It’s been another great year for research and finally getting to share some of my work. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look at the first part of a series I’m doing for the Video Game History Foundation to learn a bit more about how I’ve been able to uncover some of this information. I’m hoping to share a lot more raw sources in the new year, but for now let’s talk about the research results from 2017.
Instead of how I did my post last year, stating rather matter-of-factly the things that I’ve heard, I am going to pose each bit of information as a question which will give some background on the question itself. I can’t really claim to have many of these answers beyond a shadow of a doubt, but it’s a good a time as any to get some discussion about these facts going. The reveal of information necessarily brings more information, so I am looking forward to elaborating on these answers in the future!
How did the Allied Leisure factory burn down?
One of coin-op’s most controversial companies, Allied Leisure exploded into prominence with their duplication of Atari’s Pong as Paddle Battle. Located in Hialeah, Florida the small manufacturer built a name for itself by having an extraordinary assembly line and a great sales team which could overcome many of the issues that the firm had. Not only were their often huge quality control issues, but employees of the company both in high and low positions always got the sense that the company was not always on the up-and-up.
Some must have definitely seen it as karma then when on January 31, 1974 the factory at the corner of West 4th Avenue and 18th Street burned down to the ground. One person at the company, an artist named Ted Rapp, died in the torrent of flames but the fire was isolated to the two buildings maintained by Allied Leisure (Miami Times 01/31/74). At the time, most of the executive staff of the company were in Europe attending the ATE show and so stepped off the plane to an awful surprise (Chuck Arnold 2017).
The Miami Times covered the aftermath of the event through five newspaper articles from the day of the event until Allied Leisure moved into a leased space on March 2nd. Prominent speculation in the first two articles on this topic clearly placed arson as a very probable cause of the destruction. Earwitness accounts of something like a gunshot going off prior to the fire and several employees giving their word to the fire being a deliberate act were noted by the reporters (Miami Times 01/31/74, 02/01/74).
However, on February 14 the article would be titled “Arson ruled out in Hialeah fire”. The local Fire Marshal put to bed the idea of the plant being sabotaged by any individuals which would rule out any investigation (Miami Times 02/14/74).
While that should have been the end of the story, there are some individuals from Allied Leisure who continue to believe that arson was the cause of the disaster. There are reasons to give some credence to these recollections. Remember again that Allied Leisure never had a great reputation, which some associated with mafia involvement. This could have very easily caused the local law enforcement to drop the investigation because it was not a company worth giving time to. Also, Allied Leisure employed a very large Cuban immigrant workforce which could have caused the company itself to not push for a deeper investigation into their affairs.
Chuck Arnold, vice president of marketing for Allied Leisure at the time, tells a very detailed story about the event and the subsequent litigation that resulted. He says that the culprits were stealing video game boards from the Allied Leisure factory and were caught on film by security cameras speaking to each other in Spanish. The criminals were tried some years later, from which Mr. Arnold had to fly back from California to testify along with fellow former sales manager Gene Lipkin (Chuck Arnold 2017).
This contradicts Lipkin’s own recollections of events on the centuri.net site where he puts the issues down to an electrical problem. At the same time, VP of Manufacturing Troy Livingston emphatically declared that the arsonists took down the building with containers of gasoline (All in Color for a Quarter). Where then does that leave the story?
The biggest piece of evidence against the arson story is the lack of any follow up mentioned in any print source. If what Chuck Arnold said is correct and the criminals were tried, that would have undoubtedly been reported in either a major Florida newspaper or any of the coin-op trade publications. Following the recovery from the fire, there are no print sources which ever mention a probably cause to the situation. One would think that at least someone would mention the possibility of arson at a later date, but no pyromaniac stories appeared in the first few decades after the initial press report.
Let’s also have a look at the February 1, 1974 issue of the Miami News for a small eyewitness detail. Arthur Otto, one of the engineers employed by Allied Leisure, mentions that about eight months prior there was a successful theft which resulted in the loss of “television backing boards” (whatever that means). This pretty clearly shows that the Allied Leisure plant was no stranger to troubles and it is very easy to imagine that a petty theft like this – which wouldn’t really be reported on further – could be misconstrued to be related to this larger crime.
A question does remain as to why Chuck Arnold would be called in as an eyewitness to a crime which occurred before he was ever employed by Allied Leisure, though then again why would he be called about the plant if he wasn’t there at the time either? It is possible that these two events were unrelated and that another undisclosed theft was what Mr. Arnold was thinking about, but either way I’m fairly confident in saying the issue was not arson. An electrical fire is highly in the realm of possibility and it’s best to go with Occam’s Razor.
This is an instance of a story that can only be proven one way; the other lost to the mysteries of emergency investigations. There may be innumerable stories from other employees, but without convincing evidence I’m pretty firm in my understanding of the situation for now.
As a funny final aside, after working for Allied Leisure, Chuck Arnold left to the West Coast and eventually joined Ramtek Corporation. Right before he joined them, their factory burned down for unknown reasons. Maybe the true culprit is still at large…
Was the first original video game from Sega developed in the United States or Japan?
The origin of Sega’s relationship with video games is something we don’t know too much about. Being the largest coin-op amusement company of the early 70s in Japan, they were quick to get on Pong once it arrived in the country. Pong-Tron was their very first foray into video games, but when did they actually start creating their own original games?
It’s interesting to note that for the other three largest manufacturers of this early period, we have pretty deep understanding as to how they each established a game development arm. Taito had a development arm in Pacific Kogyo which included later Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado. Kasco partnered with Victor to create a color video game prototype. Namco reverse engineered Atari’s hardware after serving as an importer. For Sega, the early history is very obscured. While a few engineers are known, the products they worked on are not.
With the examples above, a common thread is that most of the Japanese companies didn’t have a robust engineering staff for working on solid state technology. The games that these companies were creating were electro-mechanically based, and those few engineers that dealt with solid-state technology were more valued at companies like Sony than Sega. It took a while for each of these manufacturers to truly adapt themselves to video games, whereas the American companies found a ready supply of young experts when they decided to enter video games.
Providing some insight on the matter of Sega’s involvement, the first issue of Replay Magazine (10/1975) has an interview with Sega’s head David Rosen about their newly opened American operation, Sega of America. In regards to their product development, Rosen had this to say:
REPLAY: Will the new Bullet Mark be followed in regular intervals by other games?
ROSEN: Absolutely. We’re here to stay. We’ve got complete R&D facilities here in California. We’ve got a full assembly operation and by the time of MOA, we’ll be announcing our new sales staff.
REPLAY: Will you be producing Bullet Mark in Japan as well?Replay 10/1975
ROSEN: Yes. The R&D on the piece was a combined effort of Tokyo and California. Our emphasis here is on solid state technology. Japan’s is on electromechanical. The Bullet Mark, though, is solid state period.
REPLAY: Where did you recruit the engineers we see here at Redondo Beach?ROSEN: From the computer electronics field. None of these people have been recruited from other games factories.
So from the above, David Rosen is indicating that the Japanese have not been involved in solid-state production before this point. Furthermore, Bullet Mark was a joint collaboration between Japanese and American staff. This is further evidenced by the fact that Bullet Mark has a patent application in both Japan and America, though interestingly it only names Japanese inventors so the validity of that is thrown into doubt as well.
Anyways, to the point at hand, did the Japanese staff design video games before this? Rosen doesn’t outright state that they had no ability, but it is heavily implied that they hadn’t tinkered with it prior to this. The easiest way to see about this is to check the release dates for Sega’s games, but particularly with Japanese games the sourcing that you may see on the internet is very ambiguous. Some dates on Arcade Museum, for instance, are still carried over from over 15 years ago in the days of RGVAC guesstimation rather than contemporary documents.
Thankfully with resources like Masumi Akagi’s “In the Beginning, There was Pong” we can find some better sourced release dates. It shows that Sega’s first non-Pong game, Balloon Gun, was released in August 1974, a date repeated on Sega’s official website. However, my cohort Alex Smith called this into question because of the contradictory nature of Rosen’s statements compared to this claim. He wanted to get some further proof.
Said proof came from Akagi-san himself, through cohort @onionsoftware, Takeda-san. Takeda-san found an early showcase of Balloon Gun in the December 1974 issue of Amusement Industry Magazine, proving for certain that the game existed before Sega of America was first established, even if the date given by Akagi-san in his book may be a bit off.
To further the point, Takeda-san also contacted an associate at “Sega Logistics Service Co., Ltd”, a company which holds many of the older Sega materials. While he was afraid that there may not be much remaining which dated prior to 1975, he was able to procure a Japanese schematic of Balloon Gun which at least heavily implied that it was manufactured in Japan at some point.
Many mysteries still remain regarding Balloon Gun. For instance, it’s one of the first light gun video games, coming to the market at nearly the same time as Quak! by Atari. That was technology beyond most of the American firms for several years, so how did the Japanese come to create it? Did it use the same method seen in the Magnavox Odyssey or a different technique? If nothing else, we can at least confirm that Sega got off to a strong start in video games, and probably continued to use that technology on many subsequent products.
What is the difference between Smith Engineering and Western Technologies?
Vectrex aficionados are blessed by a community of people who have shown intense dedication to learning everything they can about their incredibly short-lived system. Almost everything one could want to know about the world’s only vector graphics-based console is available online, though not all neatly organized. Prototypes, homebrews, and every hardware detail have been uncovered in the interim to produce a vibrant scene on interest for the quirky all-in-one device.
At the heart of the Vectrex was the company Smith Engineering… Or was it Western Technologies? Both names appear side by side in a lot of material about the Vectrex (though I cannot figure out when this started). Sometimes the companies are used interchangeably, even though it’s clear that one did not turn into the other.
The only thing that has been certain is the fact that both companies were founded by Jay Smith III, former Mattel engineer that struck out to develop his own electronic gadgets and toys. In addition to the Vectrex, he also lead the development of the Milton-Bradley Microvision and several Sega Genesis games. Perhaps he would be the best person to ask.
So indeed I had the great pleasure this year to sit down for two extended sessions with Mr. Smith and the subject of the difference was something which I asked him outright. The two companies were actually established on different models of contracting with manufacturers to develop product (Jay Smith III 2017).
Now, this may not have been true for the full extent of the companies’ existence. According to a 1997 Billboard mention, Smith Engineering was actually considered a subsidiary to Western Technologies. I will have to ask for further specifics, but at least at the beginning, the two companies existed solely as a concern of dividing the contract development from a financial perspective.
How did Akalabeth make it’s way to California Pacific on the West Coast?
Richard Garriott’s life is a tale of legend, oft told and elaborated upon. He is truly deserving of recognition as both a pioneer and a preservationist, but that doesn’t mean that all of his stories are exactly how he tells them. Even after many corrections throughout the web, he still maintains several errors in his latest biographical work including some rather bad dating information for his early works.
Lord British’s first game was, of course, Akalabeth. As he tells the story today, he started showing the game around at the Computerland store in Austin which he worked at and the owner, one John P Mayer (formerly of NASA), encouraged him to make a few copies for sale in the shop. He did so, then a while later was solicited by the computer game publisher California Pacific. They had received a pirated copy derived from those, he was selling in Texas and wanted to make a legitimate version for sale.
Among the many details of Richard’s story that have changed overtime, there has been an increasingly diminished view of his relation with publishers. He has claimed that both California Pacific and Sierra On-Line were driven to financial straights because they were involved in drug rings which sent the former belly-up. (Let’s not even touch on what he has to say about EA). This seed of suspicion doesn’t mean anything by itself, but when one looks at what Garriott has said about his relationship with California Pacific in the many years following his split from them, it becomes more suspect.
The very first publicization of Richard, in June 1981’s issue of Softalk, provides our first hint on this matter. It claims that Akalabeth was handed out to acquaintances in order to iron out the bugs, “[…] until one caught the attention of Al Remmers, who offered to publish it.” This establishes a clear link between the friends of Richard and Remmers through some sort of acquaintance, though how they connected with California Pacific is a mystery.
Some eight years later, Richard provided some more details in Compute!. Here he claims he sold five copies, then a woman who lived in another state sent it to her friend, who in turn made it end up at California Pacific. That last line is incredibly ambiguous and could well be Richard slipping in the piracy claim without outright stating it, but there’s reason to doubt this story even with the details.
In the summer of 1984, The Wizards Journal newsletter featured an in-depth interview with Richard regarding his early life and games. When discussing the distribution of Akalabeth, Richard lays it out clearly:
[Richard Garriott] […] Before I actually went to a publisher with it the owner of the Computerland store convinced me to go ahead and try to publish it. When the owner of the Computerland store was ordering some software from California Pacific and mentioned that one of this employees has written this nifty game and would they be interested and sent them a copy. (1984)Richard Garriott (1984)
That’s pretty clear, but it’s possible to see this as an outlier in evidence if the rest doesn’t add up. However he repeated it in Electronic Games the same year, in Computer Gaming World in March 1986, and was printed once more in Atari User’s February 1988 issue. The repeated claims, so close to the events and with increasingly repeated details (five copies sold) really cements this as the most likely story.
It is very possible that there is a rogue element with this friend that Garriott mentions, but there is no way to determine who that is without him recognizing the story first, just like his misremembered reasoning behind the Avatar in Ultima IV. Unfortunately, John P. Mayer is no longer around to verify this story, but his impetus launched the career of Richard Garriott, so in that his legacy lives on.
Did Bill Cravens introduce the coin-op industry to kits by getting Universal to sell the game Mr. Do in kit form?
The coin-op industry has heroes deeply embedded into it’s culture. As a highly personal business, it’s almost natural that certain ‘family members’ become deified. Ray Maloney who created Bally Manufacturing, Sam Stern who developed the greatest pinball games of the early flipper era, and Nolan Bushnell who revitalized the industry with his Pong contraption.
In the 80s though, there was a new, balding savior on the block: Bill Cravens. You can view a history of Cravens’ involvement in the industry in my prior post, but suffice it to say he had been a rather low key player in sales and manufacturing at this point. He oversaw the pre-Space Invaders hit Space Wars coming into prominence, but other than that his track record had been spotty (All in Color for a Quarter).
The story is that Bill Cravens arrived at the Japanese company Universal with a mission: Introduce kit games so that operators could save their business by converting older cabinets into new profit machines. He claimed once that he tried to convince his prior company, Pacific Novelty, to do so but was turned down.
[Bill Cravens] […] [T]hey wanted to sell wood.(All in Color for a Quarter; sourced 1998-2002)
The game Mr. Do, created in Japan, was incredibly simple and thus could fit into cabinets with only a joystick and a button. He pressured the Universal management to let him deal Mr. Do as a kit game as well as establish “kit service centers” in which operators could send their games to be converted without them having to do much. Over time, Cravens was able to put on demonstrations of how simple it was to convert the games so the centers were no longer needed, but it was an important step in normalizing the process by providing operators a service as well as a new game.
Was this the first game to be offered as a kit though? Well, no. Kit games go all the way back to the days of Pong in some form or another. Even taking this less literally though, there is no way one could claim that Cravens made the first kit by a major manufacturer. In 1981, Sega introduced their Convert-a-Game system which ran their raster and vector-based G80 hardware. Operators could exchange out several games right from the off rather than having to convert unrelated games from other companies (All in Color for a Quarter).
Perhaps most surprisingly though, Cravens was not even the first salesman to sell kits at Universal. In December 1981, Universal debuted a game called Lady Bug which was sold as an upright. It was a fairly decent seller for the time, but by the end of 1982 the sales had started to fall off a little bit. They decided to create an interchangeable version of the game sometime in the latter half of 1982. The first mention of this is in Replay October 1982 where the company Electrogame was given rights to manufacture Lady Bug in it’s kit form.
This may indicate that Universal wished to keep the fact that they were moving into this market hush-hush, though may simply be the result of them not manufacturing the game themselves full on. At the AMOA show, they were asked about their upcoming game Mr. Do and if it too would be available in kit form and interestingly, it’s claimed that the deal to do kits soured during the actual show.
Universal had sold a lot of ‘Lady Bug’ boards this year, in addition to whole games, but decided during the AMOA to keep their new ‘Mr. Do’ game to themselves for whole game distribution. If you want a ‘Mr. Do,’ they’ll be available in conventional game form only, not in boards. A couple of boards were shown at other booths, but these deals have been terminated. (Replay 12/1982)
This may be related to the fact that in the following year, a kit company called Eagle Conversions announced that they had authorized rights to the Mr. Do kits, which ended in litigation. Point is, they actively cancelled their plans to create a conversion kit following the AMOA show. However, in January of 1983, an official ad from Universal appeared in Vending Times offering Mr. Do conversion kits.
The biggest difficulty with this whole story is that all of this happened before Bill Cravens was announced to have joined Universal, the first mention of which was in the February 5th, 1983 issue of Cash Box. If he was really the person who convinced Universal to create kit games, it had to have happened before he actually joined the company, perhaps in the aftermath of the AMOA show.
My suspicion is that Cravens specifically sought out Universal because they were already involved in kits once he was ready to leave Pacific Novelty. As a condition for coming on board, he had to reverse the company’s prior decision to make Mr. Do only in uprights, though they would still make some number in upright sales. As Cravens is no longer with us, I asked both of his sons about this possibility, but they had no idea whether that would be true or not.
So the conclusion here is that Bill Cravens was not the first to introduce kits to Universal, and was probably not even the first guy to propose Mr. Do as a kit product. However, he established a sales infrastructure which made kits a viable business and indeed managed to push all levels of the industry to accept conversion games. Without his efforts, the arcade industry crash may have done even more damage than it managed to on it’s own.
(Thanks as always to Alex Smith, Keith Smith, Takeda-san, and Akagai-san for their help with this year’s discoveries!)
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