Friday, April 26, 2013

The Video Game Industry Year by Year: 1973-1975

I don't know if this kind of thing will be of much intrest or not.

One thing I plan to include in my book is a couple of chapters offering brief summaries of the coin-op video game industry as a whole. The details of each company will be covered in separate chapters but they somtimes jump forward and back in time and I thought I needed some chapters to sum up what was going on in the industry. Starting around 1978, these chapters will include more extensive statistics from trade magazines, but these weren't available for the early years. This post will cover three years, since there isn't as much info for these years.


            Prior to 1973, only a handful of coin-op video games were released (Computer Space, Galaxy Game, For-Play's Star Trek, and Pong) and Pong was released in November of 1972. The coin-op video game industry really kicked off in 1973, though the games were still new and had yet to take the industry by storm. In a January, 1974 report on the recent MOA convention, Ralph Baer estimated that about 50,000 coin-op video games had been produced[1]. The true number was likely higher since Baer's figures omitted some top selling games (most notably, Allied Leisure's Paddle Battle). 90% of them were ball-and-paddle games. While there were over 50 different coin-op video games released during the year, many of them were from small companies. The coin op industry was still largely dominated by the three Ps - phonographs, pinball, and pool tables.
            Video games, however, did bring changes to the industry. In his MOA report, Baer notes that prior to video games, operators had such a hard time recouping their investment on games and cash flow was so poor that the mafia was not  interested in coin-op games. Video games paid for themselves within 4 or 5 months, as opposed to a year or more for other coin-op games. The general mood at the MOA, Baer reports, was good. But then things changed "Right about the time of show business takes a nose dive - Why? - general panic in industry - little guys starving -Midway Mfg only making about 50 units/week - Atari struggling - I'm told….Best guess as to cause - everybody copies each other's game…creative engineering practically non-existent - public suddenly fed-up with 23x same damn thing![2]"   In a 1979 interview, Michael Green of England's Alca echoed Baer's observations.
[Michael Green] At one time the [coin-op] market was looking a little stale, with few new ideas. Then in 1972-73, video games provided a major breakthrough which rejuvenated the entire industry. In those early days it looked as though the video game would provide a serious challenge to the position of pinball as the world's leading amusement device. But, for a time, the game was a dismal failure, mainly because most of the U.S. manufacturers just copied Nolan Bushnell's original game, and world markets became flooded with what was essentially the same game. When it became obvious to everyone what was happening-in the fall of 1973-and that video games were not what they were made out to be, many factories pulled out. Some even went into liquidation[3].

Video games weren't the only new thing. Foosball had been around (in the U.S.) since the 1950s but was undergoing its greatest period of popularity. At the 1972 MOA show, Brunswick introduced a new game called Air Hockey and scored an immediate hit (they eventually sold 33,000 copies).

# of Different Video Games Released[5]: ca 50

Significant Games
Pong (Atari, released 1972), Gotcha (Atari), Space Race (Atari), Paddle Battle (Allied Leisure), Winner (Midway), Paddle Ball (Williams)

Entering Video Game Industry
Allied Leisure, Amutronics, BAC Electronics, Bally/Midway, Brunswick, Chicago Coin, Competitive Video, Computer Games, Mirco Games, PMC, Ramtek, Seeburg, See-Fun, Sega, Taito, U.S. Billiards, Williams

Exiting Industry
BAC Electronics (?), Brunswick, For-Play Manufacturing (?) , Seeburg, See-Fun (?),

Top machine types, average weekly earningsCashBox: Jukeboxes (tavern locations) $40, TV Ping Pong Games $38, Hockey Tables $35, Pool Tables $34, Pingames $24
Most Popular Machine Types by Location Type (CashBox)
Taverns: 1. Pool Tables (by far), 2. Pingames, 3. Shuffle Alleys, 4. TV Ping Pong Games
Restaurants: 1. Pingames (by far), 2. TV Ping Pong, 3. Target (gun)
Off-Street Locations: same as Restaurants

When did the term "video game" come into use? I have yet to thoroughly investigate this, but the conensus seems to be that it started in 1973. But when, exactly? The above article from the March 17, 1973 issue of Cash Box uses the term "video game" to describe For-Play's Rally. Or does it? It seems pretty clear from the title but when you read the article, it isn't so obvious. The body uses terms like "video skill game" and "television control game", which were more common at the time. So does the title count as a use of "video game" as a phrase or is it just an example of a "headline-ese" shortening of a term like "video skill game"? 

The UPI article above appeared in the Febuary 15, 1973 edition of the Boston Herald. No, it doesn't use the term "video game" (in fact it calls them "pinball machines").
This article is actually about Atari.
The reason I posted it is that it still refers to the company as "Syzygy" despite the fact that they had incorporated as "Atari, Inc." over 6 months earlier.
Interesting - to me, at least, if no one else.

            The video game market in general, continued to expand in 1974. An April, 1974 issue of Time magazine estimated that video games were pulling in $900 million annually (though much of that was likely due to home games). 1974 also saw the industry's first shakeout (as noted by Baer in his MOA report). In 1973 and '74 dozens of companies entered the video game arena with little or no knowledge of the technology and even less knowledge of the coin-op industry and by the end of 1974, the glut of uninspired Pong clones led to the industry's first decline. Midway, for instance, saw revenues drop almost $2 million in 1974. Operators, meanwhile, found themselves saddled with Pong games that no one wanted to play and even fewer wanted to buy. Even worse, some had bought the games on credit when the industry was flying high and the games could seemingly do no wrong
In an interview in the January, 1975 issue of Play Meter, operator John Trucano expressed surprise that at the 1974 MOA show, "..the number of video game manufacturers was so greatly reduced over the previous year" (the interviewer indicated that this was "as it should be" since the weaker manufacturers were being weeded out). Many in the coin-op industry still viewed video games as nothing more than a passing fad that had already passed. The debut issue of Play Meter (December, 1974) included an article titled "TV Games: Really That Bad?". The article opined that "…the video game market is suffering from the "post TV-game-rush-blues" and that  "The very nature of the video market, it seems, is one of pure novelty." The article goes on to note that "the video gear became 'obsolete' at a breath-taking pace, as new innovations on the video theme replaced the original lines quickly". and " With the resale value of the games very low because of the lack of demand for them, warehouses became what some operators thought may prove to be burying grounds for their investments." According to Ralph Baer's 1976 figures, 87% of video games released in 1973 were ball-and-paddle games versus 38% in 1974 and 21% in 1975. Baer's figures, however, are incomplete and omit a number of popular Pong clones. A rough count of the number of titles released each year shows that 90% were ball-and-paddle games in 1973 versus 70% in 1974. In terms of percentage of total sales, the 1974 figures were probably somewhat lower due to the sales of Tank and Gran Trak, perhaps the first major hits outside of the ball-and-paddle genre.
On the other hand, a number of operators saw video games as more than a nine-day wonder. The same Play Meter article cited above notes that "…the overall market for video games is still on the upswing in most major markets." The following month, Play Meter editor Ralph Lally  opined "…what a change video games have brought to this industry. Less than three years ago, the first video game appeared on the market. The public's initial response to the new type of game was so fantastic that the video market grew tremendously in an incredibly short period of time." Cocktail table games also hit it big in 1974, with a number of new companies appearing on the scene to produce them. The games, however, had something of an unsavory reputation in the industry as they were often sold by fly-by-night companies. The most unscrupulous were the "blue sky" operators, who would place want ads offering package deals on hot games and even promising to help new operators find a location only to disappear once they had the money. On the other hand, the games opened up the market to many types of locations that normally shunned coin-op games, such as high-end restaurants and cocktail lounges.  More significantly, games like Tank and Gran Trak showed that there was a video game market beyond Pong clones (something that many in the industry doubted)
     The coin-op industry continued to fight to improve its image in 1974. In an interview with Play Meter at the 1974 MOA convention, MOA Executive VP Fred Granger commented "….people tend to think of an arcade as a place down in the bad part of town, with peep shows and all that kind of stuff" and further noted that "If you call an arcade an 'amusement center' or a 'family fun center', it is received much easier..." Changing terminology, however, would not solve the industry's image problems, which would continue to be an issue throughout the golden age. On the home front the major news was the introduction of Atari's home Pong.

# of Different Video Games Released: ca 70

Significant Games
Tank (Atari/Kee), Gran Trak 10/20 (Atari), Leader (Midway), Pace Car Pro (Electra), Flim Flam (Meadows)

Entering Video Game IndustryBristol Industries, Digital Games, Electra Games, Electromotion, Elcon Industries (?), Exidy, Konami (?), Meadows Games, NSM, Renee Pierre, United States Marketing, Venture Line, Volly, Zaccaria (?)

Exiting IndustryAmutronics (?), Computer Games (?), NSM, United States Marketing, Volly

The cocktail craze of 1974 continued into 1975 as did the industry shakeout. While cocktail table games brought new operators into the industry who were often enthusiastic about the future of video games, many older operators were reluctant to purchase games after having been burned by the oversaturated Pong clone market. An article in the June-July issue of Play Meter explained "A well-established operator, thinking about his old two-player tennis games that are gathering dust, told me 'to buy a new video game is throwing good money after bad. Look, I've been in this business some 15 years and have never had so many machines collecting dust." One attempt to address the issue was conversion kits offered by companies like Edcoe, Elcon, JRW, and RDM Associates that converted existing games to new ones (or to cocktail cabinets). Unfortunately, the converted games were generally just ball-and-paddle games with a few new features. An economic decline triggered by the oil crisis, also affected the industry.
     Nonetheless, overall coin-op amusement sales increased in 1975, even if only modestly. Replay's premiere issue (cover dated October, 1975)  enthused "Just by looking at the figures in New England. we can readily see that 1974 was the biggest game sales year in over ten years; and yet. 1975 surpasses this mark. The reasons are quite obvious. With the influx of television games. many of us have seen new spirit shine in the old time games operator…" The article goes on to note that coin-op games were more accepted by the public, citing video games and cocktail tables as a major reason. The biggest change of the year, however, was that the ball-and-paddle era finally appeared to be drawing to a close as a number of non-Pong games appeared (though ball-and-paddle games still represented more than half the new titles). Atari's Tank continued to sell well, along with other games like Midway's driving game Wheels. At the MOA convention, the big news was the proliferation of solid-state and microprocessor games. Midway's Gun Fight was the only microprocessor video game there but there were a number of non-video games that used the technology, like Allied Leisure's Dyn-O-Mite pin and Micro's Spirit of 76 (the first released microprocessor pin). Foosball also continued to be popular with a number of improved tables appearing (a dozen foosball manufacturers attended the MOA convention). Play Meter even dubbed 1975 "The Year of the Super Soccer."
     On the home front, Atari's Pong was a major hit of the 1975 Christmas season. Atari sold $40 million worth of home Pong units in 1975. Magnavox released the Odyssey 100.

# of Different Video Games Released: ca 100

Top Games
Replay (March, 1976): 1. Tank I & II (Atari), 2. Wheels I & 2 (Midway), 3. Gun Fight (Midway), 4. Indy 800 (Atari), 5. Gran Trak 10/20 (Atari), 6. Twin Racer (Atari/Kee), 7. BiPlane (Fun Games), 8. Racer (Midway), 9. Demolition Derby (Chicago Coin), 10. Street Burners (Allied Leisure)

Entering Video Game Industry (major manufacturers only)
Cinematronics, Control Sales, Fun Games, JRW Ecdoe, Electronics, Project Support Engineering (PSE), RDM Associates, Technical Design Corp, URL, Video Game Inc, Westlake Systems (plus at least 20-25 others)

Exiting Industry (major manufacturers only)Chicago Coin, Control Sales,  JRW Electronics, PMC, RDM Associates (?), Technical Design Corp (?), Westlake Systems
Top machine types, average weekly earnings:
Replay: Pool Tables $44, Video Games $43, Flipper Pins $36

Most popular game types (Replay)Taverns: 1. Pool Tables, 2. Flipper Games 3. Video Games & Shuffle Alleys (tie) Restaurants: 1. Flipper Games, 2. Video Games, 3. Electronic NoveltiesOff-Street Locations: 1. Flipper Games, 2. Pool Tables, 3. Video Games

[1] Baer, In the Beginning,  p.95
[2] Baer, p. 96
[3] Play Meter, August, 1979
[4] Two things to bear in mind when looking at industry statistics: 1) many suspected that operators regularly underreported collections to avoid paying taxes on them (though whether or to what extent this was true I can't say), 2) RePlay and Play Meter operator surveys generally appeared around the November issues and covered the period up to late summer
[5] Note that the number of different games released is a somewhat rough approximation, especially for the early years. A simple count of titles in KLOV or my own lists is not straightforward as you have to decide whether to include bootlegs, gambling games, or to count licensed games more than once.. The ball-and-paddle percentage is the percentage of titles, not the percentage of actual units sold.

Friday, April 19, 2013

America's Oldest Coin-Ops

Today's post is definitely off topic, but I think it's interesting anyway. I thought I'd do a brief post on a couple of really old American coin-op machines.

First, up is this one:

This is believed to be the oldest coin-op device made in America. It's a tobacco-vending machine called Penny Papers made by the Green & Broad of New York in 1839. For a penny (which were large at the time) in dispensed a small packet of tobacco. Vending machines were actually the first coin-op devices. A number of books have mentioned a coin-operated holy water dispenser invented by Heron (or Hero) of Alexandria in 215 B.C. That seems to have been more of an anomaly that the start of a trend. It's actually not known if Heron invented it or not or when or if it was produced. Heron (who actually lived in the first century AD) just described it. I think that the next coin-op device after that may not have come around until the early 17th century when "honor boxes" started to appear (snuff dispesners where you put in a coin and were on your honor to only take a pinch and close it when you were done).
The photo above is from the August, 1991 issue of RePlay.

Here's the second machine:

That's The Locomotive by William T. Smith, produced in Providence in October, 1885. It is considered the first coin-operated amusement device produced in America. For two cents, you got to watch the little train go through its motions. It didn't go anywhere (obviously). You just watched the wheels go round, the whistle blow etc. Called "exhibition machines", these were somewhat common at the time. In 1889, Edward Ahmet of Chicago created a couple of others - Power Station (a miniature power station) and Steamboat (which had a miniature boat floating around a lighthouse).

I acutally love these things. One of my favorite variants was a type that was common in England that involved little minature morality plays on subjects like the evils of alcohol. Drop in your farthing (or whatever they used) and you were treated to a motroized scene where a drunk fell asleep only to be awakened by tormenting demons.

To give you a little video game content, here are some more unKLOV'd  games:

1) From Play Meter, February, 1979

2) From Play Meter, November, 1979

3) From RePlay, November, 1982

I'm not sure what kind of company "Shadco" was. Given all the games from other companies they list, I'd have thoght they were a distributor but the ad makes it look like they manufacture games under license (could they have had licenses for all those titles, some of which were licensed to other companies).
Mr. Doodle, Naughty, Bang Bang, and Shogan I've never heard of.

4) Here's a better photo of Wesco's 1979 game Basketball

5) From Vending Times' coverage of the 1982 AMOA show

Battle Back actually is on TAFA but the flyer has no photo of the game so I thought it was nice to get some confirmation that it actually existed. BTW, RePlay had a photo of Shine's Witch Way at the same convention - another one where the flyer exists but I haven't seen a cabinet photo (though the flyer has screenshots).

6) Finally, one from the 1984 AMOA - Venture Line's Camelot.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What Was The First Coin-Op Video Game to Feature Scrolling?

4/5/15 NOTE - I have been getting a lot of hits on this article for the last week or so, but have no idea where they're coming from (they don't show up in my traffic sources). Could someone reading this do me a favor and e-mail me or post a comment saying where they heard about this article? Thanks

What was the first coin-op video game to feature scrolling?
I'm actually not sure and I'm not going to give a definitive answer for one main reason - I haven't played every arcade video game ever made (something that hasn't stopped others from making definitive claims, as we shall see).
Of course, the answer to the question depends on (at least) two things: your definition of "scrolling" and your definition of "first" (I suppose it could also depend on your definition of "coin-op" and "video game" but we won't go there). A debate over the definition of "scrolling" is beyond my scope. It might seem less obvious that the definition of "first" is ambiguous but there are a number of possible meanings - first game "released", first game available to the public, copyright date, trademark date, first game in development etc.
Of course, even "released" is a bit ambiguous. By "released" I generally mean when the game was actually made available to distributors for purchase. Of course, games were often introduced at industry shows or open houses weeks to months before this and were put on location for testing even before that. For each game, I will include a brief "release notes" section outlining the evidence I have for release dates.
Anyway, here are a few candidates, in reverse chronological order.
Rally-X (Namco, ca October, 1980)

Not considered the first scrolling game, but the Wikipedia article on side-scrolling video games claims it "was the first game to allow scrolling in multiple directions, both vertical and horizontal". I'm not sure what their definition means to them, but I doubt this. Later on I will discuss another driving game that I think fit their definition that came out much earlier.
Release Notes:
MAME history file gives a release date of October, 1980. Unfortunately, they don't list sources for their information (someone told me a lot of it came from the game's ROMs but don't know if or where ROMs have release dates).
Publication date on the U.S. copyright registration is 10/03/80
The game was shown at the 1980 AMOA show, which started on 10/31/80
Play Meter's 10/1/84 Catalog issue listed it as being released January, 1981 but that was probably the U.S. release date.
Defender  (Williams - November 1980/February 1981)
No, I don't think Defender was the first game with scrolling - not even close. Others, however, seem to think so. One wikiepedia article made the claim and if you read the Talk notes, the guy who wrote the article got into a kind of whizzing contest with others who claimed he was wrong (it seems he basically rejected all their evidence as "original research" and opted for something he'd read in a published work somewhere - it also seems he had very little knowledge of early video games).
Others have made the more modest claim that Defender was the first scrolling shooter (i.e. the Wikipedia side-scrolling article). Again, I'm skeptical even of this more modest claim but the subject of this post is the first scrolling game period, so we'll move on.
Release Notes:
Play Meter catalog issue and DRA Price Guide both give a release date of November, 1980.
Copyright date of publication is 11/10/80
The game was shown at the 1980 AMOA show.
Play Meter announced its release in the 1/15/81 issue.
Vending Times did so in the 12/80 issue.
MAME lists the release date as February, 1981.
Space Tactics (Sega - ca October, 1980)
The Wikipedia side-scrolling article says " early first-person perspective shooter, featured scrolling in all directions, with the entire screen moving and scrolling as the player moves the cross-hairs".  If that is considered scrolling, a number of games did it much earlier.
Release Notes:
Mame - 10/80
DRA Price Guide - 11/80
Shown at 1980 AMOA show.
Star Fire (Exidy - ca December, 1978)

By the Space Tactics definition of scrolling above, Star Fire qualifies. I think Star Fire is one of the great forgotten games of all time and one of the most innovative but that's a topic for another post. For the purposes of this post, there were other games that had first-person scrolling before it.
Release Notes:
Mame and the old bronze age list give a release date of December, 1978
Its release was announced in the December, 1978 issue of Vending Times.
It was shown at the 1978 AMOA show, which started on 11/10/78.
Play Meter catalog gives a release date of September, 1979 but I suspect they are talking about one of the later cabinet variations.
Atari Football (Atari - October, 1978)
A GamesRadar article on "Gaming's Most Important Evolutions" listed this as the first scrolling video game. Personally, I don't even consider it Atari's first scroller, much less the first period. I also find such claims to be a bit amusing and presumptuous. There were hundreds of video games made in the bronze and golden ages (I have over 3,000 listed and that's just coin-op - not counting home games). To claim definitively that something is the "first game" to do XYZ seems rather silly to me, especially when most of the people making the claims don't seem to have played many of the bronze age games - especially not the early ones. My knowledge of the games is far from encyclopedic but even with my limited knowledge, the majority of the "first game to ___" claims seem to be wrong. Its probably best to avoid such flat out claims.
Release Notes:
As with other Atari games, this date comes from the Atari internal document that has made the rounds on the web. The date is supported by the Play Meter catalog issues (as are the other Atari dates below).
It was also at the 1978 AMOA show.
Fire Truck (Atari - June, 1978)
Oddly enough, the very next game after Atari Football in the Games Radar article is this one. Maybe they don't consider this a scrolling game. Or, since the list is in (at least roughly) chronological order, maybe they think Football came out first.
In any event, I consider Fire Truck to be a scrolling game just not the first and, once again, not even Atari's first.
Sky Raider (Atari - March, 1978)
There may be some who don't consider this scrolling since it wasn't free form, but I don't see why that would matter. In any event, we still haven't reached what I consider the first Atari scroller.
Super Road Champions (Model Racing - 1978??)
This one had a perspective sort of similar to Sky Raider but in a racing game.
Release Notes:
The problem I have with this one is dating it. The Arcade Flyer Archive and KLOV give a date of 1978 but I'm not sure of the source and they don't give even an approximate month.
Super Bug (Atari - September, 1977)

OK, now this is the game that I consider the first Atari scroller. If you consider Fire Truck a scroller, you have to include this as well (play them both on Mame and you'll see why - especially when you crash).
This one doesn't seem to get mentioned much in discussions of scrolling in video games, but if you consider Rally X to be a scroller, I don't see how you'd exclude this one. Maybe because of the lack of radar or a map? Or because it wasn't free form enough?
 Starship 1 (Atari - July, 1977)

Another game that seemingly qualifies based on the Space Tactics definition.

Cobra Gunship (Meadows, ca July, 1976)

Another alleged first-person scroller, but I can't tell from the flyer if it did so. If it did, it's a leading candidate for the first first-person scroller. Oh, and if you didn't know, this one was designed by Atari cofounder Ted Dabney, who briefly worked for Meadows after leaving Atari (it was his idea to put the Flim and Flam feature in Flim Flam).

Release Notes
Vending Times, Replay, and Play Meter all announced the release of the game in their July, 1976 issue.

Moto-Cross/The Fonz/Road Race (Sega, ca May-November 1976)

The wikiepedia video game timeline lists these games as "forward scrolling games". Moto-Cross was a motorcycle racing game - supposedly rebranded as The Fonz. Road Race was car racing. I haven't played any of them or seen a YouTube video but from the flyer, I am not sure Road Race scrolled or not.

Release Notes:
Dating these games is another issue.
Vending Times announced the release of The Fonz in its November, 1976 issue and Replay did so in its December issue but both said it would be introduced at the AMOA show (which started 11/12/76).
My notes have a release date of 8/76, but I don't know where it came from.
In any event, if it was just Moto-Cross rebranded then the release date of Moto-Cross is more important.
Replay announced the release of Road Race in the May, 1976 issue but this was the U.S. release date.

Fire Power (Allied Leisure, ca January, 1976)

The Arcade Heroes website calls this a "vertically scrolling tank game" but I cannot confirm as I haven't played. The Vending Times article on the game's release doesn't give me enough info to determine if it scrolled or not. It was a tank-vs airplane game where you were the tank.

Release Notes:
Play Meter's 1979 catalog gives a release date of January, 1976.
Its release was announced in the December, 1975 issue of Vending Times.

Seed Race (Taito, 1974)

Speed Race was designed by Tomohiro Nishikado (of Space Invaders fame). The wikiepedia article on Nishikado says this game introduced scrolling, giving the source as Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton's Vintage Games (I don't have my copy handy to see what their source is).
Midway released it as Wheels (though I don't know if they modified it - I don't think they did).
Nishikado mentioned the game in a USA Today interview but didn't say anything about scrolling (he did say he thought it might have been the first Japanese game released in America).
This one IS available on YouTube (
Some might argue that it doesn't scroll since all they really appeared to do was animate the "grass" strips on the roadside but you can watch it and decide for yourself.
 There were a number of other early driving games (i.e. Laguna Racer) that used a similar concept.

Oh, and in case anyone wondered, Atari's Space Race didn't scroll - you just went to the top of the screen then reappeared at the bottom.

Release Notes
Unfortunately, I don't have more precise release date info for early Japanese games.
Vending Times and Play Meter announced the release of Wheels in March of 1975 so I'd guess that Speed Race came out in late 1974 in Japan.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Early Video Game Tournaments And Players

Two questions for today:

1) What was the first arcade video game tournament - or at least the first national one?

2) Can you name the player who may have been the first arcade video game player to gain national attention? I'm not talking about an AP or UPI story that got picked up by local papers across the country. This guy was featured in a truly national medium.

As for question 1. I actually don't know the answer and no one else seems to either.
According to Walter Day, the first video game tournament ever was the Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics, which took place in Stanford University's Artificial Intelligence Lab on October 17, 1972. This was a computer game tournament, however, not an arcade game tournament.

Given the popularity of foosball and pool (and later Air Hockey) tournaments around the time Pong came out, it seems likely that there were arcade video game tournaments in 1973 but I haven't found a documented one.

Here's one I did find, from the December, 1974 issue of Vending Times:

Could this be the very first arcade video game tournament? Probably not, but it might well be the first national one. It's actually not 100% clear from the article that this was an arcade, rather than a home game tournament but given that Sega sponsored it and it was reported in Vending Times, it seems likely that it was.

International Coin Olympics

Another early attempt started in 1976. Millie McCarthy, president of the New York State Coin Machine Association had long wanted to create an International Coin Olympics that would include video games, pinball, foosball, and pool. On January 10, 1976 it seemed her dream was on the way to reality when a group of operators met in Atlanta to form the Games Tournament Board (though it seemed to concentrate mostly on pinball) . In 1978 McCarthy began to organize the first International Coin Olympics. Qualifying tournaments were to be held starting in November, continuing over an 18 month period with finals in New Orleans in February of 1980. A prize fund of $135,000 was announced, promotional kits, seminars, and films were created and the event was even announced in trade magazines, but it never came to be. The event was cancelled when pinball manufacturers started staging national tournaments of their own.

Scores Winter Pinball Olympics

In May of 1979, Play Meter reported on a video game tournament conducted by Scores arcade of Dallas, TX as part of the Winter Pinball Olympics. Four video game tournaments were held on individual games - Atari Football, Double Play, Triple Hunt, and Space Wars. A fifth competition was a "decathlon" consisting of five pinball games and five video games (Space Invaders, Breakout, Sea Wolf, Laguna Racer, and Destroyer). The Atari Football tournament drew the biggest field (512) and was won by Rock Hornburgh.

National Space Invaders Championship

            It wasn't an arcade tournament but the November, 1980 National Space Invaders Championship was one of the earliest and most influential national video game tournaments in the U.S.. Sponsored by Atari in conjunction with the release of its Atari 2600 Space Invaders cartridge, the tournament drew over 10,000 contestants. Regionals were held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fort Worth, Chicago, and New York with the five regional winners facing off on the home version of the game at Warner's New York headquarters. Bill (now Rebecca) Heineman of Los Angeles (who later co-founded Interplay) won the finals and a new Asteroids cocktail machine. Electronic Games said of the tournament "More than any other single tournament, the 'Space Invaders' Tournament established electronic arcading as a major hobby[1]."
Here's a photo from the New York regionals:

OK. How about question #2.

Well, this isn't the answer to the question, but this may be one of history's first forgotten gamers - Sabrina Osment.

Who? Sabrina Osment - that's who. And who is Sabrina Osment? Why one of the "Gremlin Girls" of course. And who the heck were the Gremlin Girls?

Back around April of 1977, Gremlin introduced their new game Hustle. To publicize the game, they launched a 12-city tour in which the "Gremlin Girls" (Sabrina Osment and Lynn Reid) took on all challengers in the game. Any player that could win 2 out of 3 games from the girls took home a crisp $100 bill. The results? The Gremlin Girls won 1,233 to 7. Yep, you read that right - 1,233 to 7. On Hustle. Color me cynical but something doesn't seem right here. I mean, it's Hustle people. Why kind of strategy could there be? Some of you are probably thiking that male players just threw the games to the ladies, but I can't believe that 99.9% of them would - espeically if they had to forego a hundred bucks to do so (and this was 1977).

OK. On to question #2.

Who was the arcade player who won national media attention for his skills.

Why Greg Davies of course.


Don't I mean Steve Juraszek?

Nope. This guy came first.

On July 23, 1980 Greg Davies played Asteroids for 21 hours and 50 minutes on a single quarter at T's-N-Tilts arcade in Murray, Utah scoring 10 million points. The feat landed him a guest spot on the Nickelodeon talk show Livewire in July of 1981 (six months before Juraszek appeard in Time). Davies' fame was short-lived, however. When the Atari Coin Connection newsletter reported the score, they listed him as Shawn Davies. Five months earlier, in the May, 1980 issue Atari Coin Connection had reported a high score of a million on the game, noting that it was "…the highest score known". By the next issue they'd already received word of a score of over 7 million.

I said I wasn't counting AP or UPI stories, but if I did, another early player would be Randy Otto, who was featured in an AP story in August of 1981 for his Pac-Man high score.

So does anybody know more about these players or tournaments or about any earlier ones?

If Walter Day is reading this, maybe he has records of them in his voluminous arcades (unless he's tossed them out).

[1] Electronic Games, March, 1982

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Pinball Before Baffle Ball

Today's post is a bit off topic. It's a subject I should probably leave to those better versed in it than I - the prehisotry of pinball. While none of this info is new to pinball historians and can be found on numerous pinball history websites, it's probably less known to video game history fans.

Video game history books usually mention pinball but they seem to always write as if David Gottlieb's Baffle Ball was the first real pinball game. The rather pathetic Wikipedia article on the game states flatly "It was the first pinball machine." It's too bad because pinball has a fascinating history that goes back a long way before Baffle Ball.
I was going to say that this article only scratches the surface, but it really doesn't even do that.

It's taken from one of the appendicies in my book that gives a very brief history of a couple of dozen other types of coin-op amusement devices found in arcades at the time of Pong and prior to it.
The origins of pinball stretch back to over 400 years before the appearance of the first video game. During Elizabethan times lawn bowling (which had been around since at least the 13th century) was extremely popular. A miniaturized indoor version called Nine Pins began appearing in English taverns in the 1500s. By 1600 an outdoor version called Nine Holes had appeared, replacing the pins with nine shallow holes in the ground (eliminating the need to reset the pins after each roll). As with lawn bowling, miniature indoor versions began to appear in which the player used a curved stick to propel the balls down the table to a curved back wall where they dropped into the scoring holes. By 1710 the French had added scoring pockets and wooden pegs to the playfield. Around 1775 the game began being referred to as bagatelle. The game moved to America during the Revolutionary War, American army officer began playing the game with their French comrades. By the mid-1800s, the wooden pegs had been replaced by brass pins.

            Cockamaroo was an English version of Bagatelle with the addition of shooting lanes on the left and right sides of the board and numbered troughs to keep score. An Americanized version of Cockamaroo called Tivoli (aka Peg Pool) became popular in bars and taverns in the 1860s and 1870s. Tivoli and other bagatelle games remained popular until the early 1900s. An 1864 political cartoon showed Abraham Lincoln playing bagatelle against presidential rival George B. McClellan.

In 1871 Montague Redgrave received the first US patent for a bagatelle machine titled Improvements in Bagatelles. Redgrave's machine replaced the cue stick with a plunger and many consider this the first pinball game (though the plunger, or "ball shooter" had been used at least as early as 1700-1750 in a German-made machine). Redgrave and Frederic Wilson formed the company Redgrave and Wilson in Chicago, which made bagatelle games for the home and taverns between 1873 and 1875 before Redgrave moved to Jersey City, NJ and began building machines there. 

Montague Redgraves' origial patent model - from the National Museum of American History


In the late 19th century, parlor versions of the game such as Haydon and Urrry's Bagatelle were popular. Caille Brothers Log Cabin, introduced in 1901, was aggressively marketed and appeared in hundreds of bars and taverns across the country (though it was considered a trade stimulator at the time). Another early pinball predecessor was created by Harry Reed of Salem, MA in the early 1900s. Reed took a folding bagatelle board, added flashing red, white, and blue lights to form a crude backboard, and lugged his contraption to various fairs and carnivals. It would be decades before the next electrified game appeared. 1928's Billiard Skill by A.B.T. Manufacturing was the first game with steel balls and a flat playfield. In 1930 and 1931 a handful of machines were created that could be considered the first modern pinball games.

The Caille Brothers Log Cabin

This 1893 patent by Charles Young is very similar to Log Cabin

In late 1930 Arthur Paulin, a carpenter from Youngstown, Ohio built a modified bagatelle game for his daughter's Christmas present. When she liked it, he took it into town and put in on the counter of Myrl Park's radio shop where Park liked it so much he suggested adding a coin slot. The pair was joined by friend Earl Froom and the three attached a coin slot to the game and put it in a local general store. After an hour they opened to coin box to find $2.60 in nickels. Deciding to bold ten more they formed a company called Automatic Industries and began producing their game, which they called Whiffle. 27,000 Whiffle units had been sold by the end of 1931 and many consider it the forefather of today's pinball industry.

Robert Froom, son of Whiffle inventor Earl Froom, with the original location test model of the game. From Dick Bueschel's stupendous Pinball 1

In the summer of 1929, a Chicago janitor named George Deprez created a version of Redgrave's machine that is another prime candidate for the world’s first pinball game. While the inventor had created the game only for the amusement of his friends, it soon came to the attention of a tenant in one of the buildings where Deprez worked named Nick Burns. Burns operated a shooting gallery and, with his brother, ran the In & Outdoor Games Co He quickly purchased exclusive rights to Deprez's game and began manufacturing it as the Whoopee Game. Jack Sloan, advertising manager for The Billboard saw the game in the Chicago Loop hotel while making his rounds. He suggested adding a coin-slot and pointed the two to Midway Pattern Company to have them manufacture the game. The first handmade unit was put in an arcade in August of 1930.

Another photo from Bueschel's Pinball 1 - this is Pigeon Hole Table, built in 1885 (though the photo is from 1970) - photo originally from Grover Brinkman

One issue with Whiffle and Whoopee was that they cost between $100 and $200 apiece. In addition, they cost a nickel to play - no small amount during the depths of the Depression when every penny counted. In May of 1931 the Hercules Novelty Company released Roll-a-Ball, a game designed by Polish immigrant Charles Chizewer. The game sold for just $16.50 and offered the customer five balls for a penny. 

The game most commonly credited with launching the pinball industry, or even (inaccurately) as the first pinball game came out in 1931. In 1930 the Bingo Novelty Company released Bingo, a bagatelle game created by Nathan Robin. The game was eventually offered to David Gottlieb, who improved the game and released it. While Bingo was a modest success, its true significance was that led to Gottlieb building his own machine which he dubbed Baffle Ball. The game went on to become one of the biggest hits of all time with over 50,000 units sold at $17.50 apiece. While games like Baffle Ball were forerunners to modern pinball, there are many differences between these early machines and the pinball with which most people are familiar. First was the size, Baffle Ball and other bagatelle and pinball games of the time were countertop games - that is, they were small enough to be placed on top of counters (though a stand was available). Secondly, there were no flippers. For a penny, the player shot seven balls onto a playfield which contained several scoring holes surrounded by rings of pins (hence the name). If the ball missed the scoring holes, it fell into a series of lower-scoring bins at the bottom of the playfield.  There were also no bumpers, drop targets, or electricity. All of this meant that early pinball games relied much more on chance than skill. There was also no automatic score-keeping mechanism. Players had to keep their own score in their head or on paper. Nonetheless, Baffle Ball's influence was enormous.

Odds and Ends

While we're on the subject of Pinball, here's an oddball I found in a 1977 Play Meter - a pinball-themed skate park

This one has nothing to do with pinball but here's another un-TAFA's, un-KLOV'd game. Wesco Systems Basketball, from the May, 1979 RePlay (I apologize for the lousy black-and-white photo).