Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Exidy - Part 1

I was going to wait and post this later after I head back from a few more Exidy employees I've contacted,  but I decide to go ahead and start it now. I'll update it if I get more info (or include the info in the book).
Today's post actually covers Ramtek, not Exidy. You'll see why if you read it

While PSE and Meadows were both located in Sunnyvale, neither company would make any video games after 1978. Another Sunnyvale company, Exidy, was a different story entirely. At its height, Exidy was third only to Atari and Bally/Midway among U.S. video game producers and created a handful of hits that are among the minor classics of the era. The roots of the company, however, extend to another short-lived Sunnyvale competitor – Ramtek.


            Like Atari, Ramtek was located in Sunnyvale but unlike Atari, it didn’t start out as a video game company. Founded in 1971 by brothers Chuck and Mel McEwan and three other aerospace engineers (with funding from Exxon Enterprises), Ramtek manufactured graphic displays and imaging hardware, primarily for the medical and aerospace industries. In its early years the company grew via "bootstrapping" - borrowing money from anyone it could and plowing all profits back into manufacturing.

With the introduction of Pong, Ramtek jumped on the lucrative videogame bandwagon. Ramtek, in fact, got a look at the game before any of Atari's other competitors. Al Alcorn reports that not long after he'd placed the prototype Pong for test at Andy Capp's Tavern he noticed a group of  "customers" who came in every morning at 9 to play the game. This struck him as odd since most bars were empty at that early hour. When he asked owner Bill Gattis about it, Gattis told him they were engineers from Ramtek[1]. Gattis was right. Tom Adams, a friend of Chuck McEwans's (he would later serve as Ramtek's vp of finance) had a small interest in Andy Capp's and after he and McEwan got a look at the game, McEwan was sure he could create something similar.
        It should be no surprise, then, that Ramtek started with a Pong clone called Volly. McEwan, however, was insistent that Ramtek didn't steal the game.

[Chuck McEwan] Remember now, I knew Nolan Bushnell personally and he knew we were going into this venture right from the start. Ramtek didn't "steal" Pong…it was completely designed as its own game, meaning we didn't buy a Pong and knock it off part by part. Ramtek's Volly, which was our first piece, was a Volly, not a Pong as happened to Atari in so many other instances. It was video tennis and because we were already TV-computer oriented, it was a good game and we sold a heck of a lot of them[2].

 While Ramtek may have sold a lot of units of Volly, it wasn't easy at first. Ramtek was new to the coin-op business and had no idea where to start. They picked up a yellow pages and began calling area distrbutors and before long they had lined up a number of them (including Rowe International's Dedham, MA office, which ordered 2,500 units). Ramtek followed with two more Pong clones, Hockey, and Soccer (both 1973).

 Around this time, they hired a young engineer named Howell Ivy who would go on to become their most prolific game designer. Before coming to Ramtek, Ivy had spent 7 1/2 years in the Air Force, working on missile instrumentation at their Satellite Test Center in Sunnyvale. The base had a Computer Space and after Ivy played it, he decided that he could create a video game, went back to the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his wife, and began designing a Pong game

[Howell Ivy] I had worked with [Closed-Circuit Television] systems and my specialty in the Air Force was telemetry systems. I had a really good understanding of how to move information from one place to another, using both analog and digital technologies, and I was familiar with how TV screens worked so it was obvious to me how to put an image on the screen and move it around.
<Paul Drury, “In the Chair With Howell Ivy”, Retro Gamer #125, 2014>
While Ivy’s game was a fairly standard ball-and-paddle game, it did have one twist. The player could move the paddle in all four directions. After completing the game, Ivy took it to Ramtek, who paid him $2,000 for it. While they never produced it, they did offer him a job and gave him carte blanche to create whatever kind of game he wanted. Over the next three months, Ivy worked on the game at night while continuing his military duties during the day. The game Ivy created was Clean Sweep (ca May 1974), a pinball-like game in which the player tried to eliminate a field of dots with a ball and paddle. Some see the game as a kind of primitive predecessor to Atari’s Breakout. Mel McEwan made the rather dubious claim that it was the first video game to offer players the chance to win a free game

After finishing Clean Sweep, Ivy went to work for Ramtek full-time. One of his first efforts was Wipe Out, a 2 or 4 player game similar to Atari’s Quadrapong but with a twist in the form of a special “frustration bumper” that caused the ball to bounce in a random direction. A bit more sophisticated was Ivy’s Baseball – one of the earliest games to include animated human characters. The games cabinet (designed by Tempest Products) looked like a miniature stadium[1]. Ramtek licensed the game to Seeburg, who produced it as Deluxe Baseball. Ivy reports that they also licensed it to Midway, which they released as Ball Park. Another innovative game (for the time) was 1975’s Trivia, which was likely the first video trivia game. Players answered a series of multiple-choice questions in four different categories (questions were solicited from Ramtek employees, who were paid $1 each for them). The questions were stored on interchangeable 8-track cartridges, which could be replaced when they got old. To “randomize” the questions, Ramtek came up with a creative solution.

[Howell Ivy] …I designed an interface for the PDP-11 computer so we could use that to write data files to the audiotape for the questions. When you put a quarter in, the tape started running, so however long it took you to answer a questions would determine what question it would take off the tape next. That made it random!
<Paul Drury, “In the Chair Wit Howell Ivy”, Retro Gamer #125, 2014>

 In addition to his video game work, Ivy also designed a solid-state pinball game using an Intel 4004 microprocessor. Though the machine never went into production, Ivy recalls that they made 3 or 4 prototypes. He also recalls that the game was made in 1973 or 1974, which would have made it one of the earliest microprocessor pinball games to be developed.
By the end of 1974, Ramtek was on the grow. They had $6 million in sales, had manufactured more than 10,000 video games, and were looking to expand their facilities. In March, 1976, Ramtek announced they had sold 20,000 games in its first three years and were going to split their game and computer displays divisions into separate companies. Shortly afterwards they released two new games. Hit Me was a video version of blackjack and one of the first pseudo-gambling card games released by a major video game manufacturer (just the year before, Si Redd and Dale Frey had introduced the very first video poker/blackjack games). Sea Battle featured multi-player ship-to-ship combat where players could “blow away islands” and “hide in coves” while trying to destroy the opposing vessels and avoid deadly mines.

Ramtek - circa Summer, 1977

Then, in November of 1976, disaster struck – or so it seemed at first. Back in 1974 Ramtek was set to launch a new line of color monitors but needed to raise $1.4 million to do so. By November of 1976 they had finally struck a deal providing them with the cash they needed. Then, the night before Chuck McEwan was scheduled to fly back east to close the deal, Ramtek's $7 million manufacturing plant burned to the ground. Making a bad situation worse, they had allowed their insurance policy to lapse just a month before. In the end, however, the fire proved to be a kind of turning point for the company. An emergency meeting was called with the company's bankers, who provided enough funding to keep Ramtek afloat and the episode caused employees to pull together into a community[3].

In January, 1977 Ramtek released Barricade, their version of Gremlin’s much copied Blockade. Gremlin immediately hit them with a trademark infringement lawsuit. While awaiting trial, Ramtek voluntarily stopped producing the game and agreed to use the name Brickyard if they decided to start making it again (they didn’t). Star Cruiser (September 1977) was a kind of Spacewars sans the central sun that featured controls usually seen in driving games – a U-shaped steering wheel and a gas pedal. Ramtek’s most popular game was probably M-79 Ambush (July 1977), which featured a gun controller modeled after the army’s M-79 grenade launcher. In Replay’s year-end survey of the best games of 1977 M-79 Ambush was among the 15 video games listed.


Overall, however, Ramtek’s games were not doing well. They weren’t alone. Other video game manufacturers began dropping by the wayside, including crosstown rivals Meadows Games and PSE. Faced with increasing competition and frustrated by the blatant copying in the industry, Ramtek decided to abandon video games entirely in 1978 and instead make games in the mold of the old electromechancial arcade games but using microprocessor technology. Ramtek had actually taken a stab at non-video arcade games back in 1976 when they released Horoscope, a kind of throwback to the fortune tellers of the early 20th century. If Horoscope had one foot in the past, however, the other was firmly planted in the 1970s. The game’s “backglass” with its flashing lights and mirrors resembled a disco ball come to life. More ‘70s kitsch can be seen in the game itself, which not only included four astrology functions but even generated biorhythms – a craze that had swept the nation in the wake of Bernard Gittelson’s 1975 book Biorhythm: A Personal Science. At the same time, Ramtek introduced another game called Lie Detector that appears to have never made it to production. In 1978, Ramtek trod the non-video path again with Dark Invader (August), a space-themed, first-person shooter that made use of a laser and a spinning mirror mounted on a gun. The player peered through a porthole to shoot down alien space ships, which were actually made from bent pieces of heavy gauge wire covered in fluorescent paint and spun under UV lamps to produce a stroboscopic effect. A Z-80 microprocessor controlled the game’s attract mode, scoring, lighting, and sound effects (via a Texas Instruments sound chip). Ramtek followed up with GT Roadster (December), a projection screen driving game in the mold of Kasco’s The Driver that used Super 8mm film cartridges. The company’s most successful non-video game was a throwback to an even older arcade game – 1979’s Boom Ball. The game was similar to Skee Ball but instead of rolling the balls, the player shot them out of a cannon. Boom Ball proved extremely popular and Ramtek continued producing it until mid-1980 when they sold it, along with their entire games division to Mel McEwan (cofounder of the company and manager of the division). The problem was that even with the success of Boom Ball the games division was losing money, and had been for some time. In its 1980 annual report, Ramtek reported that they'd lost $971,000 in 1979 from "discontinued operations" and had posted smaller losses in 1977 and 1978. Most, if not all of this, was probably from their games division. Overall, the company had turned a profit but in 1979 profits had declined to just $283,000 from a high of $1.3 million the year before. Faced with mounting losses, Ramtek decided to sell the games division, and return fulltime to the fields it knew best – medical imaging and CAD/CAM. 1980 saw sales of $25 million with plans to begin manufacturing PC monitors, but as far as video games went, the company was finished. Boom Ball, however, was not. After buying the games division, Mel McEwan created a company called Meltec and continued to produce the game.

Faced with mounting losses, Ramtek decided to sell the games division, and return fulltime to the fields it knew best – medical imaging and CAD/CAM. 1980 saw sales of $25 million with plans to begin manufacturing PC monitors, but as far as video games went, the company was finished. Boom Ball, however, was not. After buying the games division, Mel McEwan created a company called Meltec and continued to produce the game.

In terms of video game history, Ramtek’s main contribution may have come not from its games, but from two of its employees. H.R.. “Pete” Kauffman was an early partner at Ramtek who left in 1973 to form his own company in Sunnyvale for the sole purpose of creating video games. In 1975, Howell Ivy joined him at his newly formed venture and unlike the other Sunnyvale companies, this one would last.

[1] Al Alcorn interview, Retro Gamer #88
[2] RePlay, May, 1977, p. 24
[3] The dates given for the fire come from Malone The Big Score p.300. The December 24, 1975 issue of Computerworld reports that a fire on the morning of 20th "had rendered 10,000 square feet of manufacturing space  unusable." This may have been a separate fire or Malone may have got his dates wrong.


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  2. Good post. For such a short-lived company Ramtek actually made some pretty innovative and influential arcade games. That's really bizarre that they left the video game business right as Space Invaders came out. Any idea why?

    1. The reason they left the video games business is that the games division was losing money.
      I have edited the story to reflect this.
      They may have also felt that they didn't really have expertise in video games to begin with or that the video boom was over (remember that the effects of Space Invaders didn't really kick in until almost 1980. As late as summer of 1979, a number of people in the industry were down on video games).

  3. Would really like to see some good information on Exidy games, including the early discrete machines such as Demolition Derby, Death Race, Super Death Chase, Alley Rally, Score, Spiders in Space, Attack and Football.

    A couple years ago I heard a radio interview with Howell Ivy. The interview was specifically about Death Race. I think it was around the time that the Death Race remake movie was released in 2008. If I recall correctly he spoke with a southern accent.

  4. Found a really good Dark Invader description with a name attached: Bill Heine