For Amusement Purposes Only.
I make one-off coin-operated machines. Some are commissioned as collecting boxes, some are for my amusement arcade, The Under The Pier Show, which is at Southwold pier in Suffolk (www.underthepier.com).
My first machines were simple automata or working models, but I soon became interested in more interactive machines. A few years ago, with the advent of digital video editing and DVD, I started adding video and building ‘low tech’ simulator rides. And the occasional game.
“Are you seriously telling me there’s no sit-down Star Wars?”
I was amazed and delighted by how completely absorbed people became riding on my simulators (http://www.timhunkin.com/control/s_simulator_index.htm). There may only be a small screen with no attempt at blacking out the surroundings or soundproofing but the movement and interactivity seems to flood the brain and make it forget about the external world – a state that’s obviously familiar to all videogamers. I think most people enjoy letting themselves slip into this immersed state, becoming detached from their surroundings. It’s an effect often achieved by a good book or film, but they have the luxury of being able to generate it over a longer time-scale.
This is what I have in common with videogame designers – I’m interested in making machines which fully absorb people, rather than ones they watch passively. I still don’t think of myself as a games player. I’m hopeless at videogames. I don’t find them intuitive, my reactions aren’t quick enough... I thought ‘Destroy All Humans’ was hysterically funny, but having vapourised a few cows, I never got past the farm-hands on the first level, so the rest of the game was frustratingly lost to me.
When we were there, an old woman went in the chamber thing but had to come
out when she got scared.
But my appalling videogame skill is in some ways an advantage. Only a small minority of people are skilled gamers, with probably half the population more like me – not really that good. As I’m trying to make games that can be universal and unintimidating, it’s useful to keep a sense of how it feels for people who normally aren’t very good at games – or even better, the ones who wouldn’t normally play them at all.
Both for my collecting boxes and for my arcade, I try to make machines that are fun to use the first time you try them, so a game has to be really simple. The games I’ve made completely lack the depth and complexity of computer games, but designing a satisfying simple game is still a real challenge. The other aspect of my work that is different from most computer games is that they are never screen-based. My background is in making electromechanical stuff, and I prefer working in my shed physically making things to sitting in my office in front of a screen.
This is a collecting box I made for an island off the Norfolk coast called Blakney Point. In the summer there’s a captive audience of visitors waiting for the next boat so the National Trust wanted a collecting box that would keep visitors amused.
This was my first attempt at a game. Characters pop up between the waves, which bob up and down. The game is to press the button every time a seal pops up but not for a diver or a submarine. It can run at different speeds for different skill levels.
At the time what impressed me was how subtle it was writing the software – tiny changes could make great difference in how intuitive or engaging the game was to play. I was also surprised how long the software took to write (a couple of weeks). I’m used to more straightforward stuff. I lost money on the job as it took so long, and it’s made me cautious about building games ever since.
To my surprise, Seal Count has been very reliable. I heard nothing after I installed it – five years later I rang to enquire, and was told it was still running fine.
Guy's Hospital Nurse
Hospital waiting areas are great places to position games. Although GHN is a collecting box, its main function is to cheer the place up and provide something that kids look forward to when visiting - and something for everyone else to watch.
It didn’t start out well. My original proposal was a game to steer the nurse’s arm to tip the coin into the patient’s mouth. This was fraught with technical problems, but fortunately we stumbled on a much better idea while she was half built. The nurse now rotates continuously, and the game is simply to drop the coin into her cup as she passes. If you succeed, she stops by the patient and tips the coin into his mouth. She then moves on, while the patient sits up and grins.
You can choose Eco, Normal or Turbo nurse, to change her speed and hence the skill level. As a game, it works brilliantly. It’s addictive and totally intuitive (people get the idea without reading anything, just by looking at the machine). She is popular, but has a hard life. Kids seem fond of tipping speculum sticks, chewing gum, or even cans of fizzy drink, into the coin slot. She’s also had quite a few teething problems and I’m still not really confident about her reliability. And the internal NHS politics of the place are tricky – she’s recently been moved to a hopeless position away from the waiting area due to some internal dispute.
This is easily my most ambitious game, built for the Southwold arcade earlier this year. The goal is to cross the motorway using a zimmer frame without crashing into the cars. You hold the zimmer while watching a screen via a tiny camera mounted on a physical model of the motorway above your head. Release the zimmer frame brakes and the camera starts to move across the carriageway. If you hit a car, the screen switches to animation of the emergency services turning up and dealing with the chaos.
When I first programmed it, I assumed it would be quite obvious how to play it, but people seemed completely lost. I added on-screen instructions, included a practice run, in which you can crash as many times as you like, before the examination crossing (in which you die if you crash or go dancing if you succeed). Despite all this, I’m still disappointed that about 20% of people trying it for the first time still seem quite confused.
The other striking thing about building this machine, which must be familiar to real computer game designers, was the slow progress - months to solve small technical problems. The game only came together and starting to be funny and entertaining in the last few days. But the most exciting thing about the finished machine is that it’s so sociable. I often find a crowd gathered round it watching, cheering on the player and encouraging them to cross.
All this machinery makes my games more expensive to build and less reliable but it does make them instantly appealing. Screen-based stuff is so now commonplace, the mechanical stands out as unusual. Videogaming in amusement arcades has slowly died as the games have been outstripped or replicated by home consoles. The charm of electromechanical machines is that they’re a throwback to how we used to play – socially. They offer something magical, something unfamiliar. Something you can’t do at home…
Go to Tim’s arcade on Southwold Pier. Go! It’s ace. A fun, funny breather from the smuggos in their private beach huts reading the Mail On Sunday, the man with the thousand-yard stare who does a Punch And Judy show twice a day every day and a stupid shitting café where you have to book a bastarding table the previous day to circumvent the battalions of pensioners nodding over their fish ‘n’ chips.
Oh, and buy his supremely mentalist book of cartoons (http://www.hunkinsexperiments.com/buythebook.htm