Friday, December 21, 2012


The above video was posted to YouTube recently by Stephen Holniker's son and the story has been making the rounds of the various video games forums and blogs. The game is Meteors, a color version of Asteroids by Amusement World, Inc. (a Maryland company founded by Stephen D.  Holniker) that was the subject of an influential lawsuit by Atari.  I first heard about it back around 2000 when I was doing the initial research for my book and came across the lawsuit.

The game raises a number of intriguing questions and brings to light some interesting stories. Here are some of them.

In March of 1981, Amusement World Inc. showed Meteors at the second annual Amusement Operators Expo in New Orleans. On March 13, Atari saw the game at the expo. On March 18, they sent a cease & desist letter to Amusement World Inc. and later brought suit against them, claiming that Meteors infringed on their copyright for Asteroids. The case reached the U.S. District Court in Maryland on November 9, 1981. 
You can read the case here:

or a summary here:

There were a number of interesting things about the case

·         Amusement World claimed that Atari had not properly copyrighted Asteroids because they had copyrighted it as an audio-visual work rather than copyrighting the actual code as a literary work. The court rejected this claim (it has already been established in Stern v Kaufmann etc. that a video game could be copyrighted as an audio visual work)

·         Amusement World also claimed that Atari could not copyright the idea of game "…in which the player fights his way through asteroids and spaceships." They cited a case involving a jeweled pin the shape of a bee in which the court decided that the idea of a bee pin was too general to copyright.  Here the court found in favor of Amusement World noting that a "…video game involving asteroids is a much more general idea than the rather specific concept of a jeweled pin in the shape of a bee…"

·         Other cases cited involve a Franklin Mint print showing two cardinals, a pair of dolls called Tammy and Pepper, Alex Haley's Roots, and a McDonald's case involving H.R. Puff N Stuff.
The main decision was that you cannot copyright the general idea of a video game. While there were many similarities between the two games, the court found that most of them were "inextricably associated with the idea of such a game"  For example: "Rocks cannot split into very many pieces, or else the screen would quickly become filled with rocks and the player would lose too quickly"

I'm kind of surprised by the logic here. The idea of a video game involving shooting asteroids seems LESS general to me than a bee pin. The case lists 22 similarities between the two games and some (#s 4, 12, 15, and 19) seem pretty specific to me.


What about Amusement World Inc.?
The case and the newspaper articles posted here (all from 1981) claim that Amusement World was founded "three years ago" as a service company, repairing and renting coin-op video games. This would place its founding about late 1978. Amusement World, Inc. was incorporated on June 15, 1979 in Eldersburg, Maryland. At the time of the case, in November of 1981, they had five employees. The December 3 newspaper article claims that Meteors was "…the first video game Amusement World has tried to produce…" Other than the scant information in these articles, I don't know much about the company. After Meteors, Stephen Holniker apparently turned to produciing video poker games.

From the Novmber 12, 1981 Frederick News


From the December 4, 1981 Frederick Post (this article also appeared the previous day in another local paper)


The only photo I could find of Stephen Holniker, and it's not a good one (from 1985).


Meteors appears to be the same game as Venture Line's Space Force (which is also known as Meteoroids, though Meteoroids has a 1981 copyright). Which game came first and what is the relationship between the two games? To me this is the most intriguing question raised by the game. Did Stephen Holniker design the game and license it to Venture Line or did Venture Line design it and license it to Amusement World? I'm still investigating but have found a few bits of info. The flyer at shows six of Venture Line's "Change-A-Game" kits. For five it them, it notes that they were produced under license from another company. The only exception is Space Force, which it says was "engineered and created by Venture Line, Inc.".


Space Force screen shot


The game's attract mode says it was copyrighted 1980. A search of the copyright office shows that the copyright was published on October 15, 1980 (,1&Search%5FArg=venture%20line&Search%5FCode=NALL&CNT=25&PID=9X4SBRRLnOaWMVIm0YyU_r2MIFd4&SEQ=20121221174629&SID=1) Interestingly, this appears to be the only game for which Venture Line filed a copyright.

Venture Line also filed for two trademarks on Space Force, the first (for a coin-op version) was filed June 19, 1981 with a "first use in commerce" of March 15, 1981:

The second, for a a "non-coin operated" "video cartridge" version was filed November 22, 1982 witha first use in commerce on September 15, 1982
(thanks to Stiletto for pointing these out to me)

Amusement World filed for a trademark for Meteors on March 25, 1981 with a first use in commerce of March 13, 1981 (the same day Atari saw it at the AOE - likely this was the first day of the show)
I found no trademark or copyright filings for "Meteoroids"

Detail from Venture Line flyer

Supporting the idea that Amusement World developed the game is the fact that Venture Line appeared to have licensed most of their games. In addition, if Venture Line did develop the game, why were they not mentioned in the lawsuit?

On the other hand, Venture Line did not appear to have any problem identifying which of their games were licensed and the fact that the flyer specifically said that they "engineered and created" the game lends support to the idea that Venture Line did develop it. Maybe Stephen Holniker developed the game under contract for Venture Line? Or maybe Amusement World had a license for the upright version while Venture Line produced the kit?
If Venture Line did design the game, who was the designer? Bob Linde was the chief engineer at Venture Line around this time so he is one possibility.

A final question is why the name was changed from Space Force to Meteoroids. Since Meteoroids has a 1981 copyright, you'd think it came after Space Force.

Venture Line is actually a much older company than most people realize. Many probably think of them as an early 80s company that produced games like Looping and Spiders (the latter under license from Sigma). In fact, the company was incorporated in April, 1975 in Tempe. It was founded by Joe York, who had worked at Motorola for 15 years as an engineer. He founded the company to produce conversion kits for exiting video games. Venture Line was perhaps the first large company to concentrate almost exclusively on conversion kits (there were some others prior to 1975 but they appear to have been small fly-by-night companies). Some of their first products were ball-and-paddle kits like Sports Command and The 6 Pac. At the 1977 AMOA show they began to introduce full-sized games like Breakaway  (a Breakout clone).

Back when I first heard about Meteors all I knew about it was the game description in the court case, which described it as a color raster version of Asteroids with rocks that "tumbled". When I read the description, I immediately thought of Blasteroids. I even asked Ed Logg about it, but I don't remember what he said (since it was after the period I was covering, I didn't make note of it). Now that I see the game, it seems unlikely that it had anything to do with Blasteroids but it would be funny (given the lawsuit) if it did.

My list of video games entry for Meteoroids says it was licensed from Video Games GMBH of Germany but I'm not sure where I got the info. I suspect that it may be a typo or that I entered the data on the wrong line and it was actually referring to Looping.

 To summarize, here are a few relevant dates:
·         April 15, 1975 - Venture Line incorporated in Tempe, AZ
·         June 15, 1979 - Amusement World incorporated in Eldersburg, MD
·         November, 1979 - Asteroids released by Atari
·         October 15, 1980 - copyright for Space Force published (copyrighted by Venture Line)
·         March 13, 1981 - Atari sees Amusement World's Meteors at the Amusement Operators Expo in New Orleans, first use in commerce date for coin-op version of Meteors
·      March 15, 1981 - first use in commerce date for coin-op version of Space Force
·         March 18, 1981 - Atari sends cease and desist letter to Amusement World
·       March 25, 1981 - Amusement World files for trademark on Meteors
·      June 19, 1981 - Venture Line files for trademark on coin-op version of Space Force
·         ??? 1981 - Atari files suit against Amusement World
·         November 9, 1981 - Atari/Amusement World trial begins
·         November 27, 1981 - court decision handed down. Judge finds in favor of Amusement World
·      September 15, 1982 - first use in commerce date for non-coin op Space Force trademark
·         November 22, 1982 - Venture Line files for trademark on non-coin op version of Space Force

I'd really like to know when Meteors was released. The case doesn't say and, unfortunately, I don't currently have many issues of Replay and Play Meter from that time period (though I hope to be getting them within the next few months). I checked the Vending Times issue on the 1981 AOE show. It had lots of photos, but none of Meteors.

I also have a number of names to check for Venture Line.          



  1. It's interesting to note that Atari released 3 of its own variations of Meteors/Meteoroids/Space Force. One was their version of Asteroids for their Atari 7800 system - released in 1984 - which featured color "3-D" asteroids. A similar version - released in 1987 by Atari Games - was their Blasteroids arcade coin-op game that also featured multi-colored "3-D" asteroids. The third game was The Last Starfighter prototype game for the Atari 5200 and 8-bit home computers. It's based on the special effects in the movie that were created by Digital Productions. The game starts with a ship blasting off from a base, which is very similar to how Meteors/Meteoroids/Space Force starts.

  2. What's also worth mentioning is just how Atari was able to win a similar case against Magavox's K.C. Munchkin game, or why Magnavox didn't appeal the decision, using the Meters decision as a precedent.

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  4. Thank you so much for finding this. I will give this to Eric Holinker, his son.