Thursday, May 30, 2013

Video Game Mythbusters?? - The Malfunctioning Pong

One of the most oft-told stories from the annals of video game history involves the first Pong game and its legendary "malfunction". You've probably all heard this one. Ted Dabney and Al Alcorn put their prototype Pong game on location at Andy Capp's Tavern. Some time later (from the next day to about two weeks, depending on the account, though the latter seems to be the more accurate timing) the bar's owner, Bill Gattis, calls Alcorn and tells him to come and fix his "malfunctioning" machine. A worried Alcorn hurries over to Andy Capp's to take a look and when he opens up the machine he breaks into a broad grin as he sees the source of the problem. The coinbox is so full that quarters have backed up all the way to the coin slot.
The story is told in just about every history of video games out there and with good reason - it's a great story. But did it actually happen?

I was recently reading an article on the history of Gottlieb in the November, 1978 issue of Loose Change magazine (a magazine aimed at slot machine collectors) when I came across the following passage about the early pinball game Bingo (quick summary - Bingo was released in 1931 by the Bingo Novelty Company. That summer, they sold the rights to Gottlieb. Gottlieb later renamed the game Bingo Ball and followed it up with Baffle Ball). On to the story…

"The following story is one of many of this type that were often told about BINGO. The tale usually tells of a man, during the depression, who invested his last dollars in a BINGO machine. Friday afternoon, after installing the machine in a bar owned by a friend, the man returned to his dingy hotel room to contemplate how he could come by funds enough to provide food that would last until the end of the week. It was to be Friday of the coming week he was to return to his friend's bar, empty the BINGO game of pennies and split the week's take. To his dismay, Saturday night about midnight, an acquaintance of his friend began pounding hard enough to knock the rickety hotel room door off of its rusty hinges and informed him that his coin operated machine was malfunctioning. Down hearted at the thought that his last dollars had been wasted on a device that would break down on its second night of operation, the man accompanied the messenger back to the bar. Upon opening his BINGO game the man was elated to discover that the machine's malfunction was due to the fact that machine was so glutted with pennies that it simply would not accept another coin!"

Sound familiar? Of course, the fact that this story has many close similarities to the Pong story doesn't meant the either or both of them didn't actually happen. Such an event could have occurred more than once.

But there's more. In the book All Your Base Are Belong To Us, former Nolan Bushnell assistant Loni Reeder claims that someone from Atari went to Andy Capp's and stuffed the coin box.

Whether the claim is true or not, I can't say. Personally, it doesn't really ring true with me. First of all, how exactly did they do this. Did they break in at night? Did they have a key? It seems hard to believe they could have done it during business hours without Gattis noticing (unless the machine was in a back room and out of sight). Or maybe Gattis was in on it? (if so, who was the target audience). And what did they hope to accomplish? If it was a publicity stunt, who would have known about it? Was there some kind of coin-op grapevine that would have spread the word throughout the city?

As far as I can recall, the incident is not reported in Curt Vendel and Marty Goldberg's Atari Inc. Business is Fun - and Reeder was their editor - which leads me to believe that either they had knowledge that the story (the box-stuffing story, that is, not the original story) was false or that they couldn't find a second source to back it up.

I don't think either the Bingo story or Reeder's claim is enough to render the original story "BUSTED". Al Alcorn seems pretty insistent that it happened (I don't recall if any other witness has ever confirmed his story or not or if he was the only one there - besides Gattis - and I don't think anyone's tracked him down).

Finally, here are a few photos I found interesting, plus a couple of un-TAFA'd games
First up is this picture of Bill Nutting standing next to a Computer Space machine. This photo is circa 1979 when Nutting was working for A-1 Supply (courtesy Loose Change magazine):

Here's a couple of others from Loose Change.

First, the C.A. Robinson showroom in 1977 (C.A. Robinson was one of the country's largest distributors):

And the same showroom in 1943
Here's an interesting sign from the 1982 ATE show in London (the Amusement Trade Exposition was one of the largest coin-op shows in the world at the time). Copyright laws in Great Britain wren't as defined as they were in the U.S. This sign is from Competitive Video's booth.
I think this game actually is on TAFA.
Zaccaria's Sea Battle at the 1980 Milan Fair (another Euro coin-op show).
Speaking of the Milan Fair, here's Bacchilega's (an Italian manufacturer) Dino Ferrari, from the 1981 Milan Fair (Augusto Alberici also designed Imola Grand Prix).
The following screenshots are from Chameleon and Amazon - two games made for a 1984 "system game" called Select-A-Game made by Bresnahan Technologies of Denton, TX. I don't know if the system ever made it into production. There was also a third game for the system called Airport and they planned to release more.
Finally, to end on another Atari note, here's a shot from the first Atari Adventure, opened in November, 1983 in the Northwest Plaza mall in St. Louis. Atari Adventure was a combination arcade and computer learning center.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Exidy - Part 2


Exidy founder Pete Kaufmann


            In 1973, Kauffman left his job at Ramtek, where he had been a founding partner, to start a new company of his own to design and manufacture video games, which Kauffman was convinced were here to stay.      

[Pete Kauffman] I was really excited when I first saw this Pong game on test at a local pub. It was assembled in an old oak barrel ‘table model’ without a coin door. The quarters just dropped into the barrel. After playing the game, I tried to move it slightly. It wouldn’t move. It must have been full of quarters. This could not have been a fad![1]
Called Exidy (an abbreviation for Excellence In Dynamics) Kauffman’s new company was incorporated on October 30 with Kauffman as president and former Ampex engineer Samuel Hawes as vice president[2]. With just a single engineer (John Metzler from Ramtek), Kauffman set up shop in a cramped 1,200-square-foot facility on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. With their funds almost as limited as their space, Exidy’s initial games were distributed only on the west coast. They started with Hockey/Tennis, a Pong clone that used cellophane overlays to produce the illusion of color (Larry Hutcherson remembers that the game was called Thumper Bumper), followed by a game called Sting[3]. Exidy’s first product to be distributed nationwide was 1974’s TV Pinball[4]. Billed as a video version of pinball, it was really just one of the more elaborate of the early ball-and-paddle games. The “playfield” included 16 “bumpers” that the player could eliminate for 100 points. Nine “pockets” (also worth 100 points) lined the top and sides and a moving target worth 2,000 points moved across the top of the screen. Sound was provided by an actual set of pinball chimes mounted inside the cabinet. The game provided Exidy with its first success, albeit a modest one[5].  In 1975, Exidy moved to larger facilities in Sunnyvale and in October they showed four games at the MOA show. Three were Pong games: TV Pinball, Table Pinball (the cocktail version of TV Pinball), and Table Foosballer and the fourth was a driving game called Destruction Derby.

     During these early years, one of the company's most pressing needs was staff, Pete Kauffman turned to whatever source he could to recruit new workers. At the time, the company had only a dozen or so employees and all of them had to work whenever and wherever they could in order to get games ready for sale. Chicago Coin's Director of European Sales, Paul Jacobs, signed on to head up Exidy’s marketing department in 1976. Jacobs started his coin-op career riding shotgun on his father's American Coin Machine route in the 1960s. In 1967 he went into sales for his United, Inc., a distribution company also owned by his father. After graduating with a degree in political science he became sales manager and then president of United until it was bought by jukebox giant Wurlitzer. Jacobs had also worked for Rowe and after leaving Exidy would go on to work for a more than a dozen coin-op companies in his forty-year career. Artist Michael Cooper-Hart met Kauffman at a Christmas party in 1975. At the time, Cooper-Hart was teaching design and fine arts at De Anza College in Cupertino. When Kauffman asked him if he was interested in working for a new company named Exidy, Cooper-Hart refused. He considered himself and artist and artists simply didn’t do commercial work. Kauffman’s powers of persuasion (and Cooper-Hart’s anemic bank account) eventually overcame his reservations and he signed on as a consultant at Exidy, where he would design many of the company’s classic game cabinets and go on to become Director of Design (though at some point Cooper-Hart also worked at Atari's Cyan Engineering think tank on a video phone). When he first arrived, however, he was taken aback when he got a look at a new game the company was producing – a driving game called Death Race.

Death Race            

       Released in April, 1976, Death Race was not Exidy’s first driving game – that honor goes to 1975’s Destruction Derby, itself a game unlike the host of other driving games on the market. While it had standard driving controls, the gameplay was anything but. Rather than a simple racing game Destruction Derby was a video version of the demolition derby in which a group of cars competed in an arena and tried to bash each other into pieces of useless wreckage. The last car that remained drivable was dubbed the “winner”.

Initially produced by Exidy, the demand for Destruction Derby was so great (and Exidy's capacity so small) that they had to devote their entire production line to Destruction Derby and nothing else. To free up production, they licensed the game to the floundering Chicago Coin who produced the game as Demolition Derby (they also licensed TV Pinball to Chicago Coin, who produced it as TV Pin Game). As part of the deal, Exidy stopped production of the game to avoid competing with their new licensee, but in the end, it didn’t matter. At the time, Chicago Coin was already in the midst of the financial woes that would lead to bankruptcy in 1976 and when they were unable to make their royalty payments, Exidy was left holding the bag. While Exidy may not have seen much in the way of profit from the Demolition/Destruction Derby deal, the experience did result in a number of very profitable decisions. First, seeing the sales success of the Chicago Coin title, Exidy decided that they would no longer license games to other companies. Second, they expanded their production capacity with the purchase of a 15,000-square-foot facility in Mountain View. The third decision proved perhaps the most profitable.

While Chicago Coin was marketing Destruction Derby, Exidy found themselves in an awkward position. Unable to produce their own version of the game and not receiving any money from licensing it, they decided to come up with a similar concept game instead.
As with Destruction Derby, the idea for the game (like most Exidy games) came from Pete Kauffman. The actual creation, however, fell to a newcomer. By this time, engineer John Metzler, who had designed the hardware for Destruction Derby, had left to form his own company. Before doing so, he suggested that Kauffman hire Howell Ivy from Ramtek to replace him. Once Howell arrived, he set to work modifying Destruction Derby into a new game called Death Race 98 (later shortened to Death Race).

[Howell Ivy] It's very had to change the gameplay when a game is done in hard logic but to just change the images, that's not so hard. It was a very early use of PROMs…and I realized I could change the cars to people. When they get run over, well, I can't have a dead body, but how about just a cross? That's how Death Race was born.
<Paul Drury, “In the Chair With Howell Ivy”, Retro Gamer #125, 2014>


This flyer and announcement for "Death Race 98" appeared in the April, 1976 issue of Play Meter. In May of 1975 Replay and Vending Times referred to the game as merely "Death Race". From this evidence, it appears that "Death Race 98" was an early name for the game.

The goal of the game was fairly simple, if somewhat gruesome –rather than trying to destroy each other’s cars, the players would score points by running over fleeing stick figures called "gremlins". A score of 1-3 points earned the player the rank of Skeleton Chaser; 4-10 points Bone Cracker; 11-20 Gremlin Hunter; and for more than 20 points, a player was dubbed Expert Driver (though real-world pedestrians might not agree with this assessment).

Adding to the game’s morbid theme was its equally gruesome cabinet art, created by Pat “Sleepy” Peak. Among the images was a grim reaper standing before two open graves beckoning toward a pair of drivers. The sound effects also added a chilling touch - when the player hit a gremlin, it emitted a tiny electronic scream and was replaced by a cross. The gameplay bore a suspicious resemblance to the 1975 film DeathRace 2000, and most sources report that the game was directly inspired by the movie, though sources at Exidy (including designer Howell Ivy) insist this wasn’t the case. Released in 1976, Death Race[2]created a firestorm of controversy.

[Paul Jacobs] Death Race did cause quite a stir, but not until an Associated Press reporter ran a story in Seattle. She had been in a shopping mall and noticed a line of kids extending out the door of the arcade in the mall. She was curious and went to see what was happening and found out they were all waiting in line to play Death Race. She watched them play and then she concluded that this was a horrible game that showed humans being run over by cars and said the sound when hit resembled a "shrieking child". Well, every paper in the country picked up the story and that started the controversy. The funny thing is that Death Race was just a "filler" game until our next attraction, Car Polo, was ready for production. It was a modification of Destruction Derby using cars versus skeletons rather than cars versus cars. It required very little development time. We had only released 200 games, but after the notoriety, we ended up making around 3000 (including PCB sales overseas). Articles about the game were in all major newspapers, plus Newsweek, Playboy, National Enquirer, National Observer. Midnight, the German magazine Stern, and many more. Nationally syndicated columnist Bob Greene devoted a column to the game. I was interviewed and featured on the NBC television news magazine show "Weekend" with Lloyd Dobbins and then excerpts were shown the following week on the Today show and the Tonight show. The interview was then featured in a PBS television documentary called "Decades" as an important news event for the year 1977. I did live interviews for many U.S. radio stations and also both CBC (Canada) and BBC (England). It was a story that just wouldn't die, and Exidy laughed all the way to the bank.

Photo of Death Race from the August 1976 Play Meter.

That's Paul Jacobs in front.

In the AP article (written by Wendy Walker), Jacobs is quoted as saying "If people get a kick out of running down pedestrians, you have to let them do it". Another quote came courtesy of Dr. Byrde Meeks, a psychologist who'd worked at San Quentin: "A game like that appeals to the morbidity in a person. That type of preoccupation with violence was common in the prisoners I dealt with. They would have loved the game"[3].

The article that started it all.

This one is from the July 3, 1976 Daily Oregonian.

If Exidy thought things would blow over after the AP story, they soon found otherwise as more articles began to appear in the following months. In response, Exidy further emphasized the fact that the game was a harmless diversion and that they'd been careful to avoid depicting actual pedestrians[4]."We have one of the best artists in the business." said GM Phil Brooks "If we wanted to have cars running over pedestrians we could have done it to curl your hair." As for the "scream" the game emitted when you ran over a gremlin - that was just a beep. "We could have had screeching of tires, moans, and screams for eight bucks extra. But we wouldn't build a game like that. We're human beings too."[5]

Another AP article on the game.

From the 12/24/76 Times Picayune (New Orleans)

The hysteria exhibited in some of the articles was almost comical. A Tucson Daily Citizen article was titled "If You've Got Time to Kill…Game Goal: Road Carnage". A photograph of a young girl playing the game bore the caption "Death race or death wish?" and asked if the game was a harmless fad or "…will chasing down pedestrians on a TV screen now encourage her to cut pedestrians down on real highways later?" The article quotes one arcade manager, who compares the game to Gun Fight, a game whose violence he feels is harmless: "…but that's the tradition of the Great American West, having a shootout, a duel, in the street. But deliberately running people down - that isn't an American tradition at all" (guess he's never driven in Boston) Another operator explained "When you leave a game room, you don't go out with a gun in your pocket and shoot your neighbor down. But you do go back to your car and start driving again."[6]

Middletown (NY) Times Herald Register, 10/31/76

Complaints about the game’s violent, grisly theme eventually reached the pages of the National Enquirer and Midnight and the game was even featured in more serious forums such as NBC’s Weekend television show where a psychiatrist decried the game’s supposed promotion of violence. Even the National Safety Council got in on the act, calling the game “sick” and“morbid”. A Newsweek article on the game was titled Sick, Sick, Sick” (echoing the National Safety Council).

Over the years, a number of rumors (most of them false) about Death Race have appeared. One claimed that the “gremlins” had been human figures all along and that the game had originally been called “Pedestrian” (no corroboration for the story has ever been found and Jacobs denies it). Another claimed that an outraged citizen phoned in a bomb threat to Exidy (this one may have been true. Howell Ivy reports that Exidy had to hire private security guards due to death threats they received). Yet another said that the game was banned outright in some countries resulting in some foreign operators serving jail time

[Paul Jacobs] I do not know of any country that banned the game (all markets that we sold to around the world accepted it), but I do believe that a Japanese distributor was briefly jailed for selling it. But I'm not so sure it was necessarily for selling the game itself or that he did not follow proper import procedures (pay appropriate import duties, etc.)


Sidebar – Gremlins or Humans?
In the years since Death Race's release,  a number of sources have claimed (or at least speculated) that the idea of referring to the targets in the game as “gremlins” was concocted after the fact in response to the growing media firestorm. Even Howell Ivy repeated the story , noting in Retro Gamer #125 “We made that up on the spot! After all the controversy, we said, 'look, we're getting some negative press here so hey, let's pretend they're ghosts of gremlins. That'd work!” Available evidence, however, shows that they were referred to as “gremlins” from the very beginning. In the Wendy Walker article that started it all, arcade owner Bill Audubon specifically claimed that the targets were gremlins, not people. When the game’s release was announced in the April, 1976 issue of RePlay, the description (which was generally supplied by the manufacturer) noted that “The object of the game is to maneuver your ‘car’ along a course that resembles a graveyard and attempt to ‘hit’ gremlins and skeletons as they streak across the monitor playfield.”

As it often the case, the controversy over Death Race only served to boost sales. As company founder Pete Kaufmann puts it“nobody wanted to buy it, but everybody kept ordering it”. Programmer Ed Valleau recalls that after an initial run of about 1,000 units, Death Race had to be brought back into production twice and another 1,000 units were produced. Production had just wound down when the AP article hit and the ensuing brouhaha necessitated another run. Paul Jacobs recalls that about 2,000 uprights were built plus an additional 1,000 PCBs for sale overseas. While its sales were tame by Atari or Midway’s standards, it did provide Exidy with its first real hit yet as well as a steady source of income. In 1975, total sales were about $250,000. In 1976, they increased to $3,000,000. In 1977, Exidy produced a sequel to the game called Super Death Chase, a modified version of the original designed by Arlen Grainger that featured skeletons in place of “gremlins” (perhaps in an effort to avoid the controversy that had plagued its predecessor), a randomly appearing ghost and a 36-inch-wide cabinet. The game was shown at the 1977 AMOA show, but apparently never made it into full production and only a few units were built.

Super Death Chase - from Play Meter, November, 1977

Below - Play Meter's review of Super Death Chase

(January, 1978)


[1] David Ellis, Of Mouse Traps and Crossbows: The Exidy Story (Game Room, August, 2006, p. 48)

[2] The company’s articles of incorporation, signed on October 19, name Kauffman, Hawes, and William C. Bourke as directors.

[3] RePlay, March, 1976

[4] The release date is uncertain. Flyers indicate it came out sometime in 1974. The earliest mention I have found of the game in a trade journal was in the January 11, 1975 issue of Cash Box.

[5] Pete Kauffman named it as one of their bestelling games, but in the David Ellis article, he said it only sold about 200 units.

[1] Though some sources indicate he’d also designed Destruction Derby.
[2] Some report that the game was called Pedestrian in early stages of development, but this seems unlikely given that the “gremlins” were never intended to represent people. Jacobs claims it never went by Pedestrian.
[3] "Death Race" Is New Game in Poolrooms, AP, July 1976
[4] While some sources claim that the idea of calling the enemies "gremlins" was concocted only after the controversy erupted, this does not appear to be the case (though they may have done so to avoid future controversy). The AP article itself quotes a relieved director of the Seattle Center arcade, "those are gremlins that you run down. You're not supposed to think they're people".
[5] New York Times, December, 1976
[6] Tucson Daily Citizen, January 14, 1977


Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Exidy - Part 1

I was going to wait and post this later after I head back from a few more Exidy employees I've contacted,  but I decide to go ahead and start it now. I'll update it if I get more info (or include the info in the book).
Today's post actually covers Ramtek, not Exidy. You'll see why if you read it

While PSE and Meadows were both located in Sunnyvale, neither company would make any video games after 1978. Another Sunnyvale company, Exidy, was a different story entirely. At its height, Exidy was third only to Atari and Bally/Midway among U.S. video game producers and created a handful of hits that are among the minor classics of the era. The roots of the company, however, extend to another short-lived Sunnyvale competitor – Ramtek.


            Like Atari, Ramtek was located in Sunnyvale but unlike Atari, it didn’t start out as a video game company. Founded in 1971 by brothers Chuck and Mel McEwan and three other aerospace engineers (with funding from Exxon Enterprises), Ramtek manufactured graphic displays and imaging hardware, primarily for the medical and aerospace industries. In its early years the company grew via "bootstrapping" - borrowing money from anyone it could and plowing all profits back into manufacturing.

With the introduction of Pong, Ramtek jumped on the lucrative videogame bandwagon. Ramtek, in fact, got a look at the game before any of Atari's other competitors. Al Alcorn reports that not long after he'd placed the prototype Pong for test at Andy Capp's Tavern he noticed a group of  "customers" who came in every morning at 9 to play the game. This struck him as odd since most bars were empty at that early hour. When he asked owner Bill Gattis about it, Gattis told him they were engineers from Ramtek[1]. Gattis was right. Tom Adams, a friend of Chuck McEwans's (he would later serve as Ramtek's vp of finance) had a small interest in Andy Capp's and after he and McEwan got a look at the game, McEwan was sure he could create something similar.
        It should be no surprise, then, that Ramtek started with a Pong clone called Volly. McEwan, however, was insistent that Ramtek didn't steal the game.

[Chuck McEwan] Remember now, I knew Nolan Bushnell personally and he knew we were going into this venture right from the start. Ramtek didn't "steal" Pong…it was completely designed as its own game, meaning we didn't buy a Pong and knock it off part by part. Ramtek's Volly, which was our first piece, was a Volly, not a Pong as happened to Atari in so many other instances. It was video tennis and because we were already TV-computer oriented, it was a good game and we sold a heck of a lot of them[2].

 While Ramtek may have sold a lot of units of Volly, it wasn't easy at first. Ramtek was new to the coin-op business and had no idea where to start. They picked up a yellow pages and began calling area distrbutors and before long they had lined up a number of them (including Rowe International's Dedham, MA office, which ordered 2,500 units). Ramtek followed with two more Pong clones, Hockey, and Soccer (both 1973).

 Around this time, they hired a young engineer named Howell Ivy who would go on to become their most prolific game designer. Before coming to Ramtek, Ivy had spent 7 1/2 years in the Air Force, working on missile instrumentation at their Satellite Test Center in Sunnyvale. The base had a Computer Space and after Ivy played it, he decided that he could create a video game, went back to the two-bedroom apartment he shared with his wife, and began designing a Pong game

[Howell Ivy] I had worked with [Closed-Circuit Television] systems and my specialty in the Air Force was telemetry systems. I had a really good understanding of how to move information from one place to another, using both analog and digital technologies, and I was familiar with how TV screens worked so it was obvious to me how to put an image on the screen and move it around.
<Paul Drury, “In the Chair With Howell Ivy”, Retro Gamer #125, 2014>
While Ivy’s game was a fairly standard ball-and-paddle game, it did have one twist. The player could move the paddle in all four directions. After completing the game, Ivy took it to Ramtek, who paid him $2,000 for it. While they never produced it, they did offer him a job and gave him carte blanche to create whatever kind of game he wanted. Over the next three months, Ivy worked on the game at night while continuing his military duties during the day. The game Ivy created was Clean Sweep (ca May 1974), a pinball-like game in which the player tried to eliminate a field of dots with a ball and paddle. Some see the game as a kind of primitive predecessor to Atari’s Breakout. Mel McEwan made the rather dubious claim that it was the first video game to offer players the chance to win a free game

After finishing Clean Sweep, Ivy went to work for Ramtek full-time. One of his first efforts was Wipe Out, a 2 or 4 player game similar to Atari’s Quadrapong but with a twist in the form of a special “frustration bumper” that caused the ball to bounce in a random direction. A bit more sophisticated was Ivy’s Baseball – one of the earliest games to include animated human characters. The games cabinet (designed by Tempest Products) looked like a miniature stadium[1]. Ramtek licensed the game to Seeburg, who produced it as Deluxe Baseball. Ivy reports that they also licensed it to Midway, which they released as Ball Park. Another innovative game (for the time) was 1975’s Trivia, which was likely the first video trivia game. Players answered a series of multiple-choice questions in four different categories (questions were solicited from Ramtek employees, who were paid $1 each for them). The questions were stored on interchangeable 8-track cartridges, which could be replaced when they got old. To “randomize” the questions, Ramtek came up with a creative solution.

[Howell Ivy] …I designed an interface for the PDP-11 computer so we could use that to write data files to the audiotape for the questions. When you put a quarter in, the tape started running, so however long it took you to answer a questions would determine what question it would take off the tape next. That made it random!
<Paul Drury, “In the Chair Wit Howell Ivy”, Retro Gamer #125, 2014>

 In addition to his video game work, Ivy also designed a solid-state pinball game using an Intel 4004 microprocessor. Though the machine never went into production, Ivy recalls that they made 3 or 4 prototypes. He also recalls that the game was made in 1973 or 1974, which would have made it one of the earliest microprocessor pinball games to be developed.
By the end of 1974, Ramtek was on the grow. They had $6 million in sales, had manufactured more than 10,000 video games, and were looking to expand their facilities. In March, 1976, Ramtek announced they had sold 20,000 games in its first three years and were going to split their game and computer displays divisions into separate companies. Shortly afterwards they released two new games. Hit Me was a video version of blackjack and one of the first pseudo-gambling card games released by a major video game manufacturer (just the year before, Si Redd and Dale Frey had introduced the very first video poker/blackjack games). Sea Battle featured multi-player ship-to-ship combat where players could “blow away islands” and “hide in coves” while trying to destroy the opposing vessels and avoid deadly mines.

Ramtek - circa Summer, 1977

Then, in November of 1976, disaster struck – or so it seemed at first. Back in 1974 Ramtek was set to launch a new line of color monitors but needed to raise $1.4 million to do so. By November of 1976 they had finally struck a deal providing them with the cash they needed. Then, the night before Chuck McEwan was scheduled to fly back east to close the deal, Ramtek's $7 million manufacturing plant burned to the ground. Making a bad situation worse, they had allowed their insurance policy to lapse just a month before. In the end, however, the fire proved to be a kind of turning point for the company. An emergency meeting was called with the company's bankers, who provided enough funding to keep Ramtek afloat and the episode caused employees to pull together into a community[3].

In January, 1977 Ramtek released Barricade, their version of Gremlin’s much copied Blockade. Gremlin immediately hit them with a trademark infringement lawsuit. While awaiting trial, Ramtek voluntarily stopped producing the game and agreed to use the name Brickyard if they decided to start making it again (they didn’t). Star Cruiser (September 1977) was a kind of Spacewars sans the central sun that featured controls usually seen in driving games – a U-shaped steering wheel and a gas pedal. Ramtek’s most popular game was probably M-79 Ambush (July 1977), which featured a gun controller modeled after the army’s M-79 grenade launcher. In Replay’s year-end survey of the best games of 1977 M-79 Ambush was among the 15 video games listed.


Overall, however, Ramtek’s games were not doing well. They weren’t alone. Other video game manufacturers began dropping by the wayside, including crosstown rivals Meadows Games and PSE. Faced with increasing competition and frustrated by the blatant copying in the industry, Ramtek decided to abandon video games entirely in 1978 and instead make games in the mold of the old electromechancial arcade games but using microprocessor technology. Ramtek had actually taken a stab at non-video arcade games back in 1976 when they released Horoscope, a kind of throwback to the fortune tellers of the early 20th century. If Horoscope had one foot in the past, however, the other was firmly planted in the 1970s. The game’s “backglass” with its flashing lights and mirrors resembled a disco ball come to life. More ‘70s kitsch can be seen in the game itself, which not only included four astrology functions but even generated biorhythms – a craze that had swept the nation in the wake of Bernard Gittelson’s 1975 book Biorhythm: A Personal Science. At the same time, Ramtek introduced another game called Lie Detector that appears to have never made it to production. In 1978, Ramtek trod the non-video path again with Dark Invader (August), a space-themed, first-person shooter that made use of a laser and a spinning mirror mounted on a gun. The player peered through a porthole to shoot down alien space ships, which were actually made from bent pieces of heavy gauge wire covered in fluorescent paint and spun under UV lamps to produce a stroboscopic effect. A Z-80 microprocessor controlled the game’s attract mode, scoring, lighting, and sound effects (via a Texas Instruments sound chip). Ramtek followed up with GT Roadster (December), a projection screen driving game in the mold of Kasco’s The Driver that used Super 8mm film cartridges. The company’s most successful non-video game was a throwback to an even older arcade game – 1979’s Boom Ball. The game was similar to Skee Ball but instead of rolling the balls, the player shot them out of a cannon. Boom Ball proved extremely popular and Ramtek continued producing it until mid-1980 when they sold it, along with their entire games division to Mel McEwan (cofounder of the company and manager of the division). The problem was that even with the success of Boom Ball the games division was losing money, and had been for some time. In its 1980 annual report, Ramtek reported that they'd lost $971,000 in 1979 from "discontinued operations" and had posted smaller losses in 1977 and 1978. Most, if not all of this, was probably from their games division. Overall, the company had turned a profit but in 1979 profits had declined to just $283,000 from a high of $1.3 million the year before. Faced with mounting losses, Ramtek decided to sell the games division, and return fulltime to the fields it knew best – medical imaging and CAD/CAM. 1980 saw sales of $25 million with plans to begin manufacturing PC monitors, but as far as video games went, the company was finished. Boom Ball, however, was not. After buying the games division, Mel McEwan created a company called Meltec and continued to produce the game.

Faced with mounting losses, Ramtek decided to sell the games division, and return fulltime to the fields it knew best – medical imaging and CAD/CAM. 1980 saw sales of $25 million with plans to begin manufacturing PC monitors, but as far as video games went, the company was finished. Boom Ball, however, was not. After buying the games division, Mel McEwan created a company called Meltec and continued to produce the game.

In terms of video game history, Ramtek’s main contribution may have come not from its games, but from two of its employees. H.R.. “Pete” Kauffman was an early partner at Ramtek who left in 1973 to form his own company in Sunnyvale for the sole purpose of creating video games. In 1975, Howell Ivy joined him at his newly formed venture and unlike the other Sunnyvale companies, this one would last.

[1] Al Alcorn interview, Retro Gamer #88
[2] RePlay, May, 1977, p. 24
[3] The dates given for the fire come from Malone The Big Score p.300. The December 24, 1975 issue of Computerworld reports that a fire on the morning of 20th "had rendered 10,000 square feet of manufacturing space  unusable." This may have been a separate fire or Malone may have got his dates wrong.