Hello everyone, and welcome back to another thrilling chapter in the Brick & Mortar saga! This week, I give my amateurish interviewing skills a go for the very first time, sitting down (virtually) with Rob Hall to discuss Bit Fest (quite possibly my favorite fan-run gaming event in the Boston area), and their exciting new plans to open New England’s first barcade this June. Without further ado, let’s get to it!
Matt Firmani: Thanks for speaking with me today! So, can I begin with your name, and what’s your position in relation to Bit Fest and Bit Bar?
Rob Hall: Rob Hall, one of the founders of Bit Fest and Bit Bar.
MF: It’s a pleasure to meet you, Rob. So, this is a fun place to start – what is your earliest video game memory? I want to get a sense of what sparked that passion in you – your gaming origin story, so to speak.
RH: Ooh, that’s a tough one… I was born in 1979, and I have some memories of arcade games being “around” when I was very little. There was a coffee shop/greasy spoon restaurant that had a back room with some arcade games in it. Ms. Pac-Man and a few others. We also had a very early Macintosh computer in my house when I was little. Played a lot of shareware games distributed on floppy disk. Some of these were clones of classic arcade games like Defender.
MF: Oh nice! childhood arcade experiences came a little later, but I distinctively recall the high times of Mortal Kombat and SF2. Do you consider your Mac your first game console?
RH: Yes, I would say so. My next door neighbors had an NES that I played a ton of, but my parents wouldn’t get me one. The original DMG gameboy was my first real console. I met a British kid who was vacationing in the US and he had a Genesis and stack of games very early on. He also had a Turbo Express. I had other friends who had Master Systems. I feel like I was exposed to a ton of different consoles from that era.
MF: There was definitely a sense of wonder at that time, with rapidly advancing tech, a lack of organized games press… It was like a technological and artistic wild West. Like, seeing the TruboExoress must have thrown you for a loop. Did you feel, even back then, that there was a distinctive human element to gaming? Did you feel like, more than it being simply a product, that there was a community?
RH: Yes, I don’t think kids of this era could ever understand the rapid pace of change when it came to new hardware of the late 80s early 90s. That and the fact that there wasn’t a modern internet, so information was only spread via magazines and rumor. Well, the human element was that nearly all multiplayer games were played physically next to your opponent.
MF: Exactly. Somewhat out of the necessity of the time, games brought people together. And arcades were almost like a bar scene for kids. So, you were old enough to openly witness that development of a social gaming community.
RH: I was in middle school during the early 90s arcade fighting game renaissance. So that was a really great experience. We would get rides to the mall arcade every chance we could. Mortal Kombat II in the arcade is probably the most competitive that I have been.
MF: Oh yeah? Did you have a preferred fighter?
RH: Sub-Zero or Johnny Cage. Bit Fest supplied games for the Game Over Boston event during Pax East this year, and I actually got to play some MKII – it was a blast. There were about 3 or 4 of us that you could tell were arcade rats from back in the day.
MF: Niiiice. Sub-Zero’s always a fan favorite, but Johnny Cage wasn’t all that popular of a choice back then! I remember him being seen as a parody character. Must have been fun showing people up with him!
RH: Yeah, I always wanted Johnny Cage to be my #1. Sub-Zero is probably a little over powered in MKII.
MF: I loved how fatalities spread almost entirely by word of mouth back then. I remember the first time I got knocked off the bridge in The Pit – my jaw dropped. i felt like I just witnessed gaming history or something haha.
RH: Yeah, it was very mysterious. (Actually a secret test menu was just discovered in the Arcade games just recently.)
MF: I heard about that! I can’t believe that remained hidden all of these years, especially considering the hunger for secrets in that scene. So, what came next for you?
RH: So, the last home console that I bought as “current gen” was the Dreamcast. I had a GBA SP with a flash cart after that. When I moved into my own house and set up a game room in the basement in 2008 or so, I got interested in retro gaming. Dusted off my old consoles. Wanted to find games I had traded in years ago. Discovered that people were doing mods on old consoles and making home-brew games. Found that really interesting. I have always loved “sideways” technology.
MF: Oh, “sideways technology”! I’ve never heard retro homebrew and mods referred to with that term. I may have to borrow that from you. So, how did your search ultimately bring you into contact with the folks who would go on to start Bit Fest with you?
RH: I started a Facebook group called “Boston Retro Gamers” in 2012. Met a few interesting people and thought it would be fun to do some sort of classic gaming/arcade event in the Boston area. At the same time it was apparent that the arcade-bar was acting as a source of renewed interest in classic gaming and we wondered why there wasn’t one the Boston area.
MF: Right? Always seemed like Boston had the scene, and that became increasingly more obvious once PAX East started dragging us all out from the woodwork. Many of the Retroware staff are native New Englanders. Yet we don’t have a single barcade to speak of!
RH: Yes, I could see that a lot of people had looked into the idea but had not carried it out. Eastern MA is an expensive area and liquor licenses are capped by the state, creating an expensive secondary market in some towns. The idea of creating a game-centric bar restaurant is fun. However at the end of the day, 90% of the business is creating and running a bar/restaurant. You need to make sure you have a good founding team and hire the right people to execute the vision.
MF: And it sounds like you found just the sort of team that you were looking for! Who are the major players? I’d like to give them some credit here too.
RH: Joshua Allen is a technician by trade and arcade collector. Andrew Wiley is the owner of High Energy Vintage and man about town, Max Clark is a game enthusiast and our link to the hospitality industry, and Gideon Coltof is the least into gaming but was close friends with Joshua and was fascinated by the idea, he has been leading the business development. I’m kind of the glue that helps keep it all together and have have handled a lot of the marketing and communications stuff.
MF: Well, it sounds like the pieces were falling into place, but Bit Fest came first. Was Bit Bar always the ultimate goal, and Bit Fest was a way to collect seed money, or did it kind of naturally evolve?
RH: That’s a little fuzzy. I was always planning on doing some sort of low key retro gaming event in Boston. However, when we got together and started planning what would become Bit Fest it became clear that the long term goal would to have some sort of permanent establishment. Bit Fest never really made much money. It allowed us to fix up games and eventually rent storage/workshop space. It also showed us how ready the Boston area was for this.
MF: Well, I’ll tell you that it also garnered a ton of support for you guys. The Summer Nights series at Night Shift were a huge hit with my coworkers and friends. I’ve been to small gaming events around Boston before. Bit Fest was immediately different. You built an event with a distinctive character, that was equally inviting to enthusiasts like myself, lapsed gamers caught up in the nostalgic buzz, and curious non-gamers, who came for the craft brews but stayed for the fun.While I was there for the Summer Nights series, I wasn’t present during your Aeronaut or your Barber Shop days. Were there any funny stories that arose during those formative events that you might feel up for sharing?
RH: Well, for the first event… It felt like complete chaos setting up. We weren’t ready when the doors opened, scrambling, etc. However, halfway through the night it felt like every other person I talked to said something like “How many years have you been doing this?” or “Are you national organization?” That felt pretty good.
RH: And 4 of the 22 arcade games died by the end of the night but overall it was a complete blast.
MF: Hahah that’s awesome though. And with each successive Fest, you got to polish things up. By the time you were set up at Night Shift, you could have fooled me – it really did seem like you guys had been doing this for years. I’ll tell you this – I immediately began spreading word that Bit Fest was THE gaming event to catch in Boston.
RH: Well, the challenge during this entire thing has been space. These 300 pound behemoths take up a lot of room and aren’t meant for travel. The entire concept was a bit ridiculous. Joshua had a storage container in Salisbury with a bunch of games but not a great place to work on them and he was moving…. We were lucky to find a space in a warehouse arts building that was going to be renovated soon. That was in Amesbury and we only had it for a 6 weeks leading up to BF1. That allowed us to fix up his games and acquire a few other broken ones to fix up leading up to the first event. But after that we had to be out pretty quick.
MF: Gosh… so back then, you guys were hopping from place to place with your arcade collection tied up in the back of a truck, pretty much setting up shop where you could, and always briefly. That is a bit ridiculous! But it sounds like BF1 was a huge success. What came next?
RH: A friend of a friend lead us to the owner of PhillipoStyle hair salon in Boston’s South End, who had some space in the back that we used as a workshop for a bit. He is a cool guy who likes to tinker with technology and liked the idea of having some arcade games around. That came together at the last minute. We did a party during Pax East 2015 there…
RH: However, that could only last so long and someone told us Night Shift could be a good location for events. We talked with them and toured the brewery. We noticed that there was a huge unused space on site and asked if we could lease it for a reasonable rate. They said yes, and that allowed us to gear up for BF3. They had plans for that space starting in the fall but we asked if we could stay until then and do a series of events over the summer, Bit Fest Summer Nights.
MF: Which is when I first became acquainted with Bit Fest. And it was the first semi-stable home of the Bit Crew. You guys finally got the chance to fine-tune that event over the course of the summer. Must have been nice not to have to cart your entire arcade around for a little while haha.
RH: Yes, that was a great situation. Night Shift makes great beer and is really well respected in the area. It was a great feeling to be part of these events that seemed generated so much goodwill. The biggest issue was just capacity – I felt bummed that some many people had to wait to get it!
RH: But when that was over, they had construction plans for the space. So we were scrambling again to find somewhere to move to. At the same time were were looking at bar space for a long term establishment but that was providing a ton of false starts. Finding any kind of space for a reasonable price is hard in the Boston Area. We considered renting a more finished space in Allston that would have allowed us to do more regular events a fixed space. However, if the permitting didn’t work out, we would have burned through our meager event proceeds in a few months. We got a lead on a space in the same neighborhood as Night Shift and Short Path but had trouble getting the landlord to sign with us. It really came down to the wire.
MF: And that new space was what became Bit Lab. After Summer Nights dropped off, I didn’t hear about you guys for a little while. I’ve still never been over to Bit Lab. Tell me a bit about it.
RH: We actually held one event in the “Bit Lab” space in December of 2015 (I think), that was great fun but a bit of a challenge getting people to understand we were not at Night Shift any more.
RH: But Bit Lab was mostly just our arcade holding space and workshop space at the time. The building landlord has to work things out with the city before the tenants can host the public but it looks like they are getting close. Our focus is getting Bit Bar Salem up and running right now. And the Bit Lab is so filled with stuff it would be hard to do an event at the moment.
MF: I’d love to know more about how Bit Bar is coming along. Do you have an idea of what the layout will be like? I know you’ve built connections with some local microbrews for a sweet beer selection. Do you intend to continue hosting Bit Fest-like events in the future?
RH: The plan is to have 27 video and 4 pinball tables. Seating inside for 70+ and 60 on the patio. A full bar with a focus on local beer and spirits. A creative menu with interesting takes on comfort food. Bit Fest will probably continue in some fashion but right now we are focused on getting Bit Bar up and running.
At this point, Rob had some things to get to so we finished up. I’m psyched about the fast-approaching grand opening of Bit Bar, and it seems like New England’s first barcade is in capable, enthusiastic hands. When the bar opens next month, I’ll make sure to pay it a visit and treat it to a follow-up article. The retro game store Game Zone is also based in Salem, so perhaps I’ll cover both at once!
Bit Bar is located at 50 St Peter St, Salem, MA 01970, and you can join their mailing list to be notified about opening day by visiting http://www.bit.bar/.