Homegrown video games. That's what you'll get when you play the Donutron at Glam Doll Donuts, an arcade cabinet created exclusively for games made by local developers.
The lead creators, Zachary Johnson and Victor Thompson, have been meeting at Glam Doll Donuts every Friday for over a year along with a group of fellow developers to work on their own games. Johnson and Thompson knew they wanted to collaborate on a project, but they also wanted to raise public awareness for what local developers were doing.
The inspiration came upon discovering similar arcade cabinets around North America, including the Winnitron out of Winnipeg, the Torontron out of Toronto, and the Texatron out of Texas. They thought it'd be a good idea to create the same kind of cabinet here in the Twin Cities.
“It's something that people can see and touch, and then if they're working on something it might motivate them to finish,” Johnson says. “Because then they could put it on the Donutron, and people could play it.”
That motivation factor is something that applies to Thompson, too. During the day, he works as a freelance programmer on projects for other people and companies, but he also has his own side projects. Not having an outlet to show those type of projects, he says, may keep people from completing those hard final steps. But now, they have a reason to put the finishing touches on that last level.
The arcade itself was created relatively quickly after they came up with the idea in October. It became operable in February, and had its public unveiling at MinneBar, a free annual technology and software conference held in Minneapolis, in April. The crowd loved it.
“We had several people come back to play again during the event,” Johnson recalls.
Since then, they've shown it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Mini Maker Faire in May at the State Fairgrounds, where it was a big hit with kids. And, more recently, it was at the all-night Northern Spark Festival at the Mill City Museum where Johnson says there was always a group of people swarming over one of the games.
The arcade cabinet has a massive hard drive that can hold hundreds of games that call back to the pixel-filled days of classics such as PAC-MAN and Super Mario Bros. Right now it contains seven games. That includes Cycho, developed by Johnson, which he describes as Hitchcock meets Tron. Thompson created the game Twice Clamberers, which Johnson describes as “action game platforming.” In Cemetery Sprint by Dev Jana, you dodge gravestones in a forever-curving cemetery. Filling the remaining spaces shouldn't be too hard, as Johnson says the local community is full of people making games that will fit perfectly with Donutron.
The selection process is pretty simple right now. If they like someone's game, they'll invite them to add it onto the arcade. Each game is accompanied by the creator's contact info so those playing can reach out if they want to provide feedback. They'll also be able to receive stats from their games if they request it. They plan to put a schedule out on social media sites about what games will be on the Donutron, when they'll be on, and how long each game will be on there.
“It's probably going to be relatively short, because we want it to stay interesting,” Thompson says of the availability timeline for each game.
The contact info is also aimed at both helping with public awareness and inspiring those who are interested in pursuing game development. Johnson hopes they realize the creator is just another person, and maybe they'll become less intimidated by the notion of game development.
“To see the face of the person making it — realizing they're local, realizing maybe they look like you — is encouraging,” he says. “And it makes you realize that you could be a game developer when you grow up.”
The Twin Cities developer community is full of creators at all levels. From those who have just started learning the process of development to folks who make a living on freelance projects or working for one of the studios here in Minnesota. One local developer is even exploring the emerging VR (virtual reality) technology.
“Ty Burks is now working on a game called Job Simulator, which is a bundled launch title for all of the VR platforms,” Johnson says. “It's a huge game.”
The VR game is set in 2050, a time when robots have taken over all human jobs, and this game is a way for people to experience what it was like have a job. Simulations include being a gourmet chef, an office worker, and a convenience-store clerk. The game has received praise all over, including being one of the selections for the New Frontiers Lineup at the Sundance Film Festival, a nominee for Best VR Experience at the Unity Awards, and two selections for at the Proto Awards for Best Gameplay and Best Interaction.
There's also Jerry Belich, who has received international attention for the Choosatron, a hardware storytelling device that he developed with his team at Monkey with a Mustache. Johnson says it's only a matter of time before someone really puts Minnesota on the gaming map.
The Donutron has been a hit everywhere it's been showcased. This past Fourth of July weekend, it moved into its new home at Glam Doll Donuts. Owner Teresa Fox says she sees it as a win for everyone, because customers can the play games free of charge and it's an opportunity to support another form of local art.
“Kids are loving it already,” she says.
Creating public awareness can be a gradual process, but it appears Johnson and Thompson are on the right track.
“We just wanted to start with something that we knew we could achieve,” says Johnson. “Because we felt like we wanted to create that momentum in the community to encourage people to do stuff like this.”
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