The Making Of: Tapper
A lover of cartoons, Morrison created expressive characters with personality and definition. He used a live model, co-worker Mike Ferris, as Tapper’s bartender. Morrison describes Ferris as a big jolly guy with a giant moustache who always wore a red T-shirt. If playing Tapper brings a sense of videogame déjà vu, it’s probably because you’ve also played Domino Man, where the Ferris bartender character made his initial appearance.
To help Morrison create the characters he needed, programmer Elaine Hodgson improved upon the art tool available. “[It] was an Atari joystick mounted on top of a Gorf handle with a series of phone buttons on top of the handle,” explains Morrison. He used the joystick brush to create the background and characters for Tapper’s four themed bars – western, sports, punk and alien. He left a little bit of himself in the punk bar, by introducing a patron with a safety pin through his head. Safety pins have always been of interest to Morrison, but he wears one on his belt today, rather than in his head.
One of the biggest challenges with Tapper was to work around the restrictions of the NCR sprite manipulation format. This system had limits on how many could be moved on the screen simultaneously. “You had to be very clever about utilising your memory and your space to make it look like the screen was very active,” says Morrison. Two sprites were needed to create a full-body character; a half-body character obviously used just one. With Tapper’s first design, the bartender was behind the bar and the patrons were in front. This configuration required Morrison to animate lots and lots of legs. That was simply too many sprites. By moving the patrons behind the bar and the barman in front, the ratio of full bodies to half bodies was reversed, lowering the sprite count by some margin.
But Tapper’s difficulty curve wasn’t working because it was too linear. The game progressed until it reached a point where it became impossible to play. Bar tests at The Snuggery in Chicago showed players getting aggravated. Responding to frustrations, Meyer made the game easier… but only for a moment. “Once you were working, there would be a window that would all of a sudden get a little bit easier. And you would have to recognise when that window was,” he explains. “If you were able, while in that window, to work very hard and get all the customers out the door, then they wouldn’t come back in as quickly and you could win the game. However, if you weren’t able to take advantage of that window the game would begin getting progressively more difficult again.”
Sometimes good ideas turn bad when you actually hear them. Such was the case with the burps in Tapper. Wanting to take advantage of a brand-new digitising chip from Texas Instruments, Meyer and Morrison thought it would be a good idea to add a burp every time a character finished a drink. So, to create the source audio, a group from the Tapper team went into a conference room with a bunch of soft drinks, beers and microphones, and just started burping. Looking back on the misguided notion, Morrison says: “We put it in, and it was disgusting.” The game was so fast and the drinks were being finished so quickly that you heard constant belching. In the end, the duo didn’t bother installing the burps or the TI chip, although Morrison admits that passing by their office during that phase of development was a treat for all within earshot.
While manufacturers often shunned excessive cabinet design due to the high production costs involved, Bally Midway went all out for Tapper with brass-coloured foot rails and cup holders, and thanks to Nieman’s licensing deal, Budweiser got in-game graphics as well as a billboard on the beer tap’s handle controller. With 3,300 units of Tapper manufactured, the game’s success began to move from ‘the street’ and into arcades. This wasn’t the exposure Bally Midway wanted, as advertising alcohol to minors was, and still is, illegal. Sorry, Budweiser, Bally Midway needed a family-friendly version, and quick. In less than two weeks, Meyer and Morrison developed graphics for a new version: Root Beer Tapper.
Today, Morrison is the vice president of marketing for Incredible Technologies, producer of Golden Tee Golf, one of the most successful videogames found in pubs. He stopped programming games when the field went 3D, and admits: “The 3D stuff started to blow my mind.” Meyer went on to create more videogames, and then left to start his own toy development company, Meyer Glass. He misses the days of two-man collaboration: “You can have a vision for a game and, like we did with Tapper, you can really begin with something that you think is fun and play with it.”
Today, major game releases require high-level engineering planning. As a result, the fun elements of collaboration get thrown on the back burner. This is a mistake, believes Meyer, who stands by the adage that “the breakthroughs in gaming come from that kind of development.”