Friday, July 4, 2014

The (Pre) History of Night Driver - Part 3: Midway West/Midway California

Out last segment of the “Night Driver” story took a look at Digital Games/Micronetics version of the game. Today we look at a version developed by Midway. But, it’s not the one you’re all thinking of. Midway did release their own first-person driver in the mold of Nurburgring, called Midnite Racer/280 Zzzap, but we’ll get to that one next time. Today, we’re going to talk about another version developed by (or, more accurately, for) Midway that never saw the light of day – and it was actually one of the more interesting versions. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Midway had a number of different groups working on video games, including Dave Nutting Associates, Florida’s Arcade Engineering, and the toy design firm Marvin Glass Associates. Lesser known were a handful of smaller groups that developed games for the company. One of these was a group in California, unofficially dubbed “Midway West” or “Midway California”.  Located in Campbell, California the team consisted of a pair of former Atari technicians/engineers - Doug Hughes and Bill Arkush – and programmer Al Stock. Hughes and Arkush had previously worked at Atari, in the same division with a young Steve Jobs. Arkush was a service technician with Atari and went on to found a company of his own called Kush "N Stuff that produced a variety of products and training tools covering video game repair. Hughes was a hardware engineer and technician who would later (in the 1980s) go on to work for Taito America where he created the hardware used in Qix and other games. In the mid-late 1970s, having left Atari, the two began doing contract design work for Midway, with Hughes serving as hardware designer and Arkush handling the logistics. Needing a programmer, they brought in Al Stock. While Stock had graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1974 with a PhD in Chemistry, he also had extensive experience with various mainframe and mini-computers. After earning his PhD, Stock took a job at the Institute of Advanced Computation at Moffett Field in Mountain View, California where he worked on the ILLIAC IV, that last in a series of supercomputers built at the University of Illinois between 1951 and 1974. One of the first attempts at a massively parallel computer, the ILLIAC IV could support up to 256 processors working in parallel and included 64 arithmetic processing units and a drum memory created from 64 synchronized Burroughs disks. Funded by DARPA and designed by Burroughs Corporation, the ILLIAC IV was completed in 1972. Unfortunately, this was a time of political unrest. The Kent State massacre on May 4, 1970 resulted in a wave of anti-government paranoia at campuses across the country – including the University of Illinois. Students were suspicious about the ILLIAC IV and its defense department ties. Rumors swirled that it had been developed on campus as part of a conspiracy to develop nuclear weapons. The protests reached a head on May 9, 1970 – just five days after the Kent State shootings. There were other security concerns as well. ARPA wanted the machine enclosed in copper to prevent off-site snooping and project member Daniel Slotnick insisted that any work done at the University be published. Because of these concerns, the ILLIAC IV was moved to the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View in 1971. ARPA and NASA jointly formed the Institute of Advanced Computation to support the machine. The group was able to demonstrate the machine’s speed by running a 24-hour weather forecast – a process that normally took 24 hours – in just nine minutes. Unfortunately, after Seymour Cray introduced his own supercomputer, the ILLIAC IV was made obsolete. Looking through the paper, Al Stock saw an ad for a small video game design group looking for a programmer and signed on with Doug Hughes’ team, where he eventually went to work on a microprocessor version of Micronetics’ Night Racer. 

[Al Stock] Hank Ross came to us and asked us to go to southern CA where some guys from Cal Tech had designed an analog version of a game called Night Racer…apparently these guys put together an analog version that would be very expensive but it worked. Hank came to us and said “I want you to look at these guys and see if you can do something with a microprocessor” So we went there and took a look. They were somewhat secretive, but they showed us how the game worked and we came back to [Hank] and he said “Well, how long is it going to take you to do this video game?” and we said it would take six weeks and he said “Well that’s what you’ve always said to us”.

Designing the game and delivering it on time was a challenge. Microprocessors were still relatively new, especially in the video game industry. In its early days, Al Stock had to enter his programs on a teletype machine and “store” them on paper tape. “Debugging” sometimes consisted of manually taping sections of paper together or punching holes in them. Once code was burned to a ROM/PROM, fixing bugs or making changes required reburning and replacing the chip, which was time-consuming and costly. Things got better when microprocessor companies began to release in-circuit emulators that allowed programmers to change code without replacing chip, but it still wasn’t easy. Making things even harder, Doug Hughes (who handled the hardware) would often switch to a new microprocessor for each project, forcing Stock to create new software. For the driving game, Hughes chose the Intel 8080 processor, which presented challenges of its own. 

[Al Stock] The 8080 at the time was 1 MHz and I basically could not get enough done at that speed to paint the picture correctly and update it at 60 Hz so I had to use a trick to get the poles to come down properly and to calculate things. So what I did is a mirror image. As the poles came down, whatever was on the right I did a mirror image to make it happen faster because I didn’t have time to calculate two sides.

Despite the challenges, Hughes and Stock managed to get a prototype completed in six weeks. In addition to replacing the TTL hardware with a microprocessor, the game they created offered a number of additional improvements over the Micronetics version. The track was reprogrammable and the game included an attract mode. Perhaps most significantly, at the start of each game, an animated figure would run onto the screen, drop a flag, and run back off. Within a few years such a feature would be trivial, but at the time it was an impressive accomplishment. With the wire-wrapped prototype complete, the team arrange to demo the game to Bally. Then disaster struck. 

[Al Stock] We were going to demonstrate to the president of Bally and he was flying in from Chicago and we blew up the whole system…and we had to [replace] every chip because we didn’t have time to figure out what went wrong and we had to go to Intel to ask them to get another in circuit emulator…and by the time he landed we had the thing running again but he didn’t know anything about how we really screwed up and had do get everything back while he was in the air.

Bally liked what they saw, with one exception. The finish line did not line up with the starting line. Nonetheless, Bally asked the group to come to Chicago and demonstrate the game to the rest of Bally management. After Stock fixed the finish line bug, the team did so and Hank Ross told them he had good and bad news. The good news was that Bally liked their game. The bad news was that their hardware was obsolete because Bally had decided to go with the less expensive hardware system created by Dave Nutting Associates for their future games. Bally asked the team to move to Chicago to join Dave Nutting as Bally employees and help port their game to the DNA hardware. The team turned the offer down. For one thing, they wanted to remain independent. In addition, they were frustrated after having spent six weeks to develop the game, only to see it rejected. They also realized that their financial reward for the game would be limited. As Stock remembers it, Bally gave a 5% royalty for the person who came up with a game concept, 5% to the one who designed the hardware, and 5% to the one who designed the software. Since they didn’t come up with the concept and since their hardware design had been rejected, the most they stood to make was a 5% royalty, which wasn’t much for all their work. In the end, they decided to remain in California. The driving game wasn’t the only game the team developed for Bally over the years, however. They also worked on the blocking game Checkmate (though, once again, the game was ultimately created at Dave Nutting Associates) and a tank combat game set against a backdrop of trees.

[Al Stock] As I remember one of the challenges was to develop a method to determine when the bullet hit a tree so we would stop its travel.  Also it took some clever programming to make the bullet travel faster than the tank speed.  We skipped pixels to give the illusion that the bullet traveled faster than the tank. Too many pixel skips would not look smooth/realistic and could cause problems for the algorithm which determined when the bullet hit a tree.  I’m not sure if Midway produced this game.

The team also developed an unfinished game called Cops and Robbers . After their driving game was turned down, the team moved on to other things, including an early smart video terminal that they developed around the same time DEC came out with its VT-100 and TeleVideo produced its first terminals. They also worked a video chip for use in Bally’s home video game system. After breaking up their group, the members went continued to innovate. Doug Hughes later worked for Taito America, and Williams while Al Stock helped found a number of technology companies and create a number of new cutting edge products – though the most impressive to the man on the street may have been the least high-tech of them all. In 1998, Budweiser launched its “Real Men of Genius” ad campaign – a series 60-second spots celebrating the accomplishments of a number of overlooked, and unknown, inventors such as “Mr. Athletic Groin Protector Inventor”. One spot paid tribute to “Mr. T-shirt Launcher Inventor” – the inventor of the “cannon” used to launch T-shirts into the crowds at sporting events. While the spot was tongue-in-cheek there actually was a real “Mr. T-shirt Launcher Inventor”. And it was none other than Al Stock.  


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