Sunday, October 26, 2014

Courtroom goodies, part II - Willams' first video game

In a recent post, I discussed some documentation I recently acquired from the Magnavox v Bally case that include some interesting revelations about Chicago Coin’s early video games (well, it was interesting to me at least, even if it wasn’t to anyone else). Today I discuss another document from that case that included some interesting information about the first video game efforts from another well-known company – Williams Electronics (creators of Defender, Joust, Robotron etc.) Seeburg and Magnavox The testimony comes from the deposition of Bob Fritsche, who served as Product Manager of the Odyssey and black and white television for Magnavox from around January 1973 to about September, 1975 (he had previously been product planner for the Odyssey). During the deposition, which was taken December 28, 1976, Fritsche reveals that Magnavox was approached by Seeburg around January, 1973 about the possibility of having Magnavox (or, more likely, Sanders Associates) build a coin-operated Pong game for them. How is this relevant to Williams? At the time, Williams was owned by Seeburg, which had purchased it in 1964. Seeburg was, of course, primarily known for jukeboxes but they did make other kinds of machines (like the 1947 classic Shoot the Bear, coffee machines etc.) Besides Williams, other Seeburg divisions in 1973 were Choice Vend (soda machines), Qualitone (hearing aids), and King Musical Instruments. But back to video games. I will post the full text of the relevant portion of the deposition at the end, but for now, here’s a summary:

·         In January or February, 1973 Fritsche was approached by Bill Surette, his boss, who had in turn been approached by Seeburg (or an agent representing Seeburg). Surette wanted Fritsche to arrange a meeting in Ft. Wayne (Magnavox HQ) with someone  from Seeburg to review a Pong game that Seeburg had shipped to Magnavox (I believe this was an Atari Pong unit - if it was January or February, 1973, it would almost have to have been)

·         On March 13, 1973 Fritsche wrote a letter to Magnavox’s engineering, design, and financial people asking for help in an analysis of Magnavox producing a coin-operated video game for Seeburg.

·         The meeting (which I think occurred earlier) was held in the Odyssey engineering lab. Fritsche and Dick Waring (head of the Odyssey engineering group) attended along with one person from Seeburg.

·         During the meeting, the Seeburg rep pointed out that the Pong game, which made by “an outfit…out in California” was totally “inadequate for the market”, noting how easily it could be jimmied, how it posed safety hazards, it had no kickplate on the front, it had a pie tin for a coin box etc.

·         Seeburg was aware of the Odyssey patents and that Magnavox was a quality manufacturer and wanted them to make a quality version of Pong.

·         Seeburg also asked Magnavox to look at the other Odyssey games and see if any could be adapted for coin-op play.

·         For the Pong game, in terms of gameplay, Seeburg essentially wanted an exact clone of Pong (they liked the fact that it was easy to understand and required few instructions).

·         After the meeting, Fritsche gathered information and had another meeting (prior to March 13) in Fort Wayne with three people from Seeburg and Williams Electronics.

·         During this meeting, the Williams people explained that they felt the video game market had a lot of potential and they were willing to back up their commitment to Magnavox with an order of around 1,000 or 2,000 units.

·         Fritsche replied that they would need a minimum commitment of 5,000 units and after that, Magnavox had no further contact with Seeburg or Williams.

So it appears that nothing ever came of the negotiations between Seeburg/Williams and Magnavox. Nonetheless, around May, Williams did produce its first video game – a Pong clone called Paddle Ball.

The Origins of Paddle Ball

So if it didn’t come from Magnavox, where DID Paddle Ball come from? Did Seeburg go to someone else? Did Williams “design” it themselves? Was it a mere knockoff of Pong? I don’t really know, but there is one tantalizing possibility. Below is the first page of the instruction sheet for Paddle Ball (taken from this discussion on MameWorld).

Notice the logo at the bottom of the page – Magnetic Corporation of America. Who are they and could they have designed Paddle Ball? As it turns out, the company did in act produce at least one video game of its own. Here is an ad from the June, 1975 issue of Play Meter.

Note well that address: 179 Bear Hill Road, Waltham, MA.

Over the years, a few boards have turned up for this game, but little other info is known.

The only other reference I found to the company in trade publications is this mention from the want ads section of the June 20, 1977 issue of Play Meter.

So it looks like MCOA MAY have made at least one non-Pong game, though this isn’t certain given that the source is a want ad (for a used game?) and may have gotten their info wrong. Note that the 215 area code is in the Philadelphia area.

One of the few other video-game related references to MCOA is this list of Kurz-Kasch Test Fixture boards, which lists a game called Electromotion by “Magnetic Corp”. The only Electromotion I know of it’s the one made by the company the same name, which was located in the Philadelphia area.

 We do, however, have a bit more info on Magnetic Corporation of America. Again, here is a summary:
·         The company appears to have been started by MIT student Theo de Winter. “At one point [MCOA] had 200 employees, developing superconductors for the then-new MRI industry.” De Winter later sold the company to Johnson & Johnson.

·         If you do a Google search for “179 Bear Hill Road” and Magnetic, you will find several reference to the company relating to its work on superconducting magnets used in MRIs, research for maglev trains, work they did for Los Alamos National Lab, contracts they had with the Air Force and Department of Energy and more.  

·         A company named “Magnetic Corporation of America” existed at least as early as 1949 , though I don’t know if it was the same company.

·         In 1956, there was a company called Magnetic Corporation of America, which Billboard described as “an operating company whose holdings range from the electronics field to real estate”

·         If you do a Google book search, you will find several more references to Magnetic Corporation of America in Waltham, MA

 I haven’t really dug into the references yet and don't know if I will, but I would like to find out more about how MCOA got involved with video games and if they were involved with designing Paddle Ball (or at least the board). Perhaps someone else can shed more light on the subject?

Q Did Magnavox ever consider manufacturing a coin-operated TV game?

A Yes, they did?

Q And how did that come about, or how did that condition arise?

 A Well, the first I was aware of it was through Bill Surette, who I was working for, and this was in January of 1973. I reported to him, and his offices were in New York. He explained to me that he had been approached -- I'm not certain by whom -- whether it was through a broker or directly by Seeburg -- but he had had a contact with them, and by the time he contacted Bill Surette contacted me, he had already been in contact with Seeburg, and was arranging a meeting, through me, at Fort Wayne, at our corporate headquarters, to review a product which Seeburg was mailing to us, and that's what this product that's sitting here in the courtroom, the Pong. The unit was identical to that.

Q That’s Plaintiff’s Exhibit 10?

A Right. That was in our engineering lab and was the product that we used to form our initial discussions with Seeburg, and this was -- I could be wrong on the month -- but it was January or February, 1973. 

Q Mr. Fritsche, please refer to Plaintiff’s Exhibits 97-L and 97-M , and see if that refreshes your recollection as to the date or the approximate date.

A Well, as I say, the first document, 97-L, after reading it, I am familiar with the circumstances. I was not familiar with this letter, which my observation is it comes from a finder who has some correspondence with Magnavox, and I suspect this is how Bill Surette became aware of the potential arrangement that could be made .the potential arrangement that could be made

Q Now, you indicated that Seeburg shipped a Pong game to Magnavox in Fort Wayne?

A Yes

Q Now, when did that occur in the total relationship with between Magnavox and Seeburg? A It had to -- we received that game in January or February, 1973, because I wrote a letter on March 13, 1973 to our engineering, our design, and our financial people in Magnavox, asking them to assist me in an analysis of Magnavox producing a coin-operated video game for Seeburg, and that's the substance of the letter which is Exhibit 97-M. 

Q And I think you said that after Magnavox received the pong game from Seeburg, representatives of Seeburg came to Fort Wayne for a meeting that you attended?

A Yes, yes. They used this game as their talking piece, to explain, first of all, who Seeburg was, how they were positioned in their industry, and they felt -- they characterized themselves

THE COURT: Let's have a few more details on this conversation, who was there, and who was doing the talking.

BY MR. ANDERSON: Q All right. Was this the first meeting when these people came to Magnavox that you –

A It was the first meeting that I was aware of. There could possibly have been another meeting with Bill Surette in New York that I would not be aware of, and I don't recall one happening. I believe this meeting that I had was the first one, and I was there, Dick Waring, who was the head of the engineering group for Odyssey was there, and I do not recall the gentleman's name from Seeburg, I just I don't recall what his name was

Q Was there only one gentleman from Seeburg

A Yes

Q Or more than one?

A Just one.

Q And at the time of that meeting in Fort Wayne, attended by the gentleman from Seeburg, was the pong  game in Fort Wayne?

A Yes, it was, it was in the engineering lab, the meeting was held in the engineering lab for Odyssey, and, as I say, it was used as the talking piece by the Seeburg representative.

Q All right, and then, if you can, relate, in as much detail as you presently can, the entire events of that meeting, in other words, how it started, and who said what to whom, and how it ended?

A Well, primarily, it was a Seeburg representative saying to us -- he was positioning himself, and positioning Seeburg, as to who they were, where they stood in their business, and also· the fact that the reason they were coming to Magnavox was that this game was by an outfit -- or a company out in California, had just entered the marketplace, it was a very, very poor, crude example of a product that would be insufficient in the coin-operated market, and it was totally inadequate for the market, and he commenced to explain why, how the construction is not adequate, etc., etc. We went through all the details how it could be jimmied, the back could be taken off, the safety hazards, and all the parameters that that product -- it looked pretty to us, but to him, he tore it to ribbons. He also indicated at the time that the reason he was at Magnavox was, one, Seeburg was aware of some patents that surrounded Odyssey, and that Magnavox was the exclusive licensee for them. Secondly, he told me that he knows Magnavox and Seeburg's position was -- his position was that Magnavox is a quality manufacturer of TV, stereos, etc., that they have been known in the industry to product quality, furniture pieces out of wood. Therefore, he concluded that if we can make quality products, and we are a quality house, that we can make a quality cabinet for a video game because we also make the video games. Therefore, he was asking for us to consider how we could make a video game like this one for Seeburg. He expressed concern, as I had concern all along, eventually, as the coin-operated games grew, in the direction that they were going. It's a virgin territory, it's a virgin product, and it needed to have a little protection around it. A lot of people, in trying to gain as much money today out of it, in my opinion, can jeopardize the future of the product, and one of the things Magnavox was trying to do was trying to insure and instill some discipline in product development that would help insure the natural future growth of video gaming.

Q All right, now, you have indicated that he explained that they wanted a game like pong, but that the particular physical construction had drawbacks and insufficiencies, is that correct?

A Yes.

MR. GOLDENBERG: Excuse me.

THE COURT: Mr. Goldenberg?

MR. GOLDENBERG: I object to that. I don't believe that the witness testified as Mr. Anderson characterized, that they wanted a game like pong. If he said that, I missed it, and I withdraw the objection, but

THE COURT: Well, I will sustain the objection, and perhaps you can rephrase your question.

MR. ANDERSON: Certainly.

BY MR. ANDERSON: Q Mr. Fritsche, you have indicated Seeburg sent this pong game, Plaintiffs' Exhibit 10, or a game just like that, down to Magnavox, is that correct?

A That's right.

Q And you explained that this gentleman from Seeburg why he was pointing out the deficiencies to you?

A Yes.

Q Will you explain that?

A He sent the game down because he wanted us to see precisely what was on the market. Visually, he wanted what's right there.

Q When you say "visually" –

A I mean visually in every respect, the wood cabinet and the electronics, the way it worked, the game it played However, he qualified all of those by saying that cabinet in no way meets the quality standards of Seeburg. It must have a kickplate on the front. This does not. Visually, it looks like a game that they would-they could put out. Maybe I am characterizing their quality image for them, but all he was saying is I want a product that's like that, but there are certain things you have to do. You have to put quarter rounds on the back so the man who hauls this to the bowling alley or bar or airport can slide it in and out of his station wagon, because that's how he hauls it to that location

Q Now, one of the things you said he said he wanted was a game that had the same play. Now, did you discuss exactly what that meant, and, if so, what was that?

A Yes, very definitely. It's the tennis game, the two players with the ball.

Q And after he had explained that much, then what happened next during that meeting?

A He discussed the nitty grittys of the product and the kinds of changes he felt were necessary to be incorporated that we would have to consider in our proposal back to them in terms of the quality of the product, the quality and the appearance of the final cabinet and of tre electronics of the game. He also suggested at that time that we ought to be looking at games -- some of the other Odyssey games that already existed in our Model lTL 200, could they, indeed, be adapted for coin-operated play, and he set out some parameters that they had to play from start to conclusion in one and a half to two minutes maximum, because the whole concept of that product is a quarter as quickly as you can get a quarter~,so, therefore, the games cannot be protracted as the Odyssey games were that we were selling as a home game. Two different concepts totally.

THE COURT: Did he have any adverse criticism of the electronics of the Pong machine as opposed to the cosmetic features of it?

THE WITNESS: Electronics, yes. When he took the back off, a lot of exposed -- in this product, there were a lot of exposed electronics that he felt access from the outside was too easy, somebody could get back inside it, could get hurt on it. It was not constructed well inside to catch the money. They had a little pie tin that you can buy in a 5 and 10 store, instead of a coin box that Seeburg and others are used to installing on their products

THE COURT: What about the circuitry?

THE WITNESS: The circuitry -- I don’t believe, my recollection says, that they knew that much about it. It looked huge to them. The circuitry had some parts missing, and this, that and the other. I don't recall, Judge, that he had really any -- could get very specific about the electronics, because I don't think he was electronically qualified. I think he left that to Magnavox, because -- just his own admission that, "You guys originated it, you guys are electronics engineers, this is TV-oriented, video-oriented, you know, you will ~''have to show me what it can or can' t do."

BY MR. ANDERSON: Q Insofar as the electronics and how they just work to play the game, did he discuss that aspect of the electronics as it related to playing the game?

A Yes, he wanted the same game that he saw played here, and that's a tennis game. One knob. It has to be very, very brief, very quick. Instructions have to be very, very quick for the game. 70 per cent of it has to be observed as you drop the quarter in as to what it is you have to do, so that you don't have to sit there and, while the game is running, start thinking about how do I play this game now, and when I turn this knob, it does this, that or the other. He felt versus our home game, where we have several controls to manipulate, each player, he was satisfied with one control for the player, which was just a vertical movement, couldn't complicate the game, because it had to be completed within two minutes of play.

Q All right, and then what happened? Was there any more conversation that you can now recall at that meeting, and how did it end?

A Well, it ended that we would examine all of the specifications that he left with us, and all those were verbal, examine all the specifications. We would examine internally our capability to do it, which I felt certain we could, and we would come back to him with a proposal. The Exhibit 97-M, as I indicated previously, was my letter to the head of the video engineering department at Magnavox. It was to Whitey Welbaum, who is the head of the industrial design department, and Homer Haag; who was in charge of the financial costing for all products, and I was asking them, through the course of this letter, I was laying out the parameters that we had received during our discussions with Seeburg, how we could put the product together I needed to determine a cost or course, prior to him coming in, just examining the Pong, we tried to duplicate that in our own minds. If I put in the same kind of TV that is there out of Magnavox' stock, what would it cost me? If we made a cabinet such as that, and they were quick and dirty costs, and we wanted to clean those up. We wanted to get more specific, more detailed, because in a company such as Magnavox, the size they were, $300 million sales, you have to prove your point before the company is going to invest any risk capital. You have to prove that you can return some money, and this letter was to try to document our capability to return a profit to the company.

Q Then what happened after the meeting? Were there any further meetings that you know of between Seeburg and Magnavox?

A Yes. I had a meeting following that in New York with Bill Surette in the offices of Seeburg, where we again discussed this potential program in generalities. It was at that meeting that it was suggested that we meet with the operation type people of Seeburg, who were in a subsidiary company of theirs, and I don't know quite the organizational structure they had, but it is Williams Electric, I believe, in Chicago. Three of their people came to Fort Wayne following our New York meeting, and we sat a~ a table in our demonstration room. It was the three people from Seeburg-Williams Electric, myself and our engineer with our own verbal results of this proposal, which is embodied in this letter of March 13th, discussing the kinds of games that they felt they had to have, and it was at that time I was trying to determine, "Now that we know how many we can produce and what it is going to cost us, what is Williams' or Seeburg's willingness to commit to the product?" That is when it was explained to me that in the video game market, for any new game that comes on the market, there is a market potential of about 30,000 units. The first company to introduce a specific type of game can generally garner, oh, 8,000 to 12,000 of that total 30,000 capability. The rest, because of the typical structure of that coin-operated business, it is such that there are a lot of copiers, and the copiers will be out there just as quickly with their new games. Most of that was talked about in the frame of reference of pinball games, where they are basically all the same. The game format changes a little bit, but it is still basically a pinball game The video games represented an area that Williams Electric people had indicated they thought had a significant amount of potential for the future, but that it had to be structured properly, and I wholeheartedly agreed with that, in terms of the kinds of games that would be played on it, the way in which they were produced, and the way in which they could be sold to their distribution to get them marketed out into the various locations where they are used. At that time was when they indicated to me their willingness to back up commitment to Magnavox with like 1,000 to 2,000 units, which just is not satisfactory at all. It is just simply not satisfactory for us to take some of our facilities at Magnavox, redirect them from mainline products to a secondary product venture -- at that time -- for which we didn’t feel Magnavox, nor Seeburg, nor any of the other people who were starting to enter the market at that time, were giving the proper front end marketing planning and strategy to developing the products for the marketplace

THE COURT: Did you say one thousand or two thousand?

THE WITNESS: One thousand to two thousand is about all we got in the way of a commitment.

BY MR. ANDERSON: Q Did Magnavox at that meeting or at any other time indicate to Seeburg what Magnavox considered to be a minimum quantity to justify going into this?

A Yes. I did at that meeting. And I said 5,000 units were a minimum. I think I was probably skating a little bit, also, in that I think my superiors probably would have liked 8,000 units.

Q What happened at that meeting after that? Is there anything else that you can recall?

A I don't recall the specifics, but after that I had no more further contact with Seeburg, nor with Williams, and subsequently negotiations just dissolved. No more contacts were had between the two companies to my knowledge.

Q Do you know whether Seeburg after that did come out with a video or TV game? A Yes. They did.

Q Do you know whether it was the tennis game or some other game they came out with?  

A I believe it was the tennis game. It wasn't quite like this (indicating), because I think it was a four-player unit, which is simply two players on either side. It is four of those controls instead of two.

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