The Waffle Game That Changed Their Lives

You've never heard of this game. It's in only one cabinet, playable in one city and, generously estimating, maybe it makes a dollar a day. Nothing about this video game suggests it's someone's meal ticket, but it is. For life.

Built over the past year, Off The Waffle the game, found in Off The Waffle the restaurant, isn't some self-regarding art piece commissioned by those who run a trendy breakfast spot in Eugene, Ore. Some things are, recognizably, a gift. This is such a thing.

And though the game, in its wooden, hand-finished arcade cabinet, with cartoon characters based on the cooks racing around in the back, has given smiles to everyone in the restaurant, ultimately, it wasn't made for anybody who works here.

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There's a barter board in the dining room where folks scribble down what they have for exchange - either with others, or for credit in the restaurant. Off The Waffle's owners, Dave and Omer Orian, two Israeli brothers with wild haircuts, are serious about supporting the trade. "We barter," the sign says. Someone once paid for their meal with a trumpet.

Richard Hofmeier saw the sign a little over a year ago when he first visited the restaurant, then located in the Orian brothers' home in Eugene's funky Whiteaker neighborhood. Hofmeier wondered if the Orians would be interested in anything he had or could make.

Hofmeier, 28, was constantly bringing projects back to his Eugene gallery, Ink Thirsty, and the cast of characters who worked or hung out there. They'd done video games before - if there's a hulking lump under a drop cloth at Hofmeier's place, that's probably an arcade cabinet. This time he had a wild idea for the guys.

'Let's make a video game and see if we can get free waffles for life.'

Let's make a video game and see if we can get free waffles for life, Hofmeier said.

The guys included Ryan Martin, a programmer; Ward Gross, who'd built cabinets; Hofmeier's girlfriend, Jenny Kuglin, the gallery's photographer, handled playtesting; occasionally Conrad Williams, a glassblower, would also stop by, and through Williams, Ink Thirsty acquired its teenage associate, Devin Caldwell.

Devin, 14, lives in apartments in the area - affordable housing, so you may deduce his circumstances. A bright and very soft-spoken kid, the constant moving in his unstable family life left Devin with few friends his age at a particularly vulnerable time. One day he was playing guitar in Williams' glassblowing studio and Hofmeier came by to return something. He tuned the boy's guitar and the two struck up a friendship, centered around video games. Devin wanted to learn how to program them. Hofmeier figured he could teach him a few skills and give the boy a place to hang out. One night the whole crew went out for waffles the Orians' place, bringing along Devin.

"Conrad had mentioned it a couple of times, but I didn't think to go there because it was in a strange location," Devin said. "But it smelled good, every time I walked down that street."

By now you're probably wondering what the fuss is about these waffles. Well, they're Belgian, but they're not that thing you've popped out of the rotating iron at the end of the breakfast bar. That's a Brussels waffle, and it's made from a light pancake-type batter. Most of its flavor comes from what you heap on top of it.

What the Orians serve is a Liège waffle, which takes its name from a city about 60 miles east of Brussels. It's a heavier construction, coming from a yeast-based dough and its distinguishing trait is the sugar that caramelizes throughout it as it cooks. The Orians import Belgian pearled sugar to make it all authentic. They serve a variety of savory and sweet dishes and do a brisk business selling frozen waffles for folks to prepare at home. Hofmeier loves them so much, a cup of black coffee and a warm, plain Liège waffle is breakfast enough.

Devin says Hofmeier tasked him with games design, in the quest for free lifetime waffles for everybody. "He asked if I could think up a few ideas," Devin says, "so I brought out a pen and paper and drew up some minigames."

Some of his first designs made it into the final production. In one, a cartoon Omer Orian zips back and forth trying to catch waffles while avoiding other objects. In another, a waffle serves as a kind of Simon-type game, lighting up its quadrants in a sequence the player must repeat.

Putting these together was a harder task. "I didn't know too much about programming," Devin said. "I was trying to read a manual on how to do it, and teaching myself a little bit about programming while [Hofmeier] was working on it. I was going down there after school, and on Saturdays coming in after lunch."

Hofmeier eventually taught him the lines of code necessary for moving a character across the screen. "It's hard on your brain, a little bit," Devin said. "I've seen people get really frustrated with the coding errors."

Hofmeier thought the game would take a couple of months to build. But lacking a deadline, the work dragged from two months to four, to six, and eight, as Hofmeier and Devin kept working up additional minigames and fine-tuning the ones they'd already built. Kuglin handled the playtesting, with indispensable feedback. Eventually, the team settled on a something comprising eight minigames served in short timed bursts, with three "lives" overall. The game was made in Windows; Martin handled its port over to a Linux-based machine, because they wanted the cabinet to boot directly to the game once it turned on.

The Waffle Game That Changed Their Lives

"We were very careful about which friends we allowed to see it," Hofmeier said. "We lived in this art gallery so there was a lot of art under drapes, but those we showed it to, we made them swear allegiance to not tell."

Moreover, Hofmeier kept the team from being regulars at Off The Waffle, in order to complete the surprise when it was finally delivered. "We still thought about waffles every day, and we did go there a few times, but I tried to keep us from going there all the time," he said.

But a delivery date was never set until September. That's when Kuglin told Hofmeier she'd gotten a a great job opportunity up in Seattle. Then Hofmeier realized the game had to be finished, so they could collect the bounty before he left with her.

"I don't want to say we were dragging our feet, but we were able to stay in a constant cycle of development, embellishment and putting things in," Hofmeier said. "It was rewarding enough just to stay busy, and a a learning exercise for me and Devin. But if Jenny didn't get the job, who knows how long this would have gone on."

Two days before they planned to wheel it in to Off the Waffle, the team got together to finish the cabinet. The stick and button came from an old arcade game; parts of an IKEA bed helped form the case. A hand-routed sign forms the display. The only extravagance is its flat panel monitor; Hofmeier said they'd installed a cheap CRT display, but he became worried about its color balance and splurged for a better one. He reckons the cash value of the machine's components - not including the two quarters and a dime they drilled holes through when they ran out of washers - is about $300.

Kuglin called the restaurant and gave a fake story about filing an employment application to ask if Dave and Omer were in that evening. She was told the next morning - the day she and Hofmeier planned to drive to Seattle. So on Sunday, Oct. 31, Hofmeier and Kuglin drove over in their U-Haul, the Off The Waffle game loaded last in the back of the truck. Martin and Williams rode along, and Devin arrived with his mom and a couple of friends. Williams went in and quietly asked a couple patrons to scoot their table away from the back wall's power socket. Then Hofmeier wheeled the cabinet down the truck's ramp and in the front door.

"We were shocked," Omer Orian said. "We were just surprised and flattered. They did it simply out of the goodness of their own hearts. It's one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for us."

Hofmeier was nervous, though. It was a gift, but it was also a transaction. Though it took a year of work - and $300, if you wanted to talk money - he had no idea if the Orians would play ball with a request as grandiose as free waffles for life.

The gift here is, really, one of communion. A boy embarking on his teenage years with few anchors in a chaotic world has a place he may call his own, with people there who know him and will welcome him always.

"I tried to be the voice of reason when we built this," Hofmeier said, "I didn't know if we'd get anything out of it. I was saying, ‘Hey, everybody, we might get a $10 gift certificate."

After everyone played it, Dave Orian offered them a breakfast. "Let's all sit down, eat some waffles, and talk about this," he said, recognizing this was a barter.

"They said, ‘What can we do for you,'" Hofmeier said. "And I said, ‘We only want one thing, and it's free waffles for life - for this guy over here. Devin."

Devin, digging into a waffle under a mountain range of whipped cream, stopped and arched his eyebrows.

This, Hofmeier says, was the plan all along. "He didn't know he was going to be the sole beneficiary," Hofmeier said. "We'd tell him things like we were going to split the quarters that came from it, or all of the quarters would go into a trust fund for him when he turned 18. He thought the waffles would be for me, and occasionally I might take him there with me.

"He's not a kid," Hofmeier said, "who thinks he's going to get things."

The Orians considered the request and started speaking to each other in Hebrew. Hofmeier started thinking he'd asked too much. "It wasn't just the waffles, I was also asking them to showcase this big flashy noisy business card," Hofmeier said, "this piece of furniture that requires maintenance and electricity."

David and Omer agreed. Whenever Devin wants to, he may visit and be treated to a meal of waffles. For life.

Devin's not a poor kid. He's not going to go hungry, were it not for the waffles. The gift here is, really, one of communion. A boy embarking on his teenage years with few anchors in a chaotic world has a place he may call his own, with people there who know him and will welcome him always.

"There's something else you get, when you are given food," Hofmeier says. "It's a different exchange. And I'm sure it fills you in a different way."

Ward Gross, the cabinet builder, has now moved to Los Angeles. Richard Hofmeier and Jenny Kuglin trucked up I-5 to Seattle, where she's working and he's looking to break into the games development scene. Omer and Dave Orian sent them on their way with two coolers full of frozen waffles. Conrad Williams still works in his glassblowing studio, and Ryan Martin's in Eugene, keeping tabs on Devin. And Devin's job is to keep the machine in working order.

"If the joystick or the button doesn't work, I told Devin he has to do it. He has to fix it," Hofmeier said, though Martin is waiting with support, if necessary.

"He said, ‘I don't know how to fix a video game.' I said, ‘You'll learn,'" Hofmeier said. "And he will."

Top pic: The delivery of the game Off The Waffle. From left, Ryan Martin, Richard Hofmeier, Conrad Williams