Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The (Almost) Untold Story of TV POWWW - The Original(??) Video Game TV Game Show


Back in December of 2012 I did a blog post on Starcade, the syndicated video game game show that originally aired from 1982 to 1984. Starcade, however, was not the first syndicated game show involving video games. Back in 1978, a program called TV POWWW started appearing on TV stations across the country (and, eventually, around the world). And it not only featured video games, but it was interactive, with viewers playing live over the telephone (don’t get too excited, it’s not quite what you may be thinking). I don't know if it was the first television video game game show, and some might quibble with calling it a "game show" at all but for its time, it was quite innovative. Surprisingly, I had never heard of the program until recently when I stumbled across a web page that made mention of it. I immediately tried to find out more about it, only to discover that the information on the web is scant. A little digging, however, unearthed a host of new sources information (chief among them a book by Marvin Kempner). While TV POWWW had nothing to do with arcade video games, I thought I'd share the information anyway.

Marvin Kempner

The driving force behind the creation of TV POWWW was Marvin A. Kempner, founder of the syndication firm M.A. Kempner Inc. While Kempner didn't have a direct connection to the coin-op industry, his father did, having been partners in a chain of arcades with Adolph Zukor, who later went on to form his own movie studio (as did a number of other arcade owners) - Paramount. Kempner's work in syndication had started after World War II when he syndicated radio programs like Murder at Midnight and The Tommy Dorsey Show. In a career that spanned six decades, Kempner worked for a number of companies and was involved with a handful of significant firsts. Jingl-Library was a library of advertising jingles created in the late 1940s and sold to radio stations across the country (it was sold to NBC in 1953). Colonel Bleep was a cartoon in which an alien from the planet Futura protected the Earth with the help of his two deputies (the cowboy puppet Squeek and a caveman named Scratch). Running from 1957 to 1960, it was the first color cartoon produced for television. While Kempner helped syndicate the program, it was filmed by Soundac of Miami, an early animation studio. In 1966, Kempner (then working for Mark Century Sales Corp) began selling another Soundac creation called Colorskope - a library of animated opening and closing segments that could be customized for specific television stations for use in news programs, sports reports, movies , and other programming (they also produced a follow-up called Commercialskope that consisted of customized animated commercials). Kempner was also part owner of WINE radio in Buffalo (one innovative promotion consisted of sending live homing pigeons to 50 of the area's top advertisers with a note instructing them to fill out a form and return it, via pigeon express). Kempner was no stranger to game shows either.
Ad for Musical Tune-O, June 1, 1950
In the early 1950s he had syndicated a radio program called Musical Tune-O. Customers would visit participating grocery stores where they would obtain a bingo card with a numbered list of 250 instrumental tunes and a bingo grid with 25 numbers (as well, of course, as advertising for the store in question). When they tuned in to the program, a selection would be played. The customer then had to identify the tune and, if they had that number on their card, claim the appropriate box. Once a customer got five numbers in a row, or filled in the four corners of the grid, they would call the radio station to claim a prize.
Ad for Dollar Derby, January 31, 1952
In 1952, Kempner syndicated Dollar Derby (“the original TV auction”) in which players would receive paper "money" after purchasing items from participating supermarkets then tune in and bid on items using the fake money (Kempner claims the show helped make 7-11 famous in Texas). By the 1970s, Kempner had formed his own company called M.A. Kempner Inc. and the innovations continued. In 1973, Kempner syndicated The Jane Chastain Show making Chastain the first nationally syndicated female sportscaster in the country (in 1974 she became the first female NFL announcer). Another Kempner innovation was Time Capsule library of stock footage, cataloged and indexed by subject, that TV stations could use to supplement news stories.

The Creation of TV POWWW

In the spring of 1977, two men (a DJ and a radio program director) approached Kempner with the idea for a new half-hour television game show that involved audience members playing home video games against a celebrity opponent[1].The pair had a commitment from Magnavox (who was then working on the Odyssey 2) for $200,000-250,000 to produce a pilot. The two hooked up a video game console to a television and demonstrated the unit for Kempner[2]. Intrigued, Kempner made an appointment with Phil Boyer, Vice President of Programming for ABC and spent the weekend playing video games[3].

            Walking into Boyer's office, video game console under his arm, Kempner set up the unit and described the concept to Boyer, who interested immediately, noting that he played arcade games every night while waiting for his train at Penn Station. While Boyer loved the concept, he didn't like the format. Selling a half-hour program was an increasingly difficult prospect and the airwaves were already flooded with game shows. Instead, Boyer wanted to create a "Dialing For Dollars" of the eighties (the television program in which the host would call viewers at home and award cash prizes if they could give the proper password).  Instead of creating a half-hour show with a live audience, Boyer suggested a short call-in program that stations could insert into their local broadcast schedules whenever they wanted. Kempner agreed and took Boyer's suggestion back to the clients. The two ignored Boyer and told Kempner they were going ahead with the half-hour format and asked if he still wanted in. Kempner did and in August, a pilot was produced. Prior to the filming, Kempner met with the Magnavox attorney and was surprised when they seemed uninterested in finalizing the deal. He was even more surprised when he tried to chat with the attorney and Magnavox’s VP on the morning of the shoot and they not only seemed uninterested, but didn't even bother to ask if he wanted a ride to the studio. He soon realized that he had been cut out of the deal.

Fairchild Gets Involved

Furious, Kempner wrote a letter to Wilfred Corrigan, president of Fairchild Camera and Instrument (which had released its Channel F programmable console in November, 1976), on September 6, describing his concept for a game show in which viewers would play games on air and asking if Fairchild could supply them with a game system and develop voice recognition hardware that would allow players to control the game over a telephone line. He wrote a similar letter to Atari. A few days later, Fairchild called back and Kempner made an appointment with John Donatoni, marketing director of Fairchild's video game division (Atari never responded).

            During the meeting, Fairchild engineers assured Kempner that they could create his voice activation box. Kempner then asked if they could create hardware that would take the game off the front of the picture tube and broadcast it. Again they said yes, but noted that it would take six months to complete. Kempner and Fairchild quickly signed a contract in which Fairchild would supply Kempner with custom Channel F consoles (at a cost of $2500 apiece) as well as custom game cartridges. The T-shaped custom cartridges were about 3 times larger than the normal cartridges and were also usually simplified for television.

Finding a Market
This Ad For TV POWWW appeared in the September 15, 1978 issue of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Note that TV POWWW appeared as part of the show Zap!

            Returning home, Kempner called Phil Boyer who reiterated that ABC wanted first refusal rights on the program for the network’s “O and Os’ (owned and operated stations). He then called Al Flanagan, President of Combined Communications in Denver, and set up a meeting at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas where he could demonstrate his system to a roomful of executives and sales staff. With the final system still in development, Kempner would have to fake it. He set up a pair 21" TVs on stage and connected them to a standard Channel F unit with a shooting gallery cartridge. Next to each TV was a telephone that wasn't connected to anything. As the demo started, Kempner called two executives to the stage and described his idea, which he was temporarily calling "TV POWWW" (a name he didn't particularly care for). He started up the game, then instructed the execs to yell "POW!" into their dead phones when they wanted to take a shot (the Fairchild engineers had told him that they would need to use a strong sound for the voice activation to work). After each "POW!" Kempner would press the buttons on his controller. Despite the somewhat crude demo, according to Kempner "all hell broke loose". Al Flanagan leapt to the stage and loudly demanded an option for all seven of the TV stations he owned. Kempner told him that they did not give options, but instead offered first refusal rights.

            Kempner next visited KABC in Los Angeles (the most profitable TV station in the country), where he met with head of programming John Goldhammer, who loved the idea and set up a five-minute meeting with GM John Severino. Instead of five minutes, Severino spent an hour playing with the Channel F and told Kempner he was going to make a million dollars with TV POWWW. Certain that the final system would be ready by March, 1978, Kempner returned to Goldhammer and suggested that he allow Kempner to test the system at the NATPE (National Association of Television Programming Executives) Convention in April. Goldhammer agreed, but suggested that he also demonstrate the system live on  A.M. Los Angeles, the popular morning program hosted by Regis Philbin and Sarah Purcell (who later went on to national fame as co-host of Real People). When April rolled around, the Fairchild engineers were still hard at work on the new system. At 7 AM the Monday before the convention (which started on Friday), Kempner and the engineers set up their equipment at KABC for A.M. Los Angeles only to find that the voice activation didn't work. Despite furious efforts, they had to cancel the appearance at 8:45. Tuesday was more of the same, as was Wednesday. Finally, on Thursday, they got the system to work and demoed it on the air. They did the same on Friday and KABC's phone lines were clogged with people hoping to play the new game. After the show ended, Kempner made his way to the convention and began a pre-show sales meeting in his hotel suite. In the middle of the meeting, Al Flanagan burst in and, in front of the stunned salesmen, offered to buy TV POWWW for all his stations. News of the deal spread across the convention floor like wildfire and before long, program directors and executives were lining up to buy the show for their stations. Each of them paid a weekly fee, plus $5,000 for the modified Channel F unit. Meanwhile, Magnavox was offering its video game show, but (much to Kempner’s delight) no one was interested and it was never produced.

            Kempner was not out of the woods yet, however. The show was scheduled to be available on September 1 and Fairchild still hadn't worked out all the kinks. In July, Kempner decided he needed someone of his own to help get things in order and hired Bob Elder, an overweight and alcoholic (though brilliant), engineer in his early 40s. Elder quickly fixed a number of issues but there were others. Realizing he would never be ready for the September 1 date, Kempner called his stations and announced that he was changing the rollout to October 1. Thankfully, Kempner met the new date and TV POWWW went on as scheduled. It was an instant success.

Playing the Game

            Looking back from the 21st century, the "interactivity" of TV POWWW seems absurdly primitive. Rather than playing games directly, viewers would contact the station (or, more often, the station would contact them) and watch the game on their television set, calling out "Pow!" (or is that "Powww!"?) whenever they wanted to perform an action like firing an onscreen gun. In most cases, it seems, interested viewers would submit their names and phone numbers (with KABC they did so via postcards). Stations would insert the brief segments wherever they wanted. Denver added it to the beginning of The Six Million Dollar Man. Others added it to local news or morning programs. Most commonly, however, stations would add it to their children's programming (WGN in Chicago, for instance, presented it as part of Bozo’s Circus while in Raleigh it was part of a show called Barney’s Army). While some stations initially had a call-in program, many switched to a call-out method, and not always voluntarily. KSL in Salt Lake City, for example, was forced by the phone company to switch to call-outs after the demand for the program knocked out phone service in seven states Not all of the viewers played fair. Some would yell out "POWPOWPOWPOWPOWPOW" over and over rather than trying to time their shots. For WPIX, Channel 11 in New York, players shouted "PIX" instead of "POW" and the show was called TV PIXXX. According to some sources, WPIX had technicians in the control room pressing the controller button rather than using the voice activation system[4].

Goodbye Fairchild, Hello Mattel

Upon its debut in 1978, TV POWWW was an immediate hit. Almost as soon as it got started, however, the show was hit by a potential setback. In January of 1979, Kempner attended the CES in Las Vegas. Just before they let for the show, Fairchild contacted them and told them to stop by the Fairchild booth as soon as they arrived. They did so, and a meeting was arranged. Thinking nothing of it, the Kempner reps wandered the convention floor until the meeting started. At the meeting, Fairchild dropped a bombshell, announcing that they were going out of business (later that year, they were acquired by Schlumberger Ltd.) Genuinely apologetic, Fairchild offered to send Kempner whatever equipment they had on hand so that they could continue to build units. They also suggested that Kempner pay a visit to the Mattel booth, where they were displaying a new video game console of their own called Intellivision. Despair turned to elation when the Kempner team got a look at the Mattel display and saw that the Intellivision’s graphics far outstripped those of the aging Channel F. That afternoon, Marvin Kempner rushed back to the hotel, called Mattel, and tried to arrange a meeting with the head of the video game division, only to be told that no one was available. As the show was ending, he finally contacted Ed Krakauer, Senior VP of the electronics division and talked him into squeezing a 10-minute meeting into his lunch hour. Halfway through the meeting, Krakauer leapt from his seat and shut the TV off. He was already sold. The ten minute meeting ended up lasting three days. Mattel eagerly got on board, even offering to supply Kempner with a chip they were having trouble getting. It looked like a match made in heaven. Looks, however, can be deceiving. While Mattel initially supplied Kempner with a number of modified games, it eventually became apparent that they were losing interest in video game consoles as they focused on turning Intellivision into a bargain basement home computer with products like the ill-fated Keyboard Component. In addition (at least according to Kempner) Ed Krakauer continually tried to change the conditions of their deal or made promises that he never kept. At one point Metromedia of Los Angeles contacted Kempner about acquiring the rights to a half-hour prime time show on KTTV in which members of a live studio audience would square off against contestants on the phone. Jack Clark, host of the game show The Cross-Wits had signed on as emcee. The show was produced, but ran for just 13 weeks when Mattel proved unable (or willing) to supply Kempner with new games and by the late-1980s, it seems that TV POWWW had largely disappeared.
An ad for the KTTV version of the show, from Kempner's book

Looking Back

TV POWWW seems to be little remembered today – at least by those who grew up after it faded from the scene. It draws scant mention in video game, or television, history. In its day, however, it was quite popular, and surprisingly innovative. At its peak, over 100 stations carried the program and Kempner eventually syndicated the show in Europe, Asia, and Australia. While Marvin Kempner places much of the blame for the show’s untimely demise on Fairchild and Mattel’s lack of vision, it seems unlikely that the game could have lasted much longer than it did, even if those companies had stood behind it, especially given the video game crash and the primitive (by later standards) technology. When Nintendo hit it big with the NES, Kempner paid a visit to its Seattle headquarters to try and revive the program. Nintendo turned him down immediately (as did Sega sometime later). While TV POWWW may not have lasted, M.A. Kempner Inc. did, as did voice recognition technology. Kempner followed up with a number of products using the technology. Telephone Poll allowed companies to conduct automatic telephone surveys, using a synthesized voice to ask callers questions with a binary answer (yes/no, true/false, like/dislike, agree/disagree, for/against, or a/b). They followed up with the ESCAPE 600 (Electronic Synthesized Computerized Automatic Polling Equipment), which could dial numbers at random, had a customizable voice, and could detect busy signals, hang-ups, and pranksters (the Republican Party successfully used it to drum up support for midterm elections in Florida via the computerized voice of Ronald Reagan himself). How long did TV POWWW last? It’s hard to say, given the lack of solid info. It ran until at least 1983 in various US markets and Kempner claims that it lasted 12 years overall. However long it lasted, TV POWWW stands as an interesting sidelight to the history of video games and one that deserves to be better known.

Postscript – Zap???

The Wikipedia article on TV POWWW ends with the following intriguing claim: “Zap aired in the mornings from 1978-1979 on Cleveland, Ohio NBC Station WKYC which had a feature similar to TV POWWW.”  Another interactive game show featuring video games that appeared at the same time, and maybe even preceded TV POWWW? Intriguing indeed. Or it would be, if it were actually true. Zap actually did feature a segment that was “similar” to TV POWWW. In fact, it was identical to TV POWWW. In fact, it WAS TV POWWW. Zap was a morning talk/news show hosted by Bob Zappe that ran on WKYC until it was cancelled in early 1979. As the above ad makes clear, Zap actually featured TV POWWW itself, not a “similar” program. Oh well, for a while there, Wikipedia really had me going.   


The majority of the above info came from Marvin Kempner’s 1998 book Can’t Wait Till Monday Morning: Syndication in Broadcasting (http://www.amazon.com/Cant-Wait-Til-Monday-Morning/dp/0944957730). In fact, it is largely a paraphrase of the chapter in his book dealing with TV POWWW.
Some information was taken from an article on Kempner from the February 6, 1984 issue of Television/Radio Age.
Other info was taken from various web sources

[1] From Kempner's book, it is unclear if this was the original concept. He initially only says that the two brought him an idea for a show using video games and notes that while playing games that weekend he wondered "…
[2] Kempner does not clearly specify what kind of system this was. It seems too early to have been an Odyssey 2 (which, as he indicates, was a year away from production). From Kempner's description, it may have been a Fairchild Channel F.
[3] Once again, Kempner's account is a bit confusing and he doesn't specify what game he played. He mentions that Atari and Fairchild had already released home video game systems. After describing his weekend playing games, he notes "I had read much about Atari, and now had played several of their games...” From this, it sounds like he was talking the Atari 2600. The 2600, however, would not be released until September, 1977.
[4] The Wikipedia article on TV POWWW makes this claim, citing as the source the following article (http://archive.today/sRxpa) which drew its information from a 2008 WPIX retrospective (which can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJN9eM84Rq8). While the same claim has been made on other websites, drawing some to conclude that the program never used voice activation, Kempner’s own account makes it clear that this is not the case (unless he is an inveterate liar). Perhaps some stations were forced to bypass the voice activation technology due to its unreliability, or perhaps it only worked with the Channel F version.

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.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The (Pre) Hisory of Night Driver - Part 1: Nurburgring

In earlier posts, I’ve made brief mention of Reiner Foerst’s Nurburgring and Micronetics’ Night Racer as predecessors to Atari’s Night Driver. Today I thought I’d begin to flesh out the story of these games, as well as a number of others that appeared around the same time.
(NOTE that much of the information on Nurbrugring came from the Lance Carter’s History of Racing Games at historyofracinggames.wordpress.com)

Of all the many video game genres, perhaps none (other than the ball and paddle game) is more venerable, or popular, that the driving game. The first driving video game was probably Atari’s Gran Trak 10 (March, 1974). It was followed by a number of similar games between 1974 and 1976, including Taito’s Speed Race/Midway’s Wheels, Electra’s Pace Car Pro (perhaps the first true color driving game), and a dozen more games by Atari/Kee (including 1975’s Hi Way, which included a built-in seat that allowed the player to sit down while playing). These games, however, all featured a top-down perspective rather than the first-person perspective that later became de rigueur. First-person driving games had actually been around, in electromechanical form for years (and driving games in general had been around for even longer – the first may have been Canova and Thompson’s two-player bike racing game Automatic Cycle Racer in 1897). In 1941, the International Mutoscope Corporation (more famous for its peep shows) released Drive Mobile – a driving game that included a rotating plastic drum with the images of a two-lane road clogged with traffic. The player used a steering wheel to maneuver a small plastic car to avoid the traffic while an electronic map of the U.S. tracked his cross-country progress. The following year the company released a two-player variant called Cross-Country Race with the display showing the progress of the two cars on a twisting route from New York to Los Angeles. The early fifties saw the appearance of games with display screens showing 8 mm movie footage of actual traffic such as Capitol Projector's Auto Test (1954 - some sources say 1959) and Turnpike Tournament (1959). In the 1960s, in games like Chicago Coin’s hugely popular Speedway the player maneuvered a plastic car along the projected image of a track produced by shining light through a transparent plastic/nylon disc.
Above images courtesy of Pinrepair.com
The first-person driving video game would have to wait, however. Ask people what the first such game was and many would probably mention Atari’s Night Driver (October, 1976). In truth, however, Night Driver was preceded by at least four other games with almost identical game play. The granddaddy of them all was actually produced not in America, but in Germany and was started three years earlier: a game called Nurburgring by Dr. Ing- Reiner Foerst.

In 1971 Reiner Foerst (then 38) took a job as director of a German wire-manufacturer called Trakus.  At the time, companies had just begun to explore the use of driving simulators in research. In 1965, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers had published a report describing such a simulator that used color film footage along with realistic sounds and vibrations to reproduce the driving experience. The system, however, was not interactive. In 1966, the Human Resources Research Organization designed a similar system. With a background in simulation, Foerst decided to capitalize on this growing market by creating the best driving simulators in the business. To do so, however, he needed money and to do that, he decided to create a coin-op driving game. Examining the patents of other companies he found that Volkswagen and British Petroleum had both created simulators. The BP system, however, used a projection screen system and Volkswagen used a large oscilloscope (along with a motion system that allowed limited movement), both of which were too expensive for a game.

(supposedly) Volkswagen's early 1970s driving simulator
courtesy of historyofracinggames.wordpress.com

Frustrated, Reiner slapped together a prototype using light bulbs to create a crude display, but the resulting product didn’t work very well. When Pong exploded onto the scene in 1973, Foerst knew he'd found a better solution and by the end of the year he was at work turning his prototype into a video game (that same year, he filed or a US patent on a tic-tac-toe like game). The first version was finished in May of 1975 and placed on location in an arcade in the university town of Giessen where it did well. Encouraged by the success of the prototype, Trakus provided more funding and the first two production units were completed by March of 1976 (when they were shown at the International Exposition for Coin-Op Games in Berlin). Production began soon after at a rate of one machine per week. Dubbed Nurburgring 1 (after the famed German race track built around the mountain village and castle of Nurburg in the 1920s) it featured almost 1,500 components, including a rack stuffed to the gills with a whopping 28 circuit boards. While the visuals were sparse (consisting almost exclusively of a series of white posts along the side of a virtual road, the first-person perspective gave the game level of realism unseen in a video driving game. Adding to the immersive experience were the game’s sounds, which included the roar of the engine, air whistling by the car, crashes, and screeching tires. The engine sounds grew louder the faster you drove and more hollow when the brakes were applied.

 A peek inside the original Nurburgring

            Realistic as it was, the game was also expensive, and complicated, which is why Foerst could only afford to produce one machine a week – even though he realized this would allow other coin-op games to copy his idea. Before long, Foerst’s fears were realized. It started when Foerst paid a visit to a bowling alley to check on one of this games. While there, he met a young video game technician from America named Ted Michon. The meeting would change the course of video game history (but that story will have to wait until part 2) 

A page from one of Reiner Foerst's US patents for Nurbrugring (filed May 13, 1976)

Another Foerst patent - for a "game board with color distinguishable" - filed December 19, 1973
Note that this may have been for a game called Ring-O-Bang