Hipster City Cycle

Game developer Michael Highland on local Easter eggs and why “Bike Drink” makes him crash and burn

Mobile devices are the future of gaming, just as much as any other platform tied to a TV—a point that is not lost on indie game developers like Philly’s Port127. The company’s first title—Hipster City Cycle, a love letter to bikes, 8-bit games, and the streets of Philadelphia—will be released for the iPhone May 19. Players assume the role of Binky McKee, a skinny, mustachioed dude whose goal is to weave his way through traffic, party his way through his trust fund, and impress lady pedestrians with his trackstanding skills.

You can race Binky through various unlockable neighborhoods in Philly, distinguished by bizarro parodies of familiar sights in the background (like Pat’s, Geno’s, and the Queen Of Sheba) as well as on the road (Bui’s lunch truck, SEPTA, and Bolt Bus). The A.V. Club spoke with Port127’s creative director Michael Highland about reality blending, where to keep an eye out for local Easter eggs, and why “Bike Drink” tends to make Binky crash and burn.

The A.V. Club: The game includes a lot of parodies of real-world Philly sights. Are there any particular references or inside jokes that locals will appreciate?

Michael Highland: I think my favorite little inside joke is on the West Philadelphia map. Queen Of Sheba is a restaurant out there with a very distinctive front—the sign is written in Papyrus, which among typographers is a stereotypically obnoxious font to use, so [Keith McKnight, HCC’s art director] changed it to “Lady of Papyrus.”

And Keith drew all these different power-ups; when he originally gave me the images, they included a lot of alcohol and stuff we couldn’t have in the game, but I wanted to try to figure out a way to get a PBR can in there. So there’s this PBR-can-looking power-up in the game called “Bike Drink.” When you pick it up, it gives you a big speed boost, but reverses your steering momentarily. Almost every time I pick up a PBR in the game, I get this massive speed boost and then crash and die. It’s one of my favorites.

AVC: The streets are remarkably detailed. Did you go out into the various neighborhoods and take pictures?

MH: The first map we did was Center City, and that one was just taken block by block. We made sure to pay attention to landmarks, but still have them exist within the game world—like, there’s a big church on Walnut, just past Rittenhouse, and the stained glass windows in the game are all scenes from retro video games like Mario and Donkey Kong.

So, as you can see, at the beginning, Keith was putting a ton of detail in. When we realized the game would expand out to other neighborhoods, it became clear that we were either going to have to get more artists or Keith would have to tone down the level of detail.

So a lot of the time, we’d sit down and brainstorm what locations in each neighborhood we wanted to highlight. In South Philly, we wanted to make sure we had the Italian Market, Pat’s, and Geno’s, so Keith worked on creating those specific elements and then we pieced them into a larger design with a more generic set of tiles mixed in. But yeah, the process was slow. We just took it one map at a time. 

AVC: You’ve mentioned that you want the game to be something of a collaborative art piece. What do you mean by that?

MH: Even though it’s a casual game and just for fun, the fact that we’re blending reality to some degree is something that really excited me. Like, the quote I used was, “If you’ve ever had a Paperboy flashback while biking in the city, this game was made for you.” If you grew up playing NES and Super Nintendo and now you’re in your mid-to-late 20s living in Philly, this game is sort of a weird, dream-mixed reality—pulling elements from childhood memories of games, then mixing them with real people and real locations.

AVC: There’s been media buzz lately about something of a mass exodus of game designers from Philly. What made you want to do this game in Philadelphia?

MH: When we got started, I was just really in love with the city. If we tried doing the same game in New York, I think that it would’ve gotten lost in the mix. Philly was the perfect size to do this project, because there’s a lot of people, and word travels quickly—even though the game-development community is relatively small, everyone knows each other, so I had a lot of support. I definitely hope that in the future there will be an opportunity to move this franchise on to other cities, but I still see Philly as, at least for me and my personality, a really great place to be working on games.

AVC: Another Philly studio, Final Form Games, and the lobbying group the Videogame Growth Initiative, seem to be helping to usher in more and more growth in the industry. Do you see Philly ever becoming a major hub in the gaming industry?

MH: It’s definitely possible. What I like about Philly is that it’s got sort of a DIY, indie vibe going on. If Electronic Arts set up an office in the city, I think that corporate element would definitely shift Philly to more of an industry hub. And I do think that it’s a possibility—you know, it’s an ideal location geographically, and there’s a ton of talent. Personally, I’d be just as happy if people kept doing independent games and the big companies don’t necessarily move in. My hope is that some of the independent groups continue to get more momentum to the point where there’s a community of medium-sized independent studios doing contract work with other publishers or developers. That’d be pretty sweet.