Thursday, July 31, 2014

The (Pre) History of Night Driver - Part 6: Night Driver (???!!??)

Over the past several weeks, I have examined what I call the “pre-history” of Atari’s 1976 3-D, first-person driving classic Night Driver, tracing its origins from what is believed to be the original (Reiner Foerst’s Nurburgring) to Digital Games/Micronetics’ Night Racer  to Bally/Midway’s Midnite Racer/280 Zzzap. While these games may have preceded it, Atari’s version of the game, Night Driver is far and away the best remembered

In 1976, Atari was the undisputed king of coin-op video game hill (at least in the US – in Japan, Sega and Taito were the top domestic manufacturers). Bally/Midway was a distant second and the rest of the American manufacturers were farther back still. Night Driver wasn’t Atari’s first driving game. That honor goes to 1974’s Gran Trak 10. Nor was it Atari’s first “sit-down” driving game (that would be 1975’s Hi-Way).  It wasn’t even Atari’s first microprocessor driving game (Indy 4)  By the time of Night Driver, in fact, Atari (and its sister company Kee) had already produced 10 arcade driving games - and that number only includes auto driving games, not games where you drove other vehicles.  

One thing that was relatively new to Atari in 1976 was the microprocessor. In April, Atari had released its first microprocessor based games: Quiz Show (based on the Signetics 2650) and Tank 8 (base on the Motorola 6800). One thing that microprocessors required was dedicated programmers and in 1975, Atari’s coin-op division began hiring them. The first was Tom Hogg in 1975 (who worked on Tank 8). The second was Dave Shepperd in February, 1976. Shepperd would go on to design Night Driver. It was not, however, his first game for Atari.

Shepperd had been bitten by the programming bug when he got a look at Nutting’s Computer Space. Enthralled by the game, he decided to try programming on his own and bought an Altair 8800. Released in 1975 by an Albuquerque, New Mexico company called MITS, the Altair was one of the first “personal computers” available to the general public. Calling the Altair a personal computer might be a bit of a stretch. It was really more of a hobbyist’s kit than a practical consumer product. The machine had no monitor, no storage device, and no manual. The only input device was a set of 8 toggle switches that could be used to enter data a bit at a time while output consisted of a series of LEDs on the front of the machine. If you wanted anything else, you had to build it yourself - and teach yourself how (and if you turned the thing off, you lost all your work and had to start again). Like many of the other computer enthusiasts of the time, Shepperd was up to the challenge (or maybe he just had no other choice). After creating a video subsystem that allowed him to connect the Altair to a monitor and adding a keyboard he’d found in a dumpster, Shepperd began programming games for the primitive system. Flyball was his first project at Atari.

[Dave Shepperd] The curious thing about [Flyball] was that I was assigned to do it and I knew almost nothing about baseball and neither did anyone else connected with the project…Long after the game had been out of production, I heard from our marketing department that a bar someplace had been torn up during a fight over the game. I never did learn all the facts, but I believe the fight started because one player thought the game had cheated him. As I pondered how the game might cheat, I sheepishly realized that there was indeed at least one rather serious bug in the game. Whenever a batter was walked, I advanced all the base-runners on base, even if there was an open base between them. Walking in the third base runner with nobody on second could be called “cheating”. I wondered if an undeserved run had caused one player to “win” which had an adverse effect on world peace.

Not long after Flyball, Shepperd started working on Night Driver. Shepperd recalls the genesis of the game as follows.

[Dave Shepperd] I was given a piece of paper with a picture of a game cabinet that had a small portion of the screen visible. I don't recall if it was an actual flyer for the game or simply a Xerox of the front page of the flyer. I recall it being German or maybe I was just told it was a German game. I never saw the game play nor did I know what scoring was used on that game, only that there were a few little white squares showing. With that germ of an idea, out popped Night Driver. I have fond memories of spending time watching the white lines in the street and fence posts whiz by my car as I drove to and from work trying to work out in my mind's eye what kind of math I can use to make little squares on a TV kind of do the same thing.<>

 If the flyer Shepperd saw was in German, it was almost certainly for Reiner Foerst's Nurburgring. Atari historian Marty Goldberg, however, reports that Shepperd was actually shown a flyer for Night Racer, which Atari had licensed from Micronetics. Wherever he go the idea, Shepperd was unaware of all but the barest bones of the concept (this may have been a deliberate attempt by Atari to protect themselves from patent infringement claims – though given that they had a license for the game, this seems unlikely).

Of course, the barest bones was pretty much all there was to the game. In terms of graphics, Night Driver was far more primitive than games like LeMans and Gran Trak. The only computer-generated imagery consisted of two lines of sparse white rectangles representing posts delineating the sides of an imaginary road (the image of the nose of a car that appeared on the screen was merely a sticker). The conceit was that you were driving at night, and hence no landmarks were visible. But Atari put those rectangles to good use. Night Driver was a classic example of making a lot out of very little. Though the graphics may have been simple, the game’s 3-D, first-person perspective created a “you are there” illusion that added immeasurably to its realism. This was especially true of the sit-down version that Atari released in April, 1977 (though the upright actually sold far more units). At the time, Atari still had a number of sit-down cabinets left over from 1975’s Hi-Way and decided to use them for a sit-down version of Night Driver. So how does Night Driver compare to its predecessors (Nurburgring, Night Racer, and 280 Zzzap[1])? Not having played all the games in their coin-op format, it’s hard to tell. In terms of basic gameplay and graphics, the games were very similar. It’s the trappings that distinguish them. Nurburgring appears to have had better sound, though that is really a guess. 280 Zzzap appears to have had more impressive bells and whistles – including its pseudo “dashboard”, the flag-waving referee, and the fluorescent, mirrored-in background graphics (Atari’s version used a stick-on decal to represent the player’s car, though it may have had smoother gameplay). Comparing Night Driver to Night Racer is even more difficult since I could find little in the way of a detailed description of the latter and no YouTube video of gameplay (the game is also quite rare). Looking at the flyers for Night Racer, however, it appears to have been a notch below Night Driver in terms of graphics and, while it had a sit-down cabinet, Atari’s looks much sleeker. In terms of popularity, of course, it was no contest. Nurburgring and Night Racer saw no real success in the US market. 280 Zzzap was listed at the #10 game of 1977 by RePlay and #9 by Play Meter. That same year, Night Driver ranked #6 on both charts. But that fact alone doesn’t tell the full story. After its initial popularity 280 Zzzap            quickly faded from the scene (though it did earn an “honorable mention” in RePlay’s 1978 year-end summary). Not so Night Driver. Play Meter listed it as the #9 game of 1978 and the #11 game of 1979 and the game appeared RePlay’s monthly charts as late as January, 1981. Why the difference? While Night Driver may have had smoother gameplay (or may not – I haven’t played the other games), the main factor may have been the simple fact that Night Driver was made by Atari. Another likely factor was that Atari also produced a very popular Atari 2600 version of the game (ported by Rob Fulop and probably the version most people remember today). In any event, for those who were gaming in the late 1970s, Night Driver stands out as one of the more seminal driving games of the era (even if it wasn’t the first of its kind).

[1] While the last two were released at the same time as Night Driver, they were apparently in development earlier.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The (Pre) History of Night Driver - Part 5: 280 Zzzap

In our last segment, we took a very brief look at the early years of Dave Nutting Associates and their work on some of the first microprocessor games. Developing games on microprocessors, however, requires programmers, something DNA initially didn’t have. To remedy the situation, they quickly hired two programmers from the University of Wisconsin computer science department – Tom McHugh and Jay Fenton.  

Jay/Jamie Fenton

NOTE – Around 1998, Jay Fenton transitioned from male to female and is now Jamie Fenton. To avoid anachronism, I will refer to “Jay Fenton” in the body of this article while referring to her as Jamie in the quotes.

Jamie Fenton in 1982 and today

Born in Brunswick, New Jersey in 1954, Jay Fenton started programming at age 13 after teaching himself FORTRAN. His father, a chemist for Proctor and Gamble, would take his programs to work to show to his impressed coworkers. By 1970, Fenton’s family had moved to Wyoming, Ohio where Fenton taught himself BASIC programing. Programming wasn’t Fenton’s only interest. In 1972, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin as a film major but maintained his interest in computers. During his freshman year, he snuck into a FORTRAN programming class despite not meeting the prerequisites and was chastised for writing unauthorized programs. The incident eventually led to a job as research assistant in Professor Richard Allen Norhouse’s AI lab, where Fenton created a robot (Northouse wrote a book in 1972 titled A Computer Controlled Vehicular Robot) and created an animation program on a PDP-8 that used a light pen for input. At one point Fenton wheeled the PDP-8 across campus to show off his animation program for his theater class (Fenton also switched majors from film to engineering). Fenton also enjoyed gaming, playing mainframe classics like Lunar Lander and Space War (which he encountered at the Stanford AI lab around 1973). When DNA called Northouse looking for programmers, Northouse suggested McHugh and Fenton. Upon arriving at DNA, Fenton was, much to his chagrin, assigned to pinball, not video games (like many people, he thought that pinball games were controlled by the mob). Fenton's first project was a home version of Bally's classic Fireball pin, which had sold almost 4,000 copies in 1972. Released in October of 1976, the home version did even better with sales of around 10,000. After completing Fireball, Fenton finally got a chance to work on a video game, though it likely did little to counter his associations of the coin-op industry with gambling and organized crime. Over the Christmas break, Fenton and Ave Nutting designed one of the first video blackjack games. 

[Jamie Fenton] My first videogame project at DNA was a blackjack machine, which was very similar to the ones that are now all over Las Vegas except that it was black and white and it had better odds. I actually did the odds out of the book which are a little too favorable to the player to actually do coin op. It was a smashing success as a prototype but it never went into production.

 Midnite Racer/280 Zzzap


In 1976 Fenton began working on video games full time. His first game to make it into production was Amazing Maze, a more sophisticated version of Atari’s Gotcha (interestingly, Midway had earlier turned down an offer to license the Atari game). The game was the first to make use of a new hardware system designed by Dave Nutting and Jeff Frederiksen. 

[Dave Nutting] With the introduction of the 8-bit microprocessor we immediately created the first 8-bit videogame system. My partner Jeff created [Amazing Maze] in order to test out his new hardware design. We took full advantage of the power of our new logic, adding the element of infinity into our game designs, with no predictable pattern, as in the rules of nature of quantum physics. In [Amazing Maze], the mazes were computer-generated and adapted to the player's skill.<Maze Games, Retro Gamer #129, May, 2014>

While they weren’t much fun to work on, such copycat games were common in the industry at the time

[Jamie Fenton] In 76 they moved DNA to Arlington Heights, near Chicago and then they started putting me on doing coin-ops. The first mission I had was more-or-less doing what was called "coin-op cloning". Back then there wasn't really copyright protection on video games. Everybody just ripped off everybody else's ideas. So they had me whip out a clone called Checkmate [note – a version of Gremlin’s Blockade] in a couple of weeks. The next game I did, which was another clone, was called 280 Zzzap and on that one we did get a license for so I got the source code for one guy's implementation of it and at least used the routines that calculated how high the poles were etc. That was another sort of six-week wonder. It was about then that the copyright laws started evolving and I think that was the last one I did that was a knock-off.

The "one guy" whose code Fenton used was probably Ted Michon (who'd designed Micronetics' version of the game, Night Racer).

[Ted Michon] Midway called with a problem. They had licensed the game, but planned simply to program it from scratch on their reprogrammable system from Dave Nutting Associates…It became clear that their system just didn't have the horsepower to perform the Night Racer perspective transformations in the conventional manner (i.e. multiplications and divisions). I explained how I had done it with logs and antilogs and later sent them the optimized tables I had computed.

            After Micronetics released their game, company president Bill Prast liked it so much he showed it to Midway co-founder Hank Ross and the two companies reportedly struck a licensing deal whereby both would release their games at the same time. According to Nurburgring designer Reiner Foerst, Iggy Wolverton (Midway's other co-founder) paid him a visit and led him to believe that Midway was interested in licensing the game from his as well, though he had no intention of doing so.

Whatever its origins, Midnite Racer hewed closely to the original. It did, however, include a few novel features,  including a flag-waving referee (perhaps borrowed from the Midway California version??). The game also featured Midway's trademark mirrored-in graphics with 3D, fluorescent background images of a night sky and the front end of a 280Z.  Another interesting feature was an onscreen instrument panel that displayed a speedometer, the player's score and time and the previous game's score (the game used an odd scoring system that awarded .01 points for each mile driven).  The instrument panel was surrounded by a wood-grain bezel located behind the projected image of the car's front end, making it look like it was a separate, dedicated dashboard.

For video game historians one of the game’s most intriguing features may have been one of the most mundane. When a player crashed, interjections like “WAM” and “BANG” appeared on the screen (ala Sea Wolf). One of the phrases that appeared was “ZORK”. One might assume that this was a reference to the popular computer text adventure of the same name, but this is not so. The original MIT PDP-10 version of the game was not created (or even started) until 1977. So was Fenton receiving divine inspiration from the game design gods? Did the Zork designers borrow their title from Fenton’s coin-op speed burner? Or was it all a massive coincidence and they both just happened to pick the same word? None of the above. The term “zork” was already in use among the MIT hacker community (accounts differ as to what it meant – Wikipedia claims it was a term for an unfinished program while co-designers Tim Anderson and Stu Galley claim it was a nonsense word usually used as a verb) and had likely made its way to the University of Wisconsin where Fenton (or somebody at DNA) appropriated it for use in Midnite Racer.

In any event, Midnite Racer was introduced at the 1976 AMOA show in November. Confusion likely reigned on the show floor as two other versions of the same game - Micronetics’ Night Racer and Atari’s Night Driver – appeared at the very same show. The name Midnite Racer, however, didn’t last long. After the show, Bally cooked up a promotion that included a grand prize of a 1977 Datsun 280Z. Realizing that their new video driving game would be a perfect tie-in, they renamed it 280 Zzzap (the onscreen title was actually "Datsun 280 ZZZap") and began featuring the contest on flyers for the game. In early 1978, the prize auto was finally awarded to a Rhode Island operator (by then, it had been “upgraded” to a 1978 model – Bally also gave away a 280Z as grand prize in their National Pinball Tournament a few months later). Midnite Racer/280 Zzzap wasn’t the only Fenton game to undergo a name change. 1977’s Road Runner – a video rifle game with a desert theme, was renamed Desert Gun. This time, however, the change wasn’t for promotional reasons.  

[Jamie Fenton] We did a shooting game that we called Desert Gun. It was originally called Road Runner. That was probably when the copyright problems started [in the industry] because we wanted to call it Road Runner and the Warner Brothers people didn’t particularly want us to.

Fenton went on to work a number of other games, the most notable coin-ops being Gorf and The Adventures of Robby Roto, and later went on to form (along with fellow DNA alums Mark Canter and Mark Pierce) MacroMind, one of the pioneering producers of multimedia authoring software with titles like MusicWorks and VideoWorks (later renamed MacroMedia Director). And 280 Zzzap? While it is little remembered today, it was actually a fairly popular game. RePlay listed it as the #10 game of 1977 while Play Meter had it at #9. The game was also ported to the Bally Professional Arcade. One reason that it (not to mention Night Racer and Nurburgring) are all but unknown today, however, is that they were overshadowed by a much more popular version of the game – Atari’ s Night Driver. We will take up the story of that game in our next segment.

A very poor quality picture of Midnite Racer (misspelled) at the 1976 AMOA show

A much better picture of the game (now renamed 280 Zzzap and again misspelled) at the ATE in January, 1977


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Update On First Ten Arcade Video Games

Recently, I did a post on the first ten arcade video games. While doing some research on Nutting Associates, I came across some info that led me to make a significant revision to my list. It is far from certain, but there is evidence that the first Pong clone may have actually been Nutting’s Computer Space Ball, and not Allied Leisure’s Paddle Battle. I have seen Computer Space Ball listed with a 1972 release date before, but that seemed clearly impossible to me given that Pong was released in November, 1972. I figured that the date was erroneous (as other Nutting dates are) and that Computer Space Ball had come out in 1973, but was unsure exactly when. The earliest reference I found was an article in the June 16, 1973 issue of Cash Box mentioning that the game was still “going great guns”. While this likely indicated that the game had been out for a least a month or two, and possibly longer, I still wasn’t sure exactly when it appeared.

Recently, however, I came across an interview in the August, 1976 issue of Play Meter with Vic Leslie. At the time of the interview, Leslie was the chairman of Cherry Group, which distributed and/or operated Atari games in England. In the interview, Leslie mentioned how he had first gotten into video games when he encountered Nutting’s Computer Space at the MOA show and thought it was a revolutionary game. He also mentioned how he had met Nutting VP Rui Lopes. His next meeting with Lopes provided an interesting quote:

[Vic Leslile] At the ATE in 1973, the London Exhibition, Rui and I bumped into each other again. Actually he approached me and said that he had a different type of game: would I be interested in marketing it in England?...I believe he shipped the machine, which was called Nutting Computer Space Ball, but was Rui's version of Pong. Pong had just been invented a month or two prior to that and hadn't come to England at all at that time
The ATE was usually (and, AFAIK, always) held in January. This fits in with Leslie’s claim that Pong had “…been invented a month or two prior to that…” If Leslie’s dates and recollections are correct (and they seem to be) and the ATE was in January (as usual), this would indicate that Computer Space Ball appeared very early indeed. It is unclear if the game had already been released in the US at the time of the ATE, but if it had, then it was surely the first of the Pong clones. I’d need some more solid information to pin this down, but I’m highly doubtful that any will appear.  

And if the game was out by January, I wonder how Nutting built it so quickly. AFAIK they didn't license the game from Atari (would Atari have licensed it that early anyway?). I think that Steve Bristow had already left Nutting by that point (from what I remember, he left in the fall of 1972 to go back to college).

BTW, Leslie’s opinion of Computer Space is also worth noting.

[Vic Leslie] I was pretty bowled over by a machine there called Nutting Computer Space. I thought it was the most fabulous game I had ever played; I couldn't tear myself away from it. I felt at the time it was going to revolutionize the industry. However, I didn't feel it prudent at that time to purchase because of the technology involved in the game: it was way beyond anything we could handle in England. Even people here in America who were better judges than I were pessimistic about it.
On another note, last time I mentioned that Larry Rosenthal gave a talk at the recent CAX 2014. Well, the talk has been posted to YouTube and everyone who reads this blog should check it out:

The introduction is missing, as are the last 15 minute or so but you can see the latter, along with talks by the Defender Team, Warren Davis, Jerry Lawson, and others here:

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The (Pre) History of Night Driver - Part 4: 280 Zzzap - prehistory

This week, we continue our look at the long prehistory of Night Driver (and its ultimate inspiration, Nurburgring). In my last installment, I discussed an unreleased version of the game developed for Bally/Midway. aThat version was rejected in favor of another version produced for Midway at a group called Dave Nutting Associates. That version was (ultimately) called 280 Zzzap. Before discussing the details, however, let’s backtrack and talk a bit about the history of Dave Nutting Associates.

The history of Bally and Midway will have to wait for a later post (or my book). Bally had its origins in a company called Lion Manufacturing (which was formed from a printing company in Chicago but, as I stated, that’s another story). Bally started producing coin-op games in 1931 with the pinball game Bally-Hoo (which also provided the company with its eventual name) and produced a number of different coin-op amusement machines in the coming years. Midway Manufacturing was formed in 1958 and specialized in manufacturing “arcade” games. Seeking to expand its offerings in this area, Bally acquired Midway in March, 1969. Midway entered the video game arena in March of 1973 when they paid Atari $200,000 to license Pong (one of the few companies that did). The following month, Midway released its version of the game called Winner and went on to become Atari’s primary rival among U.S. video game manufacturers. While Midway did have internal video engineers and programmers, prior to the early 1980s, they mostly relied on licensed games and games designed by external design teams. The most prominent of these teams was a company called Dave Nutting Associates. By the time of Pong, the Nutting name had already made its mark on video game history. Dave’s brother Bill had founded a company called Nutting Associates in Mountain View California, which had produced the first commercial arcade video game – Nolan Ryan and Ted Dabney’s Computer Space. While Bill had been first, however, it was Dave who would leave the biggest mark on video game history (though one that has been somewhat unappreciated)
Dave Nutting

Dave Nutting - from the cover of his book "Secrets to a Creative Mind"

David Judd Nutting developed his love for gadgets early on. At age 8, he took apart the family toaster to see how it worked and put it back together before his parents found out. Before long, he graduated to designing gadgets of his own. Spurred by his love of model airplanes, Nutting decided to build a toy submarine out of aluminum and Testor’s glue that he could float in the bathtub. He became so absorbed in the project that he failed to notice that his younger brother had caught the bed on fire. After high school, Nutting decided to pursue a career as an industrial designer. After graduating from New York’s Pratt Institute School of Industrial Design, he went to work for Brooks Stevens Design Associates, a Milwaukee consulting firm whose clients included Studebaker, Outboard Marine, and 3M. Founded by industrial designer Brooks Stevens (who coined the phrase “planned obsolescence”), the company made over 3,000 products, including the original Oscar Meyer Wienermobile. During his time at Brooks Stevens, Dave Nutting designed a number of products, including Evinrude outboard motors, Mirro aluminum pots and pans Enstrom helicopters, and (in 1961/62) the Willys Motors Jeep Grand Wagoneer, considered by some the first SUV. He entered the coin-op industry when his brother Bill approached him with an idea for a new kind of game. 

[Dave Nutting] By profession, I’m an industrial designer. I kind of backed into [the coin-op] business when my brother came and said he had an idea to take a teaching machine and put a coin slot on it.  I completely re-engineered and re-designed it. He then built his version (Computer Quiz) in California and I built mine (IQ Computer) in Milwaukee. He built about 4,000 and I built about 3,500 so between the two of us we made about 8,000. In those days those were big, big numbers. One of the big reasons for its success was that it was a location finder. In other words, a lot of locations objected to putting pinballs in and so on but they couldn’t object to putting an educational type machine in. A lot of operators used it to get into locations and that’s why it was so successful.

Nutting Industries and Milwaukee Coin Industries

In 1967, Dave quit his job at Brooks and went into partnership with his brother Bill, who established a company called Nutting Associates in Mountain View, California. The original plan was for Dave to design and manufacture games in Milwaukee while Bill marketed them in California. When Bill’s wife threatened to divorce him if he didn’t end the relationship with his brother, Bill told Dave to close down his Milwaukee operation. Instead, Dave formed his own company, Nutting Industries, to manufacture coin-operated quiz/educational games. The first was I.Q. Computer[1] and they followed up with Dual I.Q. Computer (a 2-player game), Golf IQ (a sports-themed trivia game), The Puzzler, and Sensorama (1970, learn-to-bowl game featuring 13 audio-visual bowling lessons from pro bowler Dick Ritger).

Nutting Industries lasted until 1971, when Nutting formed a new company called Milwaukee Coin Industries (MCI). MCI’s main business was the manufacture of projection screen games, crude ancestors to the laser disc games of the mid-80s that used images from a semi-transparent disc projected on a screen to create a realistic background for arcade games. MCI released a number of them, including Desert Fox (1972), Red Baron, Flying Ace (1973), and U-Boat (1972). They also made a few oddities such as Airball (in which the player maneuvered a small ball around the field with a column of air) and The Safe (in which the player tried to find the combination of a safe before time ran out). As were many of MCI’s games, The Safe was designed by Jeff Frederiksen. According to Frederiksen, in fact, the game’s dial mechanism (which consisted of a geared disk and two optical sensors) later became the basis for the mouse (though most sources credit Douglas Engelbart of with inventing the mouse at Stanford in 1963).

Jeff Frederiksen
Jeff Frederiksen had studied math and physics at St. Thomas College in St. Paul, Minnesota before leaving in his junior year to join the Air Force as an electronics technician. While stationed in southern Turkey, Frederiksen came across an interesting new machine:

[Jeff Frederiksen] …they had a Burroughs 36-bit mainframe computer system
primarily fed with a card reader. I was in maintenance and had no access to the computer, but one of the computer techs gave me a programming book and I started to program error detection for the maintenance cards I was inputting. I couldn't get access to the compiler, so I programmed in binary machine code. Before using my checker program, the error rate on maintenance records was about 10%. After implementation, it went to 0% except for 1 blank card at the beginning of a deck in the 1st month.   Shortly thereafter, AF headquarters sent a team to investigate what had  happened. After explaining what I did, they didn't know whether to  reward or court-martial me. They finally left recommending I submit the entire package as a suggestion to headquarters in Washington[2].
A short time later, Frederiksen left the Air Force and returned to Milwaukee to finish his degree then went to work for MCI. While MCI primarily designed electro-mechanical games, on at least one occasion they allegedly dabbled with video games in an effort to see how the machines worked.

[Keith Egging] They did do a very limited run of a Pong type of a game of some kind that was copied IC for IC. In those days people would just scratch off the IC and you’d have to figure out how they worked. At the time the sales manager – his last name was Ancona said “Boy if somebody every put a steering wheel on something like that they’d make a fortune”.

MCI wasn't long for the video game world. One of their customers was Aladdin's Castle, a series of arcades being opened in shopping malls. MCI's investors wanted MCI to get into the mall arcade business, they shut down the video game division and started their own arcade chain called Red Baron, with 20 locations. Nutting wanted no part of it so he and Frederiksen took two MCI techs and formed their own design firm called Dave Nutting Associates.

Dave Nutting Associates

            Even before leaving MCI, Nutting had been looking for a new game to revive his flagging sales. Pinball was popular, but was dominated by giants Bally, Gottlieb, and Williams. To have any hope of competing, Nutting would need an edge[3]. At the time, he was buying transistors from a company called Intel. One day an Intel rep stopped by and showed Nutting a company bulletin describing a new Intel product called a microprocessor. Realizing this was they edge they were looking for, Nutting and Frederiksen attended an Intel seminar in Chicago where they learned that Intel was creating 50 product development kits for its new 4040 processor. Claiming they represented the entire coin-op industry, they convinced Intel to sell them one.

[Dave Nutting] I was tracking the microprocessors from Intel. When Intel came out with their first development system for the microprocessor, which was the 4040 – a 4-bit processor, I convinced them to sell us one of the first microprocessor development systems. I told them that this was the whole future of the coin business and that they should give us one of the first ones, which they did. We then did the first pinball and as soon as the 8-bit processor came out we jumped on doing the video game.

Around this time, Nutting signed a consulting agreement with Bally to create novelty games. Dave Nutting was quite familiar with Ballly. MCI’s primary distributor had been Empire Distributing, which was owned by Bally. Nutting’s first microprocessor project for Bally, however, was not a novelty game or a video game but a pinball game. Nutting and Frederiksen took an electromechanical Flipper pinball game and converted it to use a microprocessor. It was one of the first attempts at a solid-state pinball game (the first was probably Atari’s 1973 Delta Queen prototype). Again, we don’t have time here to tell the full story of Flicker, but in brief, Bally passed on the game and Nutting and Frederiksen took the idea to an Arizona foosball manufacturer called Mirco Games who created what is generally considered the first commercially produced solid state pinball game called Spirit of ’76 in 1975.

That wasn’t the end of Nutting’s relationship with Bally, however, far from it. While Bally had passed on Nutting’s microprocessor pinball game, they did contract Nutting and his group to produce the first microprocessor-based video game: Gun Fight. Nutting and company followed up with a number of other video games, including Sea Wolf, Tornado Baseball, and Amazing Maze. One of these games was a version of Nurburgring. But that story will have to wait for next time.

[1] Cash Box lists the game as an October, 1968 released but it was mentioned in Billboard as early as December, 1967.
[2] From a September, 2011 interview with Frederiksen for the Bally Professional Arcade newsletter Bally Alley (
[3] In his Secrets to a Creative Mind, Nutting indicates that this all occurred when sales of IQ Computer slowed, but this seems to be far too early as his account gives the impression that he formed Dave Nutting Associates immediately after IQ Computer.

Here's a bonus photo from CAX 2014 that was just posted to the KLOV forums.

What is it? It's what's left of Larry Rosenthal's hand made prototype for Space Wars. I talked to Larry several years ago and again a couple of months ago and I was quite glad to see that he was a guest at this year's CAX. I wish I could have been there to here his presentation (I wish someone would record these things).

For more photos (including some of Larry) check out

Friday, July 4, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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