Tucked under the High Line in Chelsea is a brand new cafe that also serves as a bit of a testament to communities of interest. Under Line Coffee opened its doors just a few weeks ago, in a quiet little space tucked off the main beaten path just North of Chelsea Market. The space is designed simply, with little flash and tastefully subtle details - a floral design is painted on the floor, a scrap of leather is fitted into one of the front tables, the main bar features a thermally reactive coating that reveals a poem written by hand beneath the surface. Walking in, it was a bit dark, perhaps due to the color palette, or perhaps because the lighting had not been fully realized by the time I stopped in. Indeed, while the doors were open, the cafe was still gearing up for its full service potential, and had not begun using its ceramic serviceware for most drinks, except perhaps for straight espresso.
Image source: underlinecoffee on Instagram
But its raw bone structure showed promise, and gave strong hints of a unique character to come. Rather than the typical ACF or d’Ancap, or the more modern Not Neutral ceramic serviceware you might find at most cafes, Under Line chose to go with a rather unique porcelain - each piece featuring a series of decorative dimples that betrays just how thin and delicate the cup or plate is. They are light and plain, but not unrefined. Perhaps in contrast, the Kees van der Westen Mirage Idrocompresso behind the bar, with its gleaming curves and lever handles proudly lofted upward, is one of the more glamorous and eyecatching espresso machines available today.
Most interesting to me are the custom-made copper pour over stands and kettles. Made by Monarch Methods, the radiant copper stands weren’t fully mounted during my visit, but certainly stood out against the dark bar. The small pouring kettles are wrapped in thick leather, forgoing handles entirely. I do wonder if they will have sufficient volume for a full Beehouse brew, but that will be determined by a future visit, I’m certain. Still, the sanded copper locks in some warmth to the color palette available to visitors - imagine deep red-brown coffee blooming in a stark white Beehouse dripper, against bright copper on a dark background. I can already see myself sitting for a few hours at that bar, chatting with the barista.
So, let’s talk about the coffee then, the key component of this formula. I’m no stranger to the Toby’s Estate beans they serve, and the small cappuccino I was served featured the Flatiron blend well. It was clear that my barista was still working on his milk steaming technique, and the blobby foam suffered from the blandness of a touch too much air. Beyond that, the flavor was good and sweet, the espresso offering a caramel and dark chocolate counterpoint to tie the drink together. If drip-brewed coffee had been available, I would have sampled that, but I suppose I’ll need to wait for a future visit. I did note that batch french press brews were available, but I opted to skip this time.
The whole reason I stopped in, however, was because of a simple and gracious post on Reddit’s /r/coffee subreddit. Brandon told us how the community had helped him grow as a barista, and refine his passion for coffee - which allowed him to contribute that much more to the formation of Under Line. As a frequent contributor to the community myself, I was a bit proud of my fellow coffee enthusiasts, as this felt like a success story for a group of people more often known for perceived snobbery. I freely admit to being a bit of a snob myself, but only because I think it has done wonderful things for my own coffee experience, and I’d love to share that same feeling with others who may be open to it. I think that’s exactly what Brandon is doing, and you can see it in his own posts on social media. He’s proud of his progress, he’s thankful for the help he’s received, and he’s appreciative of the community that has come together to help people just like him. That’s one of my favorite parts about online social media, so I jumped at the opportunity to come experience the culmination of his hard work myself.
I think Under Line has a few growing pains to work through, and needs a little more time before they’ve fully come to their own and refined their coffee program, but I would still recommend a visit. It’s easy to gravitate toward the well-oiled and more dominant machine of Intelligentsia nearby, but Under Line is set to give them a good bit of friendly competition I think. Hell, if you’re up to it, stop by both and grab an espresso from each - I think you’ll find they are both worth the money and the caffeine jitters.
Image source: underlinecoffee on Instagram
Under Line Coffee can be found at 511 W 20th St. in Chelsea, under the High Line as the name implies. Be sure to check them out on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as well.
It seems to be a good week for discussing what to do when we’ve had a bad experience at a business. Drew Moody recently tweeted about how he wrestles with writing and posting negative reviews on his blog. Just this morning, I read an article written by a Canadian food blogger about why she thinks negative reviews are valuable. I’m inclined to agree with Ms. Pak, I feel worse about coddling a business than I do giving them my honesty, even if it’s negative.
My opinion is influenced by my design background; in school, we would regularly present our work to our class for critique. You, as a designer, had to quickly learn to grow a thick skin, because the piece your peers are ripping to shreds in front of you is the same one you spent the last three bleary-eyed nights slaving over. Those fresh pairs of eyes and the brains behind them weren’t subject to the same creative vacuum as your own, and they didn’t share whatever arrogance or naïveté that considered yours to be a masterpiece. The guy you thought was your best friend could be your most scathing critic. But there’s real value to having the wind ripped from your sails like that, especially if your creative endeavors are intended for any sort of audience.
Whether or not I agreed with the opinions of my peers, I always valued the fact that they all had different backgrounds than I did, that they all had something to contribute and at least one thing they would change. I could easily ignore everything they had to say and continue to push on, but the likelihood of me being able to grow as a creative would then be diminished. My chances of success would hinge upon my own ability to assume the needs and wants of my audience - and let’s face it, as a student that ability is often pretty awful. Even in the three short years between my first critique and my last day of classes, I could look back and spot my flawed judgment, and see how I grew over time. Though my audience was small, and fairly homogeneous at the time, they were still a group of people other than myself that I had to appeal to, and they gave me the benefit of honest feedback that allowed me to grow.
Honesty is the key factor here. Honesty is the differentiator between critics and fanatics (or “haters”), it’s the value proposition of the reviewer or the blogger. And if you look around online, sometimes reviews only come in when they’re very negative or very positive - Amazon reviews for cheap espresso machines are always entertaining, because they’re all the very best thing that $40 can buy apparently. Are those honest or helpful? Perhaps it’s difficult to say, in that particular medium, with that audience.
Honest critique is something I feel is necessary for growth. It can be too easy to fall for the hype surrounding a new cafe or product, just as it can be too easy to become the habitual skeptic or naysayer. If you’re honest to the business and to yourself as a critic, then you’ve done the best you can to everybody involved. The business doesn’t have to agree with you, but if they’re true to themselves they’ll at least keep an open mind and be receptive of your opinion. I think it’s important we recognize the value of negativity if it’s not malicious, because we’re not all special flowers. Some of us are average, but if we’re striving to be truly special, the best anyone can do for us is to let us know where we stand.
"If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all." That’s bullshit. Write what you think, don’t sugar-coat it, and don’t be an asshole about it. Put something out there that’s actually worth reading.
musings of a ragamuffin: The #2Dto3D Challenge. -
As many of you know, i started the #2Dto3D initiative a few weeks ago through a blogpost and Twitter postings. The goal of the #2Dto3D initiative is very simple, it’s meant to take as many of your 2D social media relationships into 3D, or “in real life.” This in turn builds stronger…
It just goes to show that there’s not an original thought in the world, and in this case I couldn’t be more happy. When I started Counter Talk last year, I spoke about how I wanted to bring online social interactions back into the real world, with coffee as my muse. I wanted to help repopulate cafes with the sound of chatter and laughter, rather than the clack of keyboard keys. Beansprout has a similar goal, in that I’m appealing to folks who already gather digitally, and trying to bring them together in person. So, what can you do for your community? Go out and invite your digital connections to real-world meetups. It takes seconds to do and the payoff can be huge. Just go for it!
I love Google+ these days, especially for their Hangouts On Air. There’s nothing like being able to have 10 people video chat simultaneously, with more in the wings on the live stream, all getting packed nicely into a YouTube video once it’s over.
And it’s perfect for Beansprout. Starting this Sunday, February 10th at 2 PM, I plan on hosting regular Hangouts for Beansprout, where I’ll do a live demonstration or lesson, and take any questions you might have. This week, I’ll be going over simple tips and tricks to getting the best out of your automatic drip machine, which I’m sure a lot of folks are curious about!
So, join me this Sunday in Google+! I’ll tweet the link a few times on Sunday, as well as share it to my Google+ feed. I’m excited to see who pops in to join us!
musings of a ragamuffin: Behmor vs. Bonavita vs. Fetco Comparison Lab. -
For anyone looking for a great automatic home brewer, here’s a bit of a comparison done by Jason Dominy. The result: both the Bonavita ($129), and the Behmor Brazen ($199) will brew a damn fine cup. Check Jason’s post for all the details of the testing, with some updates to come on temperature control and time.
Home brewers have always gotten a bad rap from more experienced coffee lovers, because it could never replicate the consistent and balanced brews of a good commercial brewer like the Fetco and Bunn brewers you find in your local independent coffee shop.
Home coffee could never be as good as your…
Hm, I haven’t been posting much, have I?
At the end of my spring semester, I was incredibly busy. 140cuse had just wrapped up, I was gearing up to head to Boston for the summer, I had finals to finish, my sister was graduating. It was a whirlwind time, and I had to prioritize some things in order to survive, so understandably, my blog-on-the-side fell off the radar for a bit. The thing was, that tempest really didn’t settle until halfway through the summer.
My internship took up most of my time through June and into July, mainly due to some wifi issues at the office that had me taking work home. At some point, I remembered Counter Talk, and this Tumblr, and thought about getting back to writing. After all, I have a bit of a backlog of posts that I owe people. People who took the time to talk with me, whose conversations were exactly the point of starting this blog in the first place. And those posts will get written. But for now, my cogs are spinning, polishing off a new and different take on what I started last year. Because here’s the long and short of it: Counter Talk is exhausting.
Don’t get me wrong, Counter Talk was amazing for me, to get to meet so many passionate minds, share what I love about coffee, and get them talking about what drives their creativity. But I didn’t give myself a break. Whenever I was running low on material to write about, I was actively seeking a new person to meet with. Then I had the speaking circuit for 140, as well as my academics. If I were working with coffee full time, Counter Talk would be much more schedule and resource feasible, but as a student, it became too much. The break I allowed myself over the summer showed me that, frankly, I didn’t exactly miss it. Not as originally designed, anyway.
I loved meeting with everybody, but one of the main premises that got me started was the idea that I would be able to plant some seeds about coffee in other peoples’ minds. I think that worked, to a certain extent, but as I developed my game plan more, I found that I was talking about coffee less and less. In order to write about the other person, I had to switch off coffee-mode, and switch on journalist-mode. I’m a terrible journalist though. I can ask questions, and I can write down responses and format them for a blog post, but I have no passion for it. It’s somebody else’s craft. I lost sight of my own passion, mainly to make my writing more interesting to a wider audience. And I think that’s the wrong way to approach this space.
I want to start writing about coffee more, and I want to be a bridge between consumers and professionals in the specialty coffee industry. I think I have a unique perspective, one that plays both sides of that line - while I’m not a full-on professional in coffee, I am not a typical consumer either. I rub elbows with both groups, and understand their viewpoints, but I don’t share many of the roadblocks to having an efficient dialogue. At least, that’s how I currently see it, and that’s my inspiration to pivot on my heel and pursue a different sort of direction.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be wrapping up the last set of Counter Talk interviews: Xelinda Yancy, Chris Becker, ZPM Espresso, Baked Magazine, and Rounded Development. From then on, I’ll be focusing more on weekly coffee writing, covering all sorts of topics from machines to brew methods, global news, and so on. Expect some more editorial writing as well, because I’ve got opinions too, damnit!
But here’s the cool part, especially if you’re a Syracuse local; I’ll still be meeting with people, but this time I’ll be teaching. I want to set up a regular event with a small group of people, 4-5 seats let’s say, and take an hour to teach about coffee and answer all of your coffee-related questions. I have always enjoyed answering questions as I brew a pot of coffee for my meetings, but now I’ll be applying a structure and offering it as a service to those who want to learn something new. My hope is that this will begin to build a new community of appreciation locally, whether it’s at businesses or just at the university with a random group of strangers. $5 gets you an hour of lessons, all your questions answered, a fresh cup of coffee, and some goodies to take home, and hopefully gets you set on your path to the best coffee you’ve ever had. Because I won’t be meeting so often, and I won’t have to write about it so much, I’ll be able to put more focus into the new project, and make sure I’m providing a service people appreciate. So, we’ll see how this goes, I’d really like to make a bit of an impact in this part of Syracuse’s community.
It’s called Beansprouts, and it’s coming to Syracuse this spring.
Until then, catch me on Twitter @SteveRhinehart, I’m always happy to chat!
Heh. I love #cmgrchat, probably this much.
WHEN I JOIN #CMGRCHAT ON WEDNESDAYS.
In Search Of Life: Coffee Talk -
These are some of the same points I strive to hit with Counter Talk, as well as in my talks. Coffee has always been part of communities, so taking a break from the online world to celebrate that history really isn’t a bad or scary thing. Unplug and enjoy the company of your fellows!
This morning I noted with great curiosity that Handsome Coffee Roasters of LA is conspicuously missing wireless internet. Tell this to any A-level hipster and he might kill you; hipsters of course thrive on coffee and wi-fi (and the sacrificed clothing of much poorer people, gotten in secret area…
It’s been a bit over a year since I got my first Aeropress, and a few months more than that since I got my first DISK filter. I purchased a 010 model DISK for my Bialetti moka pot, back when Coava was still the company behind the helm of the DISK and Kone filters. These days, the DISK is made by Able Brewing, a spin-off of Coava, and the DISK is a-changing with time. This brings me to the subject of this review: the new,
unreleased soon-to-be-released, DISK Fine.
Image via Prima Coffee. More images to come, my last batch was awful.
I mentioned my Aeropress history to underscore the fact that, by now, I’m quite familiar with my 010 DISK, having used it nearly every day for over a year - about 500 brews or so. That DISK iteration has the largest holes, it’s thicker, and it brews a damn fine cup of coffee. The brews are a bit body-heavy, with some sediment in the bottom of the cup, but the richness in flavor and dead simple brewing more than make up for that. When Prima Coffee let the Twitterverse volunteer to help test the DISK Fine, I knew I had to sign up, not only for the curiosity to see what Able had been cookin’, but to weigh in as a frequent and experienced DISKer. As luck would have it, I was indeed selected to be a tester!
The first thing I did upon receiving the DISK Fine was to compare it to my beloved 010. The Fine is noticeably thinner - almost papery in comparison to the 010. It flexes, and likely bends (I don’t have the guts to try that!), quite easily, almost feeling flimsy. The holes are innumerable, and quite small, and certainly don’t appear quite as conical to the naked eye.
The DISK, like its big ol’ brother, the Kone filter for Chemex, is made from photochemically etched stainless steel. What that means exactly is, well, a mystery to me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it involved a shallow chemical bath and lasers. The result, in the case of either filter, is a definite precision feel, making the cost to buy in feel more worthwhile. This was the reason I first fell in love with my DISK 010 - it was obviously well-engineered, and despite not having brewed coffee with it, I knew it was a good purchase.
The Fine threw me though, as that flimsy quality seemed distinctly not like the DISK I knew. Still, looking at the size and count of the filter holes, I guessed that it was a factor of manufacturing, a design choice I would probably understand if I were an engineer or something. Besides, this was a free test unit, complimentary to me, and not something I should be too picky about so let’s just brew some damn coffee!
Aeropress, preheated, inverted, 18 grams of coffee, 290 grams of water, ground around medium drip. Steep for 1:15, invert, remove the plunger, add the remaining water (it doesn’t all fit the first go), plunge for about :30.
Result? Bright, biting, crisp, sour, yuck. Not what I was expecting, but I noticed quite a few key differences. The first were the obvious drips while inverting. This new filter appeared to leak much like the stock paper filters do for the Aeropress. The plunge, too, offered far less resistance than I’m used to with the 010, which I at first attributed to obviously having the wrong grind fineness (too coarse this time). But no, even with subsequent dialed in brews, the Fine acts more like a membrane than a piece of steel, allowing liquid to pass easily through into the cup. The more I brewed, and the more I compared to the 010 filter, the more I realized the Fine performs like a paper filter. So I brewed them back to back; first a paper filter brew, then a DISK Fine brew.
The results didn’t surprise me so much as they confirmed my assumption. I used the same recipe (below), made sure to thoroughly rinse my paper filter, and weighed and time scrupulously. The paper filter brew was what I thought it would be - balanced, sweet, clean, and only slightly tangy (the remnants of a washed Ethiopian). The Fine, however, brought out all the same notes, with the addition of a chocolate undertone that was lacking with the paper. Presumably, this is the result of fines in suspension. This was arguably more balanced than the previous, as that tang - still present - was now tamed a bit by this milky chocolate. It was honestly one of my best Aeropress brews to date. Not exactly a religious experience, but I think I have a new favorite filter.
So how can I sum this up…The DISK Fine is like a permanent paper filter for the Aeropress, in the sense that it brews much like a paper filter does, with none of the setup time and pre-rinsing, with the added faculty of increased body and low notes. Try a finer grind and a lower dose, and stirring helps. Also, be careful when cleaning the DISK Fine, as it bends easily, and unless Able chooses a thicker material (they might, it’s been mentioned on Twitter that the thin material wasn’t exactly desirable), you run the risk of creasing it if you scrub/rub too hard.
The Able Brewing DISK Fine should be available this summer, for about $12.50. If you Aeropress, it’s worth it!
Brewing with the DISK Fine:
17g coffee, ground finer than drip (moka pot)
250g water at ~205 F
Preheat the Aeropress with water just off the boil. Drain and add grounds.
Add about half the water, stir once and bloom for 45 seconds. Add rest of water, steep one minute. Add filter, screw on cap, flip onto a mug, and let sit for another 15-20 seconds, before pressing within 40 seconds. Total brew time is about 2:40.
UPDATE: Keith from Able let me know via Twitter that the retail DISK Fine will still be thin - a constraint that allows for the smaller holes. He also said there will be photos and video of the magical (probably not laser) etching process on the site. So be sure to check out Able Brewing’s page in the coming months!
musings of a coffee ragamuffin.: Why I Think The Coffee Ambush Is So Important. -
I can’t deny Jason’s work didn’t influence me when I was formulating how Counter Talk would work. I don’t exactly show up and brew for companies, but the idea of sharing for the sake of sharing really resonates with me. Jason asks for nothing in return for his brews, he simply wants to introduce a broader perspective of coffee to more people. What a fantastic dude! Currently wondering if there’s a way I can do the same sort of thing in Boston this summer….
So, after this morning’s events (some knucklehead breaking into my rental car and stealing my two Coffee Ambush bags with my Baratza Vario-W, Clevers, scales, etc.), I’ve been thinking about just what they’ve become and where I’d like them to head. My first Coffee Ambush was for my friends at…
Yesterday was the big day, the much anticipated 140cuse conference. With forty-five speakers, over 600 in attendance, not to mention thousands following online, the event was a huge success, and I was glad to be a part of it. You may remember David Rosen, who I met with for Counter Talk a short while ago; the guy deserves a million beers right now. The hard work put in by David and his team paid off big time, and more than a few speakers (some of which were frequent conference-goers) were sure to mention how well-put together it was.
David and the Tech Crew backstage getting things prepped to start.
The crowd starting to fill in. Not long after, it was standing room only.
As I mentioned previously, I was a student speaker in the 140challenge, which saw me giving my talk about this very project, pitted against my fellow students and friends Isaac Budmen, Sam Morrison, and Alyssa Henry. Sadly, Alyssa opted out yesterday, being fairly busy with speaker interviews, so it was just the guys presenting. I went first, switching up my talk a bit from the previous format (video to come soon), followed by Sam - backflip included - and then Isaac. The crowd turnout was pretty good despite being during the lunch hour, and all three of us were on our game, delivering solid presentations (the other two certainly did, I would hesitate to include myself). After we presented, the show returned to the main stage in the Schine Underground, and after a quick post-lunch talk by Eric Stoller, Anthony Rotolo asked us to join him and Jeff Pulver on the stage to announce the winner. I’m happy to announce that Isaac Budmen won the prize, with his stellar talk on using digital and social technologies to enhance your world and your learning, outside of more traditional educational means. His message resonates clearly with a wide audience, myself included; after all, I just got my summer job on the internet, never having met my employer face to face. The world is changing, it’s far more connected online, and Isaac is quick to point out the merits of that trend.
Tim Pool showing off his front flip skills after the 140challenge talks.
Jeff Pulver, however, really outdid himself, by not only providing Isaac with a speaking spot at 140NYC this summer, but also by offering to take the other 140challengers to the conference as well. He is an incredibly generous man, and I am humbled. There really weren’t any losers in this challenge, thanks to him.
Counter Talk “Speed Dating”
What kind of barista would I be if I weren’t finding a way to brew coffee at this event? I was turned down by food services at the school, so I wasn’t able to set up a table anywhere, but I brought my suitcase anyway, and held miniature Counter Talk sessions with friends and speakers. It was a phenomenal time, especially since I made sure everybody exchanged something of value for their brew. Well, I intended to anyway - I forgot to ask a few people along the way. I brewed a home-roasted Ethiopia Pulp Natural Guji, via both Kalita Wave dripper, and Aeropress with Able Brewing’s DISK Fine filter (more on that in an upcoming post). I wasn’t completely happy with this roast, but I didn’t get any complaints from others, so I think they were satisfied. Here’s who I got to brew for:
Carol is a fellow iSchool grad student, who is enrolled in my social media class. She shared a comical story from her days as a pipe fitter and welder, when a piece of slag fell down behind her protective apron and into her bra. As she struggled to pat it out, she noted that all the male fitters around were awfully eager to lend a hand. Anything to “help,” right?
Another social media student from my class, Jessica spoke with me about her volunteerism with The Future Fund of CNY. They are a local organization, part of a non-profit, which she described as a “giving circle,” meaning they pool funding into a grant, and the membership votes on where to distribute it each year. I always like to hear about projects like this, giving back to and supporting the local communities.
Jen paid me a rather nice compliment, saying she thought I should have won the 140challenge. Much appreciated Jen!
Jeff needed no exchange in my mind, he’s given me plenty of stories, a trip to New York, lots of hugs, and more, in the short time I’ve known him.
Poor Julia, I was rather dopey and didn’t realize at first she was patiently waiting her turn in line while talking with me. Still, she exchanged her musings on riding a motorcycle, and we chatted about the stark difference between riding in a car, and being more exposed on something like a motorcycle or, in my case, a jet ski that one time. She noted that the smells were most intriguing, as they come on quite vividly and suddenly when on a bike. A forest smells far different on a motorcycle than it does as a hiker.
Once again, another social media student (#Rotoloclass repped #140cuse quite well!), Chelsea got off without an exchange, but we did chat for a bit.
Isaac won the #140challenge, so I congratulated him with a cup of coffee! Poor guy looked like he needed it by late afternoon too.
Isaac, Chelsea, Julia hanging out, enjoying coffee and conversation. As it should be.
Tim Pool, known for his citizen journalist style coverage of Occupy Wall Street, came over with Jeff Pulver for a quick cup. He told us about his family’s cafe in Chicago, which sadly fell prey to prolonged construction on the sidewalks, killing foot traffic. Tim knows a bit about coffee himself, as a result, and explained how to properly taste coffee - slurping! Doing so sprays your whole palate with coffee at once, and introduces air, allowing more complete tasting. I got a good deal of practice in slurping back at Coffee Fest during the cupping class I took. It’s hard not to suck too hard and inhale, choke and cough when you’re just starting out…
Also cool about Tim’s family cafe: apparently they got some tips and pointers on coffee from another Chi-town institution - Intelligentsia. Very cool!
Tim and Jeff waiting while I boil more water. Friendly guys!
Ariel is another student, inhabitant of the #NEXIS, and founder of the up-and-coming dating site YouShouldDate.Me. She offered the story of how she grew up loving architecture, cutting out furniture and things from magazines to put in her sketchbook of drawings. Her grandmother once spotted her cutting out some furniture, and commented that it was nice she was making suggestions for the interior. Ariel corrected her and said they’re not suggestions, that’s what the room will look like. Her grandmother disagreed, and said you can’t tell them what furniture they have to use. Over the years, her grandmother’s insights pushed her away from architecture, and the single people of the world will likely be better for it!
Ariel speaking with Jeff Pulver.
Eric was a blast to talk to, however briefly. He left me with his awesome, slightly dizzying business cards. These ones are keepers for sure!
I know nothing about Andy, but I offered him a cup during my final rounds in the room before it got closed up. Thanks for indulging me, Andy!
Yesterday was a seriously great time, I can’t wait to do it again this summer, and next year!
In a windowless room in downtown Syracuse, a fierce battle is about to erupt. A muscular warrior stands facing a dragon with…a unibrow? Trogdor, the infamous Burninator of HomestarRunner.com, is about to be slain by none other than Grotolo, a social media warrior – with the body of a He-Man action figure, the head of Syracuse University’s own Anthony Rotolo, and armed with Social Media. Literally. Welcome to GraFighters.
After getting multiple recommendations to meet with the Syracuse-based game startup, I checked out some of their stuff online. It struck me that the game had a few things in common with my own team capstone from RIT, SketchBox, and I knew I had to meet with them. GraFighters is an online game where users can upload their own doodles, let a bit of code figure out the stats of the doodle, and then get started kicking butt! It’s a fun and personal way to relive the margins of your middle school math homework, pitting your sketched out warriors against those of your friends and strangers. I braved a veritable blizzard (a.k.a. just another winter day in Syracuse) to meet with Dave Chenell and chat about the game.
This time, I brought along something a bit different. Rather than the usual Chemex setup, I opted for the glitz and glamor of my trusty vacuum pot. What a terrible idea. Vac pots look cool, brew some pretty tasty coffee, but man, they’re a pain to clean, even if you have a sink right next to you. I usually don’t, so I made sure Dave got the first brew, and I took the second, which was fairly clearly tainted by the remnants of the first batch. Protip: make sure you consider all the factors of a brewing device before bringing it along somewhere like this. I totally overlooked the clean up/reset part, and kinda regretted it.
A show stopping PITA, but a PITA nonetheless. The brewer, not Dave…
Luckily, Stumptown’s Ethiopia Yukro is a very tasty, sweet, lemony brew, that’s robust enough to take a little bit of a beating. I was still able to finish off my mug, and Dave seemed to enjoy his as well. Thank goodness for good coffee, making up for botched brews from time to time!
So, down to brass tacks. GraFighters started in the most likely place: in the notebooks of two college students during class. Dave and co-founder Eric Cleckner were doodling in class, when the challenge was issued: “I bet my guy could beat yours in a fight.” The concept eventually left the realm of paper, and went digital, as the two began to try to build a game where users could bring their doodles to life, and pit them against one another to determine a winner. Of course, given limited resources, the game struggled to make significant progress, and the duo turned to Kickstarter for funding.
Such tasty coffee, such messy cleanup.
With a modest goal of $20k, the hope was to get enough money to finish something playable, which would probably be built onto later. Unfortunately, the crowdfunding site didn’t pay off, and Dave and Eric were dead in the water. That is, until they were approached by a European venture capitalist, who took an interest in the project, and ended up contributing $200k, ten times the original goal. With coffers full, and a certifiable interest in the game, the two set to work - building, coding, and crafting a world in a web site. They were now located in their current space in the Syracuse Tech Garden, a small hub in the city that fosters other small tech businesses. They managed to snag an additional team member, Dave Benmen (formerly of Macromedia), through an ad on craigslist, who helped them build the heart of the site. But more on that part in a bit.
Live on the web since September of 2011, GraFighters is a fairly simple site. Users can log in with Facebook, scan or photograph their doodle fighter of choice, and import it into the character builder. From there, they’ll give the doodle some bones, designating the torso, head, arms, legs, with bounding boxes and joints. The process is coached with visual prompts, making it easy enough to follow along, though there’s an element of goofiness to misplaced clicks, or a sub-optimal doodle. If your doodle is drawn with foreshortened limbs, or a strange perspective, or even –at this point- if it’s a quadruped, the software will have more of a silly effect on the character than a realistic bones rig. But that’s really just part of the charm; it’s a doodle for crying out loud, who cares if his arm moves oddly? Once the parts are all sorted out and labeled, Cornelius takes over.
The Burninator himself, rigged and ready to fight.
Cornelius is the aforementioned heart of the system. It’s an algorithm that checks out the drawing you’ve submitted, takes a good hard look, and figures out how to assign the fighting stats. Is your monster a big top-heavy brute? Cornelius will give him good strength, but his intelligence will be lacking. A wiry sneaky fellow will be agile, but not too strong, and so on. Cornelius is constantly under revision, getting tweak to make sure the playing field is level enough to be enjoyable, and the results better match the characters he judges. But again, there’s some charm to the bugs that may still be around, as Dave showed me with a bipedal hamburger character. He imported it as normal, and Cornelius buffed the strength off the chart (it was something like 274, if I recall correctly). Clearly, the burger would have been an intense opponent!
Dave discussing upcoming features for the game. Stay tuned and keep battling!
GraFighters, as it exists today, is a fun and playable work in progress. It’s populated by far more than a handful of users (especially now that CNN and Kotaku have picked up the story), so there’s plenty of opportunity to interact and battle. Rather than go too far into the dynamics of gameplay, I really think the site should speak for itself (honestly, I’m not being a lazy writer!), and you all should go check it out. Make a doodle, import it, invite your Facebook friends, and play around a bit. Make some mistakes, and just have fun with the game. Then, in the future, watch for some of the cool planned updates, like collaborative drawing, territory battles, and more social and discovery tools. The game feels really promising to me, so I’d love to see more folks taking part and getting into fights!