Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Simutron Tournament Center - The Ultimate Arcade Video Game?

Picture this. A video arcade where up to 8 gamers could compete against one another and/or the computer in custom-designed, sound-proof cabinets, with sports car seats, quadraphonic stereo sound, and multiple monitors in a game incorporatign laser disc footage from Star Trek.
"Big deal", you say? What if I told you this was in the early1980s and it came within a hair of completion.

I give you the all-but-unknown story of the Simutron Tournament Center.

Simutron was the work of a team of programmers and designers at Perceptronics of Woodland Hills, CA. Founded in 1970 by Gershon Weltman and Amos Freedy, Perceptronics early work consisted largely of research and development studies for the Department of Defense. The introduction of the laser disc player provided Perceptronics with its first practical success. In 1981, the group demonstrated a prototype for a laserdisc-based tank gunnery simulator to Senator Sam Nunn. The U.S. Army, which was seeking less expensive ways to train its personnel, soon bought into the idea. Other laser disc products included a corporate training system called ActionCode and an exercise bike called LaserTour that displayed laser disc footage on a large screen (including a virtual tour of the moon) while the user pedaled. Offered in the 1982 Nieman Marcus Christmas catalog at a hefty $20,000 each, only two units were sold. Perceptronics would also work on Bally's NFL Football laserdisc coin-op (along with Advanced Video Inc.). Around 1982, Cinematronics contracted with Perceptronics to create a 3D tank battle system for use in military training but it was never completed. (Was it the same system they demoed to the U.S. Army? - I'm not sure but that's a subject for another time).

Back to Simutron.
Simutron, Inc. was incorporated on November 24, 1981 in Escondido, California. Originally the company analyzed business trends for clients in various industries. While investigating problems in the video game industry that manufacturers weren't addressing, Simutron decided that they had the solutions and went into the video game business. Simutron's idea was the Simulator Game System - a multigame, multiplayer system that would be installed in dedicated arcades across the country with a library of games that would be delivered via phone lines. Players would be able to compete against one another and eventually even compete in real time with players at other locations. The initial game would be a space combat incorporating laserdisc footage from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The idea had come from one of Simutron's owners, who had written a text-based multiuser shoot-'em-up game. Simutron decided to create an arcade version of the game and got rights to use special effects from the film

To create the system, Simutron contracted with Perceptronics (the same company that worked on Bally's NFL Football). The first Simutron Tournament Center was to be located in San Diego. The contract called for Perceptronics to deliver a final product by June 30, 1982 (long before either Astron Belt or Dragon's Lair debuted).

At the initial meeting, Perceptronics' Scott Ellison, who eventually led the project, as he put it  "…took over their meeting and proceeded to blow the proposal out of all proportion."  Ellison and his team (including his brother Todd, Larry Zempel, and programmers Michael Moore and Jose Paglieri) went on to develop probably the most complex arcade game designed to that time (or maybe even since). For $3 per 15 minutes, players could sit in one of 16 soundproof cockpits with quadraphonic sound facing four color monitors where they could square off against the computer or up to 8 other players. The hardware for each "pod" was custom designed and built around a Z-80 microprocessor. Each pod had voice output, a sound generator, and a console controller that interfaced with the central arcade station. A video interface allowed players to connect to players in other pods. Each pod also had four monitors: one for a tactical display, one for ship status, one for game play statistics and controls, and a larger one above them to display the laserdisc sequences. They also featured Recaro seats (the German company that designed bucket seats for the Porsche and other sports cars) with woofers in the base..

In an article in the April 1, 1983 issue of Play Meter Simutron's VP of Marketing, Dave Jenkins, describes the game as follows
[Dave Jenkins] It is basically a territory acquisition game. The goal is to rebuild the Federation space while defending it from the Klingon and Rebel forces

Scott Ellison supplies more details on the game (which was planned to include seven levels of play):

[Scott Ellison] The lowest levels were finger candy games...similar to Space Invaders in the sense of shooting moving objects of various behaviors. The higher levels were more sophisticated. Players would roam the universe discovering planets and characters with certain innate powers. If you had a good enough crew, you could capture a planet or improve your chances during battle with other gamers in your universe. You might come upon a planet of psychotics...if you also happened upon a planet of psychiatrists and had the power to obtain control of it, you could use it to neutralize the psychotics, all adding to your ownership of the Universe. And obviously, if you managed to acquire Spock, Bones, or Scotty, you were golden!
            The most interesting ( to me) was a level in which you could adopt a role in an ongoing scripted universe. The first version of this included the assembly of something called the 'Plasma Trough Articulator' which was being assembled in your universe by nasty aliens in an adjacent universe...various roles were to be available with objectives of their own. At the higher levels the design was intent upon bringing groups of players back to the arcade. The time slots were to be scheduled (reserved) and billing was by time of play.…
Players could play independently or form alliances. That was key for us. In a video conference you could align yourself with another ship and then betray your oath - all that was intentionally build into the design. In fact, we had algorithms to weight a player's power in battle by how they had performed. Did they lie and cheat...were they always true blue...we were working on modeling how our universe works, but exaggerated.

As for the laserdisc footage:

[Scott Ellison] Simutron had obtained the rights to use the special effects to Star Trek the Motion Picture - but, could not use scenes with characters in them. So, I went into the video editing room and spliced together all the sequences of action in which Captain Kirk and the other characters were not present. This gave me a catalog of special effects to use, like going into warp, planet fly-bys, space stations and stuff. But, I felt there weren't enough of these scenes to fill the disk and ensure variety (truly a real gamer would be monitoring his console displays anyway). So, I combined scenes, changed angles, zoomed stuff, added atmospheres and halos around stuff to beef up visual assets.


In addition, the centers were designed to be self-diagnostic, alerting operators when service was needed. Other locations were planned with players being able to square off against opponents in different cities. A library of games  were planned( a sports game and a fantasy games were slated to be created next), which would be delivered over phone lines. There were also plans for an educational system using the technology.

The prototype tournament center was built in San Diego with most of the hardware and software functioning and portions of the game were demoed, but the project was cancelled in the fall with each company blaming the other. The first sign of trouble came when a May 1, 1982 demo had to be postponed. Dave Jenkins claimed that Perceptronics "…didn't have the technology they said they did[1]." A year later, negotiations to salvage the product finally collapsed (Scott Ellison recalls that Simutron ran out of money and that other investors offered to help foot the bill, but the owners were unwilling to give up any rights to their company). The crash of the video game market didn't help things any. Perceptronics claimed that the delays were due to changes in scope  and filed a $150,000 lawsuit on June 27th for money owed them for the work they did. Simutron (which had paid $315,000 to Perceptronics) responded with a $48 million suit of their own, charging Perceptronics with breach of contract, fraud, conspiracy, and violation of a non-compete agreement (for their work on NFL Football).

So after more than two years of work, what could have been the most innovative video game of the 1980s died a sudden death (though reportedly the company had an order for a standalone version of the game for Pizza Time Theatre - until the chain declared bankruptcy and was restructured).

[1] Play Meter, October 15, 1983


  1. Thanks for posting this, Keith. I am Brent Naseath, the co-founder and President of Simutron and the inventor of the Simutron Simulator Game system and the Simutron Star Trek Game. In a previous business, I had a multi-user computer system with a shared hard drive. For fun I designed and programmed the Star Trek game on it and we spent many late nights playing it after work. It occurred to me that it would make a great product and should blow away Pac Man and Missile Command.

    Computer-controlled laser disc players were new. We licensed the rights to Star Trek movie footage and discovered Perceptronics, the only company we could find who had created a laser disc interface with overlaid computer graphics. Contrary to your story above, the only product they had created showed a road as you peddled an exercise bike. The tank gunnery trainer you mentioned was actually built on our Simutron technology and in their DARPA contract it called it the "Simutron Simulator System", our trademarked name. It was the technology we paid them to develop, which they claimed wasn't finished and didn't deliver even after being paid. We sued them for breach of contract for not delivering according to their purchase order and were awarded a judgment against them 5 years later.

    We did do an analysis of the industry, which we always do when we start a new business. We built the Simutron Tournament Center in San Diego and our family and friends are the people in your photos. I was shocked when I read that "most of the hardware and software was functioning and portions of the game were demoed". That isn't true. I was quite embarrassing when Scott Ellison, the lead programmer of their two-person team, promised a demo to our investors in the Tournament Center after being many months late and in front of hundreds of people, he couldn't show anything. He never did demo anything we could see running or verify except the laser disc and a couple of graphic images of planets they created.

    Perceptronics claimed everything was on time right up until delivery day but never delivered anything. From the lawsuit discovery, we learned that they had mostly done research projects for the government, where they were able to continually get additional funding and I believe that was their expectation of us. However, we had a fixed-price Purchase Order, not an open-ended research contract, so we won the lawsuit 5 years later. But of course we couldn't raise additional capital when none of the technology worked at all. Pizza Time Theater did give us a purchase order that would have personally netted me about $10 million. But when nothing was delivered, they met with Perceptronics and then told us they didn't believe Perceptronics would ever deliver. Our funds exhausted, we were forced to give up on the project.

    From that experience I avoid the bleeding edge of technology and any position where I can't verify a deliverable is complete and in my possession before payment. Creativity, a great idea, money, and hard work don't always lead to immediate success. Only a few lucky legends are successful the first time around. You have to keep trying, learning essential lessons along the way.

    All of that said I'm still proud of the concept, the game design, and the business model. The norm at the time was a stand-alone reaction-based low res video game like Missile Command that cost $2,600 and could become obsolete in 6 weeks. In our system, the hardware cost was $5,500 per unit, but was reusable for many games. You just put in a new laser disc, loaded a new software program, and changed the touch-sensitive keypad overlay. So the overall capital costs were much less, the revenue potential with 16 players battling it out was much greater, and it was a lot of fun. It was a good concept with a lot of potential and a helluva ride for a 25-year-old entrepreneur. We boldly went where no man had gone before.

    1. Hi Brent. Thanks for the information. I'll definitely incorporate it into my book. I talked to a couple of people at Perceptronics and they gave me lots of info on their various simulators, but I don't remember if they mentioned the Simutron connection or not. They didn't remember doing a tank game for Cinematronics, however. I don't know if that was a Simutron project or not.

  2. This was a fascinating read (though I assumed it was a joke since the first image carried an April 1 date)... Over a decade later, I recall seeing some "mech warrior" type place doing linked gaming in an arcade, but I don't think the 90s were any better for the idea and I never saw that catch on, either.

  3. I grew up on stories of Simutron as my father, Gary Chapman, was one of the contractors selected to build it out. He loved arcade games and was always talking about how cool it would've been to see Simutron make it. I have several photos from the building of the project that I just showed my kids recently. Pretty awesome idea, way ahead of the rage that online gaming has become. The Simutron guys were definitely pioneers.

  4. The September 1983 issue of JoyStik magazine featured a 4-page article about this.