The Making Of: Tapper
Publisher: Bally Midway
Not all gamers are teenagers. Nor do they always hang out in arcades. Such was the thinking of Bally Midway, which in the early ’80s decided to sidestep its competition by building games for the untapped market of less competitive ‘street’ locations – any site that wasn’t an arcade, such as a pizza joint or a bar.
Tommy Nieman was Bally Midway’s crown prince of licensing. He loved doing it, and had brokered many deals for the company’s line of pinball machines (his most successful was with the rock band Kiss for Kiss Pinball). With Bally Midway setting its sights on developing a videogame for the bar scene, he thought who better to go after than Budweiser, the ‘King of Beers’? Nieman landed the contract and the pump was primed for success. Bally Midway had a competition-free arena and the king of all licensing deals. Now the only thing left to do was to create a fun game.
In the early ’80s, Marvin Glass and Associates, a toy development think-tank, began pitching videogame ideas to Bally Midway. At the time, the manufacturer didn’t have the full-blown videogame development capabilities to simply accept ideas – it needed finished games. Most of Bally Midway’s energies were being spent re-releasing games imported from Japan. If Marvin Glass wanted to get into the videogame business, the company would have to develop the games itself. With a ‘let’s give it a go’ attitude, the toy developer looked within the family for technical talent. Two of the firm’s partners called their sons, Steve Meyer and Scott Morrison, to begin a videogame development division of the company. The two collaborated as programmer and artist, respectively. Four years in the videogame business, the company ended up creating six games for Bally Midway. Tapper, the company’s third game, was developed for a very specific audience: beer monsters.
Knowing only that the game would appear in a bar, the idea for Tapper began with a simple suggestion from Meyer: “How about a bar game where you’re sliding beers back and forth?” At first, he had no idea what it would look like. Thinking of images he had seen in countless westerns, he said to Morrison: “It would be fun if we had a guy that was actually filling beers and throwing them. Why don’t we start there? Go make a bartender and make a beer mug and a bar and let’s see what happens.”
And this was essentially the basis of Meyer and Morrison’s working relationship – the two sat next to each other collaborating on ideas. When they hit upon an idea they liked, Morrison would draw it, Meyer would program the gameplay and together they prayed it would be fun. “My belief about developing videogames back then was that you started with a couple of elements that were fun on the screen and you grew it from there,” says Meyer.
Over time, all the elements did fall into place. First, the bar patrons inched their way down the bar, towards the bartender, demanding service. Once served, the force of the sliding beer knocked a patron back a notch. This appeasement only lasted for a moment, and demands on the bartender’s time increased. A finished drink produced both an empty glass, that was pushed back towards the bartender, but also an irate drunk demanding more beer. The player had to catch these returned glasses while still serving beers. An empty glass that reached the end of the bar would break, and a drunk who reached the end of the bar became fed up and would slide the bartender back down the bar, smashing all the empty glasses in his path. Both situations resulted in the loss of a life.
After all these elements were in place, Morrison and Meyer knew they had something fun, but it still wasn’t challenging. It wasn’t a game. Tapper only had one bar – it needed another one. By adding that second bar, the ‘something fun’ turned into a ‘game’. “You’ve got a bartender having to decide which bar to be at,” says Meyer. When one patron is drinking, do you have time to jump down to the other bar to pick up glasses and serve the other patrons? Over time, those two bars grew into four and Tapper’s gameplay was complete. The next step was to add colour.