Monday, December 30, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Allied Leisure/Centuri - Part 6

Route 16, Challenger, Megatack, and Killer Comet

            Less successful were Centuri’s other 1981 games. Route 16 (another Tehkan license – though it was likely developed by Sun Electronics) was a maze game in which the player drove a race car around a map containing 16 different rooms. When the player drove into a room, the screen switched to a close-up view of the room’s interior. The goal was to collect a series of treasures from each of the rooms. While it wasn’t as successful as Phoenix, Vanguard, and Pleiades, it probably sold in the neighborhood of 1,500-2,500 copies.

Meanwhile, Centuri hadn’t completely abandoned the idea of game development. After leaving Taito America, Ed Miller had managed to lure five of its designers away to work for him at Centuri where they designed Challenger, Killer Comet, and Megatack. Challenger was another vertical shooter, but with a few twists. Rather than firing strictly upwards, the player’s ship was equipped with a kind of laser shotgun that fired in three directions at once – straight upwards and diagonally to either side. Enemies mostly consisted of a series of multicolored geometric rings (though a snake like “space bogey” would occasionally appear). In addition to their shotgun, the player had a warp button that would teleport them from the bottom of the screen to the top, and a superbomb that would destroy multiple enemies. From time to time, a “bonus bug” that looked like an AT-AT walker from The Empire Strikes Back would walk onto the screen, allowing the player to connect to its nose (?) and suck up (eww!) bonus points. While the gameplay was actually somewhat interesting and the sounds were nice, the game’s graphics paled in comparison to those of other games on the market and Challenger probably sold only a few hundred copies. Megatack was basically a takeoff on the same theme with the addition of more enemies. Killer Comet featured the same basic gameplay but allowed the player to move freely about the screen. While the player could still only fire in the same three directions as Challenger and Megatack, they could control which way they fired with three fire buttons. Strangely, the game only awarded the player a single point for each enemy destroyed (which may be one reason why it wasn’t a hit). While all three games were designed in-house, Challenger was the only one released under the Centuri banner (though they may have produced Killer Comet for a short time[1]). Killer Comet and Megatack were both licensed to newcomer Game Plan.

Centuri 1981

            1981 had been magical for Centuri, with the company generating more revenue in a single year than it had in its entire 12 ½ year history combined. Essentially the entire amount came from video games (another first for the company). The results were enough to make Centuri the 5th largest video game manufacturer in the country, behind Bally, Atari, Williams, and Stern[2]. Centuri’s peak may have come in December of 1981 when they landed three games in the Play Meter’s top ten - Pleiades at #9, Phoenix at #7 and Vanguard at #1.
            Perhaps the most amazing thing is that they did all this while cutting their staff from 400 to under 200. Despite the smaller staff, Ken Beuck recalls that Centuri went from producing 10-15 games a day to around 350. The company's existing facilities combined with the licensed games had made production much more, well, productive. Things like PC boards, harnesses, and power supplies were now being provided by other companies. According to Beuck, the Koffman Group actually owned a number of manufacturers and wanted Centuri to buy their components from them. When Centuri asked for quotes, however, some of the companies didn't provide them until weeks after the deadline, by which time Centuri had already bought them elsewhere. While the owners didn't like this at first, they backed down when the new management team told them to let them do the job they'd been hired to do, pointing out that the company had been losing money up to now.

One person who wasn’t around to fully enjoy Centuri’s newfound success was Bill Olliges. In June, he left the company (reportedly on amicable terms) and his contract was terminated. He later formed a new development company called Techstar in Miami (who designed games like Eyes for Rock-Ola as well as a number of other games for various companies). Olliges’ contract with Centuri had included a bonus of 1.5% of the company’s pre-tax income in excess of $500,000. For fiscal year 1981, this would have amounted to just over $100,000 (more than his $75,000 base salary). Whether he forfeited his bonus is uncertain, but Centuri did cancel his stock options, though they apparently paid him around $100,000 and received first refusal rights on any games he might develop over the next two years. Ed Miller, meanwhile, was to receive a 2.5% bonus (about $175,000 for 1981). In July, the amount was amended to 1% of all income (in excess of $500,000) up to $7 million and 1.5% after that, with additional stipulations[3]. Miller himself would leave in 1982 and form his own company called Telko Properties, which worked with Techstar to secure licenses for their games. Centuri eventually brought in another coin-op veteran – Arnold Kaminkow – to replace Miller as president.
The Leisure Time Connection
[NOTE - See my earlier post for more on Leisure Time Electronics]

            On October 19, 1981 a company called Leisure Time Electronics filed suit against Centuri in Indiana charging them with delivering defective goods and making false and fraudulent warranty claims and seeking $3.15 million in damages. Nine days later, a company called Fascination International, Inc. filed suit against Centuri in Illinois for largely the same reasons. Both Leisure Time and Fascination (which trade magazines report were essentially the same company) were examples of what were called “blue sky” operators. Blowing into town for a weekend, they would set up shop in a local hotel or convention center then blanket the local media with ads promising easy profits in a “no cash” business. Potential customers were shown misleading media articles including exaggerated claims of the earning power of coin-op video games. Those who took the bait were sold substandard games at inflated prices, which often didn’t work and earned only a fraction of the advertised figures. Some even offered bogus services to help scout locations, only to fail to deliver once the customer left. Some failed to deliver any goods at all. In June of 1981, after a number of complaints, the California Attorney General took action against Leisure Time, Fascination, and another company called Potomac Mortgage, eventually fining them (see the chapter on legal issues for more details). By 1982, Leisure Time and Fascination were also under investigation in Iowa and Denver. At least some (and perhaps all) of Leisure Time’s games were made by Centuri. In an article in the November 15, 1981 issue of Play Meter Centuri’s marketing manager Ivan Rothstein claimed that Leisure Time was "a reputable company". Asked if the games Leisure Time sold could earn the promised minimum of $80-100 a week, Rothstein said "Oh, that should be no problem.”
            What Centuri games was Leisure Time selling? One possibility is that they were the three games that Centuri introduced at the 1979 AMOA show, but apparently never released (Battle Star, Space Bug, and Lunar Invasion) but the descriptions of those games[4] do not match up with the games Leisure Time is known to have sold (Space Ranger, Moon Lander, and Astro Laser - knockoffs of Taito’s Space Invaders, Lunar Rescue, and Space Laser respectively). The bigger question is how Centuri ever got involved with Leisure Time in the first place. The company had been running their scam since at least January of 1981, so the deal appears to have been struck before Allied’s amazing transformation, when it was still struggling to make ends meet.


While the Leisure Time deal may have occurred in the past, there were other causes for concern as 1981 came to an end. The scheduled January release of the Centuri 2001 jukebox had been pushed to May, then pushed again, and ended up not being released in 1981 at all. The problem, yet again, was technical issues (a disturbing development given Allied’s history). For some, the fact that Centuri was so reliant upon licenses, particularly Japanese licenses, was another cause for concern, leaving them vulnerable if the Japanese’s companies ever tired of the skimpy licensing fees they were receiving and decided to manufacture games on their own. All in all, however, things were going quite well indeed at Centuri as 1982 got underway and the company seemed poised for bigger and better things. The industry, however, was about to change.

[1] They showed the game at the 1980 AMOA show and Play Meter/RePlay catalog issues list it under both companies, though no flyer exists for the Centuri version, nor was its release by Centuri announced in any trade magazines.
[2] At the time, the top 6 video game manufacturers controlled 95% of the U.S. market.
[3] Again, this is all assuming that the two contracts mentioned in the 10K reports were for Olliges and Miller. It should be noted that I did not discuss the matter with Bill Olliges. The additional stipulations were that “…payment of bonus for 1981 is subject to an offset to income of $3,245,000 and bonuses for 1981 and 1983 were deferred subject to the company obtaining certain net sales in fiscal year 1982.”
[4] According to Play Meter, Lunar Invasion involved the player shooting down “traveling space mines while attempting to land his craft” while Battle Star was a more sophisticated game “based on the same theme.” Space Bug was a competitive game in which “two players attempt to push a series of 24 value squares up the monitor and into a larger square.”

Friday, December 27, 2013

Video Game Myth Busters - Did the "Crash" of 1983/84 Affect Arcades?

In recent months, I have come across a claim that I found a bit distressing – that the video game “crash” of 1983/84 was confined to home video games and didn’t really affect the coin-op industry. I first heard this claim on podcast about the crash. The podcast in question is normally quite excellent, so I was a bit surprised but didn’t think too much of it. I’ve heard the claim in a couple of other places since then, however. In the talk section for the Wikipedia article on “The Golden age of arcade video games”, for instance, one editor commented (though the comment is several years old) “The video game crash of 1983 was all about the glut in the home market - I don't see that it had any influence on arcades. I don't think it had anything to do with the end of the arcade golden age…” It appears that the article was revised based on this comment.

I’m not sure exactly what the commentator is trying to say here. It he's just saying that the consumer video game crash didn't effect the coin-op market or cause the coin-op crash , I agree (they were two different crashes), but if he is implying that there WAS  no crash in the U.S. coin-op video game market in 1983 and 1984, he’s not only wrong, but very wrong. From reading industry mags and looking at statistics, I can assure you that the industry itself (and the operators in particular) was convinced there was a crash. Perhaps he was thinking that the decline suffered by American arcade video games was more than compensated by Japanese games, which (in his mind) weren’t affected by the crash. This might work if we were only looking at manufacturers (though U.S. manufacturers were certainly affected – not sure about the Japanese). In terms of the coin-op/arcade video game industry, however, what matters is whether or not the arcades and operators were affected since they were the real bedrock of the "industry".

In any event, let’s look at a bit of the evidence. Both RePlay and Play Meter published annual industry surveys and year-end reviews. Here are some typical quotations from Play Meter (I could include similar quotes from RePlay, but they would be redundant). And remember that these magazines covered the coin-op industry, not the consumer industry.

From the November 1, 1983 “State of the Industry” survey:
“It has previously been a pleasure to present the Annual Subscribers' Poll results in our State of the Industry issue. But, for the first time, the task of reporting our findings is one of pain rather than pleasure. As everyone suspected, 1983 hit hard at all industry levels.”

“Average weekly collections at the operator level plummeted nearly 30 percent. Consequently, some 2,000 operators went out of business last year. Although there were just as many or more machines and locations this year as last year, just one thing was missing - about 2.5 billion dollars. That's a total of 10 billion quarters that found their way to other forms of entertainment.”
“Had those 10 billion quarters found their way back into the cash cans of our nation's operators, enough money would have been available to purchase as many or more new games than last year. But that didn't happen, and as a result, the whole industry suffered.”

“As it is now, home video games have all but closed the gap that once existed between the coin-op and home games. You can now play BurgerTime on your home TV set although the coin-op game was released less than 12 months ago. If the manufacturers fail to reinterest the young adult market, our Subscribers' Poll findings may be worse next year.”
“Like an inconstant lover, the video game spread heartache throughout the coin-op amusement industry during 1983”

“Video game operators who sought refuge in other type of equipment found little solace. As unproductive as video games were, they accounted for 85 percent of operator income. Earnings of all major type of equipment were depressed in 1983.”

“The lack of general public interest in this year's crop of new video games and home games hacked away at overall industry earnings. Leaving the national gross take for 1983 at $6.4 billion, off a whopping 28 percent, or $2.5 billion short of the $8.9 billion Americans put into coin-operated amusement in 1982.”

“The dismal returns marked 1983 as the first year since Play Meter started tracking statistics in 1976 that more operators reported profits falling instead of rising”
As bad as 1983 was for the coin-op video game industry 1984 was much worse - at least for video games (unlike in 1983, the bad times in 1984 were largely confined to video games)

From the November 1, 1983 issue
First, a comment from the editorial (titled “The Rape of an Industry” – though the “rape” in question primarily refers to the appearance of video lottery games).

“For the first time in the history of the State of the Industry report, we are not pleased to present the results of the survey. This year's findings are disappointing to say the least. With a few small exceptions, it was a very bad year all the way around. For the operators it was a bad year, for the distributors it was even worse, but for the video game manufacturers it was devastating.”

From the actual operator survey (titled “The Year of the Crunch”)

 “The decrease of 7.6 billion quarters in the cash cans of amusement machines nationwide dealt a crushing blow to the coin-operated entertainment industry in 1984.”

“On the brighter side of the coin, all other amusement machines performed surprisingly well despite declining video game revenues. The gross annual collections from all other coin-op amusement devices increased by $400 million in 1984.”

 “For the second year in a row and for the second time in the history of this survey, operators reported a decrease in net profits for 1984. Sixty-seven percent of the operators responding to the survey indicated that their net profits decreased since 1983.”
“The remaining operating concerns found themselves with fewer new video machines on location and considerably more non-video, electromechanical machines that require more service and attention. Likewise for the first time in the history of this survey, the total number of units on location dropped dramatically in 1984. The total number of amusement machines on location in the U.S. fell a staggering 12 percent from last year's record level. A net total of 224,065 amusement machines vanished from the streets of America in 1984. Had it not been tor a resurgence of pinballs, phonographs, and pool tables, that number would have been nearly doubled. Video games were undoubtedly, the hardest hit equipment type. There are slightly more than 400,000 fewer video games on location now than there were one year ago.”

“In 1981, when video games were averaging $140 per week in gross collections, 60 percent of all the video games on location were new games. Since that time, this percentage has dwindled rapidly. Today only a mere 15 percent of all video games on location are new games purchased within the past 12 months…”

“The video game glut of '82 and '83 has finally taken its toll on the industry's manufacturing community. Sales of new video games (including lasers) plummeted 44 percent down to 168.508 units in 1984. Comparing that figure to the industry’s high water mark of 563,000 units set in 1982, results in a 70 percent decline in new video game purchases over the past two years…”
Finally, the December 15, 1984 issue included an article reviewing the year titled (significantly) “1984 – Even Orwell Couldn’t Predict How Bad it Was”

The article opens:
“1984 - the year of the crunch.  Much worse than the devastation of 1983, the crash penetrated not only the operating sector but the distributing and manufacturing as well.”

Quotes are one thing - let’s look at some statistics:

First, some statistics on the industry in general.

CAVEAT: Bear in mind that these stats mostly come from the RePlay and Play Meter operator surveys, which were usually published in the November issues. Thus, they usually covered the period from late summer/early fall of one year to late summer/early fall of the next rather than coinciding with the calendar year.
Total Coin-Op video game dollar volume (in millions – Vending Times)

1978: 308
1979: 968
1980: 2,811
1981: 4,862
1982: 4.363
1983: 2,900
1984: 2,500
1985: 2,350
1986: 2,340

Note the huge drop from 1982 to 1983

Overall coin-op amusement industry dollar volume (in billions - Play Meter)

1980: 7.15
1981: 8.2
1982: 8.9
1983: 6.4
1984: 4.5
1985: 4.5
1986: 4

The 1982-83 drop isn’t quite so bad as the previous list, but the 1983/84 drop is similar.

# of video games on location (in thousands)

1978: VT 164.6
1979: PM 430.65, VT 232.8
1980: PM 540, VT 540.6
1981: PM 780, VT 1,100
1982: PM 1,375, VT 1,200
1983: PM 1,491.4, VT 1,150
1984: PM 1068.5, VT 1,001.6
1985: PM 1,095.4, VT 980
1986: PM 971.5, VT 920

This list, doesn’t look quite so bad (the total actually increased in 1983), but remember that this includes all video games – even old ones that weren’t making the distributors or manufacturers any money (and, as we shall see, operators probably weren't making much money either).
A better gauge is the number of NEW video games purchased:

# of new video games purchased per operator (Play Meter)
1981: 52
1982: 47
1983: 29
1984: 19

Here again, we see a huge drop-off.

Here are a couple of other lists that don’t seem so bad:

# of arcades (Play Meter – note that Play Meter defines an “arcade” as any location with 10 or more coin-op games)
1982: 23,687
1983: 25,092
1984: 19,565

# of street locations (Play Meter)
1982: 385,494
1983: 392,175
1984: 358,899

Here, we again see a rise in 1983, followed by a somewhat modest decline in 1984, but this does not tell us whether the locations were actually making money on their games.
Bear in mind that the coin-op business was largely an operator’s business. They were the “front line” troops and whether or not there was a “crash” from the industry’s perspective, largely depended on whether or not operators could money.

So here are some more operator stats:
Weekly Earnings Per Game – Video Games (R=RePlay, PM=Play Meter, VT=Vending Times)

1975: R $43
1976: PM: $40, R $42 (arcade), $35 (street)
1977: PM $44 (arcade games), R $54, VT $37
1978: PM $50 (arcade games), R $44, VT $36
1979: PM $64, R $58, VT $80
1980: PM $102, R $128, VT $100
1981: PM $140, R $110, VT $85
1982: PM $109, R $108 (arcade), $86 (street), VT $70
1983: PM $70, R $62, VT $48
1984: PM $53, R $60, VT $48
1985: PM $57, VT $46
1986: PM $57, VT $49
Note again, the huge drop from 1982 to 1983.

Estimated # of operators (Play Meter)
1977: 6,000
1978-1980: 7,500
1981: 9,000
1982: 12,000
1983: 11,000
1984: 9,000
1985: 6,000
1986: 4,000

Here, the decline in 1983 is modest and is followed by a much sharper drop from 1983-1986. Again, however, remember that these numbers do not mirror the calendar year.

Finally, from a different source, let’s look at the effects of the crash on three of the largest U.S. manufacturers.
Warner/Atari’s losses for 1983 and 1984 are quite well known, but I omit them because they were largely the result of the performance of the consumer division.

For Bally, Williams, and Centuri, however, home games comprised a very small percentage of their business.
For each company, the numbers given are revenues to the left of the slash and income (i.e. profits) to the right. Figures are in millions and the source is company annual reports.
NOTE that negative numbers (i.e. losses) are in parenthesis.

First, let’s look at Bally (fiscal year ended 12/31)
1980: $690/$54
1981: $885/$82
1982: $1,285/$91 – video game and pinball revenue: $435
1983: $1,176/$5 – video game and pinball revenue: $99
1984: $1,349/($100) – video game and pinball revenue: $67

I don’t know about you, but I’d call going from a $91 million profit to a $100 million loss (their first loss since they went public in 1969) in two years a “crash” if there ever was one. Yes, Bally had other product lines, but video games were largely responsible for their losses. You can see why Bally president Robert Mullane said in a January 1985 interview in the Chicago Tribune "The industry didn't decline. It fell off the cliff."

How about Williams (the #3 U.S. manufacturer of the early 1980s) – Fiscal Year ends September 30
1980: $80/$4.8
1981: $149/$19
1982: $136/$16
1983: $92/$9.8
1984: $57/($14)

Once again, note the huge loss in 1984.

Centuri’s numbers aren’t quite so clear, since they were losing money even before the crash (In addition, they changed their fiscal year from October 30 to December 31 in 1983).
1980: $6/($4.5)
1981: $61/$7.5
1982: $21/($2.9)
1983: $108/$2.8
1984: $135/($2.2)

Note too that in 1983 and 1984, a good amount of the total revenues came from Outdoor Spots Inc. More significantly, in December of 1984, Centuri’s board of directors voted to drop video games entirely, a clear indication of how poorly they were doing.

Finally, while reliable production runs for individual games are hard to come by, the numbers we have indicate that the top selling coin-op video games from before 1983 sold far more copies that those in 1983/84. Since it is public, I'll use Wikiepedia's list rather than my own (though I feel mine is more complete). Of the top 25 games on that list, 18 were released between 1979 and 1982, 6 were released after 1990, and one was released in 1986. The top selling game released in 1983 27th and sold just 16,000 copies. Sure, some of the 1982 releases were still collecting quarters in 1983 and 1984. And Pole Position was basically a 1983 game (I'd guess it was the bestselling 1983/84 game, with around 21,000 produced), but to me that only illustrates the fact that the "golden age" was over. 

In summary, then, I don’t see how anyone could plausibly claim that there was no crash in the arcade video game industry in 1983 and 1984 – though maybe I’m not looking at it the right way.



Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Allied Leisure/Centuri - Part 5

By late 1979 Allied Leisure Industries was having a rough time of it. They had lost money in five of their previous six years and were desperately in need of help. In June of 1979, that help seemed to have arrived when Allied was purchased by Brighton Products, a designee company of the Milton Koffman family and their Koffman Group of Industries conglomerate. The Koffmans had absolutely no knowledge of the coin-op industry but what they did have was a reputation for turning failing corporations around. Doing so with Allied would require whole scale changes, and the Koffmans began to make them. As part of the sale, Allied’s officers and directors, including Dave Braun, had been forced to resign, with Braun’s resignation effective immediately (June 1) and the rest effective at the company’s shareholder’s meeting on August 22. To replace the departed executives, Allied’s new owners brought in a new team (though Dave Braun stayed around in a consulting role for 3 years). The team had their work cut out for them. Allied had a myriad of problems. Perhaps the biggest was the technical issues that had plagued the company’s games for years.

[Bill Olliges] Allied had a bad name in the industry because of the quality of the product that they manufactured. They did a lot of their own metal work internally and none of the operators or distributors really liked it because it had sharp edges. They also had terrible reliability.

Reliability wasn’t Allied’s only problem, however. Even the games that did work were often uninspired, with the possible exception of their electromechanical games. The era of electromechancial games, however had passed. Video games had all but taken their place and Allied hadn’t had a truly successful video game since Paddle Battle and Tennis Tourney back in 1973. The company also struggled with financial problems, sluggish management, and production issues. Among the new arrivals was Ken Beuck, who was brought in to head up the company's materials/manufacturing. He arrived to find a mess. One of his first acts was to send out a survey asking what each of the 400+ employees did. Some reported that they just showed up every week to pick up their paychecks. He also found a host of other issues. While the company hadn't seen much in the way of profits they had turned out plenty of different games. The problem was that every time they started a new game, they ordered the materials from scratch, despite the fact that they had a warehouse full of unused parts. In addition, they insisted on making everything themselves - including items like coin doors that could be made more efficiently and cheaply by companies that specialized in them.
            Fixing all of these issues wasn’t going to be a quick or easy process. In the meantime Allied somehow had to keep its doors open. Beuck, who had previously worked at Atari, Cinematronics and Vectorbeam, was able to secure a contract to build Space Wars games for the east coast market and to produce some consumer products for Atari. As the year ended, things were still in chaos as Allied. At the 1979 AMOA show, Allied introduced four new video games but only one (Clay Shoot) appears to have made it out the door. It really wasn’t until mid-1980 that things really began to improve.



            By then, Allied had recruited a pair of coin-op veterans to head the newly reorganized company and change its focus – Ed Miller and Bill Olliges, president and vice president, respectively, of Taito America. Miller had been Taito America’s president since its earliest days. Olliges had formerly worked at Universal Research Labs and then his own company called American Digital, which was purchased by Taito America in 1978. In early 1979, Olliges served as president of the short-lived Astro Games, an Elk Grove Village manufacturer that had been formed by Robert Anderson and Bob Runte after their Fascination Ltd. went bankrupt. By mid-1979 Astro Games was bankrupt as well and Olliges joined Miller at Taito America. While it appears that Allied Leisure had begun negotiating with the pair in 1979, it seems that they didn’t actually arrive at Allied until spring of 1980[1]. Miller would serve as president of the newy reorganized company and Olliges as Executive VP of Engineering. Other executives would include Milton Kaufman as CEO, Ivan Rothstein (one of the few holdovers from Allied Leisure) as VP of sales, and Thomas Jachimek as VP of Engineering.
            Allied, however, didn’t just get a new executive team. In July, the board of directors met in Miami. On July 29th, to mark the company’s new direction and distance themselves from the Allied Leisure name and its “Allied Loser” associations, the board voted to rename the company Centuri. There are differing stories as to how the name came about. As Ken Beuck remembers it he, Miller, and Larry Leppert (an engineer who had formerly worked with Beuck at Vectorbeam and Meadows) decided that since two of them were former Atarians they would now be Centurions. Ed Miller claimed that the name "signified the forward thrust of the company into the 21st century"[2]. The company’s annual reports attribute the idea for changing the name to Milton Koffman and claim that the name itself was chosen by an ad agency.

            While the name change was a significant symbolic gesture, a number of more substantial changes were also made. Pinball production was halted and the company began to concentrate almost exclusively on video games (with one notable exception). With the company in such disarray, they were initially unable to produce games of their own so they instead turned to licensing. The first video games bearing the Centuri name were licensed cocktail versions of Cinematronics’ Rip Off (ca July, 1980) and Exidy’s Targ (ca September) [they later made a cocktail version of Gremlin’s Carnival].

            Allied Leisure may have had a new name, but Centuri still had to convince skeptical distributors that it wasn’t going to be just more of the same. On September 12-14, they held a lavish promotional meeting at the swanky Doral Country Club and Resort in Miami, even bringing in Peaches and Herb, whose “Reunited” had topped the pop charts in 1979, to provide musical entertainment. After an opening cocktail reception on the 11th, Centuri introduced its new product line to an audience of about 150 distributors. In addition to Rip Off and Targ, they debuted Eagle (probably a licensed version of Nichibutsu’s Moon Cresta) and an in-house designed game called Killer Comet. The big news, however, was the company’s entry into the jukebox market with the Centuri 2001. For a company looking to rebuild confidence in its brand, moving into an area in which they had no previous experience might seem risky, but Centuri believed there was an untapped market waiting to be exploited. Existing jukeboxes used mechanisms that had been developed 25-30 years earlier and were expensive to maintain. Centuri had developed a jukebox using up-to-date technology that they hoped would save on labor costs. In addition, the unit featured a built-in dollar bill changer, a pair of inexpensive “passive radiators” for improved bass response, allowed operators to access bookkeeping totals by entering a 3-digit code, and offered an optional portable printer. To head up their jukebox division, Centuri had brought in John Chapin, former president of Seeburg. Centuri planned to introduce the unit in early 1981, but only time would tell if it would be a success.

Above photos courtesy of Play Meter and RePlay

            All of these changes arrived too late to help in fiscal year 1980 (which ended October 31). While revenues only dropped slightly to $5.9 million, Centuri lost $4.5 million – its worst loss ever. The numbers were a bit deceiving, however. Part of the loss was due to the high restructuring costs, which included increased wages, plus moving and travelling expenses as a result of their recruitment efforts in addition the cost of new products. In addition, with the company preoccupied with reorganization, they had been unable to push enough product out the door to cover expenses. On a positive note, 68% of the company’s revenues had come in the fiscal year’s fourth quarter. Still, in terms of raw numbers, 1980 had not been a good year for Centuri. 1981 would be a different story altogether.


            In fiscal year 1981 Centuri underwent one of the most amazing transformations the coin-op world had ever witnessed. Revenues rose from $5.9 million to an astonishing $61.5 million and the company went from losing $4.5 million to a profit of $7.5 million. After selling just 3,730 games in 1980 (and 4,415 the year before that), Centuri sold 31,451 in FY 1981. While the new management team and the restructuring no doubt helped, the biggest reason for the change may have been simply that the company released some stellar games. Centuri introduced six new games during the fiscal year: Eagle, Phoenix, Route 16, Pleaides, Vanguard, and Challenger. Only Challenger was a dud and three of them would be major hits.


            First up was Eagle (actually released late in 1980). Eagle was basically the same game as Nichibutsu’s Moon Cresta with slightly different enemy graphics, and may have been licensed from them[3]. While the game was a vertical shooter in the tradition of Space Invaders and Galaxian, it illustrated just how far the genre had advanced in the year since Galaxian had appeared on the scene. The player squared off against four different species of “atomic war birds” that swooped and looped around the screen. First came mantas – a kind of flying donut that split in two when hit. Next came mothlike tegors, followed by “giant prehistoric eagles”, comets, and volars. Every few waves, the player got a chance to dock with another ship, doubling, then tripling their firepower. Eagle was only a modest hit, generating $4.55 million in revenue (which probably translates to 2,000-3,000 units).[4] Compared to Centuri’s recent games, however, it had done quite well indeed. The next game would do even better.

           Like Eagle, Phoenix (January 1981) was a vertical shooter featuring birdlike aliens and also like Eagle, it was a licensed game (in this case from Amstar Electronics). Unlike Eagle, however, Phoenix was a major hit, generating $26 million in sales (probably 13,000-15,000 units), about 43% of Centuri’s total. In terms of revenue in fact, it was probably the company’s biggest hit ever. Phoenix was a five-stage vertical shooter. In the first two waves, the player faced an army of 16 colorful winged aliens. Aliens would occasionally peel off from the formation then tumble towards the player before flying back to join the group (during which time they were worth a hefty 200 points). The next two rounds featured two lines of eggs that grew into giant birds then attacked in wide sweeping arcs. Hitting a bird’s body destroyed it while a glancing blow literally “winged” it, clipping off one of its appendages. Finally, the player faced a huge alien mother ship with an armada of space birds protecting it. The player had to slowly chip a hole through the ship’s hull and a moving purple band to reach the alien boss within. In addition to lasers, the player had a shield that could protect them for a limited time. The ultimate source of the game, and its original name, are a bit unclear. Centuri licensed it from Amstar Electronics. Amstar was relatively new. In early 1980 they had purchased Mirco’s Mirco Games division, which was then primarily producing pseudo-gambling games like Super Twenty One and Hold and Draw Poker. While Amstar initially continued to produce these games, they soon struck a licensing deal with Nichibutsu for a cocktail version of Moon Cresta. In November 1980, RePlay reported that they were developing a “space game” of their own, but also looking to license a game from another manufacturer. Both games were being field-tested in Japan. It appears that Phoneix may have been licensed from Hiraoka & Co. Ltd. (from whom Centuri later licesned Round-Up), but this is unclear[5]. As for the name, Ken Beuck recalls that Centuri renamed the game Phoenix in hopes that it would represent the company’s rebirth. All other sources, however, indicate that the game was called Phoenix at the time they licensed it (possibly because Amstar was located in Phoenix, Arizona). If Centuri didn’t choose it, the game’s name was an absolutely uncanny coincidence. The game was the biggest hit the company had had since the disastrous 1974 fire that had laid much of their plant to waste. In other words, Phoenix, like its mythical namesake, was responsible for Allied Leisure’s dramatic rebirth, almost literally from its own ashes.


            Again with the birds. Licensed from the then little-known Japanese manufacturer Tehkan, Pleiades was yet another vertical shooter with similarities to Phoenix (Wikipedia claims it was actually the “official” sequel to the game). The first two stages were actually quite different from those of Phoenix. The player defended a space station from a group of Martian invaders that swooped in from the sides of the screen. If the player did not destroy them quickly, they transformed into creatures vaguely reminiscent of the walkers from War of the Worlds and built a wall of bricks above the player. The next two stages were almost identical to the “giant bird” stages from Phoenix (though given their membranous wings, the enemies may have been bugs rather than birds). The fifth stage was a mother ship stage, but a bit different from that of Phoenix. In the final stage, the player tried to maneuver their way down an ever-narrowing runway, dodging obstacles and collecting flags as they made their way to a control base. While it wasn’t nearly as big a hit as its predecessor, Pleiades generated $9.53 million in sales (probably 4,000-6,000 units).

Emilio Estevez - Pleiades hustler (from Nightmares)


            The final game in Centuri’s quartet of 1981 hits was Vanguard (ca October). Like Pleiades it was licensed from a then-obscure Japanese manufacturer (SNK - allegedly their first color game) reports that it was actually developed by Tose Software, who later developed games for Nintendo’s Game & Watch and their various home systems (most notably the Dragon Ball series). Unlike Centuri’s earlier games, Vanguard was not a vertical shooter nor did it have anything to do with birds (finally!). Instead, it was one of the finest of the early horizontally scrolling shooters, a kind of souped-up version of Stern/Konami’s Scramble. The goal of the game was to seek out and destroy an alien enemy called The Gond in his subterranean fortress located deep inside an asteroid. The player piloted an advanced fighter that could fire in four directions. Gameplay proceeded through six different zones. First came a series of horizontal zones (Mountain Zone, Styx Zone, and Stripe Zone), each connected by a diagonal Rainbow Zone in which the player fought off bouncing clouds. Action then switched to a vertical Bleak Zone where enemies included floating snakes that could capture the player’s ship for points. Finally, the player entered the City of Mystery to face the Gond itself. In addition to firing, the player could fly into energy pods that granted them temporary invulnerability and allowed them to destroy enemies by flying into them. Vanguard was also Centuri’s first talking game. The most memorable feature, however, was not the voice but the music. The introductory music was Jerry Goldsmith’s theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The piece everyone remembers, however, was Vultan’s Theme (from the 1980 film Flash Gordon, composed by Freddy Mercury) - the triumphant tune that played when the player snagged an energy pod. Vanguard was almost as big a hit as Phoenix, likely selling in the neighborhood of 10,000 units. 

[1] Exactly when Miller and Olliges arrived is uncertain. Allied’s 1979 annual report indicates that the deal had become effective during the 1979 fiscal year, which ended on October 31. However, the two attended the 1979 AMOA show in November as representatives of Taito America. The 1980 10K report indicates that they signed their employment contracts in April, 1980. The report doesn’t specifically say that the contracts were for Miller and Olliges, merely reporting that Allied had entered into 3 new employment contracts, two of them for five years. The 1981 10K reports that one of the five-year contracts was terminated in June of 1981 – the same time that Olliges is known to have left the company. Olliges does not appear in the list of executive officers at the end of the 1981 report, indicating that his was one of the 5-year contracts.
[2] RePlay, August, 1980.
[3] While none of the company’s literature indicates that the game was licensed, their annual report claims that all of their 1981 games besides Challenger were licensed.
[4] See the appendices for a discussion of how the production numbers were estimated.
[5] Based on a 1980s list of Japanese games that identified the developer of Phoenix as "Hiraoka"

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Chasing Down Rabbit Trails - Fun and Food, Cartrivision, and Mad Man Muntz

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
-  Bilbo Baggins

Bilbo may well have said the same thing about studying history.
One of the most enjoyable, if sometimes maddening, aspects of research, is that you often get sidetracked onto rabbit trails that have little, if anything, to do with the topic at hand. While these can be great time wasters, they occasionally prove quite rewarding. Not only do you discover connections you never knew existed, but you sometimes learn about things you might never have found on your own.

I have had this happen again and again when researching video game history. In this post, I will discuss three such instances, each of which took me a little farther afield than the last

1) Fun n Food – the original Pizza Time Theatre?

OK. That’s a bit of an overstatement, but stay tuned.
I found out about this one when I was reading an article in the March, 1982 issue of RePlay about the opening of the first Sgt. Singer’s Pizza Circus – one of the many Pizza Time Theatre imitators that sprang up in the wake of the chain’s success.


I had never heard of Sgt. Singer’s before, or its founder Craig Singer (who also founded the Dallas-based Nickels and Dimes chain), but that’s not what intrigued me the most about the article.
What I found most interesting was the following:

 Some have claimed that Nolan Bushnell originated the concept of combining food and arcade games, and he might have been. Ted Dabney says the he and Nolan talked about the idea for a pizza restaurant with singing barrels in their Ampex days and even scouted out some locations, and I believe it included the idea of arcade games, but I'm not sure and in any event, they never really put the idea into practice
Could this have been the first attempt to actually do so?

Of course, the article omits the important details – like when, exactly, this occurred.
Luckily, the December 14, 1968 issue of Billboard supplied some missing details.


I don’t know if Bilotta was the first to come up with the idea or not, but it is an interesting forgotten chapter of coin-op history.

2) Cartrivision

Recently, I was discussing Nutting’s Wimbledon with Marty Goldberg and Marty sent me the following excerpt from an article in Electronics, Volume 47, from 1974:

“The TTL processor, reports Miel Domis, Nutting's project engineer, controls the three guns of the color tube to simulate the motion of the rackets and ball on the colored field.  The players move sliding resistance controls, one for each racket.  Control positions are stored in registers while the controls change the trigger setting of timing circuits, Domis explains. The timing changes vary the rate at which the electron guns are gated by the data words representing the rackets and ball,on the colored field, making them appear to move as the guns sweep across the field.  If the ball hits the racket, a rebound vector is started by a flip-flop output.  If not, or if the ball goes out of bounds, a point is scored and displayed

While the technical details are somewhat interesting, what really caught my eye was the fact that it looks like we have the name of the game’s designer – Miel Domis.
I was hoping to try and track down Miel to ask some questions, but was unable to locate him (or her).
I did, however, come across this link about Cartrivision, in which a Miel Domis says the following

“As an electronics engineer I was hired in 1971 by Peter Berg to become a member of the product development team that took the Cartrivision product into production.  My primary responsibility was product engineering and cost reduction of the servo system and machine control logic under Don Loughry.  I was one of the last 120 employees who stayed with the company till the final demise.  The audio clip tells you about the spirit and loyalty that the last employees had towards the concept, the product and the company.  It was my first job in my career and I am grateful to have been a member of the team that developed the very first consumer video color player/recorder”

While this may be a different Miel Domis, the unusual name, the nature of the work, and timing of Catrivision’s demise make it highly likely, IMO, that this is the same person who worked for Nutting.
The rabbit trail here, however, is Cartrivision.
What is Cartrivision? It was one of the very first consumer VCR’s made in the U.S. (three years before Sony’s Betamax) and the first in the world to offer prerecorded movies for rental.

If you Google Cartrivision, you will find plenty of info. A couple of examples can be found here and here.

Here is a photo of the unit and one of the rental cassettes (you actually couldn’t rewind them yourself. If wanted to watch them again, you had to take them back to the dealer and pay them another rental fee to have them do it).


Cartrivision went bankrupt in mid-1973, so Domis could well have moved from there to Nutting.
What really makes this interesting is that it wasn’t the first time I’d come across the name Cartrivision in my research. While reading Steve Wozniak’s account of his work at Atari in iWoz, I learned that he actually had a Cartrivision:

Another project I did was for a company that came out with the first consumer VCRs…It was called Cartrivision, and the VCR had this amazing motor in it with its own circuit board that spun as it ran the motor…Well, at HP I heard a rumor that this little company had gone bankrupt and they had about eight thousand color VCRs for sale, cheap… we’d take a bunch of engineers down there and buy them for, like, $60. This became a huge part of my life almost right away. I studied the kinds of circuits the VCR used, how it worked, went through all the manuals. I tried to figure out how they processed color, how color got recorded onto tape, how the power supply worked. This was all information that came in really handy when we did the color Apple computers.”

--Wozniak, Steve (2007-10-17). iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon (p. 138-139). Norton. Kindle Edition.

 Even more interesting is that it played a (very) minor role in video game history.
One well-known story about Woz is that he built his own version of Pong using 28 chips, and even took in to Atari to show off.
Steve first encountered Pong at a bowling alley and was immediately captivated. He also immediately knew he could build his own version.

Here’s why:
“I knew the minute I started thinking about it that I could design it because I knew how digital logic could create signals at the right times. And I knew how television worked on this principle. I knew all this from high school working at Sylvania, from the hotel movie system, from Cartrivision, from all kinds of experience I’d already had.”

--Wozniak, Steve (2007-10-17). iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon (p. 140). Norton. Kindle Edition.

So one little article takes me from Nutting’s Wimbledon to an early VCR to Steve Wozniak and Pong. I love it when that happens.

3) Mad Man Muntz

This one really took me off the beaten path. I was going through Sega’s annual reports one day, when I came across the following in their 1976 report:


For those who don’t remember (and that’s probably most of you), back in the late 1970s, Sega decided to get into the widescreen TV market (which they were sure was about to explode) with something called Sega-Vision. The venture was a flop (guess the world wasn’t ready for a projection TV yet) and they shut it down in 1978
But who was Muntz Manufacturing? I decided to check. Good thing I did, because it led me to yet another fascinating rabbit trail. Muntz Manufacturing was founded by Earl “Madman” Muntz, who actually created one of the first projection-screen TVs.


But that’s only the beginning. I’ll let you look up the details on your own but Muntz was probably the prototype for the manic used car salesman that later became ubiquitous (“Get here now to take advantage of my low, low prices before they declare me legally insane!!!””). He started selling used cars back in the 1930s and later began promoting them through a series of radio and TV ads featuring his “Madman Muntz” character as well as a number of wacky stunts (he once promised to smash a car to pieces with a sledgehammer on camera if he didn’t sell a car by the end of the day). His used car lots were once the 7th most popular tourist attraction in southern California. Muntz also sold the first TVs in the U.S. to retail for under $100 (he did so by stripping them down to their bare essentials – a process that became known as “Muntzing”)

As I said, I’ll let you read about the rest on your own.

Bonus Section
Since I mentioned Pizza Time Theatre and Wimbledon, I thought I’d follow up on a few things I mentioned in my earlier posts.

 a) Pizza Time Theatre

As with many stories involving the early years of Atari and Nolan Bushnell, there are various accounts of the origins of Pizza Time Theatre and Chuck E. Cheese (did Bushnell get the idea in 1973 when he was in a Pizza & Pipes restaurant, was it originally called Coyote Pizza or Rick Rat’s etc. etc.)
I won’t get into those here, but I did want to include a few photos I found that may bear on the issue.

The first, which I’ve posted before, is from the June, 1976 issue of RePlay:


At this point, the concept was known as The Big Cheese (which I believe came after they dropped the Rick Rat name).
I thought that was the earliest photo I had of the character, but then I came across this one from an interview with Bushnell that appeared in the June-July 1975 issue of Play Meter:


Atari Inc. had a number of early photos of Rick/The Big Cheese but they weren’t dated, so I don’t know if any were from prior to June, 1975 (I suspect they were).

 b) Wimbledon
Finally, I wanted to report on some more information I’ve found on the timing of Wimbledon and Atari’s Color Gotcha.

I earlier wrote that these were the two leading contenders for the first true color video game but that I was pretty sure Color Gotcha came first.
I still think that’s the case, but it looks like it may have been closer than I thought.

While most sources list Wimbledon as a 1974 release, its release was actually announced in the December, 1973 issue of Vending Times and the December 8, 1973 issue of Cash Box.

It was also mentioned in the November 24, 1973 issue of Cash Box reviewing the recent MOA show (I believe it even had a photo, which I've since lost).
So it looks like Wimbledon was released around November of 1973 (though we can’t be sure exactly when).
Color Gotcha (like Gotcha) was supposedly released in October, 1973. Previously, I had not seen a flyer for the game and wasn’t sure if it really was released, but Marty supplied me with a used game price list from 1974 confirming that it was.

One thing I did run across, however, was the following from the November 10, 1973 issue of Cash Box.

It indicates that the regular version of Gotcha, may actually not have been sent to distributors until the second week of November. The same issue has the following, however indicating that had given some away as door prizes:

Of course, that's Gotcha, not Color Gotcha, but you'd think that if one came before the other, it would be the former.