Saturday, December 29, 2012

Coin Op Weekly Earnings

Back in the day, most of the coin-op industry mags published annual opeartor surveys. One of the things they reported on was the average weekly earnings of different types of coin-op games.

I am still trying to collect a complete set of these surveys from the years 1971 to 1984 and have a ways to go. Play Meter published its first issue in December of 1974 but didn't publish its first opeartor survey until 1976.
Replay started in October of 1975 but also didn't publish a survey until 1976 (though they did list a few 1975 numbers in their 1976 survey).
Vending Times was around in 1971 but the first issues I have are from 1974. They didn't publish weekly earnings numbers, however, until 1977 (other than for vending machines).
CashBox was also around in 1971 and probably had the earliest industry surveys.
The first one I have is this one from 1973.


For comparison, here are some numbers from a couple of key years.
First, 1978 (the year before Space Invaders revolutionized the industry):

Average Weekly Earnings - 1978

Vending Times:
Pinball: $48, Pool Tables: $41, Video Games: $36, Shuffle Alleys/Bowlers: $35, Kiddie Rides: $28, Wall Games/Other: $27, Soccer Tables: $20, Arcade Games: $18
Note, for reference, the top earning types of vending machines were cigarette machines ($64) and canned soda machines ($54)
Soccer tables is the same as foosball, "arcade games" includes any coin-op games not included in the other categories

Play Meter:
Pins: $62, Pool Tables: $53, Jukes: $52, Video Games/Arcade Games: $50, Foosball: $41, Wallgames: $34, Shuffleboards: $32
Note that Cocktail video games were not included in the above figures (they generally earned much less than uprights), "Air Cushion Games" were also listed as NA

Pinball: $51.50, Pool Table: $44.25, Upright Video Games: $43.75, Jukebox (taverns): $37.50, Jukebox (restaurants): $34.25, Shuffle Alleys: $32.75, Jukebox (Off Street Locations): $29.75, Soccer: $28.25, Wall Games: $24.75, Cocktail Video Games: $24.50, Shuffleboard $24, Air Cushion: $20
Note that in 1976 Replay published figures for both street locations and arcades. I believe that the 1978 numbers are only for street locations

Overall you can see that at the end of 1978, video games were popular but weren't the top earning games. They still trailed behind pinball and pool tables.

That would change starting in 1979 once Space Invaders hit. Unfortunately, I don't have all the numbers from the golden age.

Here are the 1981 numbers from Vending Times:
Video Games: $85, Pool Tables: $52, Pinball: $45, Shuffle Alleys/Bowlers: $35, Arcde Games: $30, Soccer Tables: $24

Of course, average weekly earnings doesn't give a complete picture of popularity.

VT also listed the number of machines on location in 1981:
Pinball: 1,250,000
Video Games: 1,100,000
Pool Tables: 185,000
Soccer Tables: 18,000
Shuffle Alleys: 7,500
Arcade Games: 3,500

For comparison there were 808,600 cigarette machines and 800,000 canned soda machines.

I plan on getting all the numbers from 1971-1984 and will include them in an appendix in the book.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ms Pac-Man (and Super Missile Attack)

Today's post covers the first two games created by Boston's GCC. The story is probably well known to most readers of this blog. The story of the "Bozeman Think Tank" came from an article in the June, 1984 issue of Computer Games. For some reason, the article never rang entirely true to me. If anyone can verify the information, let me know. 

Super Missile Attack


            Missile Command was also indirectly responsible for the creation of a pair of Atari’s later coin-op games, Quantum and Food Fight. After Missile Command’s release, a company named General Computer Corp in Wayland, MA had introduced an enhancement kit that turned a Missile Command unit into a faster version called Super Missile Attack. The “company” was actually a group of nine young men, some still in their teens who had decided that video game design would make an interesting and profitable career. The group was led by MIT students Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran. Macrae got his start in the coin-op business in 1978 when his brother gave him a Gottlieb Pioneer pinball machine he'd had at college. Macrae placed the machine in his dorm at M.I.T. where it began sucking in quarters. Before long, Macrae was operating about 20 pinball and video games on campus. Macrae also changed dollar bills for students, giving them five quarters instead of four in return, confident that they'd end up in his games anyway. Macrae's biggest money makers were his three Missile Command machines, which initially made $650 a week. Over time the game's popularity began to wane and before long it was pulling in less than $150 a week. Macrae was in a quandary. Like most small route operators, he purchased the machines in his meager collection outright and could not afford to buy new ones every time the gaming public’s fickle attentions waned. Assessing the situation, he and friend Kevin Curran decided to user their engineering skills to update the game and created a modification board called Super Missile Attack that could be added to existing Missile Command units. Super Missile Attack featured faster game play, a new alien in the form of a laser-shooting UFO, and new color schemes. The units cost $30 to produce and sold for $295. When the game proved to be a hit, Curran and Macrae decided to sell their enhancement kit nationwide. With 5 employees and money borrowed from Macrae’s mother, Macrae and Curran formed a company called General Computer Corporation, which was incorporated on March 30, 1981with Curran as president and John Tylko as treasurer. By this time Macrae and Curran were living in a rented house in Brookline, MA along with a number of other programmers including Mike Horowitz, Steve Golson, Chris Rode, and Larry Dennison, most of who would drop out of MIT and go to work for GCC. Their development system was a GenRad 6502 emulator that cost $25,000. The unit had no printer port. To get a code printout, developers had to hand-enter the code on a TRS-80 and print it from there. The five GCC employees worked around the clock to get the board ready and in late May they started shipping. In just 60 days GCC sold 1,000 Super Missile Attack boards netting a quarter million dollar profit.

In August, Macrae's dad called him and told him he'd read on a news ticker that Atari was suing GCC for $5 million and were suing Macrae and Curran for another $5 million each. While the thought of a multi-million dollar corporation launching a suit against a company formed in a basement by five wet-behind-the-ears college students would strike fear into the hearts of most, Macrae wasn't worried. GCC had been careful not to copy any of Atari's code when creating their product. Their enhancement board connected to the original Missile Command board. Operators would remove ROMs from the original board and plug them into the Super Missile Attack board. Because they hadn't copied code, Macrae was confident that they hadn't violated copyright. Others at GCC were reportedly delighted with the suit since they'd never been to court and even if they lost, all they could lose was the small company they'd set up. Then they found out that Atari wasn't just suing them for copyright infringement. They were also suing them for trademark dilution and misrepresentation of origin (since, Atari claimed, Super Missile Attack players didn't know they weren't playing an Atari game). After their first court appearance on a Friday they were issued a restraining order preventing them from producing the game. By Monday they had created a new version and were telling people who wanted to buy the original to call Atari and complain. GCC even returned the favor with a counter-suit of their own  against Atari. Reportedly embarrassed by the bad press they were getting, Atari had their general counsel Skip Paul sit down with Macrae and Curran and ask what they wanted. They told him they only wanted to sell video games. Paul offered a proposal. Atari would drop their suit against GCC AND pay them $50,000 a month for two years to develop games for Atari. In return, GCC would cease production on Super Missile Attack and agree not to produce any more enhancement boards without permission from the manufacturer.  For Curran and Macrae, it was as if they were being rewarded instead of punished and they readily accepted (unbeknownst to Atari, GCC was already working on an enhancement kit for Pac-Man).


With its phenomenal success, it was inevitable that Pac-Man would spawn a sequel (or twelve). Much to Bally/Midway’s delight the sequel, Ms. Pac-Man, proved even more popular than its predecessor. Not long after Pac-Man hit the market, Bally turned to Namco hoping to license a follow-up to the game as soon as possible. When Namco’s sequel proved too long in coming Bally/Midway decided to develop the game domestically. In the months after Pac-Man’s release, the company had been bombarded with suggestions for a follow-up. Among them was one from a group in Boston who had an idea that seemed like a winner. The “group” was General Computer Corporation or GCC, the same group that had designed the Missile Command enhancement kit Super Missile Attack in early 1981.

After working on Super Missile Attack GCC started working on an enhancement kit for Atari's megahit Asteroids. Before long, however, Pac-Man was on its way to surpassing the success of Asteroids. Seeing Pac-Man's enormous popularity and recognizing that there was plenty of room for improvement, GCC dropped Asteroids and got to work on a conversion kit for Pac-Man that they called Crazy Otto. To avoid copyright infringement they decided they would only add to, rather than alter, the game's code (which they had to reverse engineer from the ROMs). GCC added a number of new graphical elements to the game. The game's main character sprouted a pair of legs. New bonus fruits were added. The Galaxian flagship bonus item was removed for fear of trademark infringement. The team also axed the bell, key, and grapes (the last of which looked more like a lime, melon, pomegranate, or hand grenade depending on who you asked). In their place they added a banana, pear, and one of Kevin Curran's favorite snacks - a pretzel. In addition, the fruits now moved about the maze instead of sitting still and after level seven, the fruit that appeared would be random. The team originally planned to have the fruit bounce around for a few seconds and blow up but when they couldn't find a way to make the effect look good they changed it so that it retraced its steps and exited the maze the way it came. In addition, each graphic element for the game had to fit in a 16x16 grid. To create them, the team turned to a very low-tech solution - a Hasbro Lite Brite, a popular toy that consisted of a plastic screen with several rows of holes in it. Behind the screen was a light bulb. By covering the screen with a piece of black construction paper and poking multi colored tanslucent plastic pegs into the holes, children could create glowing pictures. Because the rows of holes were offset, the GCC team used every other row to create their graphics. To avoid having to replace the construction paper every time they wanted a new picture, they used a black marker to color some of the purple pegs black and used them to block the empty holes. After laying out an image in pegs, the designers would place a sheet of white paper over it, stand back several feet, and squint to get an idea what the final graphics would look like. Mike Horowitz used an even more primitive (but also much faster) method to create his graphics - he drew them on graph paper. Horowitz also created three new intermissions for the game featuring Pac-Man (or rather Otto) in love.

            The most significant changes, however, were to the gameplay. The main problem with Pac-Man in GCC's eyes was that it was boring and repetitive with the exact same maze appearing over and over. In addition, players could memorize a few patterns and play the game forever (or at least until screen 256). Crazy Otto featured four different mazes that got more difficult as the game progressed with later mazes featuring fewer escape tunnels and more corners in which to get trapped. A number of changes were specifically designed to defeat pattern-players. Two of the ghosts were programmed to take random paths for the first few seconds of each screen, making memorized patterns all but impossible. In the original game, each ghost had a "home" corner to which it would occasionally return. In Crazy Otto the ghosts would return to a random corner instead. To prevent players from hiding in safe spots, the red ghost was programmed to remain in "chase mode" once it started following the player (though hiding spots were eventually found anyway). The ghosts' behavior changed, as did their appearance and names (Mad Dog/Plato, Killer/Darwin, Brute/Freud, and Sam/Newton).

            While Crazy Otto was in development, GCC was still duking out with Atari in court over Super Missile Attack. In the end, Atari dropped their claims against GCC and instead hired them to develop games. As part of the settlement GCC agreed that they would not develop enhancement kits for other companies unless they got the company's permission first. Atari reportedly felt that no company would ever do so. GCC, however, took them at their word and Kevin Curran quickly called Midway president Dave Marofske, hoping to bluff him into a deal for a Pac-Man enhancement kit by telling him that GCC had just “beat Atari in court”. At a time when Midway had its hands full dealing with knockoff versions of Pac-Man, it must have come as a surprise to have one of the knockoff companies call seeking their permission. Marofske quickly invited Curran to come to Chicago to talk. The flight to Chicago was not without incident, thanks to Mike Horowitz. While working on the third intermission, Horowitz had put in an obscenely-titled placeholder animation in which the title characters have sex. On the plane, a horrified Horowitz told Curran that the version of the game they were taking with them to demo to Bally had the obscene intermission instead of the clean one. After letting Curran stew for a bit, Horowitz revealed that it was just a joke. After arriving at Bally headquarters, Macrae and Curran found out that there had been no need for bluffing after all. Sales of Pac-Man had slowed down. Bally/Midway’s production lines had just produced the final unit and they were about to start laying people off. They were eager for another hit. Instead of an enhancement kit, however, they wanted the sequel that Namco had been unable to deliver.          

On October 29, 1981, Midway and GCC signed an agreement in which GCC would turn Crazy Otto into a Pac-Man sequel in return for royalties. At Bally’s insistence, Otto's legs were removed (ouch!) and the enemies were changed back to the traditional ghosts with their original names (except for Clyde, who was renamed Sue after Macrae's sister). The most significant change, however, came when the main character got a sex change (double ouch!). The sequel was initially called Super Pac-Man but then Midway got a look at the new intermissions and asked that the game be changed to feature the standard Pac-Man, followed by a female Pac-Man, followed by a "Junior" Pac-Man. The game was rechristened Pac-Woman. They soon switched to Mrs. Pac-Man because either (depending on which version you read) Pac-Woman was deemed "too feminist" or because female employees objected. Mrs. Pac-Man was likewise rejected because Midway felt it was too formal and wouldn’t appeal to their young female target audience. Next they tried Miss Pac-Man only to have to change the name again when someone pointed out the possible outcry against a video game character bearing a child (as it did during the 3rd intermission) out of wedlock. With only three days to go until production started, they came up with a new name Mrs. Pac-Man only to change once again to Ms. Pac-Man in an effort to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Three days later, the Midway production lines started cranking out Pac-Man boards to which GCC’s new enhancement boards were added (they planned to switch to a full scale Ms. Pac-Man board. at some point, but never did so).

Eventually, the Junior character was spun off into a proposed sequel of his own, but not before a brief legal dispute over future royalties for the various characters. GCC ended up retaining rights to the new female character. Contrary to some reports, the rights were never turned over to Namco, nor was Namco upset about the game (as some reports also have it). Namco was actually fully aware of Ms. Pac-Man and Midway paid them a royalty for each unit sold. Drawings of the character were even sent to Namco president Masaya Nakamura, who suggested they remove the red hair (they did).

Meanwhile, word (or at least a picture) of Crazy Otto was leaked to the public, though most of them probably didn't know it. During development, Midway and GCC placed three Crazy Otto units in test locations in Pac-Man cabinets - one in Boston and two in Chicago. A Time magazine photographer somehow made his or her way into one of the Chicago test locations and just happened to take a picture of Crazy Otto, thinking that it was Pac-Man. When the January 18, 1982 issue of Time hit the newsstands, it carried a cover story on video games titled "Gronk! Flash! Zap!, Video Games Are Blitzing the World." The article included a screenshot of the smash hit Pac-Man. Or at least it was supposed to be Pac-Man. Instead, the picture was of Crazy Otto.
When it was released in February 1982, Ms. Pac-Man was a smash. Over 115,000 units of the game were produced in the United States making it the most popular American coin-op video game of all time (a record that still stands).

Sidebar - the Ms. Pac-Man Grouping Strategy

Initially even Pac-Man veterans agreed that the game seemed invulnerable to any kind of “secret” strategy. That is, until three young men from Montana eventually found a way to defeat the game. In the summer of 1982 Tom Asaki and Don Williams were spending hours on end playing the game at the Games Are Fun arcade in Bozeman, Montana. They were soon joined by Spencer Ouren and the three quickly became the best Ms. Pac-Man players in town. By the start of 1983, the trio was working together to devise strategies and techniques to beat the machine. The key to achieving high scores on the game was a technique known as “grouping”, in which the player waited until the 4 ghosts were grouped as closely together as possible before eating an energizer, thus allowing him to get the maximum 3,000 points for eating all 4. In order to consistently group the ghosts, the player had to know and make proper use of “holds”, safe spots in each maze where the ghosts would not venture. Each maze had its own hold but knowing its location was not enough. The player had to know when and how to enter and leave the hold, using feints and dodges to get the ghosts to move in the proper direction and to group them as tightly as possible. The problem was that the strategy seemed to break down on the 4th (AKA “Junior”) maze, which didn’t seem to have a hold. Since half the mazes in later stages of the game were Junior mazes, beating that maze was crucial to beating Ms. Pac-Man. As the trio of experts was about to concede defeat, a player named Matt Brass returned from a trip to the North American Video Olympics in Ottumwa, IA with a shocking announcement – at the competition, he’d seen players grouping on the Junior boards. Suddenly it seemed that Asaki, Williams, and Ouren weren’t the best Ms. Pac-Man players after all. Rather than give up, however, the three decided that if someone else had figured out how to conquer the Junior boards, they could too. With new hope, they got back to work. In order to save time, they opened the machine’s cabinet and tweaked some settings to advance the game directly to the Junior level and began crafting their strategy. The key, they soon decided, lay in the use of the game’s four tunnels. Somehow, they would have to use the tunnels to group the ghosts together. They soon noticed that one ghost, Sue, seemed to be especially drawn to players in the tunnels. Ouren found that the pink ghost was programmed to go in the direction the player was heading, in order to cut off his or her path. Perhaps the ghost was too clever for its own good. It seemed that it anticipated Mrs. Pac-Man’s moves by watching her eyes, which moved in the direction the joystick was pressed. By pointing the eyes upward while in a long corridor (the tunnels for instance), the pink ghost could be fooled into going in the wrong direction. Armed with this new information, the trio was soon able to group three of the game’s four ghosts. There was only one ghost left. Then Asaki discovered the breakthrough that finally beat the game. The Junior boards DID have a hold after all, but it didn’t work unless three of the ghosts were already grouped. The trio had finally done it and were soon logging scores in the neighborhood of 400,000 points, a level previously thought impossible.
The most shocking part, however, was yet to come. When the trio next talked to Matt Brass and told them they’d figured out how people were grouping on the Junior boards, Brass dropped a bombshell on them. What he told them was wrong. He’d meant to say that players had been grouping before the Junior boards. Matt Brass had never seen anyone grouping on the Junior boards in the first place. The Montana trio had been looking for a strategy that simply didn’t exist, but they’d found it anyway.

Sidebar - The Ms. Pac-Man Kill Screen

An upside-down Ms. Pac Man screen, from

            Like its predecessor, Ms. Pac-Man has a kill screen. Technically, in fact, it has the exact same bug as Pac-Man. On board 256 the screen splits in half rendering the level unwinnable. Reaching board 256, however, is impossible (at least on the arcade version) because another kill screen occurs much earlier. The kill screen can actually occur anywhere between boards 134 and 141 and it's random exactly when it will happen. It could happen on board 134. It could happen on board 141. Bizarre things can occur on these boards. Very bizarre. Sometimes boards will appear with the graphics upside down. While the maze appears upside down on the screen, it is actually right side up but invisible. Skilled players can ignore the graphics and complete the level by navigating the invisible maze. Sometimes the screen is completely invisible. Sometimes the ghosts are stationary. Sometimes the maze appears with only five dots, rending the level uncompletable. Sometimes the board has multiple tunnels. Sometimes the ghosts are replaced by Pac-Man characters, or even part of the stork character that appears during the intermission.  Sometimes the game resets completely. If this doesn't occur before then, the kill screen will definitely occur on board 141. For this reason, record scores on Ms. Pac-Man are much lower than those on Pac-Man and as of this writing; no one has rolled the game over by scoring a million points. In addition, the fruits appear randomly, meaning that a "perfect" score isn't really possible even if a player did reach board 141. The current record holder (on factory speed settings) is Abdner Ashman, a Jamaican immigrant from Queens, New York.

Friday, December 21, 2012


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

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

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

or a summary here:

There were a number of interesting things about the case

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

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

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

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


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

From the Novmber 12, 1981 Frederick News


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


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


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


Space Force screen shot


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

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

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

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

Detail from Venture Line flyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, December 14, 2012

Death Race

 Today's post is on one of the most infamous hits from video games' bronze age - and one of the best - Exidy's Death Race.

Death Race screenshot

            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 that they licensed it to the floundering Chicago Coin who produced the game as Demolition Derby. As part of the deal, Exidy halted 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 couple 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. The second decision proved even more 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. The task was given to newcomer Howell Ivy, his first assignment for the company[1]. It appears that the game was initially called Death Race 98 since flyers and photos with that title appeared in early 1976. A month or so later flyers began appearing with the Death Race title instead. The game Ivy came up with would launch the first (though certainly not the last) national controversy in the fledgling video game industry.

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).

Howell Ivy, designer of Death Race

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]

Middltown (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 about the controversy caused by Death Race have appeared, among them: that a bomb threat was called into Exidy headquarters by someone upset with the game and 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.)

As it often the case, the controversy over the game 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] 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