Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Exidy - Part 4

By 1978 Exidy had become one of the leading video game makers on the west coast and continued to churn out games at a rapid pace. 1978’s Football and Rip Cord were standard variations of games already on the market. Football was a soccer game using trackball controls (which Exidy called "palm balls"). Rip Cord was a takeoff on Atari's Sky Diver. The player controlled a sky diver who parachuted from a plane, guiding him to a series of landing pads on cliffs or a central island while avoiding the blades of a squadron of helicopters. The most distinctive (though not unique, sine a similar idea had been used in Sky Diver) feature was the game's controls, which included a triangular ring the player pulled to deploy their parachute. Rip Cord debuted at the 1978 AMOA show in November. Exidy's really standout game, however, was another game that debuted at the same show - a game that was anything but standard and that would result in one of Exidy’s lasting contributions to video game history. Star Fire was an extraordinarily innovative game that featured a number of significant firsts[1]. The game, however, was not designed at Exidy.

Arlen Grainger, programmer for Rip Cord

Star Fire

Ted Michon graduated from Cal Tech in Spring of 1975, intending to return the following year to get a second degree. What was supposed to be a summer job at Glendale’s Comtal turned into a full-time project designing a “Digital Vidicon Scanner System” that allowed the CIA to reduce the time it took to digitize spy satellite photographs from 3 hours to one minute. By the time Michon finished his project, Comtal was on the verge of extinction and Michon was let go. Looking for a new way to pay the bills, he came across an ad for an electrical engineer opening for a company called Digital Games. Michon took the job, only to watch most of the design staff leave after a dispute between the two owners leaving him as one of the few engineers. Michon's most significant work at Digital Games was the "3-D" driving game Night Racer (which was based on the German game Nurburgring, which Michon had seen on  a trip to Germany to fix an issue with Digital's Air Combat game). While Michon's stay at Digital (which was renamed Micronetics by the time Night Racer was released) was chaotic, he did find a new career as a video game designer.
After leaving Digital Games/Micronetics, Michon decided to start his own independent video game design company, which he called Techni-Cal. Before leaving, he had contacted Midway’s Hank Ross and negotiated a contract to develop games for Midway. After borrowing money from his family, Michon soon had Techni-Cal up and running and turned his mind toward designing new video games.
In the early months, his main problem was a lack of engineering staff. A solution came when a pair of old Cal Tech friends contacted him about a contract they had to design a terminal for C. Itoh Electronics. The pair may have been good engineers, but they were poor businessmen and were going broke. Michon decided to join forces with them and they renamed their new company Technical Magic Inc. In late 1977, Technical Magic would begin work on a new video game as well.
After thoroughly enjoying the 1977 mega-hit Star Wars, Michon decided he wanted to create a video game based on the movie. By this time microprocessors were becoming increasingly common in video games. Michon, a hardware specialist, decided he needed a programmer and hired friend David Rolfe who had recently graduated from college. In addition to a microprocessor, the game Rolfe was to design would be a color game – a combination that had rarely been used at that point (though Exidy’s Car Polo had used a 6502 processor).  

[David Rolfe] Ted had developed a system with a Z-80 processor running at about 2.5 megahertz. This was going to be the first arcade game system that had a color monitor and was controlled by a microprocessor. I think before then both microprocessors and color were pretty rare ... Color monitors were hideously expensive. Ted found the first one that was slightly less than hideously expensive and developed some hardware trying to cut the costs to the bone and yet have some ability to manipulate a bitmap.

            The game Rolfe developed was a first-person shooter in which the player squared off against invading TIE fighter-like enemies. While the game’s enemies and title graphics clearly borrowed from Star Wars, Michon had not bothered to obtain licensing from the movie’s producers, believing he’d either have time to do so later or would be able to change the game enough to avoid infringement.
Star Fire was primarily the work of three people. Michon designed the hardware, Rolfe handled the programming, and Michon’s then-girlfriend (and now wife) Susan Olsen created much of the game’s art. While Michon’s development system was innovative, it was also rather primitive by later standards. The game made use of what was called a “bit-mapped” display in which each pixel on the screen was “mapped” to a location in memory that stored the color values for the pixel. The more memory that was available, the more colors you could produce but more memory was also more expensive and there were also technical limitations, so designers often had to get the most mileage out of limited hardware resources. In addition, bit-mapped displays presented a number of inherent challenges.

[David Rolfe] With a bitmap you can put up anything you want but it’s hard to maintain your background because you’re drawing on top of it so if you’re moving an object across your background, then when you move the object out of the way you have to redraw your background, unlike something with sprites or moving objects where you set up a background and the thing is just painted in front of or behind it. So it was a relatively primitive system but you could design the games to work with the limitations as quickly as possible.

Because of limited resources, Ted was designing madly to have as few bits to show as much information as possible so we wanted the appearance of full color and yet we cheated as much as possible since we didn’t really have to have lots of bits per pixel. So it ended up being like 1.6 bits per pixel or some relatively compressed amount of data for a relatively large number of colors and we did have to struggle with that to move things around.

Each bit map byte described the state of a horizontal row of 8 pixels, and within that byte only two colors were available, corresponding to the bits being on or off. This limited the ability to draw arbitrary pictures…The bytes were painted from left to right so it means that if one pixel was directly above the other you could create arbitrary colors but moving left to right it was tricky business. One thing could bleed over onto another because if you have one item that is red and white and the next which is red and blue and they cross each other then there’s going to be bytes in the middle that want to have 3 different colors on them and they couldn’t technically. So it was sort of tricky to allow for complete free motion of pictures that you were moving around on the screen because they tended to step on each other and to some extent you could design the game around lines such that that wouldn’t happen and to some extent they were just going to step on each other and that was that.

Another technical challenge was creating the game’s 3D effects in which the enemies got larger as they got nearer to the player’s ship.

[David Rolfe] Anything we did 3D was a complete cheat. There was a set of 32 different pictures so [you] had some sense of how far away it was.  I looked up in the table do I want picture #1 or picture #20. We didn’t have the processing power to calculate that kind of stuff.

Star Fire appeared in the Disney film "Midnight Madness" and yes, that's Eddie "Mr. Potato Head" Deezen of Wargames fame on the left.

Michon’s original intention was to sell the game to Midway but they didn't like the gameplay, even after Michon and his team made a number of requested changes. Midway cofounder Hank Ross even suggested adding a witch on a bicycle that you could shoot. The team dutifully complied. When you shot the witch, the words "A Witch" appeared on the screen. Despite the changes, Midway ultimately ended passed and the rights to the game’s hardware and software reverted to Michon, who began looking for another buyer. They found one in Exidy.
The gameplay of the finished product was relatively straightforward. The player controlled a star fighter and used his lasers to destroy a host of incoming alien invaders. Realism was enhanced by the game’s first person perspective and color graphics, a targeting computer that could “lock on” to enemy ships, lasers that could overheat if used too much, and a limited fuel supply that could be increased by inserting more quarters. The witch was replaced by an Exidy spaceship and the words "A Witch " were chanted to "Got Us". While these features were all innovative, it was two others that really set the game apart.
The first had come when David Rolfe suggested that what players wanted out of a game was to go down in history. Realizing that the game’s processor and RAM would allow them to store data, the team decided that they would let the 20 highest scoring players enter and save their initials. The only problem was how they would actually enter them. After puzzling over the issue for some time, they hit upon idea of using the game controls themselves.

[David Rolfe] That was probably the best idea of my life…In retrospect it all seems obvious but at the time the notion of actually putting in your initials and having the game remember them was sort of a big deal. The concept of a high score table was very novel. The concept of a computer was very novel – that something could be so smart that it could remember who you were.  That was the dawn of the era of smart stuff. In the 1960s, everything was dumb and for what it's worth I think video games played a role in teaching people in our culture that machines were no longer dumb.

Another interesting feature was that if you entered the initials of one of the designers after achieving a high score, you were presented with an appropriate greeting. With the game almost finished, Technical Magic still needed to find a buyer. They soon turned to Exidy, who decided to produce the game, and who even added what became the game’s other major innovation in the form of a cabinet designed by Michael Cooper-Hart.

[Michael Cooper-Hart] Star Fire was the first time I packaged a game in an enclosed cockpit…I put an 8” speaker under the seat, the equivalent of what a subwoofer would be today. That was very daring because the operators and distributors were really scared that people would go in there and do naughty things or vandalize the game and in fact that never happened. After that there was a whole genre [of cockpit games]. The next one I did was Tailgunner, which was kind of an art nouveau [concept].

Star Fire was hailed as the first “total environment” game. Games where the player sat down were nothing new, cocktail table games had been around since the heyday of the Pong clones. Other games, like Atari’s Hi-Way (April 1975) and Night Driver featured a built-in chair that the player could sit in. Star Fire, however, took things to a new level by adding walls and a roof to completely enclose the player in the game cabinet. The new, wedge-shaped cabinet design of Star Fire (which came to be called a “cockpit” cabinet) looked like the latest creation of the NASA labs and took the gaming experience one-step closer to realism. In addition to its innovations, Star Fire also proved quite popular and Replay listed it as the seventh most popular video game of 1979 in its year-end issue.
 Even more realistic was Rolling Star Fire , a version that included a “rolling chassis” (a cabinet that used hydraulics to move in response to the player's actions) and improved game play. A protytope version was show at the 1981 AMOA show but it does not appear to have been released. At least not in the U.S. Sigma licensed the game from Exidy and showed it the Japan Amusement Machine Show in Tokyo in 1982[2]. Dave Rolfe recalls[3] that a game called Star Fire II was also created, possibly for the export market, though it was really just a slightly modified version of the original (it may have been the same game as Rolling Star Fire).

[1] Numerous sources have listed Star Fire as not only Exidy’s first color game, but the first color coin-op video game period. Documentation, however, indicates that Car Polo was released some months prior to Star Fire.  As for other companies, many of them produced true color games prior to Star Fire.
[2] The December 15, 1982 issue of Play Meter reports that "Sigma showed Ponpoko…and Rolling Starfire again this year", indicating that they may have shown it the year before.
[3] In an interview in Atari2600 Connection.
Bonus Pictures
Since we mentioned Wargames, here's a picture of Ally Sheedy at the Video Invasion arcade in Toronto for a Wargames promo
Here's a shot of the interor of a Funway Freeway arcade, showing their trademark street sign motif

Someone one another board requested I post this - a photo of the rare Sega vector game Battle Star from a distributor showing
 Finally, here's one I found VERY interesting. This was shown at the 1975 MOA show in October - the same show where Gunfight (the first microprocessor video game) and Spirit of '76 (the first microprocessor pin) debuted. It's from a company called California Online Computer Systems. It's a video game "system" for sale to arcades that consisted of a central, programmable computer and several remote terminals. According to the main article, it cost $35,000 (more than the figure mentioned in the caption). I'd love to find out more about this one. It would have arguably been one of the first "system" games and was released right around the time personal computers were starting to take off (the Altair came out in 1975 too). This picture is from the November, 1975 Play Meter.


  1. Great write-up on Star Fire. It's always interesting when an outside developer brought a game to a manufacturer like with Space Wars and Dragon's Lair.

    The Games Unlimited system was way ahead of its time. I'm guessing it must not have sold any units, or not enough to justify manufacturing any. This was the same idea Bushnell had with Computer Space to make the high cost of a PDP feasible for operators. The idea of a central terminal is very doable nowadays but with computers so cheap now you have to wonder if it'd even be worth the trouble.

    1. I can't imagine many (if any) people would pay $30-35,000 (i 1975 dollars) for a video game system. I'd imagine they used a mini computer of some kind. I initially thought that the game in the photo didn't look very good but this WAS 1975. I actually tried to contact someone who might have been one of the founders of the company to ask him some questions but I never heard back.

  2. "Star Fire appeared in the Disney film "Midnight Madness" and yes, that's Eddie "Mr. Potato Head" Deezen of Wargames fame on the left."

    Reminded the directors behind "Midnight Madness" made a few quirky films together in the 70's like this one.

    "Gravity", plus their magnum opus "Junior High School" can be found on BluRay now over here!

  3. Reading your posts is one of the highlights of my week, and I cannot wait for the book. Just wanted to note one small correction for this entry. Hank Ross was not the president of Midway, that was his co-founder, Iggy Wolverton, until 1979 and then Dave Marofske after that. Ross was secretary-treasurer, provided feedback and suggestions to Midway's designers, and handled the company's relations with many of its outside development partners.

    1. Thanks for the info. I'll make the correction in my post and book.

  4. Oh, here you go, that scene from "Midnight Madness".

    1. Another Exidy classic "Death Race" also appears in this film I see!

  5. If the Midnight Madness clip is accurate, Star Fire looks very, very similar to Atari's Star Wars. So Michon borrows (wink) his thematic material from Star Wars (how was there not a law suit?), and Atari borrows (wink) from Michon/Exidy for the officially licensed Star Wars game? Fascinating.

  6. Thanks for the history, for a gamer buff (especially the old time Ms. Pacman arcade machine game) this was very interesting!