We’ve all done it at some point. Crowded around a TV, Xbox and Guitar Hero; half a bottle of whiskey flowing through the blood stream and some bizarre cocktail of God-knows-what in our hands, attempting to beat Hysteria’s complicated bass line on expert.
Not all of us try and do this for a living, however. But for a few guys in Brisbane, Australia; the dream of playing Guitar Hero whilst drunk every night is now a massively successful profession. (Well, perhaps not being drunk, but certainly watching others do it from the other side of the bar.)
‘When we were doing a lot of parties at Yug’s old place, we’d turn on Guitar Hero, which we noticed tended to draw the crowd. Everyone would have a drink in their hand. So it went from there I guess’ explains Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw of the immensely successful Zero Punctuation. Famous for his stick figures and biting criticism against the vast majority of modern game releases, he now works alongside Guy ‘Yug’ Blomberg and a small band of gaming enthusiasts in running the Mana Bar. ‘I think most people have come up with the idea’ notes Yug, ‘but usually this is created when people are drinking, and usually during the hangover the next day everyone’s like ‘What was that stupid idea we were thinking of?’, whereas I woke up the next day and thought ‘This is a brilliant idea!’ And somehow I managed to manipulatively convince my good friends to come into this with me…’ At this, Yahtzee simply states ‘I wanted to see him fail… either way, you crippled mentally or I’d make some money out of it, so win/win.’
The Mana Bar itself is a small hideaway in Fortitude Valley, the entertainment precinct of Brisbane city. Within its walls are five console stations with anything from Rock Band to Street Fighter IV playing, alongside a bar stacked with a massive selection of liquor. It’s definitely an intimate venue, but this certainly adds to the character. Perched on the top of the tables are DVD cases containing the tempting cocktail menu, which features such delights as the Ocarina of Lime, the Princess Peach and the Health Potion (all designed by award winning cocktail mixer Shay Leighton). But how exactly do you turn a crazy idea into a living, breathing venue such as this?
‘A lot of hard work and figuring things out that we’ve never had to figure out before’ tells Yug. ‘It was two years between coming up with it and actually opening the bar. You have to understand that myself and Yahtzee hadn’t any experience in hospitality before. It’s all just about taking things one day at a time and figuring out how to do this, how to do that. And that was a very slow, long process, and the process of trying to get a liquor licence is a very long, slow process. But the actual creating the idea we came up with initially to what we have here today is very on the money actually. It’s what we initially had in mind, which is good’.
It comes to Friday night and walking into the Mana Bar reveals just what a phenomenal success it has become. Wall to wall, gamers are crowded around screens watching each other dominate enemies on Super Smash Bros. Brawl or shred solos on Guitar Hero. There’s also a four-way going on at the screen playing Raskulls; a charming little indie title developed locally in Australia. Everyone’s sipping from brightly coloured cocktails and having fun. It’s an atmosphere almost completely departed from any bar you’ve ever been in, with every patron galvanised and united by their love for videogames. Talking of the reaction in the city to the Mana Bar, Yug explains: ‘It’s been overwhelmingly positive. Very few negative responses and they’ve mainly been to do with the size of the venue, and really if that’s the only thing I’m doing wrong then I’m happy with that.’
Yahtzee notes the reaction from other bars in the area, who are apparently ‘very jealous of our clientele’. Yug points out that the Mana Bar ‘brings a very new and different crowd, a very non-violent crowd. We’ve had the owners of other bars come into our venue and go ‘We would kill for these people.’ They’re young. They’re friendly, and they drink like fish.’
Looking at the sheer amount of people attending the Mana Bar, it isn’t hard to wonder how much of this is down to Yahtzee’s reputation among the gaming community. Yug admits that having Yahtzee is an asset to them, especially when promoting overseas where Yahtzee’s brand is huge. But he has plans to ensure the Mana Bar becomes a brand synonymous with a great drinking and gaming experience. ‘We want to get away from that stigma that ‘there’s that little gaming bar in Brisbane’ to ‘The Mana Bar, which state were you talking about?’ But then again, this is another long and painful process, but there will be more Mana bars out there in the future. What capacity and where, I’m not gonna say just yet…’ Such a teasing statement easily brings thoughts of bigger, more extravagant versions of the Mana Bar.
It’s now four months on from the launch of the Mana Bar, and almost every night of its existence has been themed in one way or another. This has been aided by some extremely positive industry support, with support from many major publishers, from Sony to EA. As a result, the Mana Bar is sometimes used as a venue to launch games from. ‘It’s fun doing game launches, having games playable at the bar before release and stuff like that’ says Yug. But what does he feel is his biggest success over the four months? ‘The fact we’re still open!’ he laughs. ‘So many people were saying ‘gaming bar, pfft!’ No one’s going to buy drinks, it’ll be full of pasty white, antisocial, stereotypical fat WoW nerds… (‘And whilst we do have our fair share of those’ adds Yahtzee)… Most of them aren’t. It’s a nice mix’. Yahtzee seems somewhat enthusiastic when he adds that the bar see’s a ‘surprising number of chicks as well’. Yug agrees, noting that: ‘it’s a nice indication that gaming trends have changed away from the stereotypical cliché’.
Travelling from Britain to Brisbane, it’s almost been like a trek to gaming Mecca. It’s a tremendous feeling when you walk through that door though to discover that the Mana Bar is everything it promises. Filled with friendly characters, unique cocktail mixes and events that range from tournaments to Yahtzee’s Trivia Night on a Tuesday, it’s hard not to be jealous of the gamers living in Brisbane. They genuinely have access to something special. We can only hope that the future doesn’t just hold more Mana Bars for wider Australia, but for the wider world…