"No matter what happens, no matter where things go, that day -- that process and this experience -- I wouldn’t take any of that back. All the fights, the arguments, the pressure. All the stress, the bad stuff, the really terrible stuff. It was all absolutely, totally worth it for that day, for that moment. It was just something else."
Two years ago, four friends did the impossible -- they opened the world's first video game bar. This is their story. It's a story about friendship, a story about drunken debauchery and ball pits, but most of all it's a story about following your stupid, stupid dreams, to their ultimate conclusion, against all sane advice to the contrary.
This is the story of The Mana Bar.
It Started With A Ball Pit
"Hi. My name is Yug and I like parties. I like throwing parties. I like hosting parties. That's my thing. I get my kicks off seeing other people having a good time because of me. That may sound egotistical, but I don't care! I like feeling as though everyone's having a good time."
Meet Guy 'Yug' Blomberg. Guy Blomberg is the closest thing the Australian Games Industry has to John Belushi -- a real-life Slurms McKenzie. Guy always seems to be wearing a suit, but somehow keeps it casual. His hair is ruffled, but calculatedly so. He has a gift for making people feel at ease. One look at Guy Blomberg and you see a man that was born to party. The Mana Bar was his idea; that fact makes perfect sense.
"When I lived in Brisbane I used to throw these massive events,” begins Guy. “I'd constantly be trying to outdo myself. I lived with DJs, and we used to have these parties with Firebreathers and magicians and live performers and bands...
"I had this balcony that was bigger than the actual apartment itself! It was awesome. I remember one time I just went out and bought 3000 ballpit balls because I decided I wanted a ballpit. I wanted to make the parties that people remembered.
"I wanted people to be like, 'Remember that party with the ballpit? That was amazing!'"
It was in this environment, amidst fire-breathers and ball pits, that the seed was planted, and the initial concept for The Mana Bar began to gestate,
"I used to do a lot of those kind of events," says Guy, "and I was doing Australian Gamer at the time, so I started organising parties just for the Brisbane gaming community and developers. I'd try and do them in non-traditional gaming environments. I'd have awesome entertainers -- the fire breathers and the DJs -- but I'd also set up a projector, with the Wii or Guitar Hero or whatever.
"Then I started implementing the projector set-up into regular parties, parties filled with people who you wouldn't traditionally think would be into playing video games. I found that everyone was playing the games -- gaming was more popular than the ball pit!
"I was surprised -- there were more girls playing than guys. And again, this wasn't like a gaming party. This was just a party with real, serious, party people -- and a lot of hipster wankers as well! Everyone was getting into the games, but they were also drinking. They'd get a drink, play the game for a while, then pick up the drink again. Or they'd stand around and watch, while drinking. It was this natural thing.
"And that's kind of where the idea came from -- the idea that maybe this whole drinking and gaming thing could work."
It was at this point that Guy Blomberg began telling everyone about his crazy idea to open a video gaming bar.
"I was just like this... this could be awesome.
"I'm all about creating stupid ideas and then trying as hard as you can to get them through somehow. But I just had no idea. I had no business experience. I'm terrible with money. I had never run a bar before; I had never even poured a drink. I had no idea about the hospitality industry. I had nothing, yet I started talking to a lot of people, being really open about it. I was like, 'we're gonna do a gaming bar!'"
"A couple of the people I had been talking to were a couple of really good friends of mine, one of them was called Pras and the other was Yahtzee."
Pras Moorthy is a designer at SEGA Studios Australia, then known as The Creative Assembly. Pras had a background in Finance and Risk Management. Yahtzee was Yahtzee -- the Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame, known in real life as Ben Croshaw.
"Pras is a very stiff guy," explains Guy, "but he's also really, really smart with numbers, maths, finance, stuff like that. That's kind of his thing. He said, 'let's put a business plan together'.
"Yahtzee got on board mainly because he's a good friend of mine and, well... he was just bored! He does Zero Punctuation every week, and I would drag him into my crazy ideas every now and then. We tried to do a gaming TV show before and I was like, 'well, that didn't work, but we can try this!' He was sort of like... 'alright then'. But Yahtzee -- he really brought an international level of credibility to the idea."
The Mana Bar concept began to find traction and momentum.
"We were so enthusiastic," he says. "We started looking for leases and setting up the company and stuff like that -- this was late 2008. I was so confident I actually put up a website saying 'Mana Bar: Coming Soon! Early 2009'
"But, yeah... it didn't quite happen like that."
Proving Video Games Are Art
"Both myself and Pras had full time jobs and Yahtzee had Zero Punctuation -- but we worked on The Mana Bar constantly," says Guy. "It was an on the side thing, but we took it very seriously. We put our money into it, started a company and began going through the process of opening a bar."
It was during Guy's walk to his day job that he spotted his dream venue.
"I saw this little bar down the street, this tiny little bar," says Guy. “It used to be called the Mango Bar and it had shut down. I'd walk past it every day on my way to work. It was just perfect. I didn't want a big bar, I wanted a small bar. This is what I had in my head. That was the venue."
But Guy wasn't prepared for the incredible obstacles his choice of venue would create.
"The kind of hoops you have to jump through to open a bar is really... confusing," laughs Guy.
"You need a community impact statement, a risk assessment management plan, you need the sound levels tested, you need to make sure you have written statements from surrounding businesses -- is there a school nearby? What time will you close and what's the liquor licensing hours? Not only that, but the venue was actually part of a government building! And that particular building only allowed businesses to open up if it had some sort of artistic merit according to the government.
"So we actually had to prove to the Queensland government that video games were art!"
At this point Guy, Pras and Yahtzee -- who had pre-existing relationships with almost everyone involved in the Brisbane game development scene -- started to call in a few favours in an attempt to complete this elusive endeavour.
"We got statements from all the local developers, all the managing directors, trying to actually put a case together," says Guy.
"The whole document we put together was great, but just as we handed it in, the most amazing thing happened. The 'Game On' festival began. The Game On Exhibition was held in the Queensland State Library and was government funded! Here's an exhibit, at the library, celebrating the history and artistic merit of video games, and we had the curator of the event write a big document stating that gaming has artistic merit."
And so it came to be that Guy Blomberg, with the help of the State Library, managed to prove to the Queensland government that video games were, indeed, art.
Preparing To Lose
But for Guy Blomberg convincing the Queensland government that video games are art was a cakewalk. Convincing his friends and family that The Mana Bar was a sustainable, sensible idea was a different matter entirely.
"It sounds pretty straightforward now, but back then walking around telling people you were going to open a video game bar -- people were like, 'well no one's going to drink. It's going to be full of people just playing games. That won't be popular. It won't work,'" says Guy.
"Even my family, they were used to me coming up with crazy ideas -- but they were like, ‘this won't work’."
Guy's Uncle took a particularly proactive role.
"My Uncle actually took me out to visit some friends of his that owned bars and venues in the Gold Coast, just so he could get them to try and talk me out of it," says Guy.
"These guys, who owned bars, were like, 'Look, you're going for a 60-person capacity venue, it's a niche concept, you're looking to be open seven nights a week -- if people are playing games, they're not drinking. If they're holding a controller they're not drinking.'
"And 'people who game aren't big drinkers', that was the other one -- 'you need people who are big drinkers, you need regular clientele,' they said. ‘You need people who are going to turn up when up when it opens and stay until it closes'."
But despite his Uncle's best efforts, Guy was not easily dissuaded, and his enthusiasm eventually won his family over.
"I had to do it," he explains. "The idea was in my head. It was either going to work or fail spectacularly. There was no in-between.
"The whole time we were putting this together we were aware: this was a risk. At no point did we really expect to get our investment back. We thought it would be nice, but that wasn't our real motivation.
"The money that was put in, we were prepared to lose."
First Impressions Count!
Guy, Pras and Yahtzee were aware of the risks and prepared for the worst, but that didn't make the pressure of opening a risky bar venture any less real.
"You have to remember -- all three of us were very different personalities,” begins Guy. “With myself, Yahtzee and Pras you had the optimist, the pessimist and the realist -- three very strong personalities. We had lots of arguments. Lots of arguments; lots of yelling and screaming about everything."
Most of the arguments arose from attempts by Pras to temper Guy's often extravagant vision for the bar.
"I remember one time, before we opened, there was a massive argument about the walls," laughs Guy. "Because the venue was in Brisbane it had a very tall ceiling -- like metres high. We'd painted it up, but I said, 'the walls look really boring'.
"I wanted to print out a whole bunch of old-school video game posters, box art, cool stuff -- and I wanted to put it over the wall in art deco kind of thing. Pras was like, 'No, we can't afford that, and we don't have the time. It's not in the budget and, more importantly, it doesn't need to be in the budget.'
"I was like, 'first impressions count! We have to have this! I'll print them out, I'll go myself!'
“I had to take a day to cool off after that! In hindsight, I was thankful I had Pras to sort of pull me back a bit."
For the most part, Yahtzee was a passive observer; but some occasions demanded his uniquely acerbic communication skills.
"He got passionate about the strangest things, like when we wanted to line up a bunch of figurines across this beam near the roof above the bar," recalls Guy. "Yahtzee was like, 'No... that would look terrible. Don't... no. That's horrible.' I was like, 'It'll be great!' And he was like, 'NO'. That was the big thing he put his foot down on! It was bizarre!"
But then roughly half way through the project, Yahtzee began to get a little nervous -- The Mana Bar was a time sink, and he was worried about the opening.
"We had a lot of delays," admits Guy. "We ended up opening a year and half after we expected to.
"There was this moment when Yahtzee sort of took a step back. The agreement was that we would all be really involved in it, but Yahtzee was getting really nervous. He was like, 'I don't want to be there every night, this is actually stressful'."
The solution was clear: it was time to add a fourth member to The Mana Bar team.
"At that point there was another good friend of mine, Shay," begins Guy. “And Shay was a bar guy.
"Think of your typical drunken reprobate, but classy -- the kind of guy that would have worked well in an old style New York speak-easy. Like really cool -- but you wouldn't trust him with your daughter. That's Shay. He started advising us on the bar side of things, because he had opened bars up and down the coast."
As one of the most accomplished bartenders in Australia, Shay's initial response to Guy's video game bar idea was hilariously abrupt.
“When I told Shay about this idea, before I had even mentioned it to Pras and Yahtzee, he was adamant -- 'That's the stupidest f**king idea I've ever heard. Ever. This bar is absolutely retarded. It is a terrible idea. No one will go. No one will drink, and I would be embarrassed to work there'."
But somehow, later down the track, Guy managed to convince Shay that a video game bar was a worthwhile investment, and The Mana Bar had its fourth partner. According to Guy, the momentum and expertise that came with Shay's involvement was invaluable.
"The addition of Shay, to the three of us, made us feel that this bar -- this crazy video game bar -- could actually work."
The Yahtzee Effect
Yahtzee may have taken a slight step back from the day to day minutiae of opening a video game bar, but his presence and his brand was infectious and made for an easy pitch to overseas gaming press.
Guy calls it ‘The Yahtzee Effect'.
"There is such a thing as 'The Yahtzee Effect'. It’s a very real thing," laughs Guy. "He is this mythical creature; you don’t see his face very often. People were like, 'Yahtzee’s opening a bar? I have to go Australia and visit Yahtzee’s bar!'
"We actually had a couple of conversations with Brisbane marketing and they were really excited because there was this buzz about Brisbane internationally. They said, ‘people are talking about coming to Brisbane because of a Yahtzee bar. What’s a Yahtzee bar?’ I sort of just said, 'Well... let me tell you a story'."
Yahtzee's influence on The Mana Bar's ability to gain overseas traction was so great that it affected the way Guy wrote all the press releases advertising the bar's opening night.
"When I did the first press releases I did 16 different variations," says Guy. "There was the press release that went out to the local Brisbane street press. That was like, ‘Local Brisbane boys tackle the world with the world’s first gaming bar!’
"Then there was the press release that went out to the local gaming press -- ‘Australia’s first video game bar’. For international gaming website, the press release I sent out to them was ‘YAHTZEE’S NEW GAMING BAR ABOUT TO OPEN!’"
Guy's steadfast belief in The Mana Bar concept led him to believe that they would get press, but not even he was prepared for the reaction, particularly overseas.
"I was surprised by the amount of non-gaming sites that picked it up internationally," he says.
"The story got picked up by Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. I started getting calls from radio stations in random American cities, like Boston and Cleveland. I’d be awake at 3am doing Skype conversations with random KBBL style radio stations -- ALL THE HITS! -- that was totally bizarre to me!"
Cloud Cuckoo Land
To recap: Guy and Pras had convinced the Queensland government that games were art. Yahtzee had convinced the world's press that The Mana Bar was a magical beam of light that shone from his arse, but the biggest challenge still lay ahead -- opening night!
But before they could even think about that, a liquor licence was required, and it proved elusive.
"A liquor licence takes about 3-4 months to process," says Guy, "but they don't tell you when it's going to come through. Our liquor licence only came through a week before we opened."
According to Guy, applying for a liquor licence, for potential bar owners, can be a terrifying, logistical nightmare.
"They say, 'we'll look at it within one to three months', but if they look at it, and they don't approve it, you're back to square one,” he says.
"There was this venue in Brisbane, I mean a big, big venue, that had just opened up -- probably four to five months before we did. They had their big opening launch, but they got fined a lot of money because their liquor licence hadn't come through. They had all this media lined up and decided they were just going to go ahead and cop the fine. That's how the industry is.
"It was the same for us. We had to plan and start promoting the opening months in advance, without actually knowing if the liquor licence would come through. We gave it enough time, but what if it got refused? There were no guarantees."
At this point, so close to the opening, the pressure was intense. The team was at breaking point.
"We were haemorrhaging money" says Guy. "Our expectations were all completely out of whack on how much everything would cost, and we were pulling in favours from friends left, right and centre. The painting of the bar was done by about 20 friends -- people who were working day and night just to paint the place. One of my friends, Alix, was a sheet metal worker who created everything from the TV screen protectors to the massive light-up sign above the front door. We pulled in all the favours we possibly could.
"At this point Pras and I were still working full-time jobs. I was getting into work at 8.30, knocking off at 5.30, getting home, getting changed and going to the bar. We were there scrubbing the toilets! We were sanding the floors, lacquering them, everything."
And all the while, as opening night approached, the spectre of the liquor licence loomed large. Would The Mana Bar even be ready for opening night?
"My stress levels at that point were through the roof," claims Guy. "I had spoken to everyone about getting coverage and all the while I’m thinking -- if we don't get our liquor licence, what are we going to do? Our media night was the day before, people were flying up. These were people I respected, some of them were friends. We started to wonder what our contingency plan was. We had already delayed the opening twice already.
"And still there was scepticism. People were critical. As much as some thought it was a cool idea, most thought it was just going to be a massive nerd fest of sweaty neckbeards playing games. Most people expected a trainwreck, so there was a lot of pressure in that respect."
But then -- relief. The liquor licence arrived with a week to spare. Guy and the rest of the guys did what any reasonable group of adults would do in such a high-pressure situation...
"We drank," laughs Guy. "We had a big night. A huge night, which probably wasn't the best idea a week before opening! It was emotional -- not quite tears, but as close as a group of guys can get to tears."
March 20, 2010. Guy Blomberg trudges towards The Mana Bar -- 420 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley -- in a serious state of disrepair; hungover from last night’s soft launch, a media event for close friends and select members of the press. But that was just a dry run, a dress rehearsal. Today was the real thing.
“I remember it so well -- 8am -- after this massive media event, an event where I was running around like a madman. Obviously I was hungover -- but I turned up at the bar at 8am regardless, because we had so much to do...
“And as I walk in the front entrance there’s three guys sitting in the doorway.
“I’m like, ‘what are you doing here?’
“‘We’re lining up for the opening’.
“I just said, ‘why are you guys lining up!’
Incredibly, two of the three people lining up had flown interstate, eager to witness the launch of the world’s first video game bar. The grand opening was at 12 midday, four hours away -- and Guy, Pras, Yahtzee and Shay still had plenty to do in preparation.
“We were inside working away,” says Guy, but as time went on, that line grew quite significantly -- to the point when we did open, the line went down around the block and around the street on the other side, for this tiny little 60 person capacity bar.
How many were in the queue?
“Hundreds. Easily hundreds. And the enthusiasm was incredible.”
And then at 12, just like that, The Mana Bar severed its umbilical cord, making its final transformation from an insane, almost pathologically stupid idea into something very, very real.
The Mana Bar was open for business.
“Right away it was crazy. The atmosphere was electric. It was awesome. I almost wished I could see it from the perspective of everyone seeing the bar for the first time,” says Guy.
“I think everyone had an idea what it might be like, but it’s like -- very similar to developing a game -- you spend years developing this thing, working out the odds and ends, going through all the terrible stress and pressure, then there’s the crunch... and then the game goes out to the public and they play it.
“For us The Mana Bar was a very good game. It was a highly rated metacritic success!”
Incredibly, the Mana Bar’s very first 12-hour shift passed without a single hitch.
“We had no problems, no issues. We had no f**kwits,” claims Guy.
“And that was the thing that shocked Shay, because Shay is from the hospitality industry, and when you’re from the hospitality industry, customers are kinda dicks. Don’t get me wrong -- you treat them nice, you smile, etc -- but customers, especially drunk people, are difficult.
“I was like, ‘this is awesome.’ Shay was like ‘I don’t understand...’”
Then, as the sun began to set on Brisbane, rain began to patter on the hordes of cosplaying gamers queuing to participate in this unique moment in gaming history. Pras did the sensible thing and handed out umbrellas, Guy darted from group to group like Slurms Mackenzie on undiluted cordial. Shay poured drinks, and Yahtzee... tolerated the presence of other human beings.
But overall, there was the sense that something important was happening.
“It seemed as though everyone saw what we were trying to do, and they understood,” says Guy. “They understood that we weren’t trying to just open up another gimmicky bar.
“This bar is a celebration of gaming culture – it’s an excuse to celebrate the things that we like, and the passions we have. In the past gamers have been ostracised, or looked down upon, but this bar is a real validation -- it says ‘I’m not an anti-social person, and there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m passionate about this, in the same way you’re passionate about sports, or anything for that matter.’
“That kind of mentality -- a lot of people grabbed onto that I think.
“At least, that’s how I see it.”
“We closed the doors at 12 midnight,” says Guy, “and there were a few people who stuck around. Shay actually went out drinking afterwards to celebrate because he’s an absolute machine. Me? I just went home, because I knew we had to wake up and start all over again tomorrow. And that felt great.
“I was just on a high, but I was still hungover from the night before!”
Behind closed doors, Pras, Guy, Yahtzee and Shay breathed a sigh of relief, before affording themselves a brief moment of reflection.
Guy says, “Yahtzee sat back and said, ‘So it didn’t f**k up like I said it would. Oh well, there’s still time’. Pras looked at the till and he was delighted. I looked at the people and thought, ‘this really works’. As for Shay -- I think he was just happy his reputation wasn’t ruined.
“It was hard work, but every day from that point on was just so exciting, because it was our bar - The Mana Bar. It was a dream come true. Every guy at one point has turned round to their mate and said, 'You know what? We should open a bar!' But we actually went through with it.
“And whatever happens, from this point forward, we did it first, and we did it right.
“We did it big, we did it loud, and we did it in f**king Brisbane!”