Monday, July 29, 2013

Dave Needle and Jerry Lawson - Two Early Independent Video Game Designers

Way back when I stared this blog, I posted about Dave Needle's one-off Star Trek video game. That post was only part of a longer chapter in my book about independent video game designers. Today, I am posting the entire chapter (at least as it exists right now). The earlier post didn't seem to arouse much interest, but it was actually one of the most interesting stories I heard when researching the book. Now that I have a few more readers, I hope this expanded version will be of more interest.

Chapter 13
The Independents

            The history of coin-op video games usually runs something like this: first there was Nolan Bushnell’s Computer Space and then there was Pong and in-between there was nothing. In actuality, however, this may not have been strictly true (even aside from Galaxy Game and For-Play's Star Trek). The late 1960s and 1970s were a hotbed of activity in the computer field. A handful of companies, and even more individuals, were struggling to create a personal computer at the time and there may well have been others who were creating video games. These people may not have had Nolan Bushnell’s entrepreneurial instinct but it is likely that in at least a few garages and basements across the country, there were computer hackers and electronics tyros trying to build video games of their own.

Dave Needle
            One such independent designer was Dave Needle, who would go on to have a hand in the creation of 3D0, the Atari Lynx, and the Commodore Amiga. After graduating high school, Needle started attending Hunter College in the Bronx. It was there that he created his first video game.


Dave Needle

[Dave Needle] About six months or so before Pong came out I did my first game. I saw an article in Popular Electronics that taught how to build an analog TV game[2]. I thought it was cool so I built one in the bedroom of my house in the Bronx. I built it in an attaché case. It was mostly analog, a little bit digital for some of the collision stuff. It was fun – and allowed you to play Pong, basically. I made a second game that had a gun that shot a little bullet out and you angled the gun and pushed the trigger to fire. Later I added bounce to the paddles that was controllable by a second pot to control the angle of the paddles and then I actually got the [paddles to change onscreen] to show what angle you were going to bounce the balls off of. I thought it was cool, showed it to all my friends, and didn’t do anything with it. I had a great opportunity in front of me and just didn’t do anything. I made the one-offs of these games in cigar boxes and attaché cases and I just left them like that, finished college, and went off to California.

Article from November, 1972 Popular Electronics. This was probably the article Needle referred to
            This was the first time Needle by-passed his chance to get in on the ground floor of the video game explosion, but it wouldn’t be the last. After moving to California he graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Not long after graduation, he got a glimpse of Computer Space in a Long Beach arcade and was immediately captivated. He went home and created a baseball video game, and once again never thought about marketing it. When Magnavox came out with the Odyssey, he and a friend managed to bluff their way into a demo but could not get into the rooms where the game’s design was being discussed. After seeing the game, Needle once again designed a version of his own in an attaché case, and once again he didn’t think about marketing it.
Around this time, Needle took a job as a civilian technician aboard the USS Enterprise and in his spare time he continued working on videogames.

[Dave Needle] So I volunteer for work on the USS Enterprise for the navy. So I’m going to spend the next nine months at sea and what am I doing in my spare time? Once again I’m building another game in an attaché case. This time it’s a multi-game game. It has a version of Breakout, it’s got a couple of different kinds of Pong games, it’s got a maze game. [There was] no software. It was entirely hardware driven…It grew to two attaché cases…with cables that connected them on the bottom. In one of them was the power supply and all the joysticks and stuff. The other one was this giant pile of wire-wrapped boards. So that’s what I did in my spare time. I only made one of them. I never turned it into a business. What a jerk I am.

Probably around 1973 or 74 there was a fire on the Enterprise. The fire was in my shop. It burned down my shop pretty bad. Most of the equipment was totally destroyed. My game, which was in the shop at the time, was totally drenched in this corrosive fluid that they used to put out the fires and it was totally ruined.

At this time, Needle bought parts anywhere he could get them cheaply.

[Dave Needle] Radio Shack didn’t have the parts I needed. I was the manager of a team on the Enterprise…so I knew where the Navy got their parts. So I would buy a lot of those parts from the same sources the Navy was getting them from…I had military-capable wire-wrapped boards…it was the only stuff I could buy. Then one day I stumble across a store called I.C. Electronics in Los Angeles. They had a cool idea. Take integrated circuits, resistors, etc. and vacuum-pack them in nice clean packages and sell them at a decent price. Back then this was unheard of. . . One day I’m standing in the store and in comes a guy with some circuit problem. The kid behind the counter, who has no clue how to design circuits, has no way to help him. So I start helping the guy and this went on for some number of weeks. One day I’m helping a guy and he needs a part and there’s no one around so I yell at Don “Hey can I go back and get this.” He says yes and I go into his rows of parts in the back of the store and he’s got a ton of unlabeled stuff. I wound up going to work at the store for free when I wasn’t working on the ship and he paid me in parts. So I now got free parts for helping guys at an electronics store. I was in heaven.

Todd Fisher and the legendary Mike Quinn (probably at Mike Quinn Electronics)
Courtesy of Fischer's site

 It wasn’t long before the store’s owner told Needle about an even better source for parts – Mike Quinn Electronics. The gruff, bearlike Quinn was one of the forgotten fathers of the computer revolution. A number of the Bay Area personal computer pioneers haunted his shop, including Bob Marsh, Gordon French, and Lee Felsenstein (Processor Technology); Chuck Grant and Mark Greenberg (North Star Computers), and Howard Fulmer (Equinox-100). Quinn frequented auctions and sales where he was able to obtain overstocked and over-manufactured parts for pennies on the dollar. He then sold the parts out of a sloppy, messy, dirty warehouse located near the Oakland Airport. Quinn’s had everything – motors, parts, control sticks, LEDs, broken video games, and, best of all, dirt-cheap prices. It was an electronics tinkerer’s dream come true. Needle and friends soon began to haunt the place. When they complained about not being able to get parts in the middle of the night, the store’s chief technician offered to give them a key, telling them to come in anytime, take what they wanted, and write it down on the back of a paper sack so they could pay for it later. Uncomfortable with the arrangement, Needle and the technician worked out a compromise, anytime he or his partners wanted anything, they would drive out to the technician’s house, then drive him to the store and he would open it up for them. While the technician’s girlfriend didn’t appreciate Needle and company’s late night visits, the trio was able to get the parts they needed whenever they needed them. The lack of money also meant that the partners often had to make do with homemade equipment.

[Dave Needle] I had to build a ROM programmer. I didn’t have enough money [to buy one]. The first ROM we were using had +9v and –12v, some ridiculous set of power supplies. So I built this thing. It had 8 toggle switches, one for each bit. It had another toggle switch that would increment the address starting from zero. It had a third toggle switch that would generate the programming pulse. So you put in the part, set up the bits, and you wiggled the toggle switch that programs in the 8-bits. Then you hit the address incrementer (I had a set of LEDs reading me the binary address), and you did it again and again. So, one-bit-at-a-time, you entered the data. Because the parts were expensive and I didn’t have a lot of space I made, in hardware, a small decompression mechanism and I had about an 8-1 decompression of the imagery and the hardware decompressed on the fly to give us those images and that was cheaper than [adding] more ROMs.

Not long after the Enterprise fire, Needle and his partner (either Stan Shepard or Bob Ewell) actually got their first offer to make money at their time-consuming “hobby”.

[Dave Needle] I went to work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda around 1974. So while I was there I decided to do another game. The bar where I spent a lot of time…was looking for some kind of an arcade game to have in the bar. So me and my buddy…built a multi-game game that was a sit-down table game. Did I build twenty of these? Did I try to sell it to anybody? No. I built only one. What a jerk I am.

For their next effort, the pair decided to make use of some new technology. All of the games Needle and friends had created so far had been 100% hardware based. Now they decided to create a game using a microprocessor (they would actually end up using two 8080s in the game). While Needle had no real knowledge of software, Stan Shepherd was a software whiz. They took a trip to the Federation Trading Post (an unauthorized seller of Star Trek merchandise in Berkeley run by Charles Weiss and Ron Barlow) and offered to create a Star Trek video game for the place. When the owner told them “Sure, go ahead” they immediately began working on the game. What they didn’t know was that the Trading Post got offers like that every week and no one ever actually came through on their promise. That wouldn't be the case this time. After about four months, Needle, Shepherd, and Bob Ewell had finished the game and the people at the Trading Post were stunned.

[Dave Needle] The game had an Enterprise ship and a Klingon ship. They each had shields around them with 16 shield segments. The shields took individual hits and glowed when they got hit, which was a pretty good accomplishment in those days, and then dimmed down to a lower level of brightness. A couple of hits on a shield would make it die and then a direct hit through the shields to your ship would cause some damage. You could rotate your ship so that the incoming weapon would hit a shield instead of your ship. It was 2-player or one player against the computer. You had 99 photon torpedoes and some amount of phaser energy. In those days that was top-notch stuff. Plus we had a cloaked Romulan ship that would show up when he felt like it and shoot a fireball at you. You could damage the Romulan ship if you hit it while it was visible. The game had 16 levels of gray. It had 42 or 43 plug-in, wire-wrapped boards in a big chassis, 2 fans in the bottom

The game was spectacularly successful. We didn’t understand gaming construction and we built the cabinet bigger than 32 inches across. As a result a lot of places we tried to play the game in couldn’t get it through their door. The other mistake we made was we had this tiny coin box in the bottom that overflowed every day. So we ended up taking it out and putting in two two-pound coffee cans, one under each of the coin slots, which also filled up. While it was in the Federation Trading Post, we were making $400 every couple of days. The three of us, I now had two other partners, would leave work at lunch, drive out to Berkeley and collect the money. After a while we got tired of driving there and we just trusted him and once a week we’d go out there and they’d give us a check of a pile of cash. Did I build ten of these? Did I sell it to someone? No. What a jerk I am.

 The trio's Star Trek game (which was probably created around 1977 or 1978) had another feature that would appeal to fans of the series. When a player lost, the Doomsday Machine from the episode of the same name (kind of a giant, floating cornucopia) would appear on screen and destroy their ship. The game was so popular that a local TV station got wind of it and the designers were asked to appear on Bob Wilkins’ Creature Features, a Sacramento area late-night show featuring horror movies and hosted by Wilkins, who also interviewed celebrities, the most famous being Christopher Lee[3]. The next day, Needle and his friends were recognized in the streets, but even more importantly, the segment had brought them to attention of Bally/Midway who soon contacted them about creating a game under contract. With the Bally contract in hand, Needle and crew set about work on a game that would eventually see light as Space Encounters and Needle was finally able to turn his “hobby” into a profession[4].
Jerry Lawson

            Jerry Lawson is one of the forgotten pioneers of the video game industry. As the designer of the Fairchild Channel F console, Lawson has been called the "father of the video game cartridge". Until recently, however, his work has gone all but unmentioned in most accounts of video game history. Even less known than his work on the Channel F, however, is his creation of one of the earliest coin-op video games to use a microprocessor. A game called Demolition Derby that Lawson designed in his own garage.
The son of a longshoreman, Gerald A. Lawson was born in Queens, New York in December of 1940. His grandfather had been a physicist, but as an African American, the only job he could get was at the post office. His father had a keen interest in science and that interest rubbed off on Jerry. As a youth Jerry dabbled in chemistry, ran an amateur radio station, repaired TVs, and built walkie-talkies. After attending Queens College and CCNY, Lawson worked for ITT, Grumman, and PRD Electronics before heading west to work for Kaiser Electronics in Palo Alto. He eventually made his way to Fairchild, who hired one of its first "field application engineers" - engineers who would work with customers in the field to help out with their designs.
Fairchild had recently released its microprocessor, the F8, in 1975 and Lawson was convinced it could be used to make a video game. A few years earlier (he recalls that it was 1972 or 1973), he had built a game called Demolition Derby in his spare time and soon got to work converting it to use the F8[5].

[Jerry Lawson] I did my home coin-op game first in my garage. Fairchild found out about it — in fact, it was a big controversy that I had done that. And then, very quietly, they asked me if I wanted to do it for them. Then they told me that they had this contracted with this company called Alpex, and they wanted me to work with the Alpex people, because they had done a game which used the Intel 8080. They wanted to switch it over to the F8, so I had to go work with these two other engineering guys and switch the software to how the F8 worked. So, I had a secret assignment; even the boss that I worked for wasn't to know what I was doing.
I was directly reporting to a vice president at Fairchild, with a budget...and finally, we decided, "Hey, the prototype looks like it's going to be worth something. Let's go do something." I had to bring it from this proof of performance to reality — something that you could manufacture. Also, a division had to be made, so I was working with a marketing guy named Gene Landrum, and sat down and wrote a business plan for building video games[6].

Lawson created a top-down driving game called Demolition Derby, which he sold to Major Manufacturers - a small manufacturer in San Mateo, California. Major tested the game at a Campbell, California pizza parlor but went out of business a short time later[7] and apparently built only one copy of the game ever built (Lawson was unable to get funding to build more). As head of Fairchild's video game division, Lawson went on to create Fairchild's Channel F home video game system and also became one of only two black members of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club. In March of 2011, Lawson finally got some long-overdue recognition when he was honored as an industry pioneer by the International Game Developers Association. A month later, on April 9, he died of complications from diabetes in in Mountain View, California.  

Needle and Lawson weren't the only videogame designers who started out as independents. Among the others were Larry Rosenthal, Ted Michon, Dave Nutting, and (of course) Nolan Bushnell (all of whose stories will be told in later chapters). There is no telling how many other unknown and unsung engineers were creating games in the videogame stone age only to fade forever into anonymity before their games saw the light of day.

Sidebar - Was Demolition Derby the first coin-op game with a microprocessor?                                                                         
            Some sources have suggested that Demolition Derby was the first game to use a microprocessor and even that the game was released not long after Pong, but is this true? Lawson claims he started working on the game in 1972 or 1973 and sold it to Major Manufacturers of San Mateo, CA. Some sources (including the Wikipedia article on Lawson) claim that the game "debuted" shortly after the release of Pong. The F-8, however, was not released until 1975 and Major Manufacturers was not incorporated until October of 1974. The October, 1975 issue of Play Meter announced that at the 1975 MOA show (the same show where Gun Fight was introduced), Major Manufacturers would be "…. introducing two new upright games that use a microprocessor...instead of a logic board, as well as exhibiting their line of video games and a new designer cocktail table". The article does not name any of these games, nor do any other issues of Replay or Play Meter. It is not clear from the description if the microprocessor games were video games or not. The October, 1975 issue of Vending Times, however, does list two games that the company was to display at the MOA: Lunar Module and Fascination - but does not mention whether they use a microprocessor. The 1972/1973 date thus seems clearly too early, at least for a microprocessor version of Demolition Derby (though Lawson could have started with a non-microprocessor version). In addition, only one copy of Demolition Derby is thought to have been built and it never went past the field testing stage. On the other hand, while it seems unlikely that it was field tested prior to 1975, given that Major Manufacturers did plan to show microprocessor games at the 1975 MOA, it (or one of Major's other games) may have been tested prior to the release of Gun Fight.

[2] Probably the article from the November, 1972 issue. Though it was actually published the same month Pong debuted.
[3] Wilkns’ show is said to have persuaded a young fan named George Lucas to begin making Science Fiction movies.
[4] The group had actually designed a quickie game for Ramtek earlier, but the game was never released.
[5] The timing of all of this is unclear. While Lawson says he created the game in '72 or '73, the F8 didn't come out until 1975 (it could have been designed earlier, but surely not as early as 1972). While Lawson's memory could be off, another possibility is that the game started without a microprocessor and he added one later.
[6] From a February 2009 interview conducted by Vintage Computing and Games (
[7] Major Manufacturers was incorporated on October 22, 1974 and had a booth at the 1975 MOA show where they introduced Fascination and Lunar Module and displayed other video games (though it isn't known if Demolition Derby was among them).


  1. The Dave Needle story is definitely fascinating, and I appreciate you sharing it here. Just wanted to add a couple of thoughts/insights. First, Marty can answer this better than I, but I do not believe Pong was that widely available until March or early April 1973. Between space, manufacturing, and money issues, I believe Atari only filled a few distributor orders before that time and only had a couple hundred or so in the field. This may explain why Needle believes he saw the article so far in advance of Pong's release.

    Second, I did a little digging on Google News and found an article in the July 26, 1974, Youngstown Vindicator reporting a fire on the U.S.S. Enterprise (,3999489&dq=enterprise+fire+carrier&hl=en). That could be Needle's fire.

    1. I agree about Pong. Often a video game wasn't fully available until a few months after it debuted at a trade show.
      With Pong, the delay could have been longer since Atari was a new, inexperienced company without a proven track record and video games were a new thing.

      OTOH, a number of other companies came out with their own Pong clones starting in March and April of 1973.

      Even if Pong was available in early 1973, Needle may not have seen it for a number of months (though, considering that he was in the Bay Area, you'd think there would have been more there than anywhere else).

      Of course, it could alwo be that his memory was off.