Photo of four people playing VOLLEYGON at Deathmatch by Audio. All images courtesy of Nick Santaniello.

Imagine Pong but with weird, ever changing physics and colorful shapes that can move freely through the space rather than being tied to either edge of the screen. On the surface, that’s what VOLLEYGON is.

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There’s a lot more going on with the game beyond that simple conceit, however. Nick Santaniello, the game’s creator, says his main inspiration was a genre of Flash games he loosely calls “Slimeball,” and one game in particular called Slime Volleyball. “It was sort of a proto-physics game in which two half-circles try to headbutt a ball over a net toward each other with the curvature of the circle determining the angle of the shot,” he said.

Browsing the Internet to kill some time and procrastinate, Santaniello searched in vain for a contemporary version of the game but couldn’t find any good ones. That’s when he decided to make VOLLEYGON, a minimalist take on volleyball emphasizing teamwork and an “anti-gravity component” that gives players a way to set the ball and spike it.

Throughout development, Santaniello says the only thing that’s really changed is a “two bounces rule” that he added later on. Trying to stay faithful to the volleyball metaphor proved to punishing, with players scoring too easily. That’s when a coworker of his suggested making the game like tennis and requiring more than one bounce before scoring.

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“At first I thought that mixing references to volleyball and tennis would be too confusing, but ultimately, we’re creating a new game here, so why feel bound to the rules of volleyball or tennis?” Santaniello said. In the end though, that little tweak helped make VOLLEYGON what it is today. “The change ended up making the game so much more accessible, gave it more of a flow by giving players the opportunity to create longer rallies, and even created a nice tension by introducing scenarios in which the ball has already bounced once and the player knows they have to return the ball without letting it drop again.”

Two people sitting in an old Chrysler Newport watching the tournament.

But this only half of the story behind VOLLEYGON. The game isn’t available to download on Steam or Itch.io: it’s an arcade cabinet. Santaniello is part of the Death by Audio Arcade collective, a group of artists, programmers, and designers trying to rehabilitate a medium that was displaced by cheap computers and video game consoles.

“I see VOLLEYGON, and most of the games produced by Death by Audio Arcade, as a hybrid of a console couch multiplayer game and a traditional versus arcade game like Street Fighter II,” he said. “I remember being 10 years old and traveling not just to arcades but to places like my local laundromat or the neighborhood 7-11 just for an opportunity to play the game, which I couldn’t get at home yet, or to challenge local competitors.”

The feeling of in-real-life community that’s necessitated by arcade cabinets is part of what’s drawn Santaniello and others to them. It’s also why there’s so much focus on competitive experiences over solitary ones. “I’d love to see a competitive scene develop around the game like that where friends journey to play the game somewhere and meet new friends and rivals in the process,” he said.

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It could be VOLLEYGON, or it could be something else, but either way, Santaniello hopes that contemporary arcade cabinets will make it into communal places like bars and startup offices. “Arcade games are not just another cheap attempt to appeal to our sense of retro nostalgia, but rather an increasingly powerful, affordable, and accessible opportunity for people to play new digital games together in social spaces.”

The Deathmatch by Audio event took place in the Madwell office space in Brooklyn.

In an odd way, Santaniello got his wish last weekend when VOLLEYGON was shown off at the Deathmatch by Audio event held in the Madwell office space in Brooklyn. The venue belongs to a creative agency that agreed to let the collaborative hold their arcade event there. There was booze, games, and a startup atmosphere complete with a mid-60s Chrysler Newport sitting in the middle of the floor.

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“It’s sort of a conversation piece that doubles as a conference room,” explained Santaniello. “We put a projector on top of the car to broadcast the VOLLEYGON tournament on a giant screen in front of the car — so at times people were sitting in the car watching the tournament unfold in front of them. It was sort of surreal — it looked like a flashback to being at a drive-in movie, except with a contemporary indie arcade game (itself kind of a paradoxical concept) plastered across the screen.”

For Santaniello, it was a chance to see his game in its ideal setting, but also to have it tested, to watch strangers, in his words, “slap and smash a giant plywood box containing your game.” But he finds people are also more open and civil in person, willing to reach out to others for help if they don’t understand something about the game or what they’re doing wrong that’s not always present in online games. It’s also nice to be able to see the faces of the people you’re interacting with, leading to a more diverse crowd both competing and watching.

It’s a sentiment that games like Nidhogg and Towerfall: Ascension seem to share. While they have online and single-player modes, both games are meant to be experienced with another human being sitting (or standing) right next to you. Even Tim Rogers Videoball is more fun, and looks better, in a group setting, and it’s the entire rational behind something like Sportsfriends. Describing why Wii Sports was so great, one of Sportsfriends creators, Bennett Foddy, wrote, “When you get together to play games with friends, the space you’re in becomes a ritual space, like the stage at a concert or the altar at a wedding. It’s a space where you can trash-talk your friends or howl in defeat, where you can trick people, where you can laugh at their expense and dance on their grave.”

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At the moment, there’s only one VOLLEYGON though, and while Santaniello hopes to make a few more and get them into local bars and offices in the coming months, your best bet if you want to play the game yourself is to make a pilgrimage to MAGFest, the annual music and gaming festival, happening this upcoming January in National Harbor, Maryland.