Saturday, June 7, 2014

The (Pre) History of Night Driver - Part 2: Night Racer

In Part 1, we told the story of Reiner Foerst and his creation of what was likely the first first-person arcade driving video game. We ended with Foerst’s chance encounter with an engineer named Ted Michon in a German bowling alley. What was, an American video game technician, doing in a bowling alley in Germany? For that, we have to to discuss a company called Micronetics. And to discuss Micronetics we have to discuss a company called Digital Games.

Digital Games       

            In the three years immediately following Atari’s introduction of Pong, a veritable forest of video game manufacturers sprung up like weeds in the warm California sun. While most of them were located in Silicon Valley, not all of them were. Digital Games for instance, was located far to the south in San Dimas about 30 miles east of Los Angeles. The company was founded in early 1974 by Bill Prast and Steve Holder. 

Bill Prast and Skip Kahn - from RePlay, March, 1976

            Born in 1945 in Philadelphia, Bill Prast was raised in Brooklyn. In 1968, he served as an Air Force pilot in Viet Nam, where he developed a lifetime love of aviation. After the war, Prast returned to Brooklyn and started his coin-op career as a route service technician for Harold Kaufman's Musical Distributors. After two years, he worked his way west, toiling for a number of operating companies along the way. In early 1974 Prast and Steve Holder established repair shop in Los Angeles called Amusement Device Engineering. One day an investor named Ken Berger came in and asked the pair to build some cocktail video games for him (cocktail Pong games were all the rage at the time). They talked to an acquaintance named Bill Bailey, Jr. who pointed them to the Los Angeles distributor Circle International for whom he had manufactured some video games (In 1976, Bailey would cofound a video game company called Bailey International with his father, Bill Sr.). After talking to Circle, Pratt and Holder acquired some manufacturing space in San Dimas and incorporated as Digital Games in June of 1974[1]. Digital started out making cocktail Pong clones, but were unable to sell their games to traditional distributors and had to turn to direct sales.
[Steve Holder] When we first started, we couldn't provide the 30-90 days credit required from conventional distributors. We weren't in a position to carry 'paper' on even 30 machines for any length of time. We needed the cash and the direct-sales people provided it.
<Gene Beley and Sonny Albarado, "Cocktails Anyone?" Play Meter, April, 1975>


While “direct-sales people” had something of an unsavory reputation in the industry, Digital eventually began selling games nationwide through Seeburg and then to traditional distributors.

Digital Games' PC Board Assembly room - from RePlay, March, 1976
Air Combat


The company didn’t last long. Like most companies of the time, Digital made their fair share of ball-and-paddle games, including Tennis, Hockey, Knock Out (1975), Dual (1975), and Combo (February 1976). At the October, 1975 MOA show, the company debuted Heavy Traffic, a motorcycle game followed early in 1976 by the jet fighting game Air Combat. By the end of the year, the company had exited the video game field. Ted Michon, was on hand for the company’s rapid demise. Michon had 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 three hours to one minute. By the time Michon finished the 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 with a company called Digital Games.
Unsure exactly what the company did, Michon interviewed with Wayne “Skip” Kahn, Digital’s VP of engineering. As the interview ended he found that Digital made video games. Michon got the job, little knowing that would lead to a new career as a video game designer. When he arrived at his new job, Michon was in for a surprise:

[Ted Michon] I quickly learned that I had arrived in the middle of a big mess. Digital had started as a garage shop and rode the wave of the cocktail table craze. They were immediately into big money and grew like mad but, from what I saw of the product designs, they knew very little about engineering. It seemed to me that the designs were created by someone with a Popular Electronics knowledge of engineering: they knew what they wanted and figured they could just put together a pile of parts to get it. Their designers had no conception of system timing or load factors and took no systematic approach to what they did. The result was that, through a lot of trial and error and guesswork and luck, they could get a design to work, but there was no guarantee it could be replicated.

Michon soon discovered that the company’s management was also in disarray. After a nasty quarrel, the founders split up and one left the company, taking most of the design staff with him. Bill Prast was president of the company and one of the few executives who hadn’t already left by the time Michon arrived  Prast was an enthusiastic and flamboyant man who enjoyed high-priced toys and owned his own jet (he insisted Michon learn to fly and even paid for the lessons). Prast’s wife (who also worked for Digital) also enjoyed a good prank and would sometimes call up the departed executives and leave the phone off the hook just to tie up their phone lines. Chaotic as it was, the situation at Digital Games was, in reality, not much different than that of any of a half-dozen other Silicon Valley game manufacturers and despite their inexperience, they were apparently still making money:

[Ted Michon] I heard tales of amazing excesses in times of plenty. One story I heard is that the company would send every employee to the annual MOA show in Chicago, each with a 100-dollar bill tucked into their pocket.

Michon tried to ignore the chaos around him and get down to business. The first problem he encountered was with the company's latest hit. 

[Ted Michon] They had a huge order for their new Air Combat game, designed by the infamous now departed amateur designer. Bill [Prast] had already had the cabinets and PCBs made and stuffed. Only the thing didn't work. When I arrived, all the techies were huddled around PCBs trying, almost literally, to make things fly. Documentation was a mess. The prototypes were a mess. The problems were that (1) no one understood how it worked and (2) it didn't work.

After investigating, Michon discovered that the problem was a timing issue with the game’s circuitry. In an effort to solve the problem, someone had installed capacitors to slow down the signal, not realizing that this could cause the signal to degrade, destroying its predictability. When Michon took a look at one of the game prototypes, it had over 50 capacitors. Now that he’d identified the problem, Michon quickly solved it and Prast dispatched a load of 50 games to West Germany. There was only one problem – he had forgotten to include the PC boards. Michon grabbed a tool kit and was sent to Dusseldorf to get the games up and running. Things went from bad to worse. When he arrived at the customer’s site, no one spoke English. When he finally found the (very unhappy) man in charge, things turned out to be even worse than they already seemed. Not only did the machines not work, but they had all been damaged in transit due to poor packaging. Some monitors were scratched, others had completely imploded. Michon got most of the machines in a presentable state, only to find that the PC boards were being held at customs and now he had to persuade the already-irate owner to pay additional customs duties to have the boards shipped to him.

Air Combat games on the assembly line - from RePlay, March, 1976
Night Racer

 Michon’s visit lasted two weeks, leaving him plenty of free time. During a visit to a nearby bowling alley he got a glimpse of a game unlike any he’d ever seen.

[Ted Michon]. . . the most interesting thing of all was a one-of-a-kind video machine in the bowling alley’s arcade called Nurburgring (named for the famous German racetrack). It was the first game I ever saw that attempted 3D in any form. It showed a road at night delineated by white poles and a white center stripe. The player/driver had a steering wheel and gas pedal. The object was to stay on the course and complete the race in the shortest time. I learned that the inventor was coming to check on the game and I was able to meet him just before I left for L.A. He was on vacation with his wife and children. This was his first video game. He gave me a tour inside. There was a rack filled with at least 20 circuit boards containing a huge number of analog parts. It was all done in analog. I realized immediately that this design would not be economically reproducible and I tried to explain that to him. HE, however, was confident that one of the American companies he had been talking to would license the game just as he’d designed it. I told him that my company would still be interested in the concept, but that the implementation was impractical. His son even gave me his copy of another of his dad’s inventions, a make-5-in-a-row game called Ring-O-Bang.

The inventor, of course, was Reiner Foerst. On Lance Carter's History of Racing Games website Foerst gives his account of the story. According to Foerst he had taken his sons to the bowling alley to see his game where he met Michon, who made some suggestions on improving the game. After the two bowled together, Foerst claims that Michon then called his boss and became

[Reiner Forest] …very nervous, very frustrated and told us that he was sorry, but he had no choice than to end the conversation. Then he left the building.

            After returning to a hero’s welcome at Digital (and a raise to $20,000, a figure Michon remembered as the salary for a doctor in Milton Bradley’s Game Life), Michon began to work on a completely digital version of Foerst's game. Feeling he needed to design the game around a microprocessor, he approached management with the idea, only to be told it would take too long and was too expensive. Instead, Michon was forced to design the game using MSI Logic and PROMs. As a result, the system was unable to perform the multiplications required to draw objects in proper perspective and Michon was forced to use scaled logarithms and anti-logs to perform the multiplications via addition.
              After he’d designed a prototype, Michon showed the game to Bill Prast, who liked it so much that he brought in Midway co-founder Hank Ross for a look. The two companies soon struck a deal whereby Midway and Digital would co-release the game, with Midway paying royalties to Digital. Michon named the game Night Racer. His wife Susan (an art major) produced the artwork and helped assemble prototypes and Prast himself even pitched in by designing the game’s sound effects.


            Meanwhile, Digital Games was experiencing more than its share of financial difficulties. On Friday, June 25, 1976 the company shut its doors and a company named U.S. Medical Industries purchased their entire inventory in a public auction. The following Monday, the employees reported to a new building where they went back into business as Micronetics (a company that had been started by Skip Kahn). Micronetics disappeared almost as fast as they had appeared, but they did manage to release Night Racer in December of 1976, possibly because, if they didn’t, Midway would not have had to pay them royalties. Michon left the company before the game’s official release to form his own company, Techni-Cal (later Technical Magic), but not before sending a letter to Reiner Foerst telling him what was happening with his creation. Technical Magic would later go on to design a number of important video games, including Star Fire, Fire One!, and Kreepy Krawlers for Exidy and the unreleased Last Starfighter for Atari. Bill Prast went on to form American Datacom where he designed Telex communications equipment. He died in St. Petersburg, Florida in 2011.

Fist page of Digital's articles of incorporation

[1] RePlay (January, 1976) reports that Digital Games was founded in April of 1973 and incorporated in June of 1974, though they may have been referring to Amusement Device Engineering. Digital’s articles of incorporation list Stephen R. Landau, Melinda Morgan, and Sharan Folds as directors.


  1. I seem to vaguely remember a similar game that was done in a Vector line graphic, where the side of the road had an animated deer, person on the side of the road waving for a ride, etc. The background was black and the graphics were 3-d ish.
    When you crashed you saw vector pieces shapes of the car being tossed into the air, or have a realistic crack when crashed. I think it lead to Atari 2600's game of Night Driver, and a vector racing game for Vectrex.

  2. Sounds like Speed Freak by Vectorbeam, but that wasn't released until 1979 (well after Night Driver)