Dragon's Lair wasn't the first laserdisc video game released. That honor probably goes to Quarter Horse in 1981. It wasn't even the first laserdisc video game prcontingoduced for arcades. Sega's Astron Belt was on display at the JAA show in September of 1982 and the AMOA in November. Dragon's Lair was, however, the most popular and actually beat Astron Belt to market.
Sidebar - The Laserdisc
The laserdisc was jointly developed by MCA and Phillips and was demonstrated publicly in 1972. Ideas for using laserdisc technology in video games appeared early on. In 1977, Ralph Baer wrote about the possibility in the journal IEEE Transactions on Consumer Electronics. The laserdisc first appeared in stores on a limited basis in December, 1978. The discs were considered overly expensive and were largely ignored by all but a devoted core of videophiles. 1981 saw the appearance of RCA's CED videodisc, a much less expensive product that used grooved vinyl discs instead of laserdiscs. While the CED eventually failed, its low price offered enough competition that laserdisc manufacturers began to look for other ways to promote their product. MCA, Magnavox, and Pioneer soon joined forces to create Optical Programming Associates (OPA), who created some of the first "interactive discs". Among them was The First National Kidisc offering a number of activities for children and How to Watch Pro Football, which featured a "game" in which "players" were asked to guess the upcoming play. Another popular consumer laserdisc "game" consisted of a series of interactive murder mysteries developed by VPI/Vidmax called Mysterydisc that included the titles Murder, Anyone (1982) and Many Roads to Murder (1983). With the success of consumer laser disc products, it was perhaps inevitable that the technology would turn up in video games and with Quarterhorse and Astron Belt it finally did.
While Astron Belt attracted a host of curious onlookers during the AMOA, the game still contained a number of hardware and software bugs that delayed its U.S. release until the fall of 1983 (it was released earlier in Japan). In what some consider a foolish decision, Sega decided to introduce the game at the 1982 show despite the fact that it wasn't ready. As a result, competitors got an up-close look at the product, giving them a chance to try to duplicate the technology. One of these competitors was Rick Dyer, who had formed a company called Advanced Microcomputer Systems with the idea of creating a game with interaction and graphics similar to that used in Astron Belt.
[Rick Dyer] They showed it, and as a matter of fact, I think that was a huge mistake for them because we were working on the Dragon’s Lair project and at that point we realized that we were in a horse race and we had to be first – and we were. When they showed that, it definitely lit a fire under us because we knew that if we were second we were dead – or at least we believed that at the time.
Rushing back to headquarters, Dyer's team went on to create the first arcade laserdisc game actually released in the U.S. - a game that would almost single-handedly revive the nation's video game fervor and become the one of the most popular coin-op video games in the industry's history.
Since his childhood in California, Rick Dyer had a penchant for creating whimsical technological devices. As a youngster, he had developed a talking cuckoo clock that spouted famous quotes on the hour. Later he added a computer to his car that amazed his dates when it called them by name. Despite his lack of a degree, Dyer managed to land a job as an engineer at Hughes Electronics where he continued his entertaining creations. He developed an electronic horseracing game that never made it past the prototype stage but nonetheless managed to come to the attention of toymaker Mattel. When Dyer finally did get his degree, from California Polytechnic University, the company hired him and set him to work creating toys - a job for which he seemed perfectly suited. Dyer created numerous products during his years at Mattel, including work on the Intellivision. In his spare time, he developed the AES system, which consisted of LCD screens that would be mounted on the back of airplane seats to provide entertainment to airborne travelers. Eventually Dyer left Mattel and decided to strike out on his own.
[Rick Dyer] I was working at Mattel and basically the former president of Mattel had formed his own group. One of their people called me and asked me if I’d mind doing some moonlight development work on some of their projects and I said “sure”. After about a year it got to the point where I had to make a choice. So I went on the outside and formed my own company and we went on to develop at least half of all the handheld games that were sold in the early 80s – Pong, Pac-Man, Spiders, Turtles, Stargate, Defender – you never heard of our company but we were the ones who did the work. We weren’t smart enough to ask for royalties or anything like that we just did it on a contract basis. We took the profits from that and used it to develop a project that ended up becoming known as Dragon’s Lair.
Entex Turtles, designed and programmed by Rick Dyer and AMS
While Dyer's work at Mattel had been rewarding, what he really wanted to do was to create a fantasy-based game that would make use of realistic animation for its graphics. The idea was inspired by Dyer's love of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings as well as computer-based fantasy games like Crowther and Wood's classic Adventure. Dyer wanted to go far beyond Adventure, however, to create a much more absorbing game that would suck the player into a realistic world of sword and sorcery. After leaving Mattel, Dyer formed Advanced Microcomputer Systems and in 1979 set about making his dream a reality. His first effort The Electronic Book, was crude but ingenious.
[Rick Dyer] That was what I called our toilet-paper version – it was a roll of cash register paper. The computer would fast-forward and rewind the paper to the picture that it wanted then it would stop. There was a piece of smoked Plexiglas in front of it and there was a light bulb behind the cash register paper that turned on. So all of the sudden the picture and the text would appear and you’d read it and make your decision then it would fast-forward or rewind the paper to the next picture. We added a cassette deck that had random access capability too so it would forward or reverse to the soundtrack that went with that still picture. It was pretty Rube Goldberg stuff.
Closeup from Toilet Paper version of The Electronic Book
Another early version (either the filmstrip version of a video tape version)
"Toilet Paper" version of The Electronic Book
Dyer and company soon switched to strips of film and began to develop The Electronic Book into a fantasy game called Secrets of the Lost Woods (though some say the game was called Shadoan at this point). When the use of film strips didn’t provide the interactivity they needed, the team switched to the fairly new technology of video cassettes and created circuitry that would advance or rewind the tape to the appropriate spot based on the player's actions. The technology, however, was just too slow. It could take tens of seconds, if not minutes, to reach the appropriate spot on the tape and it was almost impossible to start the animation at the precise point you wanted. When the laserdisc was created, it solved both of these problems. A laserdisc player could locate any given point on a disc in milliseconds and could start playing from the same exact spot time after time. At first, Dyer and his team simply used the laserdisc to display still images but they eventually switched to animation. They only needed to find someone to provide it. When Dyer saw a new Disney film called The Secret of Nimh, he knew he'd found what he was looking for and made contact with the man behind the film's animation - Don Bluth.
Bluth had decided to become an animator after seeing Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the age of six. After graduating from high school in 1955, he took his portfolio to the Disney studios and was hired as an "in-betweener" - an animator who drew frames between those drawn by other animators. His first work was on the classic Sleeping Beauty. Bluth continued to work at Disney during the summers as he got his degree in English from Brigham Young University. Upon graduating, he formed a live theater group in Santa Monica with his brother. After three years he returned to animation, taking a job as a layout artist at Filmation Studios. In 1971, he returned to Disney, where he was eventually promoted to producer/director on films like Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers (1977), and Pete's Dragon (1977). Bluth, however, wasn't entirely happy with the work Disney was doing. Since his first stint at the company Walt Disney had died and Bluth found that things had changed. The animators were cutting corners. Fine details, like the animating of shadows, had been abandoned. Bluth and coworker Gary Goldman began asking Disney's management why and were told that it was done to save money. In March, 1975, Bluth, Goldman, and John Pomeroy had started working (in Bluth's garage) on a short called Banjo, the Woodpile Cat that they hoped would revive the classic Disney style of animation the studio seemed to have abandoned. The short film took over four years to complete. Working on Banjo enabled Bluth and friends to obtain financing for a film of their own and in September, 1979 (on Bluth's birthday) they left (followed the next day by 11 other animators). Together they produced The Secret of NIMH, which was released in 1982. It told the story of a mouse that joins forces with a group of genetically-mutated, intelligent rats to save her family from destruction by a tractor. The film was a financial failure (in part because United Artists was sold to MGM, who spent little money distributing the film) and Bluth was unable to secure funding for his next project. To make things worse, a bitter animation strike hit the film industry in August of 1982, bringing Bluth’s other animation projects to a halt. Out of work, Bluth was approached by Rick Dyer and he quickly agreed to work with Dyer in his plans for an interactive arcade game.
Needing someone to manufacture the game, Dyer turned to a coin-op manufacturing company and client of Advanced Microcomputer Systems – El Cajon’s Cinematronics.
[Rick Dyer] I called up Don Bluth and Gary Goldman and once I’d gotten the commitment from them to do the animation then we contracted one of the publishers we were doing contract work for – Cinematronics – and showed them what we were doing and their reaction was immediate that definitely they wanted in.. They saw that it was probably going to be a pretty big thing.
The relationship between Cinematronics and Advanced Microcomputer Systems had started when AMS developed 1982’s Zzyzzyxx, a game which did little to reverse Cinematronics rapid decline. With hopes that this new technology could change the company’s fortunes, Dyer, Bluth, and Cinematronics formed a partnership called Starcom and set to work completing their game. While Dyer and Bluth were the driving creative forces, behind Dragon’s Lair, they had plenty of help. Victor Penman was the main designer and, together with Darlene Waddington and Marty Folger, had written the game's script. On the animation side, Bluth had a crew of seventy to help him complete the 50,000 drawings used in the game's 27 minutes of animation Chief among them were Bluth's Disney co-workers Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Voice acting was provided by Michael Rye (announcer), Dan Molina (Dirk), and Vera Lanpher (Daphne) and music came courtesy of Chris Stone.
Given the declining fortunes of Cinematronics and Bluth Group, it should come as no surprise that the biggest problem the design team had was obtaining the funding necessary to continue development. Early on, Bluth and Goldman were able to arrange for a $300,000 loan that enabled his group to produce a five-minute test version of the game for the AOE show in Chicago in March of 1983 that featured about five rooms. The game was a smash and Cinematronics had $10 million in orders before the show was done. The only problem was that they couldn't afford to manufacture them. A short time later, the company would receive a financial boost from another of Advanced Microcomputer Systems’ clients - Coleco (AMS had designed a light pen scanner for the Colecovision, among other products).
[Rick Dyer] There were lots of major hiccups and problems that we had. We didn’t have enough money for the project. That was at a time when videogame development was $150,000-175,000 and we were at hundreds of thousands of dollars and of course Dragon’s Lair ultimately ended up costing well over $1 million. At the time everybody in the industry was saying “How can you ever make your money back on something like that”. Another one of our clients was Coleco – we were also working on the Colecovision for Coleco so when we got a certain way down on the project we brought Al Kahn in who was the head of Coleco and they ultimately licensed the home laserdisc rights which gave us enough money to finish the project.
Coleco offered $2 million for the home rights to Dragon’s Lair paying $1 million paid up front with the other $1 million contingent on the coin-op version of the game being completed by early July. The teams quickly began spending every free hour working on the game. Dyer actually didn't know just how bad things were at Cinematronics at the time.
[Rick Dyer] Jim Pierce sold his Rolls Royce and hocked his $35,000 wedding ring and in the course of development on Dragon’s Lair they notified us that they were going into Chapter 11. I didn’t even know what Chapter 11 was.
Financial problems weren’t the only difficulties the design team faced.
[Rick Dyer] [Another problem was] that we had theoretically been designing the game but we’d never actually been able to field test it. The original game design was that as long as you did the right thing it would search to the next scene and when you did the wrong thing it would just play through to the death scene. That was a disaster because the laserdisc search time was way too long and what we discovered when we finally did get to field test it was that the players didn’t want to play it – it wasn’t fun. So we ended up having to throw probably 30% of the animation on the cutting-room floor and redo huge amounts of the game design and animation which was very costly in time in money. Of course, the second time we got it right and the rest is history
Holding their breath and crossing their fingers, Cinematronics and Dyer put the unit out for a second field test and hoped for the best. They didn't have long to wait.
[Rick Dyer] We did our first true field test. We set up a machine in San Diego and one up in L.A. (our development company at the time was based in L.A. across from Cal Poly – Pomona). It was at the El Monte Golfland was where it was tested up here and the same test was going on simultaneously down in El Cajon. Our producer who was overseeing the test called me up and said “You’ve got to come out here.”
And I said “What are talking about, I’ve got a full schedule, I’ve got all these appointments…”
He said “You’ve GOT to come out here now!”
“What’s the matter? Is there something wrong?”
“No but you’ve got to come out here now.”
I’d never heard him talk to me like that before so it really distressed me, I thought “Something’s wrong and he won’t tell me what it is.” So I told my assistant to clear the calendar because I had to go to El Monte Golfland. She asked why and I said “I don’t know”. I got in the car and drove out there. When I got there, the first thing I saw was that there were people jammed around the entrance. When I worked my way inside, we had a top monitor and it was like flies being drawn to the light. There must have been 150 people just mesmerized standing there watching Dragon’s Lair and when I worked my way up to the game there was a continuous row of quarters all the way across the monitor and Golfland had erected velvet ropes for the lines that form. I said “Oh my God!” I immediately went to a pay phone to call Jim Pierce down at Cinematronics and he picked up the phone and before I could say a thing he said, “Yes Rick, the same thing is happening here.” And that’s when we knew that this wasn’t just going to be another videogame.
With a successful field test complete, the game was ready to go. Finally, after four years of effort and approximately $3 million, Dragon’s Lair was released on July 1, 1983. The final $1 million from Coleco was crucial. Without it Cinematronics could not have afforded to manufacture the game. Given the expense of producing the game, the continuing decline in the video game market, and the high cost (over $4,000) of the finished product, some were understandably concerned that the game would be a colossal failure, despite its sensational field test. In addition, the game would cost 50 cents to play instead of the traditional quarter - a move that had failed when tried on games such as Centipede and Missile Command. The game was an absolute smash. The game reached #1 on the Replay charts in September and remained there for two more months. In its first eight months of release, the game sucked in $32 million worth of quarters and machines were said to be pulling in $1,400 a week – well over 10 times what the average machine made at the time. Gamers in Iowa were reported to have taped $5 bills, instead of the usual quarters, to machines in order to reserve a spot on the game. The game could probably have made even more money had Cinematronics been able to meet early demand. While initial orders were placed for 10,000 units, the company only had enough machines on hand to ship 5,300 by September, the peak of the game's popularity. At one point, Dyer felt that he could have sold 135,000 units, if only he had been able to build them. While the game was a hit with players, it was equally as successful with spectators, with many arcades installing a second, overhead monitor placing seats around the machine for viewers. Sometimes this success was too much of a good thing. While spectators were crowded into video arcades to watch the latest Dragon’s Lair champion go to work, they weren't dropping quarters into any other game. As a result, at least one operator turned off the machine temporarily in the afternoon so that customers would spend money on other games while they waited for Dragon’s Lair to be turned back on. Soon Dragon’s Lair related merchandise was appearing everywhere. The game's characters appeared on lunch boxes, stickers, board games, and just about everything else. Not since Pac-Man and Donkey Kong had the industry seen such a marketing bonanza. The game was even featured on ABC's hit series That's Incredible, which featured an on-air Dragon’s Lair contest. Dirk and company even got their own series. Ruby Spears productions produced a Dragon’s Lair cartoon that aired on ABC for one season before leaving the air in 1985. Bluth also started work on a Dragon’s Lair movie, to be called Dragon’s Lair: The Legend, but he was never able to secure financing. Movie or not, Dragon’s Lair had become the surprise hit of 1983. Videogames, which had been declared dead, were suddenly alive again.
Dragon’s Lair featured the exploits of a bungling knight named Dirk the Daring - a kind of inept everyman with delusions of grandeur that Gary Goldman described as "a C student trying to get As". Dirk's goal was to rescue a beautiful (if empty-headed) princess named Daphne from the enchanted castle of the evil wizard Modred. Based loosely on Marilyn Monroe, Daphne's name had been inspired by Don Bluth's cat but her body came from a much less wholesome source. When Gary Goldman was forced to throw out his five-year collection of Playboys, he gave them Bluth and suggested that they might be a good place to find a model for a voluptuous princess. Perhaps those Playboys served as inspiration of another kind.
[Brooke Jarrett] I heard many stories from “upstairs” about the goings on of management. One was that the original video used to sell the backers on…Dragon’s Lair…had a small subliminal bonus for the viewers. Every third frame had Princess Daphne in the nude. Just to make her more interestingDaphne had a voice - though just barely - limited to occasional squeaks of "Save Me!" and a few lines of breathy dialogue at the game's conclusion. Dirk, on the other hand, never said a word. The designers tried a number of voices but when they were unable to find one that would make him sound sympathetic, they decided to keep him silent (which only added to his go-lucky dimwit image). While Dirk spoke no actual words, he did emit the occasional yelp or scream (supplied by the game's editor Dan Molina).
While Dyer, Bluth, and company were at work on the game, Jim Pierce had created a contingency team at Cinematronics as a fallback in case Dyer was unable to deliver. In the end, the team only provided some support functionality (plus some resentment for not allowing them to take a more active role in the game's development). Bob Skinner, for instance, created a software patch to fix an issue caused by a new piece of hardware that had been added to save $20 on production (the part caused interrupts - signals that indicated a hardware of software task needed immediate attention - to occur at 32hz instead of the frame rate of 30 hz).
The game's controls consisted simply of a joystick and an action button. As the game unfolded, the player would have to make the occasional choice to direct Dirk's onscreen actions. The player might have to dodge left to avoid a fireball, or swing his sword to sever the tentacles of a squid-like beast. While the castle contained 42 rooms, the player only had to visit about two dozen to complete the game. The castle housed an array of opponents, including Blank Knights, Giddy Goons, and the Lizard King. The game's finale featured a battle against the mighty dragon Singe. After slaying the beast, Dirk rescued the fair Daphne. As Dirk lifted his princess into his arms, she whispered sweet nothings into his ear, causing him to break into a wide grin. Player speculation on what, exactly, she said to elicit such a reaction was rampant (not to mention bawdy).
The phenomenal success of Dragon’s Lair failed to pull Cinematronics out of bankruptcy. One problem was that the games, while popular, were a maintenance nightmare. The first 4,000 units used the Pioneer PR-7820 laser disc player - a unit notorious for its unreliability. Pioneer itself only made 25,000 7820s, most of which were used for training GM auto dealers. Cinematronics purchased 5,000 and another 5,000 were used by Pioneer for parts to repair malfunctioning units. Pioneer received so many complaints about the model that they actually discontinued it before Dragon’s Lair was released. Even units that checked out fine in the factory were often damaged in shipment and soon after the game was released, Cinematronics was swamped with service calls from angry operators.
[Ed Anderson] Even though Pioneer had the industrial units, you couldn’t stabilize a laser and ship it across country – you couldn’t move it across the room actually. Every time they shipped it there was something wrong with it. They tried every kind of packaging you can imagine to try to make the laser components immovable they just couldn’t do it. That was what happened to Cinematronics. They spent so much money on that stuff and they couldn’t ship it. So at the end I moved a whole warehouse of their Pioneer industrial laser players so they could make a little bit of money before they went bankrupt.
Meanwhile, Pioneer had come out with a replacement for the 7820 called the LD-V1000, which was an improvement but still unreliable. While some operators were annoyed by malfunctioning Dragon’s Lair machines, others were upset that players who were able to complete the game would often tie up machines for 6-10 minutes. In addition, players who had watched someone else play the game to completion often had little desire to play it themselves.
Meanwhile, the arcade-going public was eagerly awaiting Cinematronics' follow up to Dragon’s Lair. Once again, Ricky Dyer and Don Bluth were the guiding forces and this time, they were given $2 million to create a game. The result was a kind of outer-space version of Dragon’s Lair called Space Ace, a game that offered a number of additions over its predecessor but failed to come close to matching its success. Space Ace featured a more complex plot (written by Shannon Donnelly) than Dragon’s Lair and included a number of scenes with dialogue (something Dragon’s Lair was almost entirely lacking). In the game, the brawny hero Space Ace ("defender of truth, justice, and the planet Earth") is reduced to a sniveling teenage twerp named Dexter by the "Infanto Ray", the creation of his arch-nemesis Borf. who then captures his girlfriend Kimberly (Kimmy) and vows to use the ray on the entire population of planet Earth. The rest of the game involves Dexter's attempts to save his girlfriend and thwart Borf's nefarious plan. One novel feature of the game was the "Energize" button. If the player did well enough, the screen would glow red at certain points in the game and he could then push the energize button to temporarily return Dexter to his normal, less-annoying (or was that more annoying?) state. The player could also elect not to energize, which often led to a different animation sequence, usually easier though worth fewer points. Space Ace allowed the player to select from three skill levels - Space Cadet, Space Captain, or Space Ace. The higher skill levels featured footage not available in the lower ones and the reason was financial. One of the problems with Dragon’s Lair had been that, once a player had finished the game, there was little reason to play it again. Space Ace's skill levels were one (not very successful) attempt to avoid that problem.
To create the game's spaceship sequences, the designers first filmed models of the vehicles, which were then incorporated into animation cells and recolored. A special tunnel was built for filming the game's dogfight sequences. While the animation was similar to that of Dragon’s Lair, the sounds were somewhat improved. The game had 35 separate tracks for sound effects compared to 14 for Dragon’s Lair. To save money, the designers chose to do the character voices themselves rather than relying on professional actors. Animators Jeff Etter, Will Finn, and Lorna Pomeroy supplied the voices of Ace, Dexter, and Kimmy respectively while Don Bluth himself provided the voice of Borf. In response to complaints that the slow access time of Dragon’s Lair had detracted from gameplay, the staff at Rick Dyer's production company (which was now called RDI Video Systems) developed a system that could access information 50% faster. Dyer's group was the only one to have undergone a name change. After discovering that the name Starcom was already taken by another company, Dyer changed the name of his joint venture to Magicom. Released in late 1983, Space Ace was a disappointment. It did poorly in the arcades and pulled in only $13 million in sales for Magicom. Debuting on the Replay charts in May of 1984 at a disappointing 11th place, the game had disappeared by the end of the year.
 Allied Leisure's electromechanical game F-114 was shipped with a factory pre-set of 50-cent play in 1975.
 Some sources claim this figure is 80 times the average machine take, but this seems far too high. The “10 times” figure is probably a bit low..
 Though Dyer claimed that only 1% of units experienced problems.