Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Allied Leisure/Centuri - Part 3


1974 - Disaster Strikes
With the success of Paddle Battle and Tennis Tourney, Allied seemed poised to become a major player in the video game jungle. They had built more Pong games than perhaps anyone else and had streamlined their production process to eliminate waste. Then disaster struck. In January of 1974, Ron Haliburton traveled to London to attend the Amusement Trades Expo. When he stepped off the plane back in Florida, he was hit with a bombshell. On January 31, Allied’s manufacturing plant had been struck by a devastating fire. While the fabrication plant was virtually undamaged and the woodworking shop completely untouched, half of their headquarters and manufacturing facility was destroyed and production ground to a complete halt.
[Troy Livingston] It was arson. [They had] 5-gallon glass containers of gasoline. We had two compressor rooms…One of those was thrown in each compressor room on opposite sides of the building at Four O’clock in the morning and it burned to the ground… The fire burned down three square blocks of buildings. We literally then went from a burned-down building [and] 90 days later we were back in full production building the same quantity of TV games.

Other sources cite an electrical malfunction as the cause of the fire. Whatever its cause, the fire was a financial catastrophe. Due to insufficient insurance coverage (and some industrial doors that failed to release), Allied suffered half-a-million dollars in losses (and over $1.5 million in total damages) from the fire, not counting the downtime.




Thankfully, they weren't down for long. On March 1 they moved into a new 40,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing plant and in April, just 90 days after the fire, Allied was back in full production. The only problem was that URL now had an over-supply of boards . In an effort to use up them up, Allied quickly churned out a pair of new ball-and-paddle games. Hesitation (April) was another soccer game and Zap (October) was a Ping-Pong game that allowed players to move their paddles horizontally as well as vertically. Neither game, however, matched the success of Paddle Battle. By 1974, the video game market had softened considerably in the wake of the Pong glut and Allied soon began looking for greener pastures.

They announced plants to reenter the pinball market they'd abandoned in 1973 and to enter a brand new market - gambling. The Gambling Devices Act of 1962 amended the Johnson Act to permit states to allow the manufacture of gambling devices for sale outside the state. Until the early 1970s, the only state to have taken advantage of the act was Illinois and for nine years the only coin-op company to enter the market was Bally. Then Seeburg dipped their toes in the water. Allied had wanted to enter the market for years, especially when research revealed that 2/3 of states were considering legalizing gambling. They could do nothing, however, until Florida amended their laws. When they finally did, Allied quickly announced plans to produce their first slot machine.

Despite all the new plans, it was good old fashioned electromechanical arcade games that remained Allied's bread and butter in 1974 as they released three new pieces during the year. Knock Out (August) was a twin-rifle game Chopper (October), was another motorcycle game. The player sat on a simulated motorcycle while steering a plastic toy model along a track. Unlike Wild Cycle and other driving games, however, this one didn't use a projection screen. Instead the player "drove" along a non-moving track while flashing strobe lights simulated the effect of speed.
 
 
Their biggest hit of the year, however, was May's Super Shifter. The gameplay was basically the same as Chopper, but there were two key differences. First, instead of a motorcycle, Super Shifter featured a glowing plastic corvette. Second, the game shipped in a sit-down cabinet complete with racing seat. Chopper and Super Shifter seemed to be more exhibitions than games, but they were surprisingly fun. The emphasis was on realism, with a tachometers, a digital speed readout, Christmas-tree starting lights, revving engines, and flashing lights. The game was so popular that it was put into production a second time after the initial run of 3,000 sold out. In the April, 1977 issue of RePlay, a panel of experts voted on the best arcade pieces of all time. Three of the five put Super Shifter among the top ten. Troy Livingston tells of a humorous incident about a bomb threat Allied got while the game was in production. When Livingston called the Hialeah police department and told them to send their bomb squad, they hung up. They didn't have one. Bravely, Livingston made his way to the Super Shifter cabinet containing the alleged bomb As he began to open the cabinet Ron Haliburton, who had staged the whole thing, tossed a cherry bomb behind him and watched with glee as the "bomb" (and Livingston) went off.
While Allied made a respectable $7 million in revenue in fiscal 1974, they lost $266,000 due to the fire and the market downturn. On the other hand, they had survived a disaster that could easily have spelled the end of the still-relatively-young company. Only time would tell in 1975 would be any better.

1975-76: Video and Arcade Games
            Despite plans to curtail video game production, Allied produced (at least) five new titles in 1975 and early 1976. Robot (February, 1975) and Fotsball (March) were ball-and-paddle games, though the latter (a video version of foosball) came in an innovative stand-around cabinet. Allied finally got around to producing video versions of the two arcade game genres that had been putting bread on their table for years.


Street Burners (May, 1975) was a driving game while Ace (March, 1976) was a two-player aerial combat game in which each player controlled a biplane and tried to shoot down his opponent. When a player’s plane was hit, he bailed out and unscrupulous (or morbid) players could shoot helpless opponents as they slowly descended in their parachutes.  Fire Power (January, 1976) was a tank vs. airplane game that some say was one of the earliest video games to feature scrolling. Ski was one of the more inventive of the video games released in the late 1970s (though there is some question as to whether it actually was a video game). The player stood on a pair of footpads while gripping a pair of ski poles. By twisting her body she could move the footpads and control the direction in which the on-screen skier was travelling while the ski poles could be used to control speed. As the player shooshed down the slopes, they were serenaded by alpine music. RePlay reported that the game did especially well in ski resorts in New York.



Allied produced only one electromechancial arcade game in 1975, but it was a doozie. The "fabled" (as RePlay later described it) F-114 (June) was an absolutely gargantuan projecting screen air combat game that put the player in a swiveling seat, facing an ginormous screen while blasting away at enemy jets. Allied's sole arcade effort of 1976 was Daytona 500, another outstanding sit-down projection screen driving game. Manufacturing problems, however, pushed its planned May release to June and affected sales projections
An Unusual Departure (or two)

 

In January, 1975 Allied entered into an agreement with another company (probably Advanced Patent Technology[1] of Nevada, who sued them in 1978) to begin development on a solid-state slot machine. In 1976, Allied introduced one of their oddest and most expensive products - the AstroPrint photo booth. In development since 1975, the machine printed computer-generated portraits of patrons. While paying money for a low-res, pixilated, "photo" from a dot matrix printer might seem downright loopy today, at the time the units were all the rage. When Allied debuted the unit at the Circus Circus casino in Las Vegas, the line extended all the way around the mezzanine. Almost no one lined up to buy it however. By the end of 1976, they'd sold only 20. Maybe it was the $12,500 asking price. Hoping to do better, the company hired two salesmen just to market the unit but by 1977 it, along with their ill-fated slot machine venture, appear to have gone by the boards.
1975/76 - Solid State Pinball


Allied's most significant move in 1976 was its reentry into the pinball market. The move had actually started in late 1975 with the introduction of Dyn-O-Mite, the company’s first traditional pin. One thing about the machine, however, was anything but traditional. Dyn-O-Mite was the first successful solid-state, microprocessor-based pinball game. Unlike shakerball, Allied’s earlier pinball “innovation”, solid-state pins would catch on. Indeed they would completely transform the industry. Companies like Atari and Bally had produced experimental pins with microprocessors as early as 1973 but none ever made it past the prototype stage. At the 1975 MOA show in October, a small company from Phoenix called Mirco Games, best known for its foosball tables, introduced a pinball game called Spirit of ’76 which is generally considered the first microprocessor pin to have been commercially released.  Mirco’s game may have been innovative, but it sold less than 200 units (partly due to its uninspired playfield and backglass art). Dyn-O-Mite proved much more popular. The playfield featured the stylized likeness of Jimmie Walker, the rubber-faced young star of the sitcom Good Times uttering his catch phrase “dyn-o-mite!”
While Dyn-O-Mite made its debut around the same time as Spirit of ’76, however, the Mirco game has generally been given precedence. There is evidence however that Allied may have beaten them to the punch. In addition to the two-player Dyn-O-Mite, Alled released a four-player version called Rock On, which may have been released as early as September, 1975, a month before Spirit of ’76 debuted at the MOA show[1]. At the time, Allied had actually been working on solid-state pins for months, perhaps even years and may have been the first company to fully commit to the concept. Development of Dyn-O-Mite was underway by April of 1975, when a prototype version was shown to distributors[2], and even that may not have been the company’s first stab at solid-state pins. In Brian Bagnall’s Commodore: A Company on the Edge Chuck Peddle, reveals that he had visited Allied while trying to drum up customers for his 6502 microprocessor. Created by Peddle at MOS Technology, the 6502 would be used in a number of early personal computers, including the Apple II, Atari 800, and Commodore PET. At the time of Peddle’s visit, Allied was talking with a number of microprocessor companies with an eye toward investing in the new technology. To convince them that the 6502 could be used in coin-op games, Peddle volunteered to build them a microprocessor-based pinball game. Working through the night and sleeping on a mat at Allied during the day, Peddle created a prototype and showed it at the National Computer Conference. Bagnall does not name the machine, mention anyone else working on it, or give a date (though it seems to have occurred sometime in 1975, the year the 6502 was introduced). While this could have been Dyn-O-Mite or Rock On, it seems unlikely. Troy Livingston described another early Allied attempt at a microprocessor pin.


 
 
[Troy Livingston] Allied Leisure actually was the first company to build a solid-state pinball machine. Bally patented it first but Allied Leisure actually built the first totally solid-state electronic pinball machine. We built 13 units and it took about 18 months to build. They were solid PC boards. It was the first totally electronic pinball machine ever. It was a disaster.

[It used] 7400-series TTL chips. I don’t know how many chips it had in it but it probably had 10 square feet of PC boards – literally. The entire inside of the cabinet was lined with PC boards. It was so expensive; we could have never made it on a production basis. Also, you just couldn’t keep it working. There was very little in the way of signal-level connectors available in those days...or they were for the fledgling space industry and were like $1000 each. So we were literally having to make our own connectors. Now you go to AMP and you buy a nice connector but in those days it didn’t exist.

Then the microprocessor… came out.  Luis Sanchez and a couple of the other guys learned how to use it and designed the first processor-controlled pinball machine and manufactured it. We didn’t file patents on it, but I had machines sitting on the floor before Bally’s patent.

The prototype was designed by Ian Richter, another former NASA engineer. So should Allied be considered the father of the microprocessor pin? Probably not. Peddle’s game likely came well after Atari’s Delta Queen or Bally’s Flicker prototypes and there isn’t enough information to date Richter’s game (assuming, that is, it isn’t the same game mentioned by Peddle).

Chuck Peddle at Allied



Chuck Peddle at Allied
       The most innovative thing that came out of Peddle’s prototype project, however, had nothing to do with pinball. While working on the game, he had befriended Allied engineer Bill Seiler. Personal computers were just appearing on the market and Seiler ordered a kit computer from a Denver company called The Digital Group. In 1975, The Digital Group began selling what they called the “Cadillac of Computers” - a kit system that offered users a choice of four CPUs and included cassette, video, and keyboard interfaces. While it was much easier to use than the Altair 8800, there was no real software available for it and after Seiler got his unit up and running he was hard pressed to find something to actually do with it. Seeing Seiler’s enthusiasm for the product, despite its obvious shortcomings, Peddle realized there was a market for personal computers and after completing his pinball game, he returned to MOS Technology and began working on the Kim 1, an inexpensive, user-friendly PC based on the 6502 that was released in 1976. Before leaving, Peddle promised Seiler that the two of them would one day design a personal computer together. When he later moved to Commodore and began working on the PET, he made good on his promise and brought Seiler in to work on the design.

Pinball Problems

          Despite their promising start, Allied’s reentry into the pinball market ultimately proved unsuccessful. They sold just 1600 pins in the 1976 fiscal year. State-of-the-art technology or no, Allied had little experience designing pinball games. When they put their first game on test, for instance, they were surprised when they arrived at the test location to find the playfield covered in black streaks. They had used a chrome plated ball - something pinball designers didn't do because, well - it left black streaks on the playfield. The real issue, though, was reliability. The games were plagued with technical glitches (the most serious of which was a balky digital scoring unit). Cancelled orders poured in, damaging Allied's relationship with its distributors. In June, they cut back substantially on the pinball production (they resumed production in November), leading to an even more fateful decision.


 




Entering the Consumer Market



In June, after the pinball sales fell off, Allied decided to enter the home video game market. Projecting sales in excess $1.5 million for the upcoming Christmas season, Allied produced two home units (though it appears that both were actually produced by URL under contract). Name of the Game I was a $67 four-player game that offered the choice of four ball-and-paddle games and two target games (via a gun controller). Name of the Game II was cheaper ($45) two-player version. They quickly lined up order for 60,000 units - over $3 million worth. Once again, however, most of the orders were cancelled - this time because of shipping delays for a key component and because FCC approval of the game, which was scheduled for September, was delayed until December. Allied also had commitments to buy parts for 25,000 units. In the end, Allied built only 17,000 units and Christmas sales totaled only $350,000. They sold another $320,000 worth in fiscal year 1977 but still had 4,000 units in inventory, which they ended up dumping for as little as $15 apiece. And they probably didn't even get to keep all of theat. To rub salt in their wounds, Magnavox brought suit against Allied for patent infringement. Allied signed a deal promising Magnavox a 1.25% royalty on future arcade product sales (except pins) up to $225,000, plus a maximum base royalty of 4.75% on sales of products covered by the Magnavox patents, and a maximum base royalty of 6% on sales of home products covered by the patents - including, of course, Name of the Game.


[1] Advanced Patent Technology later, after name changes, became Alliance Gaming, who bought Bally Gaming International in 1996 and changed its name to Bally Technologies in 2006.
[1] The Internet Pinball Database lists this release date, but gives no source and I have been unable to confirm it. The release date for Spirit of ’76 is also uncertain (Internet Pinball Database simply lists “1975”
[2] Play Meter, November, 1976.
[3] Some claim that Sega Japan may have produced solid state pins (such as Millionaire, Big Kick, and Adventure) even earlier.



 
 
BONUS SECTION
 
Recently, I ordered a copy of the articles of incorporation for Cinematronics and Exidy.
 
Here is the one for Cinematronics. Not much of interest. The main thing that struck me was the date. Earlier, I had speculated that Jim Pierce may not have joined the company until May, 1975 or after, based on a help-wanted ad the Partee and Garrison ran in various papers. This document, however, was notarized on April 11, 1975 and Pierce was already onboard at that time (though it may have taken them awhile to discontinue the ads).
 
 

5 comments:

  1. I'd be interested in learning more about F-114. I did some digging around online for info on it a year or 2 back and I recall on one site a commenter said he and a friend had worked on the game. Of course now all the Googling in the world can't help me find that.

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    1. Sad when you can't find that info again after a while.

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    2. Yeah, it appears it was a comment on a Youtube video that has since been deleted. I found an old post I made on a KLOV thread about the game back in March 2010, so that's how long its been.

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    3. F114 was the brain child of Ron Halliburton. He is alive, well and still designing games in Delay Beach Florida.

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  2. "Ski was one of the more inventive of the video games released in the late 1970s (though there is some question as to whether it actually was a video game)."

    If you look closely at the flyer, you can see the white graphics of the skier and the gates (poles/flags) you ski through.

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