“The Last Arcade Buttons in Melbourne”

This week, starting July 18th, Clarendon Street Arcade (formerly called Super Street Arcade) will “soft launch” in five sites along Clarendon Street in South Melbourne. During the week, the designers and artists will test the games in situ before officially launching the project on July 26th at the Dessertopia store.

For the past two weeks, the team have been continuing to develop the five games, while finalising the project’s title and marketing, scouting the locations for each of the arcade cabinets, and decorating them as they arrive from the fabricators.

The first cabinet, which will house the MAGI-10-in-1 compilation of Melbourne-inspired games, arrived at the Future Play Lab two weeks ago. Joseph Yap is a product design engineer and Master of Design Innovation and Technology student at RMIT. Along with 3D artist and gamemaker Justin Jattke, he has been painting and weatherproofing the cabinets and assisting with their assembly and installation.

(L) The newly arrived MAGI-10-in-1 cabinet; (R) Yap and Jattke begin painting the cabinet

Although Yap joined the project halfway to work on these material elements, he sees intersections between his own work and this project. His practice explores sustainability and sustainable materials through public art installations and multimedia. He says, “one thing that I find fascinating about games is when people start exploring different ways of input and interaction between hardware and software. I feel like games as a medium are still highly under explored. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to fully exploring its potential.”

Yap says he expects the cabinets’ unique – even bizarre – designs to stand out in their chosen destinations along Clarendon Street. “We’ve chosen lively colours, at least for the MAGI-10-in-1. The structures themselves are all weird. They’re not something you’d expect to see on Clarendon Street.” The cabinets had originally been planned for a different, more trendy area in South Melbourne. But Yap says Clarendon Street works well because a tram route runs right past the cabinets’ locations, offering a “tram experience” where passers-by can observe people playing and perhaps become curious about them.

Although the cabinets will be playable by anyone passing by, spectators’ reaction to them will be just as interesting to observe as the people playing them.

Some of the cabinets will have LED lighting and other electronic components besides the screens, joysticks and buttons. Michelle Woulahan completed a PhD in visual arts and works in industrial design. She is responsible for wiring the cabinets’ buttons and lighting, connecting them to Arduinos, and ensuring they are waterproofed. She expects the material components to hold up well from everyday use and abuse. But she suspects issues might arise when interfacing with Unity, the engine used to create the games.

Woulahan wiring the arcade’s buttons and other electrical components

Even just sourcing the many materials required for the cabinets has proven challenging as the pandemic continues to disrupt global supply chains. Troy Innocent, Director of the Future Play Lab, says he had to scour the websites of every store in Melbourne that sold arcade buttons, purchasing the few remaining stocks from each one. “I think we ended up buying the last arcade buttons left in Melbourne,” he jokes.

Innocent visits the site where the YomeciArcade cabinet (AKA hole) will be situated

On July 13th, Innocent, Creative Producer Carlo Tolentino and Technical Director Nick Margerison visited the sites where each of the five cabinets will be situated. They will be placed in a kind of “trail” along Clarendon Street, between Bank and Coventry Streets. Each cabinet will also be supported by a nearby store, whose employees will be able to informally observe its use and report any damage. The team also hired a qualified electrician to hook the machines up to the electricity grid near these stores according to certification standards.

Meanwhile, the branding for the project has been finalised under the direction of City of Port Phillip, which funds it project through its COVIDsafe Outdoor Activation Fund. The council was proscriptive in its branding and marketing, determining the name Clarendon Street Arcade and even the colours and layout of the logo. But the team was given complete creative control over all other components of the games’ and cabinets’ design.

Digital Designer Monique Kemboi created many of these assets, including characters that will appear across the MAGI-10-in-1 games and the backgrounds, objects, and other elements that appear in them. Her characters are based on the Playable City Melbourne icons and reflect South Melbourne’s cultural diversity, while drawing on other tongue-in-cheek inspirations. Examples include an “empowered alien lady”, a woman in a puffer jacket (since Melbourne is in winter), a Southeast Asian man, a non-binary person, a person in a wheelchair, and more cartoonish creations inspired by Mickey Mouse and scary clowns.

Some of the characters created by Kemboi

Even with the incredibly tight deadline and shifting components – like the logo’s design and the cabinets arriving at various intervals – Kemboi is confident. She says, “I’m aware of the pipeline, and just trust that everyone is working towards the same goal […] Me, Eamonn [Harte] and Khatim [Javed Dar] are coworking together actively and being on calls” with the other artists working remotely.

Screen grab of Tram Chaser
Screen grab of Sticky City

Harte created MAGI-10-in-1 game Tram Chaser and Dar is co-creating another game for the compilation, Sticky City, with Kemboi. But both have recently come on board to help with design and programming for other games. Kemboi says, “that’s why I don’t have any worries about finishing this because I know we’re a solid trio.” Jattke is also working in the lab most weeks creating his MAGI-10-in-1 game GlugGlug Game, painting the cabinets and providing technical assistance.

Screen grab of GlugGlug Game

Australia is currently experiencing its biggest surge of Covid cases so far, putting Melbourne’s and other cities’ hospitals under immense strain. Although the game’s funding is explicitly tied to getting people safely back onto South Melbourne’s streets post-COVID, this surge is something the team will need to consider. It’s just one of the many logistical challenges the project faces when it launches next week, alongside weather, vandalism, graffiti, everyday wear-and-tear, and the inevitable technical bugs that will arise once the games are installed.

Margerison, at least, offered one potential, arcade-inspired, solution to help reduce the risk of people contracting COVID by touching the controls. He suggested installing automatic hand sanitizers in each cabinet inside a “prize door”, similar to those where the prizes come out of claw machine games.

Dale Leorke is an embedded ethnographer in the Future Play Lab.

Super Street Arcade: Yawa and Yomeci

Yawa concept art

The RMIT Future Play Lab’s latest project is Super Street Arcade, which will bring five custom-designed, arcade-inspired installations to South Melbourne’s streets. This week’s post profiles two of these in-development installations that involve collaborations between the Future Play Lab and other artist-gamemakers in Melbourne: Yawa and YomeciArcade.

Yawa

Yawa is being co-created with Indigenous multimedia artist Jarra Karalinar Steel. Steel is working with Boon Wurrung senior elder and Boon Wurrung Foundation founder and chairperson, N’arweet Carolyn Briggs, and RMIT student and game designer Duncan Corrigan. Yawa means “journey” in the Boon Wurrung language. Yawa will take players on a journey across an abstract map of Country, discovering stories and collecting and learning Boon Wurrung words as they explore.

Yawa will be housed in a table-like arcade cabinet. It will be playable by up to four people. Joysticks and speakers will be located on each of the cabinet’s four sides, and as soon as players move the joystick a character will appear on the map. Like all of Super Street Arcade’s projects, Yawa will be waiting on a street in South Melbourne for residents, passers-by, and people who hear about the project in advance to discover and explore.

Concept art of Yawa‘s unique, custom-designed cabinet

As Yawa’s art director, Steel is creating its characters, game map, and other elements. As with her other public artworks and Kulin-influenced design, Steel embraced bold colours, cartoon-esque characters and urban motifs that break down barriers around Indigenous art for Yawa’s design. “Having these characters that are more modern and city dwellers, a bit more than country, is something that’s important to me, because that’s what I grew up in,” she says. “When it comes to talking about my culture and my people and what I grew up in, I want to reflect that and not treat us like museum pieces.”

Walert Murrup (Possum Spirits), 2020, by Jarra Karalinar Steel (still from Augmented Reality work).

Three of the characters are young and distinctly urban First Nations people, with dyed hair and casual clothing, while the fourth character is a possum – one of Melbourne’s most ubiquitous urban animals. The map players explore through the characters is strongly influenced by traditional Indigenous art. But it also resembles a cityscape seen from above, while visually evoking Melbourne’s pre-colonial history as a wetlands.

These design elements bridge Melbourne’s past and present while challenging players’ assumptions about place. Steel says, “I think people think just because it’s a city and an urban area, it’s not Country anymore, it’s not sacred and it doesn’t have the importance that it does. But you’re still on Country. It’s still there.”

You Are On Country, a permanent LED installation in Melbourne’s CBD by Jarra Karalinar Steel as part of her Flash Fwd 2021 Wurrung series.

Yawa is still very much in development and its custom cabinet hasn’t been fabricated yet. The main challenge so far has been designing for its unique physical design, where players will be looking down at the screen from four different angles. The characters currently appear in 2D side profiles. But, as Corrigan explains, if the characters all face one direction “it’s going to be upside down to one person, it’s going to be 90 degrees [to the others]. But then if we were to solve that problem by making it completely top down” – seeing the characters’ heads from a bird’s-eye-view – “you would lose a lot of the character sprites” and detail.

In a meeting last week the team discussed different ways to solve this. They included having each character oriented towards their respective players’ joystick, having separate character profiles in each corner of the screen, or even placing stickers of the characters next to each joystick to represent them in analogue fashion. The team are also currently trying to find a sound designer to incorporate the music and sound elements. As with all the Super Street Arcade projects, the pressure is building to pull everything together in time for the games’ debut later this month.

YomeciArcade (tentative title)

YomeciArcade concept art

YomeciArcade is the latest project from the collective YomeciPlay, which consists of Uyen Nguyen, Max Piantoni and Matthew Riley. The Yomeci project began around four years ago as You, Me & the City, when Nguyen began exploring the “playful potential of sounds in animation, games and interactive media.” She “sound walked” around Melbourne’s CBD, recording sounds and reimagining them as “heartfelt animated stories.”

Riley and Piantoni then joined the team, collaborating with Nguyen to create a pervasive mobile game app called Yomeciland. It allows players to record sounds and create their own “digital ecology” of animated creatures on their phone. Yomeci has since evolved into multiple, ongoing projects. It has taken the form of two gallery installations. One was commissioned by Bunjil Place in 2019. Another, You, Me, Things, is travelling across Australia as part of the Experimenta Life Forms exhibition. These installations use participants’ voices and other sounds they make – stomping, finger snapping, laughing, clapping – to create creatures using sound recognition software.

Participants interact with Yomeciland x Bunjil Place in 2019

The team also created You Me Sings, a web application that allowed people to create Yomeci creatures during lockdown, and YomeciBand, their first collaboration with the Future Play Lab for its “playful parklet.” YomeciBand involved chalk drawings of Yomeci creatures on the pavement, which then produced sounds – covertly created by the team hidden nearby using a synth keyboard – as passers-by hopped, stepped, skipped, or danced on them.

YomeciArcade will also be situated on the pavement, but with a higher-tech approach than YomeciBand. Instead of an arcade cabinet, though, it will be housed in a virtual hole in the ground, surrounded by a slightly raised platform with artificial grass. Players interact by looking down and stomping on six buttons that surround the hole, taking them further and further into a subterranean world inhabited by Yomeci creatures. “We wanted to make an arcade that is on the ground and not a conventional set-up that you would expect from an arcade machine,” Nguyen says. “It ticked all of the unconventional boxes in our head.”

Players will interact with the YomeciArcade world with their feet

She describes YomeciArcade – which may be renamed You, Me, Hole – as “a musical toy.” There will be different levels or “layers” of the game inspired by musical instruments, like drums, string instruments, and xylophones. Nguyen explains that the project was inspired by Piantoni’s idea of a hole in the ground where all the layers – grass, dirt, worms, water pipes – are “stacking and sticking together.” They evolved this idea so “through your feet stomping you’d be knocking on [the Yomeci creatures’] door and they would clear their way for you to go down.”

YomeciArcade players will encounter Yomeci creatures as they go further down the hole

Other aspects of the game – including its ending – have yet to be decided. The team’s main challenge has simply been creating “a fun game to play.” They tried out five different iterations before settling on their current approach.

Another major consideration with YomeciArcade – perhaps moreso than the other projects – is accessibility, since players use their feet to play the game. Nguyen says the team are exploring ways to accommodate people with different physical capabilities, injuries, and disabilities. “I don’t want it to require too much energy from the player. This being a musical instrument or toy, you could play it in your own way, it doesn’t have the right way to do it or the better way to do it.”

Dale Leorke is an embedded ethnographer in the Future Play Lab.

Under Construction: Super Street Arcade

RMIT’s Future Play Lab are partnering with the City of Port Phillip in Melbourne for Super Street Arcade, a new Playable City Melbourne project aimed at reactivating Melbourne’s streets post-pandemic. Five arcade cabinets loaded with games and interactive installations co-created with local gamemakers, artists, academics, First Nations peoples and RMIT students will (literally) hit the pavement in South Melbourne in mid-July. These arcade machines will be fully playable outdoors and on the street.

The project is funded by the City of Port Phillip’s COVIDsafe Outdoor Activation Fund. It sought activators to create street arcades for South Melbourne that will “enliven public spaces” and “provide exhibition opportunities for game makers.” RMIT’s successful pitch involves creating bespoke arcade cabinets and arcade-inspired installations with games influenced by Melbourne’s geography, culture, city life, and Indigenous history. The games include:

  • YomeciArcade by the collective YomeciPlay (Uyen Nguyen, Max Piantoni and Matt Riley). Players peer into a virtual hole in the ground and interact with a subterranean world of Yomeci creatures.
  • MAGI 10-in-1, a compilation of up to ten mini-games. The games are created by RMIT MAGI (Masters of Animation, Games and Interactivity) students.
  • Yawa by N’arweet Carolyn Briggs and Jarra Karalinar Steel. Up to four players gather around a screen and explore an abstract map of Country, discovering stories as they go.
  • Musimoji by Troy Innocent, Allison Walker and Nick Margerison. Up to three players compete against each other to create music by firing emojis in a Space Invaders-inspired battle.
  • Jukebot by Innocent and three musicians and producers. A device resembling a jukebox creates light and sound as players press a multitude of buttons, matching the colours to tracks by familiar music artists.

YomeciArcade, Yawa, Musimoji, and Jukebot are based on new and existing collaborations between the Future Play Lab and Melbourne artists, gamemakers, academics and First Nations peoples. Magi 10-in-1, meanwhile, was developed through a two-day game jam where the Street Arcade team and MAGI students gathered to brainstorm ideas. Up to ten mini-games will be playable in one cabinet, each session lasting around 90 seconds. Some of the games include Sticky City, where objects on the street stick to players and boost or reduce their score; The Glug Glug Game, a frantic rush to keep wilting plants alive; and Tram Chaser, a side-scrolling platformer where players dodge obstacles to catch a departing tram. Street Arcade’s Creative Producer, Carlo Tolentino, says the games are designed to be played in short loops: “almost like retro gaming…it harkens back to the old classic Super Nintendo cartridges that had one hundred games in one.”

Over the past two weeks Dale Leorke has been an “embedded ethnographer” in the Future Play Lab, tracking the Street Arcade team’s progress, interviewing gamemakers and artists and documenting their works in progress. On the week starting June 20th, the project team had been working for several weeks translating their concepts into playable versions.

The Street Arcade project team meet to discuss progress.

Several, like Musimoji and MAGI 10-in-1 minigames Sticky City and The Glug Glug Game, were already approaching completion. The previous week, the joystick components ordered for the arcade machines were not interfacing with the Unity game software, creating a setback for Technical Director Nick Margerison and the team. But a newly arrived shipment of different hardware resolved the problem, allowing for initial playtesting to go ahead. As Margerison put it, this “hadn’t stopped the development of the games” but it “took up a lot of time trying to troubleshoot that process, thinking that it was something in Unity or that it was the way that we had the board set up, a driver issue or something.”

Recently graduated MAGI student Justin Jattke working on The Glug Glug Game.

Monique Kemboi is the project’s Digital Designer, creating assets and designs for various games, as well as co-designing Sticky City with Khatim Javed Dar. She is currently a MAGI student, having recently relocated to Melbourne from Kenya to pursue a career in game design and animation. She says the most challenging aspect of the project for her so far has been going “back to basics” for the games’ aesthetics, often using simple elements like 2D animation and pictograms. But she also acknowledges that “it’s a good restriction to have. Because it allows me as a creative to also simplify my brain and understand that not everything has to be this majestic thing. It could be majestic in its most simplest form as well.”

Clockwise from left: Khatim Javed Dar, Monique Kemboi, Carlo Tolentino, Eamonn Harte and Nick Margerison.

The arcade cabinets themselves will be fashioned from wood and other materials, but they’re yet to be fabricated. Currently, they exist only as digital sketches, cardboard prototypes and hardware like joysticks, buttons, wires, circuit boards and television screens that will eventually be integrated into the cabinets. Next week, the project team expect to begin embedding their games into the cabinets and testing them in situ.

As for how people will react to playable, musical arcade cabinets on South Melbourne’s streets – and whether people will actually stop to play them – Kemboi believes they will be a popular drawcard for the area and cause people to pause their daily activities to play. “When it’s just this wonderful, nostalgic thing there, you’re definitely bound to be curious to know what it does, and how to interact with it,” she says. “Sometimes people don’t really know that they need a little playfulness, a little pick-me-up, because we’re going through so much in our lives as adults. I think it being on the street is very bold and something that shouldn’t be seen as a small feat. It’s sending a message.”