Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Story of Rock-Ola Video Games (Part 3)


Nibbler flyer

            Rock-Ola's biggest hit was Nibbler, designed and programmed by Joe Ulowetz with support from John Jaugilas and Lonnie Ropp. The game put the player in control of a snake that moved through a maze eating the food strewn about the floor. Each bite caused the snake to grow in length and completing a maze required both speed (since the player couldn't stop moving) and planning.  Nibbler had its roots in a few other games. Gremlin's much-copied Blockade introduced the idea of a player controlling a snake that got longer as the game progressed. The TRS-80 game Worm added the idea of the snake growing only when it ate something. Unusually for a game of the time, Nibbler featured no opponents or enemies, and idea that appealed to designer Joe Ulowetz.

[John Jaugilas] The main reason for Nibbler was that Joe Ulowetz was primarily a pacifist and wanted to have a game where you could only hurt yourself, not anyone else. This is what made the combo of me and Joe so strange as I was a big action, shoot-'em-up game fan and he wanted a game his girlfriend Mary (initials MRS) would like. Anyway, Joe did the main game logic, I worked on the maze designs and overall gameplay (I was a good gamer and Joe could barely make it past wave 5). Strange combo the two of us, but it worked out. .

The game is probably most famous, however, for being the first game to feature a 9-digit score. To turn over Nibbler a player had to score a whopping billion points.

[John Jaugilas] The billion point thing was Uncle Larry's idea. As he said, "points are free, but quarters are hard to come by." Larry's philosophy was to give points for anything positive. You moved a joystick, great, 50 points. You ate a nuclear nugget, wonderful 1,000 pts. He noted that on pinball games the last one or two 0's were just painted on to make the score look higher, but heck bits were free, so give away points and make someone feel good about a higher score. Heck, they might even put in another quarter so they could get an even higher score.

      One humorous incident involved the game's high score board. As was common at the time the default high score board consisted of the designers' initials. By tradition initials were listed in the order in which people contributed to the game. Joe Ulowetz listed his initials first but put those of his girlfriend (now his wife) second, though she had nothing to do with designing the game. As if that weren't enough, Ulowetz added an easter egg. Get a high score and enter his initials and you receive the message "You have the same initials as my Author." Enter his girlfriend's initials and you get "You have the same initials as my Angel". The bucking of tradition and the sappiness of the message demanded a response so one of the game's programmers altered the EPROMs on some versions of the games to replace the word "Angel" with something a bit more humorous. 

Sidebar - Tom Asaki, Tim McVey and the Quest for the Billion Point Score

Soon after its introduction, gamers all over the country were playing the game in hopes of being the first to reach the magical number and win nationwide acclaim. Attention soon turned to Ottumwa, Iowa’s famed Twin Galaxies arcade where a teen named Tom Asaki had become the favorite. Asaki was already well-known in the gaming community, having been part of the three man "Bozeman Think Tank" that developed the Ms. Pac-Man grouping strategy back in 1982.
. As Asaki mounted his assault national wire services began reporting on his quest. Rock-Ola responded by offering a free Nibbler machine to the person who first reached the magic number. Asaki never made it – failing in four well-publicized attempts. In the first, he scored 838 million points in forty hours before losing his last man. The next try ended after 707 million points when Tom exceeded the “limit” of 127 free men. The machine would eliminate all of your free men if you reached 128 and knowing exactly how many men you had  was crucial. The free man limit did provide marathon players with a measure of relief since they could leave the game when they accumulated 127 men and take a break while snake after snake died (which took enough time for the player to take a crucial bio-break). Asaki's third game ended when the game’s joystick broke after 793 million points. The final attempt proved something of an anti-climax when the game broke after just 120 million points. Meanwhile, another Twin Galaxies regular was mounting a challenge of his own.
Tim McVey got interested in Nibbler when he came into Twin Galaxies one day and saw throngs of cheering spectators gathered around Tom Asaki as he made one of his world record attempts. The 17-year-old McVey had never heard of anyone getting such a high score or seen such excitement over a video game. Though he had never played the game before, McVey quickly became the best Nibbler player in town other than Tom Asaki. The two struck up a fast friendship and began sharing strategies and comparing notes about the game.  
McVey's first 6 attempts at the world record were unsuccessful (during one he passed out). On January 15, 1984 he tried again. With Pac-Man champions Chris Ayra and Billy Mitchell cheering him on, he began the arduous journey to the mythical billion-point barrier. Then, around the time he reached 800 million points, a friend burst into Twin Galaxies holding a certified letter claiming that someone else had reached not just one billion but TWO billion points. McVey was heartbroken. Until someone notice that the two billion point game was actually accomplished by a two-man teams who switched on an off. Reinvigorated, McVey pressed on. As he approached the record, the crowds grew. The local TV station sent a camera crew over to capture the event live and the glare from their camera was blinding. When he reached 990 million points, McVey had just six men left. Finally, at 10:45 AM on January 17th (he'd started at 2:00 PM on the 15th) McVey reached his goal and walked away from the machine after almost 45 hours. For his efforts, he got a free Nibbler game and a key to the city of Ottumwa, which later declared January 28th Tim McVey Day.

Rock-Ola itself didn't find out about the Asaki and McVey's quest until after Asaki's second failed attempt.
[Mike Perkins] One day I got a telephone call from someone at an arcade in some obscure place. The person was jabbering about an marathon session that ended unexpectedly and I suspected a hardware problem. The person said the number of lives when the game reset was 126 or 127, they weren’t sure which. I was always hearing about VectorBeam games that reset due to a particular way the game processor was designed (called a frame-out), and so my mind was reeling at the number of various possibilities for the reset. But the number of Nibbler lives at which the game reset had an auspicious, technical sound to it: 127 is the modulo of 7 bits, minus one. I had no idea how the code was written, but modulo numbers like that strike terror (or strike gold) in the heart of anyone who is left to debug code when everyone else is gone.

[Asaki] had just gained another life when the game reset, so I started looking at the life calculation and end-of-game logic. It turned out that Joe’s code was written such that the upper bit of the byte containing the number of lives was a carry bit (or borrow bit for subtractions). Thus, only seven bits were available for the number of lives, so 127 was the max. I changed the code to limit the max lives to 127. I burned new EPROMs, tested it, and sent them Fed-Ex to wherever the arcade was located. I never heard anything else, except years later when someone told me about Nibbler and McVey’s marathon session.  


 Life at Rock-Ola

The Rock-Ola factory at 800 North Kedzie, Chicago

            The video game designers at Rock-Ola a lot of ways to blow off steam. The Rock-Ola factory was huge and ancient, with piles of unused equipment lying around. Running underneath the parking lot was a rat-infested rifle range (a relic of the days making the M1 Carbine).


[Mike Perkins] There were three other buildings in the compound, smaller, and mostly unoccupied at the time. One of them was remote building across the parking lot that used to generate power before during World War II and at night when the plant was mostly shut down, they would sell power back to the power company.
…The plant also used to make, among other things, rocker arms for aircraft and tank engines. Some of the punch presses, still in use in 1982 for making vending machines, were 25 feet tall and had flywheels weighing probably 10 tons.
            In that whole big building, there were only three elevators; one for office personnel, and two for the factory. Even though waiting for elevators was a major occupation of many factory people, anyone in a blue shirt or with grease on their pants knew better than to get on the office elevator.
            One of the factory elevators was just large enough for a couple of can vending machines on it. The other was a personnel elevator for sending small parts between floors. The problem was that production of can vendors was done on two different floors. If you can imagine the elevator bottleneck trying to move 300 vending machines from the second floor to the fourth and then from the fourth to the first for crating and storage, well, it was a logistical mess.
            The interesting spot in the whole place was the jukebox demo room, very well set up to resemble a darkly-lit, black-carpeted, leather couched cocktail lounge. I spent a lot of time in there.
Other floors were littered with 45s that were used to test the jukeboxes' loading mechanism. The designers would play kick Frisbee with a goalie at each end of the hallway.
[John Jaugilas] They had the huge steel crates of test scratched up 45s. They also had these crates of old transformers. Rock-Ola was a huge, primarily empty factory. Only about 10 % of the place was occupied. So when we'd come back from the cafeteria after lunch we'd find some transformers and see how far we could shot-put them down the hallways. That got boring after a while so we found that you could hurl a 45 a long way if you flung it just right. Well our offices had a railroad track outside the big factory windows and on the other side of the tracks was some warehouse with one of those big curved tarpaper roofs. So after lunch we would open up a window wide and see if we could fling a 45 out the window, across the train tracks and get it to turn vertical and stick into the tar roof across the way. It wasn't easy. That was at least 100 to 200 feet. Often with the wind up you'd fling a 45 into the window frame and it would shatter. There was a 10 ft. pile of broken 45s under one or two of the prime flinging windows.

Antics like this may be why other employees dubbed the video game section the "rubber rooms" (because, as Jaugilas says "they thought we were bouncing-off-the-walls crazy").

[Mike Perkins] At one point I got Connie [the company nurse] to come measure our blood pressure and heart rate as a “scientific” data point of game excitement. I did it mostly as a hedge against the mid-project doldrums, just to have a woman sit with us a while so the guy could strut a little bit and be peacocks.

            It wasn't all fun and games, however. 10-14 hour days were not uncommon and programmers sometimes didn't leave until two in the morning. The primitive (by modern standards) tools at the time didn't help.

[Lonnie Ropp] We had these huge floppies that you would compile your code and link on, then burn EPROMS. To do all of that…would take half a day…and that's every change that you made. So basically what we would do is we'd go home at night - because it's video games and you love  what you're doing -  and write a bunch of code. [Then] come to work. Type all that stuff in, compile it, burn an EPROM and it's time for lunch.
And then You did some more writing and hopefully before you left that night you went through one more iteration. So basically we had…two code iterations a day. That's amazing when you look at these games where  you get to see the results of your work and then make additions or modifications of corrections.

Hard work or not, Rock-Ola never really had a major hit to match those of crosstown rivals Williams, Gottlieb, or Bally.
[Mike Perkins] Our games always had one or two followers, but never enough to shill the game to the point of reaching success past the game designed by real game designers, which we were not. We were technical guys turned, by circumstances, into fledgling game designers. But our ideas and sophistication was never a match for the pinball game designers who waltzed into video games with their understanding of what makes people excited about playing arcade games…The problem was that I, and Rock-Ola in general, was always one game-cycle behind, if not two.

While they may not have been video game veterans, Rock-Ola's video game team didn't lack design skills. Jaugilas, Ropp, and Bak went on to design a number of successful home games at Action Graphics and Ropp became a top pinball game designer. The Rock-Ola designers, however, faced limitations that their cross-town colleagues did not.

[John Jaugilas] We had good design skills but Rock-ola was cheap. While other companies like Williams and Bally would design and build new boards with new capabilities Rock-ola wanted us to recycle overrun game boards from bad video games. Rather than designing and building a good game capability from scratch using good graphics processors, they would find old bad games (that is why Rock-ola had some many cheesy bad games from overseas) buy up the whole stock of game board cheaply, put a few on the market and then have us try to re-program the boards with a better game. We were a game board recycling shop. That fact that we could get games like Demon or Nibbler made out of some old reject game board made our jobs a lot harder than someone working at Williams or Bally that were working on game boards that were one or two generations ahead of what we were given to work with.
     The game developers at Rock-ola had an arm and leg tied behind their backs and were told to run the race and finish in the top 5. They made plenty of money that way. that is also why some of us were successful working on home game systems after Rock-ola. At least we got current technology to work with

Rock-Ola didn't last long in the video game world. By the time Ropp was hired in 1982 the company was under a hiring freeze and beginning to feel the pinch from the coming crash. In addition the company's overall sales were in sharp decline. One VP tried to initiate the same bundling strategies they'd used with vending machines by requiring distributors to buy a certain number of jukeboxes for each video game they bought. Instead, the distributors bought neither and jukeboxes sales to 75 a week (from 750 not too many years before).

[Mike Perkins] The first indication to me was the flagging jukebox sales, because of them being the staple for Rock-Ola, with AMI eating our lunch, not just technically, but with a fresh sales approach. When video games came along, the future looked brighter to me, personally, because of the technical challenge and fun it presented. So for a couple of years, I had blinders on, and didn’t pay much attention to the business aspect – we all kept getting paychecks and things were fine. We played kick Frisbee, shot-putted transformers, threw 45s onto tar-encrusted roofs across a bed of train tracks, and had some marvelously-fun lunches at places like Bishop’s Chili and Jimmy’s Red Hots. We were kids doing kid-things. But when our paychecks one week dropped to 80% of what they had been, the fun was over, and the writing was on the wall.

Before long the game developers began to scatter to the winds, Rock-Ola went to a 4-day workweek and in 1983 the company shut down its video game division. Lonnie Ropp went to Entertainment Sciences where he worked on Bouncer before returning to Chicago. John Jaugilas and Joe Bak went to Action Graphics, where they developed home and computer games (along with Richard and Elaine Ditton from Marvin Glass/Midway and Dave Thiel from Gottlieb). Jaugilas, Bak, and Ropp (along with the Dittons) later formed Semaphore Systems. Jaugilas and Bak then left the coin-op game industry, but Ropp became a pinball designer and to date has worked on 61 games (tied for 15th on the all-time list).
            As for Rock-Ola, the company eventually moved to nearby (and much safer) Addison. David Rockola continued to show up for work each day into his 80s. In 1992 the company's jukebox assets were sold to Glenn Streeter of the Antique Apparatus Company who moved the company to Torrance, California where it still exists today. David Rockola died in 1993 at the age of 96.


  1. Really great write ups on Rock-Ola. I wouldn't have learned this information anywhere else. Can't wait for the book!

    Do you have any insider details on Bouncer? That seems to be of high interest to people at KLOV. It does seem like it would be a really good game concept.

    Oh, and regarding Nibbler, apparently one of the designers lives here in the Denver metro area. He was selling the Nibbler prototype machine on ebay and someone I used to know spotted it.

  2. Thanks. I was going to hold off posting parts 2 and 3 until I heard back from Joe Bak but it may be a while so I posted anyway (when I get a reply, I'll update the posts).

    I didn't ask much about Bouncer when I talked to Lonnie Ropp. I talked to Robb Patton about 12 years ago but didn't ask him about it.

    There is actually a pretty good write-up on it here:

  3. Unless this is a different company I'm looking, Semaphore Systems seems to be a separate company from Free-Radical Software/Incredible Technologies.

  4. I'll double-check but I think that's what I was told by someone who worked there (though I could have misunderstood them or they could have gotten their memories confused).

  5. Yeah, I was looking at the Illinois records. There was a company called Semaphore Systems started in 1984 and dissolved in 1990. The only previous name listed for IT is Free-Radical Software.

  6. In looking further at the record for Semaphore Systems, I'm not sure it was the same company or not.

    I couldn't find anything about the president (Donald Dobesh) or the registered agent (Jean S Werderitch) being involved with video games.

    Dobesh is a forensic accountant in Florida. He did work as financial officer for a number of technology startups and graduated from Elmhurst College just before Semaphore Systems was formed - so it could have been a video game company (I was hoping to see Richard Ditton or one of the other designers listed in there somewhere).

  7. I actually ended up with John's Nibbler machine from Denver. Two guys from california are doing a Nibbler documentary about the first billion point game. Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy. They bought the machine and had it delivered to my home in Iowa in September of 2008. The flew Joe in from Chicago and interviewed both Joe and John for the documentary.

    On 12-25-2011 I set a new world record on that machine of 1,041,767,060 topping my original score of 1,000,042,270 that I set in 1984. My original score had stood from 1984 until Rick Carter topped it in July of 2011 with a score of 1,0002,222,360

    1. Thanks Tim.

      An expanded version of the Rock-Ola posts will be appearing in the next issue of Retro Cade magazine (I may repost it here, eventually).

      I was actually going to try and talk to you for the article but never got around to it.
      I contacted Tom Asaki but we were never able to find time to fit in an interview.

    2. Tim, as you likely already knew...I topped it again in November 2012...ending after 53 hours, 8 minutes with a score if 1,231,371, hopefully put it out of reach. :D

  8. Nothing is ever out of reach. It's only a matter of time...something I haven't had since I took it back last time. Maybe I'll have some in the future...

  9. Thanks for the article, Keith. My dad, Larry Gleason, passed away last December. I remember running (rampant) through the halls of Rock-Ola as a teenager. Mike Perkins, Joe Bak and Jerry Sakamoto were all guys that my Dad looked after with great respect and affection.