Thursday, August 30, 2012

What Was The Best-Selling U.S. Arcade Video Game Prior to Space Invaders?

Taito's Space Invaders absolutely revolutionized the world of coin-op video games when it was released in 1978. It was the best-selling coin-op video game to that point in time by a huge margin. Estimates for the number Bally/Midway (who licensed the game from Taito) produced in the U.S. vary, but 65,000 is the number I've seen most.

But what game held the record before Space Invaders?

One of the challenges of writing a book about coin-op video game history is finding a good source for production numbers. Such figures are few and far between and what scant information is out there is of such questionable reliability that an author (or blogger) would have to be a fool to write on the subject.

So here I go.

One of the few seemingly reliable sources out there is an internal document listing Atari production runs for several of their games (unfortunately, Pong isn't one of them).

Another source that I just discovered is Ralph Baer's excellent account Videogames: In the Beginning. On pages 10-13 he presents a hand-written spreadsheet created in April of 1976 that listed estimated production runs for several coin-op games produced since 1972. Unfortunately, I am not entirely clear on the source of the information (I am still reading the book). It says that he got them from Play Meter magazine, but I've never seen production runs in Play Meter or Replay (though I've only got a few issues of the former). The numbers also appear to be rounded off to the nearest 50.
Perhaps he got the names and years of release from Play Meter and estimated the production numbers using an unspecified method (I'm hoping that he really did get them from Play Meter and that I will be able to find a trove of numbers therein, but I doubt it)

Anyway, on to the contenders (I list all games with 5,000+ produced):
NOTE that the following should be taken with a very large grain of salt.
NOTE 2 - this includes only U.S. production numbers.

Super Soccer (1973, Allied Leisure) - 5,000
As per Baer.

Tennis Tourney (1973, Allied Leisure) - 5,000
As per Baer - a figure supported by Allied's Troy Livingston who remembered a figure of "4 or 5 thousand".

TV Tennis (1973, Chicago Coin) - 5,000
As per Baer - who for some reason omits TV Ping Pong, the company's first game.

Formula K (1974, Kee/Atari) - 6,000
As per Baer.

Pro Tennis (1973, Williams) - 7,500
Surprised? I was. The number here is from Baer. It's surprising to me because Williams got out of the video game field after releasing 3 games in 1973. Then they produced Road Champion in 1977 (which may have been licensed from the Italian company Fox). Then exited again until Defender in 1980.
I'd always guessed that it was because their games didn't sell well, but 7,500 (assuming it's roughly accurate) isn't bad at all.

Of course Baer does not include the company's first game Paddle Ball, which may have sold even better (though I doubt it).

Wheels (1975, Midway) - 7,000+
As per Baer, however, Baer does not list individual titles for Midway in 1976, merely noting that the produced 8,000 units overall that year.

Gun Fight (1975, Midway) - 8,000

Sprint 2 (1976, Kee/Atari) - 8,200

Winner (1973, Midway) - 7,000-10,000
Baer supports the lower figure.

Seawolf (1976, Midway) 10,000

Pong (1972, Atari) - 8,000-12,000
This is probably the natural first choice. I've seen figures for the game ranging anywhere from 8,000 (a number supported by Baer) to 12,000 with a number of sources saying "around 10,000". One figure I've seen claimed there were 100,000 ball-and-paddle games created with Atari making about 10% (Baer lists a total of 80,000 ball-and-paddle games but omits a lot of them, including what was probably the biggest of them all).

Atari Football (1978, Atari) 11,351
According to the Atari document, a total of 11,351 were produced (10,405 or the original and 901of the 4-player variant).

Flim Flam (1974, Meadows Games) 12,000?
I'd have to double-check but I'm pretty sure this number came from an issue of Replay. Baer lists only 6,200 but stops in April of 1976 and the game was still selling (it sold 200 in the portion of 1976 included). One of Meadows' problems is that they became so closely associated with the game.
Still, the discrepancy between Baer and Replay is huge. Replay may be including Flim Flam II (or Baer may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Breakout (1976, Atari) 11,000-15,000
The internal document lists 11,000 uprights produced but does not have figures for the cocktail version. I have seen estimates as high as 15,000.

Tank (1974, Kee/Atari) 15,000+
Baer lists 10,000 sold in 1974 and 5,000 in 1975 but also appears to list Tank again in 1975 with 1,000 sold. I'm guessing that the second entry is for Tank II.
Other sources give a figure of "over 15,000", leading me to believe that the exact number is somewhere between 15,000 and 16,000 and probably much closer to 15,000.

Space Wars (1977, Cinematronics) 10,000 (-30,000??)
The 30,000 figure is from Tim Skelly's recollections. Other sources give a figure of 10,000 and I tend to believe the lower figure much more

Paddle Battle (1973, Allied Leisure) - 17,000-22,000
This is the game that gets my vote. Troy Livingston remembers that they sold 17,000 (plus another 4 or 5 thousand of the follow-up Tennis Tourney). Jack Pearson (another Allied engineer) remembers selling 22,000 units (could he be mentally combining the figures for Paddle Battle and Tennis Tourney?). Oddly enough, Baer doesn't list it at all (which is surprising since the main point of the spreadsheet was to account for all the tennis games out there)

So, if the above numbers are accurate, why did Allied sell so many more than the competition?

With Atari, it actually isn't that surprising. Atari was a newcomer to the field and lacked the experience, production capacity, and capital that the coin-op veterans had.
Note that Williams, Chicago Coin, and Midway all did very well with their Pong clones (Midway reportedly licensed the game from Atari). Baer lists figures for dozens of others from new companies like PMC and Ramtek and none came remotely close to the figures put up by the heavyweights.

OK, so beating Atari makes some sense. But what about those heavyweights?
How did Allied, which had only been formed in 1968, beat out the venerable Williams, Midway, and Chicago Coin.

It could be that they beat them to market. My figures (which could be off) indicate that Paddle Battle was released in March, Winner and ChiCoin's TV Ping Pong followed in April and Paddle Ball in May.
Given that Baer does not list TV Ping Pong or Paddle Ball, they may have outsold their follow-ups, but if so, I've never heard it.

Jack  Pearson recalls that when Midway came out with Winner, Paddle Battle was selling for around $995. In an effort to undersell them, Midway introduced Winner at a price about $50 lower. In response, Allied lowered its price, forcing Midway to do the same and this went on until the games were selling for around $795 at which point Midway found it difficult to turn a profit (Allied, who had already made most of their profit, could afford such tactics).

Here are the rest of the Atari/Kee estimates given in Baer's book (if you want to see the rest, buy the book - Baer's that is, not mine).

NOTE that for Atari, Baer does not list individual titles for 1976, but mere lists that they sold 3,000 total (remember, the list was created in April)

Crash N Score - 500
Elimination - 500
Gotcha - 3,000
Gran Trak 20 - 4,500
Indy 800 - 200 (may have sold more in 1976. Given its size, however, I doubt it)
Jet Fighter - 500
Pin Pong - 250
Pong Doubles - 500
Qwak - 250
(Shark) Jaws - 500
Space Race - 1,500
Steeplechase - 500


  1. Enlightening article. Did you write/read the Gameroom magazine article where they interview a couple of the Allied Leisure guys?

    Also, I would be interested in your book.

  2. I did do an article in GameRoom several years back (circa 1997-2002) where I interviewed Jack Pearson of Allied Leisure.

    Of course, the editor made my questions sound a bit smoother than they actually were.