Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Cinematronics/Vectorbeam - Pt. 6

            In May of 1982, a pair of new programmers had arrived at Cinematronics - Bob Skinner and David Dentt.  Skinner was one of the second generation of coin-op video game programmers who got their start with home computers. Actually, he got his start creating games earlier than that. He went to a grade school for gifted children where he regaled classmates by recreating the movies he had seen complete with voices and sound effects. The students would also create their own playground games and board games. Skinner soon discovered science fiction and attended some of the first ComicCon (before you had to sign up for tickets a year in advance). Life was good. Then his parents moved to what he calls a "real life Tatooine" where his love of computers and science fiction wasn't so widely shared or appreciated. He learned BASIC on an Apple I while taking classes at a Junior College (while still attending high school) then got a TRS-80 and began recreating the games he saw in San Diego malls like Starship 1 and Space Invaders. After high school he attended Coleman College in San Diego where he studied programming. Skinner, however, had little desire to follow the traditional career path of the rest of his classmates.

[Bob Skinner] They were all headed to the new fields of financial and database [software] and to use programming in their day job but what about me? I played endless Defender and Scramble in the lunchroom and found Pac-Man exceedingly boring. A job fair popped up within days of graduation, and Cinematronics showed up. The younger (Dave) Stroud and his assistant, (who looked like Delta Burke in her prime) had a game called Jack and the Giant Killer, and I found it quite awful. I told them I could do better and I told them what I would specifically change and I spouted ideas from a place I could never control, and it interested them. I started within the month making $300 a week. Every week. Salary. To make video games. I resigned my $3.25 job at what was the world’s first Souplantation, even as they offered me a kitchen prep position with the possibility of kitchen manager. As if.

For a 20-year old gaming geek it was heaven: free video games in the cafeteria, no expenses, and getting paid to make video games. During breaks (when not playing games in the cafeteria) employees would sometimes head to the river across the street to feed marshmallows to geese with a slingshot.  Skinner called it his "endless summer". He soon found out, however, that making video games wasn’t all fun and games. It was also a lot of hard work. Rob Patton had returned to Cinematronics after his stint at Hughes and was once again putting in the 60-90 hour weeks to get his projects finished on time. Meanwhile, Skinner was enjoying life working a standard 40 hour week, not yet concerned with project schedules or delivery dates.

[Bob Skinner] Rob was genuinely nice to me but felt I didn’t understand the pressure I was setting myself up for later, or resented my endless summer. Arriving on a Monday mid-morning, Rob had clearly worked the weekend. Rob said. “I don’t know how some people expect their games to get done. Maybe they expect that elves are coming in in the middle of the night and working on them. I was here and I didn’t see any.”

Skinner was taken aback but began working harder to try to earn the respect of his colleagues. Before long he was too was working the long hours so common in the industry.


Rob Patton, from

             At the time Skinner arrived, Rob Patton was working on a 16-color vector game where a player defended a weblike structure from a spider.

[Rob Patton] …a spider was adding vector segments to its web and you had to run around the web avoiding the spider but cutting the web to protect yourself and to save the items stuck on the web.

Patton was having a hard time of it and wasn't particularly happy with the game. When Q*Bert became a hit, cute games were back in. Bob Skinner suggested to Patton that he give his game a makeover.

[Bob Skinner] I pitched to Rob that his icky, girl-repellent, not exactly catalyzed game, which he was very apprehensive about, could get a cute makeover. Make the player piece the destructor, not the builder. (This is John Hughes 101) Make him a stick figure with a face with expressions. Make him get away with murder, and have the kinetic payoff of the destruction of the web through the strategic cutting of the right pieces before the Spider could fix them. Call this character “Cutter”. Somehow, this captivated Rob and answered so many questions for him. He took it upstairs. Next thing I know, I have a letter from the current boss, Al Reeder. “You are a very smart guy.” was all it said

With new energy, Patton set to work overhauling his game. The Benny Hill theme song (Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax") was available without copyright so Jeff Liedecker digitized it and added it to the game In October of 1982, however, Patton left Cinematronics and the game was never finished.

[Rob Patton] I left Cinematronics because they did the Rick Dyer Dragons’ Lair deal without any consultation with the current engineering department. I felt they should have included us in the transition planning and they kept it a complete surprise. In the final months at Cinematronics Scott Boden and I both retained an agent named Malcolm Kaufman. I interviewed in Knoxville TN with Magnavox. They offered me an excellent package but I felt their game platform was headed down and also didn’t want to move that far.

Instead, Patton went to a new company called Entertainment Sciences where he worked on the game Bouncer.

A1 Main Battle Tank Simulator/Hovercraft

Meanwhile, Cinematronics had contracted with Perceptronics (a research firm that did projects for the military), to create a 3D tank battle system for use in military training, Funded by DARPA (to the tune, reportedly, of $6 million), the A1 Main Battle Tank Simulator was to be a color vector system based on the Motorola 68000 processor. Brooke Jarrett was hired to work on the system. He was a natural choice, having previously worked for the Naval Undersea Center and the IT&T Defense Communication Division.

[Brooke Jarrett]  
The idea was a tank gunner game that they could put in the barracks for the solders to play after hours that would hone their skills used on the battle fields. The day I started work, I found that the manager who hired me had left.

The 3D effect would be achieved via a split monitor with polarized mirrors so that glasses were not required. The system was bug-ridden and unable to handle the complex graphics required. The project was never completed.

[Bob Skinner] 
When it failed to pass a test, and I am not sure why, the jig was up and the head count dropped by about 20 and some of the really smart guys in the other room were gone. They weren’t game people. I remember there was a lumbering “Executive” or some such top-heavy cycle stealing behemoth that didn’t address the important stuff, like clipping and hidden-line removal.

[Brooke Jarrett] The project never really took off because Cinematronics realized that even if they produced a good game, they wouldn’t necessarily get the final contract to produce it

 On the plus side, Cinematronics now had a brand new  "state of the art" color vector game development system. The 3D concept eventually made its way into an unreleased arcade video game called Hovercraft developed by Jack Ritter and Earl Stratton.

[Jack Ritter] Hovercraft was a split-screen stereoscopic game…The left half of the screen contained the left eye's image, and the right side contained the right's. A  "periscope", or system of 4 mirrors at 45-degree angles to the screen's surface, redirected the 2 images, so they appeared on top of one another. The whole mirror assembly was enclosed by a large plastic molded shell, which fit tightly around the edges of the screen, on one side, and came to a face-sized hole on the other side. This kept out ambient light, & allowed the player to put his face up against the viewing hole, which blocked out outside light, so none got picked up by the mirrors. This made the experience very immersive, as they would call it today. I found it to be extremely hypnotic, and would stand there with my face planted in the thing for hours. But I'm obviously not objective. Others were less impressed.
            In the game, your hovercraft was suspended in the air, shushing down a swerving road, which was periodically populated with various objects. There were dancing thingies you shot at, obstacles and bridges you drove around/through, and smart bombs and power-ups you scooped up. The game made it to the point of being put into a single, very obscure arcade, which was visited by very few people. It seemed to be quite popular there; at least it was every time I popped my head in…
            But there were definitely other problems. One was the "lemon" reputation of its hardware platform. In addition, it turns out that many people just don't perceive the stereopsis effect very well. The only 3D cue was ocular triangulation, so I guess some people just didn't get it. These are the same people who can look thru a View Master toy, and just feel/get nothing at all, even though their eyes are doing what they're supposed to be doing ….

The 3D effect also caused other problems

[Earl Stratton] The 3D effect was very sensitive to alignment of the monitor and mirrors, resulting in headaches [and] too much or too little perceived depth-of-field (and that varied among individuals). At one point, management considered adjustable mirrors but rejected them as too expensive and a reliability problem.

Some of the roadside objects could be shot, others had to be avoided. Objects like a crescent moon and a rocket gantry appeared on the distant horizon.

[Earl Stratton] The really fun part was shooting objects and seeing them explode into a shower of colored dots. These were drawn in three layers to give a sense  of depth to the explosion, with the layers expanding away from each other…as the dots also expanded away from each other. The vector  system was very limited to the number of lines and dots it could draw. But  it was a beautiful effect!

This page from the September, 1984 DRA Price Guide not only lists Hovercraft, but gives a release date and a price. Does this indicate that the game was actually released? (other sources agree that it wasn't)

With the financial problems Cinematronics was experiencing, they could not afford to keep too many projects going at once.

[Jack Ritter]   Another bummer for Hovercraft was the disastrous financial state of the company at that time. Sometime during Hovercraft's development, I can't remember exactly when, the company went into Chapter 11. So they had to come up with some tall cash, and fast. Along about then, Don Bluth approached Cinematronics with an offer to have them manufacture his Dragon's Lair. Or possibly the Bluth deal was there on the table from the beginning, during the chapter 11 application. Also around that time, Cinematronics got a contract to manufacture Jack The Giant Killer, as well as another 3rd party game.
            These 3 manufacturing projects got all the priority. As I recall, all other ongoing projects were summarily aborted, regardless of merit. This included HoverCraft.

Ritter left before the game was complete, leaving Stratton to work on it by himself. While the game never went into production, a single prototype was still on display in the company cafeteria when he returned to the company in 1988 after a stint in the army.

1 comment:

  1. Could you please hurry up and finish this book already?!? I love this stuff!!