#Incomingfax: Halifax joins a worldwide community of independent gaming

Halifax has its very own Winnitron – an independent arcade game.

By Sophie Allen-Barron

A collaborative effort between friends several years in the making lands downtown Halifax with its very own Winnitron – an independent arcade game.

At first glance, the HalifaxMachine5005 looks like a classic two-player arcade machine. However, you won’t find any Super Mario Brothers on it. Winnitron is essentially software that supports independent games, housed in a classic arcade shell.

There are now Winnitrons located worldwide, with each machine logging play times on their website. Winnitron gets its name from Winnipeg, where Marlon Wiebe started the project with a few friends. He credits nostalgia for the social gaming era as the inspiration for the project.

“I had good memories of having my own NES, the four-player thing, and having my friends sleeping over and playing games endlessly.”

Wiebe, 32, came to Halifax last August, yet is already part of a close-knit gaming and programming community. Wiebe was already well acquainted with Allan Lavell.

Lavell, the impetus behind bringing the HalifaxMachine5005 to life first met Wiebe at a game development conference in San Francisco. Lavell was in the process of building the machine’s body at the time, but only ended up programming the game a few months ago before officially launching it last Friday.

“Basically it’s just a four-player smash-‘em-up. It’s designed so that four people can play on a two-player arcade machine. You’re dodging and jumping over obstacles like holes in the track and things like that. The whole object of the game is to get to YOLO mode,” explains Lavell.

YOLO, or You Only Live Once, is a motif in the game. One of the four characters is even named Hans Yolo.

“You have to be in YOLO mode to win,” says Lavell.

“Like in life!” his friend pipes up.

Lavell, 24, began programming at age 11. After graduating from Dalhousie University with a degree in math and computer science last May, Lavell founded his company Thinkrad. Being able to combine his love of programming and art means that he’s living the dream.

“The way in which I’ve been collaborating so far with Thinkrad is that I’m retaining full aesthetic control over everything,” says Lavell.

“I’m at this point where – I’m 24, I’ve seen enough things, I’ve been in enough bands, I need to have that hardcore level of control.”

Lavell is lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of like-minded people, but recognizes that his hometown of Halifax is still working towards supporting indie gaming. Halifax’s many schools contribute to the pool of talent – the Nova Scotia Community College even offers a concentration in Game Design and Development. Still, he would like to see some more opportunities in the city for independent projects like the HalifaxMachine5005.

“The idea is to foster that indie community,” he says. “In my opinion Halifax is still finding its feet, there’s a lot of programmers, a lot of game developers, but it’s very corporate.”

“Being indie is not about trying to make a living, it’s about trying to make art.”

Despite taking the project seriously, Lavell and collaborators have infused the HalifaxMachine5005 with a healthy dose of humour. Take the frequent references to YOLO mode for example.

At the end of the day, the emphasis is on the social connection.

“We just had one stipulation before we let somebody have the launcher, and that was that we just wanted to make sure it was going into a public space,” says Wiebe.

The HalifaxMachine5005 is to be set-up at Stillwell bar on Barrington Street sometime in the next few weeks.

“Drinking and playing video games is awesome. I just wanted to have it in a place like that. Bring it back to going out, games as a good social activity instead of something that’s confined to a basement.”

For updates on the move into Stillwell go to thinkrad.net or follow @allanlavell and @mr_m_wiebe on Twitter.