In the UK everyone gets gripped by Tennis fever for the fortnight of Wimbledon. Courts that lay empty for the other 50 weeks of the year suddenly become teeming with amateurs playing with their granny’s old wooden racket. Since our games were due to launch during Wimbledon fortnight, it seemed like a laugh to make Wally again but with a smaller ball… so we did.
  • screen_shot_2016-07-01_at_10.15.02T in the Park Bartender: No collection of mid-80s games would be complete without a homage to Tapper, the original beer-advertising-meets-pixels franchise. For our version we wanted to tie it into the music festival T in the Park, which Tennent’s sponsors, so we added a rhythm element to it. I also took some inspiration from the classic puzzle game Klax which I loved (and which I was briefly the UK high-score holder for in 1990!)

Once we’d jointly agreed the concepts, the guys at Something Something produced all of the pixel art, music and sfx, and it was down to me to program, play-test and refine the gameplay until we had something good enough to rival the best games of the 1980s.

Getting physical

We knew from the start that we didn’t want our games to only exist on the web. For the full retro experience we’d need physical machines.

I sourced brand new, flat-packed cabinets plus all of the joysticks, buttons, coin slots, speakers, amplifiers and screens we’d need to recreate an authentic retro vibe. At the heart of the machines we put custom PCs which act both as the games machine and as the server for keeping track of high scores and numbers of tokens spent.

Some neat electronics link the industrial-grade arcade controllers to the PCs over USB giving us the best of both worlds — robust hardware that can be swapped out much more easily than in a traditional arcade cabinet if it gets damaged.

The guys at Something Something produced a really nice wrap design for the cabinets which we had professionally printed on hard-wearing vinyl and wrapped round the cabinets for a fully authentic retro vibe.

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Reception

The press launch for our games took place at Tennent’s Wellpark Brewery last week.  The event was busy and the games were a huge hit — we took four machines to the event and all of them were in use the whole night.  They even had people queuing up waiting to play.

The reaction from both the mainstream press and dedicated games bloggers has been universally positive. I’m pleased to hear that most people find the games pretty tough — it was important to find the right balance between true retro (when games were rock hard!) and modern day when it’s more about the story and making progress. Hopefully we’ve got the balance just right.

Update: Our first video review is live…

Next steps

The machines will spend a few days at Wellpark before going to T in the Park (perhaps the toughest test for any electronic device?!) before going out on tour around the pubs of Scotland. The games will also be coming to the web soon at www.visitwellpark.com and are designed for both keyboard and touch-screen control.

In the press

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