The Forgotten First GDC: Gametronics

From January 18th-20th 1977, an event was held at the Hyatt House hotel in Burlingame, California that celebrated the people behind the video game industry. Awards were presented to luminaries such as Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer, one of the first histories of the industry was compiled, and the makers of the future Mattel Intellivision plus the Commodore PET were in attendance.

What should have been remembered as the first coming together of the video game industry was almost forgotten. Almost.

The sign outside the Hyatt House parking lot in Burlingame.

The event was known as Gametronics, which optimistically described itself as the first of a series of conferences held for the video game industry. Prior to this event, only trade shows had ever brought rival electronic games companies into direct contact. As the war of home Pong clones raged on store shelves and new frontiers clashed in the arcades, the dust settled after Christmas for both a postmortem and a look towards the future of video games. 1976 had been a tumultuous year for the industry and the future of gaming was just around the corner.

Profile photo of Jerry Eimbinder
Jerry Eimbinder, editor at EE Times

Industry conferences are generally organized by an outside entity rather than a singular company within the industry, and in this case we have one man to thank for this extraordinary event. Jerry Eimbinder was an early electronics magazine editor, holding the distinction of editing the semiconductor portion of the famous issue of Electronics magazine which first introduced the concept of Moore’s Law. He moved to Electronic Engineering Times, a weekly trade which covered some of the most notable developments in computer technology, including video games.

EE Times ad page.

In general, the magazines devoted to electronics hobbyists or mainframe computer users did not take much time to talk about video games, but EE Times put it as a point of pride. Eimbinder’s editorship led to features such as that on the AY-3-8500 Pong-on-a-chip and the little noted Galaxy Game built in 1971. He leveraged his industry connections into running several seminars and conferences on developing semiconductor technology, putting him in a prime place to run a conference dedicated to video games.

Eimbinder opening the Gametronics conference.

Eimbinder seemed to be genuinely fascinated with early video games and loaned them as much legitimacy as he could through his coverage. Gradually other electronics magazines caught up to his lead, but he remained a keen observer on video games through the 1980s. By far his most important contribution to this early history though was arranging the Gametronics conference in January of 1977. Eimbinder chaired the event and appears to have mostly funded it through EE Times, as well as through the standard contribution of some of the attendees.

The front page of the Gametronic Proceedings book which is available on the Internet Archive.

There seems to have been no advertisement of the event outside of EE Times. It was an industry conference so it wasn’t expected that just anyone would attend, but for a new field looking to make its mark it does seem they failed to form a unified image behind the affair. These were several different industries coming together under a vague banner and they didn’t seem to recognize the benefit of a more bound together image. While the book is the only tangible record of the event, there is some evidence that reporters of different strides were in attendance, though what came of their coverage is currently unknown.

Looking at the table of contents, we can construct a general timeline and attendee list, creating a story around this seminal occasion:

Gametronics Talks and Events

Ralph Baer’s speech at the start of the event.

Jerry Eimbinder made a few opening remarks, though what they were is not recorded. Following him, Ralph Baer took the stage for what appears to be the longest speech in the whole few days. He tells the detailed story about how he first came to work with games on a television set, what the industry was like in 1976, and some of the inventions he was working on for the future. The prelude has been the same basic story he told ever since, supported in part by documents and damaged in part by memory.

Photo of Ralph Baer in the newspaper profile “Sanders Engineer Invents TV Games” from February 3, 1977 in the Nashua Telegraph.

In the 1990s, a myth arose that Ralph Baer had never been recognized for his role in creating the video game industry. This is entirely untrue for those in the know. Sanders promoted Baer as an excised inventor in national newspaper profiles, and through the 1970s he was active in giving his views to reporters who asked for them. Even profiles absent personal interviews would usually mention the Magnavox Odyssey, not just Pong. Literacy on this matter faded over the time, but never was Baer totally buried by the sole origin myth of Atari.

NBC newscaster Jack Bates (L) interviews Ralph Baer (R)

I’ll have more to say about some of the issues in Baer’s telling of the Odyssey story at a later date, but he does have some very relevant concerns for the technologists of 1977 when framing how he and his team accomplished what they did. This sort of context tends to be glossed over in many accounts with just how ancient the tech of the Odyssey was by the time the product hit the market. Reading the speech, it’s also fairly obvious that while these papers were mostly prepared, there are some Baer mannerisms which were incorporated into this presentation by a stenographer. Even by that time, Baer was over 50 years old.

So how about Baer’s predictions for the future? Wisely he doesn’t attempt to go too far out in his presumptions, but that leaves his scope rather limited. His view seems to be that the extent to which TV games can be pushed was the same which Magnavox saw as their market strategy in 1976/1977. This meant just iterating on existing Pong variants, adding slightly better graphical representation, and reducing the numbers of chips with more computerized components. His view on programmable video games was actually rather bizarre.

Part of Ralph Baer’s patent for a CATV game system.

An idea which was experimented with in the early days of the Odyssey and which Baer wouldn’t let go of was using broadcast signals to augment gameplay. He got this system working, but he was insistent on the idea that it was a necessary supplement to make games look better even in 1977. Therefore when he talks about his loftiest ideas for the future, they include adding backgrounds to programmable games and at-home television game shows.

While these ideas weren’t too crazy, as several companies would experiment with the idea of interactive television (like Warner’s QUBE network launched that year), it was as if Baer distrusted the holistic use of digital technology. Given his background, the idea of continuing to use the features of a television made more sense to him than anyone else. Baer was right that the home video revolution was going to be an important part of video game trends, but he didn’t at all properly predict how that would happen.

At some point in the proceedings, awards were handed out to Baer and his stalwart rival Nolan Bushnell. Baer recalled that the two of them had first met in Chicago in June 1976 when Atari agreed to sign the Magnavox licensing agreement where pleasantries were explained, but this is the first and probably only time they were ever physically in the same location while being equally elevated for their accomplishments. While it may be tempting to presume that animosity brewed, Baer seemed in good spirits about Atari now that they had complied to Magnavox’s rules. The snide remarks in his speech had been spared for Bill Rusch, who he would continue to regard as an infuriating partner despite the crucial contributions he made to the Odyssey project.

Kam Lie of Signetics

After a performance by a band would come the first talk of the conference. Listed first in the book was a representative from one of the early microprocessor companies, Signetics – which was actually a fully owned subsidiary of Philips, same as Magnavox. Kam Li would regale the audience with “An Approach to Microprocessor-Based Game Architecture”. This was a wholly new field. The first microprocessor-based video games had arrived commercially in late 1975 and people were still working out what this could mean for game production. While to those with a working knowledge of computer architecture this talk is nothing special, to engineers that needed to reevaluate their way of doing things from transistor to transistor logic (TTL), this talk was probably quite helpful.

Kam Li (L) speaking with Charles Leicht (R) of Ideal Toy.

Li covers subjects such as how to smoothly animate figures on screen by treating each sprite as an object, an early example of object-oriented programming being applied to video games which it would benefit greatly from. He describes the basics behind collision detection and what that looks like in a wiring sequence. He expounds upon the uses of RAM and how different graphical approaches can emphasize or minimize how much one needs to run a display. Perhaps even more interesting are some of the sprite examples used, but that appears to have been related to the following talk.

Architecture example of an F8 Pong-variant.

Getting more specific on the points from Li’s presentation would be “Applying the F8 Microcomputer Family to Games” by Ronald L. Baldridge of Mostek Corporation. Mostek is not well known nowadays, but they were a Texas Instruments spin-off which produced most of the RAM used in the computer business in the 1970s. They were also a second source for microprocessor chips, which included a consolidated version of the Fairchild F8 family. The F8 CPU/PSU was actually two separate chips when initially released, so their single chip method would actually become a very popular option for those seeking to use the F8.

Examples of video game animation from Tank Squadron.

In this talk, Baldridge tries to sell the idea of the microprocessor far more than Li does. This makes sense given that his company sells the chip and he’s working with a practical example. What was this practical example? Well the game is called Tank Squadron. The gameplay appears to have been largely similar to Atari’s classic Tank – no surprise – released by the obscure company Video Play International. Aside from being an early microprocessor game, what made this game special was its designer: David Chandler.

Pauline Sly (L) and David Chandler (R)

Chandler is unfortunately not well known as an engineering giant, but he was destined to become the designer of the Mattel Intellivision. His presence at this conference is interesting for a few reasons. He was actually an independent contractor under the name Chandler Business Machines – which he had incorporated in 1972, presumably to do general software before video games. One way or another he found himself working for a company which took a lark on the arcade business, and this set him on the course to become Papa Intellivision.

(L-R) Camera operator, Jack Bates, David Chandler, Ron Baldridge

In one of the photos of Chandler at the event, we see that he’s being interviewed by an NBC newscaster, Jack Bates, on camera. Channel 4 in Los Angeles was on site to film the event, though if said footage was ever broadcast there is absolutely no report or trace of it. The presence of a major local news station though proves that the interest for stories on video games was flaring up now that the consumer electronics world was beginning to feel the effects of the arcade game industry.

Promotional photo for Bally’s home version of the Fireball pinball table.

Part of this focus on microprocessor systems as the culminating future of video games led to a focus on the brand new products which used them. These included Bally’s home version of the Fireball pinball table which used the F8 as well as the concept of standardized hardware platforms for both the arcade and the home. Ramtek showed off their microprocessor system which would run their game Horoscope as an example of this principle, planning to use the hardware as the basis for future games they created.

A showcase of the Commodore PET at Gametronic. On right are Jerry Eimbinder and Chuck Peddle, others unknown.

One platform that appeared there though was a real surprise. Chuck Peddle from MOS Technology, a subsidiary of Commodore, showed up with a computer called the PET in the second ever appearance of what would become a legendary machine. The computer was housed in a wooden outer shell for demonstration purposes and represented a future of the home computer which few thought possible at the time: A self-contained device that anybody could use. It wouldn’t be the only such vision of programmable systems at the conference either.

Various connectors used in electronics devices.

The next two talks were very technical, focusing primarily on manufacturing and material components. Robert L. Shay Jr. from AMP Inc. presented the talk “Capabilities and Limitations of Video Game Interconnection Systems” which discussed the cost and reliability of connectors in consumer electronics. On the same note was the representative from Adtech Power Inc., James F. McNulty, in “Game Power Supply Considerations”, targeting one of the most expensive aspects of assembling an electronic coin-op game. These topics were vital for industrial engineers, but were ultimately fairly minor things to consider in the grander story at play.

Photo of a cartridge being placed inside the Fairchild VES/Channel F.

The talk after this also dealt with material components, but was far more interesting to those keeping an eye on new technology. Robert M. Bogursky of Burndy Corporation gave a talk relating to the work the company had done for Fairchild on their brand new programmable console, the Video Entertainment System – later the Channel F. Specifically this related to Fairchild’s newest innovation, the cartridge casing for replaceable games on the system. “A Home Video Game Cartridge Connector System – Interconnection Considerations and Techniques” went into great detail about the mechanical design and potential pitfalls of syncing a cartridge with an underlying electronics design.

An illustration of Fairchild’s patented cartridge locking mechanism.

As discovered and iterated on initially by Ron Smith at Fairchild, the typical methods for connecting electronic components to a computer were too fragile for consumer use. Smith came up with a method which used metal edge connectors inside of a plastic shell, using a rotating connector inside the machine to interface with the cartridge pins. Bogursky goes into meticulous detail about how the Fairchild system works on every level. This patented method did not scare off companies from pursuing the cartridge format though. In fact, the Gametronics paper may have been the first step for the industrial designers at places like Atari to begin dissecting what they could get away with in their own cartridge systems, as well as the materials that may work best for their components.

A chart showing estimates of electronic game revenue in 1976, with projections to 1980.

The next paper was a market report, “Electronic Games: Technology Drives Market Explosion” by Jeff D. Montgomery of Gnostic Concepts Inc. In his overview, he gives a view of the market which sees the revenue from home video games in a significant lead over coin-op video games, $148 million versus $57 million in 1976, respectively. However, this shouldn’t be surprising. As I covered in my article on video game sales figures, revenue on arcade cabinets was entirely secondary to the type of money that they took in on location. Companies were not getting insanely rich off of selling in the low thousands of arcade cabinets, which is part of the reason many of them eyed the home market so readily.

A breakdown of revenue for the different segments of electronic games in 1976, with predictions to 1980.

Out of the figures that Montgomery gives, the most interesting are those which relate to international markets. Not only does he chart the imports and exports of supply in the US, but also where the components were coming from. There’s a firm prediction that electronic supplies will remain primarily US-made, despite what was currently going on in the calculator market with the Japanese chip makers. He also notes that in arcade games as a whole, only $2 million of total electronic game products were imported in 1976, including that from Japan who would come to play a much larger role in the near future.

In retrospect – as with nearly all predictions of the future game market in the 1970s – the hilarity comes not from the optimism of the moment but from the prediction that in 1980 the market would only rise about 300%. It ultimately ended up being closer to 400%, actually making this one of the more accurate predictions of the time. Nobody properly anticipated the explosion in 1979 after Space Invaders and therefore, while extraordinarily useful as a market research source for 1976, Gnostic Concepts did not have its finger on the pulse of the future.

A child playing a Pong-style game with the Trazor.

The same could be said for the quirky follow-up to this examination, “The Trazor™ – A New Input Device”, more or less a marketing talk by Peptek Inc. for their titular game controller. William Pepper Jr. of Peptek and consultant Alan J. Rider of Reston Consulting Group were pitching a touchpad gaming device similar to that of a laptop mousepad or a Steam Controller today. It was perhaps one of the very first addon controllers, meant for controlling Pong-style games which demanded a degree of analog movement. Interesting though it was, the patented Trazor never found any traction and appears to have not been commercialized.

Example of a computer-generated portrait using typewriter characters.

Another quirky technology on display was summarized as the “Video Portrait Systems” in a display by Colorado Video Inc.’s Glen R. Southworth. As an attempted revitalization of coin-operated photobooths, several companies had introduced picture-takers which used digital technology to reproduce a photo. Atari was in production of one called Compugraph Foto and as computer displays of the time were not able to reproduce a photographic image in super high fidelity, they would instead use a text-based printer to create a facsimile of the image using the ink density of different alpha-numeric characters. This was part of the gimmick, to have a unique portrait that you knew was taken by a computer.

A chart showing a potential way to transfer an analog photo into a digital printout.

There was something noble about the technological effort, but these were expensive apparatuses that used minicomputers to power them. Curiously as well, the diagram from Southworth shows use of a Video Disc, the likes of which was not yet commercially available, yet would be an effective way to translate an analog image to a digital format. The talk was mainly focused on the fidelity of reproductions of the image and had very little to do with games, though it may have been an influence on Ralph Baer’s later work in digitized graphics which led to the prototype that later became the game Journey.

Video display pioneer Stephen Beck.

The talk, “TV Game Design: Parameters, Pitfalls, Potentials” may not be what one expects by the title. Far more than the “game” or “design” part of the title, the “TV” portion is far more focused on. Stephen Beck, the wild-looking speaker, was a pioneer in the analog and digital realms in creating synthetic images for video art displays. Though his realm was more in creating repetitive patterns for art exhibitions, through working on these early synthesized systems he had learned an immense amount about the technical procedures behind CRT displays. Therefore, he felt that he could leverage this into consulting for the emerging field of electronic game design while professing to have no skill at it himself.

An envisioned game creator workstation by Beck.

As with other visionaries of this period, Beck also attempted to conceive of a perfect game development/play system as shown in this diagram. It’s amusing to look at the priorities of different engineers in this period and how they perceived the needs of practical game creation from the outside. In a way this diagram wasn’t too far off of the standard development setup, at least for games in the early 1980s, though we thankfully had controllers which didn’t look like an audio panel. I’m not entirely sure if we won out on that decision though.

Assembly of a kit Pong game. Kits were not subject to FCC regulation.

By far the most contentious issue in the early console market was the topic of the second Sander’s Associates representative to take the podium, Daniel J. Norton with “TV Games and the FCC”. The Federal Communications Commission and video game devices had – and would continue to have – a very rocky relationship. FCC regulations attempted to prevent interference on the airwaves and had been involved with video games from Day 1 with the Odyssey. Their watchdog approach to the consumer market was a major pain for electronics companies looking to get involved in home video games.

The Fairchild console was delayed by the need to adhere to the FCC emission standards.

Such restrictions had already been the downfall of several major dedicated console companies including Universal Research Laboratories’ Video Action series. Fairchild had to delay the release of their VES console – due to not meeting FCC specifications – from August to November of 1976, eating up much of their time to produce sufficient inventory. RCA had only just launched their Studio II console due to the same issue. The FCC was a spector which threatened to cancel any upcoming product should the manufacturer be inexperienced enough to not properly shield any and all electronic noise from the outside world.

Dan Norton in the Sanders Associates RF emissions lab, testing a console.

Sanders Associates by this time had an entire dedicated lab for detecting RF interference run by Norton. The creation of this lab had been prompted by Coleco approaching Ralph Baer to fix their successful Telstar console. Many companies – including Magnavox, naturally – came to them to solve the issues of building an unshielded device. Norton’s talk primarily focuses on the language of the current regulations and ongoing attempts to soften the harshness of these overbearing standards.

Chuck McEwan of Ramtek.

An incredibly brief talk followed by Charles “Chuck” McEwan, co-founder of the company Ramtek. Discussing their recent move into CPUs for their video game equipment, “Advantages and Disadvantages of Microprocessors in Coin-Operated Games” makes a few clumsy remarks about the state of the market before delving into the cost of moving to code-based game production. He does note that the transfer had basically locked his company into creating games for the internal system they devised before they could change their underlying technology, which was not an approach that every coin-op company took. Only a few stuck to a single system for an extended period of time, but Ramtek saw this as a long term investment and kept with their Intel 8080 system for a few years.

Two unidentified Molex executives at their display booth.

One of the most important behind the scenes companies in coin-op manufacturing, Molex was best known for its electrical connectors which were widely used in solid state devices across the spectrum from jukeboxes to pinball. Their talk “Connectors and Switches for Use in Games” presented by Dick Pierce was pretty much just a marketing pitch but it was a statement of their presence in the early video game industry. The company still exists today and among vintage equipment repairers, their connectors remain the standard for reliability.

The second unit of the Galaxy Game on location at the Tressider Student Union at Stanford University.

In perhaps the most ambitious task of the whole event, showrunner Jerry Eimbinder set up a series of talks which were an attempt to chart the past, present, and future of the video game market. The presentation “TV Game Background” was one of the first ever attempts to create a canon of subjects for video game history, told with a mind towards then-current market trends. While the dates are almost all gibberish in an attempt to create a narrative, the beginning is remarkably similar to most summaries you’d find today. He tackles Spacewar, then the dual developments of Galaxy Game and Computer Space, then talks to Baer for the original Odyssey, followed by the introduction of Atari and the larger home video game market.

Magnavox’s Odyssey 300 console.

From here, the telling diverges to show its time, place, and audience. He spends a considerable amount of time talking about the technological differences between the Odyssey 100/200 from the original. Then he pivots into talking about a very obscure Pong console company from the early days of home systems called First Dimension, using their technological lagging to explain how they spectacularly collapsed before the beginning of 1977. This cautionary tale is contrasted against General Instruments’ success with the AY-3-8500 chip, which appears to validate the need to move to large scale integration and single chip solutions.

A demonstration of National Semiconductor’s Adversary console, which everybody presumed would be a massive success.

Eimbinder presents these tales of success – as in Atari and General Instrument – against cases of failure – Galaxy Game and First Dimension – as a potential crystal ball into the future of the market. These tales themselves have some interesting details (including an early appearance of the famous Pong “quarter” myth) but the ultimate takeaway feeds into what he presumes as the future trends in gaming, elaborated on in the next talk. This early conglomeration of the field’s history would be influential though. Electronic Games would reprint the timeline presented in this article in their second issue while adding to reflect the seemingly important events of their own current time. Historiography!

Promotional photo of the Fairchild VES/Channel F.

“Trends in TV Games” sees Eimbinder using his electronics experience to take in the totality of the consumer electronics markets to see what may lie in store for video games, primarily for the next year of 1977. It’s clear that he was very informed and knowledgeable from this take alone. He knew about the upcoming microcomputers, the past relationships of military suppliers with the rise of hi-fi audio, and what had occurred in the overheated calculator market only a few years ago. There was optimism in his projections, but not overly so. He felt that there were many untapped markets for games to appear on and be successful, though never with an eye on multiplying over what had earlier been projected by the experts.

Estimate console sales per manufacturer in 1976.

Subsequent pages attempt to conglomerate as much general information about the scope of the video game market as possible. Most interesting for historians are the gathered estimates for the past year’s market. These included figures from analyst groups as well as asking the companies themselves what they thought the size of the market was, then averaging them out for a medium. This wasn’t precise work but it led to some interesting conclusions, such as the top four manufacturers of home Pong games only being slightly above half of the total market of around 3.75 million systems for the year. With the information between market share and dollar volume, there’s enough interesting data to draw some conclusions about this early period.

A list of all then-current makers and sellers of electronic games, both coin-operated and home consoles.

On a singular page, Eimbinder also attempts to take a survey of all the companies currently involved in the manufacturing or sale of video games. While he says that it was probably outdated the second he penned it, this collection is nevertheless another invaluable look at the scope of the market and includes names you will find scant mention of elsewhere. In the home category in particular there are companies who never emerged with a home console, making this document the only potential remaining remnant of their interest (presuming that none of them are typos). The coin-op section likewise provides a view of the much more narrow arcade market, seeing just how competitive that field was. Most of the manufacturers listed would not even continue through to the 1980s.

Demonstration of the Joypad on a high-end graphical workstation.

Yet another controller would be up on the docket through a company called I Corporation, represented by Victor Kley in the talk “Video Game Controllers”. That broad topic disguised the completely unrepentant advertisement for something that was not remotely a video game controller, despite the name. The “Joypad” was a graphical tablet made for CAD use and far less practical for game playing than even the Trazor. The entirety of the talk spirals into hilarity as he talks about how bad keyboards and potentiometers are for gaming and attempts to convince people of the superiority of a cursor-based design. While he may have been on track with recognizing the power of graphical direction on computers, this ploy was so blatant and unhelpful that the Joypad would never even make it to market.

The underlying circuit design of the AY-3-8500.

Far more successful was the subject of the talk by Les Penner, “The Six-In-One TV Game Chip” on the General Instruments AY-3-8500. Unofficially referred to as the “Pong-on-a-Chip”, the circuit had served as the backbone of over a dozen dedicated consoles from the past year, and that number would only increase in 1977. It hardly needed advertising, but nevertheless this talk goes into every aspect about working with the chip. They discussed its initial production history, reprinted figures from the official manuals, and even showed off the DIE of the chip itself. This was an instance of a company not being remotely scared to share its secrets as they had absolutely nothing to lose by doing so.

Lisa poses as an electronic android doll.

Only a single conference room appears to have been used at the hotel, though it would be used for different types of showcases. In a presentation documented only through photos, a series of women posed as “electronic dolls” – basically human cyborgs – as a projection of the potential realism of robotics. It is possible this was just for fun. One of the photos shows two mime-dressed “malfunctioning” robots wearing make-up and making gestures at the audience in exaggerated ways. All of it was attempting to reinforce the idea though, of a potentially limitless future for electronic entertainment.

Promotional photo for the Fairchild system.

The final two talks – at least in the book order – are again Jerry Eimbinder vehicles to direct and determine the course of the video game market in a time well before anyone could clearly view its future. “Home Electronic Game Categories” is exactly what it says on the tin, a classification of the types of game platforms, moreso than the different designs of games which he saved for the following talk. Building on what had been presented at the conference so far, he determined that there were twelve individual game categories.

  • Dedicated TV games. These were the traditional home games with built-in functionality. Atari’s Pong, Coleco’s Telstar, Odyssey 100/200, and the like.
  • Chip-alterable TV games. This category was only starting to gain traction at the time and would become popular in Europe under a category of games that used the General Instruments chip series called the SD-050 family. More famously in the United States would be the Coleco Telstar Arcade.
  • Programmable TV games. The brand new category which included the Fairchild VES and the RCA Studio II.
  • Game kits & educational games. This category – vastly overplayed in their importance throughout the event – were self-assembled electronics kits. The “educational” part was putting the thing together, not the games themselves. Their one benefit was not having to abide by the FCC regulations, but as a market, the Pong console kit craze would be utterly dead even before the fully assembled Pong consoles collapsed.
  • Built-in TV games. A category with very few entries, this was almost entirely regulated to the likes of the Odyssey Model 4305 and potentially to the original Video Action which also had a television attached. Of course today one would call this a “Smart TV”.
  • Accessories. Used as an example here was the original Odyssey rifle attachment. There were very few accessories at this point because the options for games weren’t very broad, but presumably some of the controllers featured at the conference could have been considered accessories if they ever became general-use devices.
  • Self-contained TV games. Best described as what the Vectrex is, though that obviously didn’t exist at the time. Once again Video Action could be slotted into this category depending on the model and the utility.
  • Home computers. The most exciting category on the horizon, obviously best exemplified by the Commodore PET that was currently with them.
  • Console games. An odd category that obviously doesn’t mean programmable systems. A “console” in this case appears to refer to a more physical object as the example given is the home pinball machines.
  • Board games. Primarily relating to the chess-playing electronic category, though would come to encompass things like Electronic Battleship and the new version of Mastermind.
  • Pocket games. These are the handheld games, only just announced by Mattel some days earlier at CES, Auto Race and Football. They were calculator-sized and can theoretically fit in the pocket.
  • Mobile games. An utterly bizarre category which is described as, “[G]ames in which movement of three-dimensional objects takes place.” Presumably this is referring to things like the first-person racing games in the arcade, but it makes no sense as a category given the prior criteria.
Participant in the conference playing Outlaw.

In a far less orderly discussion, Eimbinder would follow up the technical categorizations with a wide-ranging view of game themes in “Games Developed by the TV Games Industry”. Noting the overwhelming proliferation of ball-and-paddle madness across the market, he attempts to categorize the variants and other types of games, naming the “genres” after prominent examples. These include “Robot” which may be named after the Allied Leisure game, “Protection” which appear to be games like Atari’s Rebound, and “Wipeout” which is similar to Ramtek’s Clean Sweep. All of these appear to have been present in home consoles by the time of the categorization.

Chuck McEwan (second from right) shows off his game Barricade.

What was not in the home yet though were a few other noted examples. Barricade, the Ramtek clone of Blockade, was the genre namer, proving its spread in the week or two it had been out (which ultimately brought Gremlin to sue Ramtek). LEM is mentioned as one of the lunar landing variants, though it’s not terribly clear if this had been seen in a graphical demonstration or purely text. From there he describes the upcoming variants from General Instruments’ new chip series which promised to expand the potential for dedicated games on the market with dozens of new – but homogeneous – games for console makers in 1977.

Al Alcorn (far right) plays Tank 8 with atendees.

Many demonstrations took place throughout the event, from numerous arcade games on the show floor to awards ceremonies and informal demonstrations occurring during all three days of the conference. Plenty more people than the speakers attended including the likes of Al Alcorn, representatives from companies such as Disney and Ideal Toys, and doubtless other undocumented luminaries. The residual images in the book show both promotional photos as well as an extremely diverse atmosphere of excitement and personal connections. Though we may never fully reconstruct what it was like to be there in the moment, the visual remnants remind us of a time of pure excitement within the video game field when absolutely nobody knew where it was going to end up.

Jerry Eimbinder (L), Nolan Bushnell (R), creepy clown (C)

Jerry Eimbinder remained interested in video games for the rest of his stint at Electronic Engineering Times. By all appearances he wanted to organize a second conference, but he never had the opportunity, possibly due to the home video game market scare in 1977. He would be occasionally asked to comment on the video game story which he had pioneered in covering and continued to write about this subject and others throughout his life. He passed away on May 19, 2017 at the age of 84 from pancreatic cancer.

Two unidentified ladies join Edward Joiner (R) a “games consultant” based in Chicago.

Gametronics was a one-off event, nearly forgotten to the annals of history if not for the publishing of its papers in the rare volume I was able to scan through library loan. The whole volume is worth reading as a fascinating insight into the 1970s video gaming scene, a period little understood and often thought of as devoid of interesting content. I hope that, despite the technical overload, that this meeting of the minds can really be seen as a time of expansion for creative and commercial potential in the early video game market. It may have had effects which rippled down into far more well known game history as well.

People crowd around a Breakout machine.

We can’t prove whether or not the talks and/or papers properly influenced console and arcade game creators across the industry, but in reading this volume it’s hard to see how they couldn’t. Many of the secrets of the 1970s industry were laid bare for the first and only time, allowing for a technical groundwork as well as high level examination of video games. The stuff which connects with us most today – such as the weird categorization – seems to have been far less prescient than the discussion of metal alloys and system architectures. This conference put tools in the hands of technical people to make good decisions about producing commercial video games, and provides us insight into the dead ends which were pursued by dedicated amateurs.

Attendees of the first, and only, Gametronics conference during the opening proceedings which included live music.

The Gametronics festivities remain an utterly fascinating slice of video game history. It was the first game developer’s conference and ground zero for the new changes in a radical disruption happening in games circa 1977.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of the wild times which occurred 45 years ago. There’s more I would love to learn about this conference. For instance, might the television footage of it still exist? We have a lot still yet to learn about 1970s video games and I hope I helped impart some of that spirit of discovery into this post.

As always, feel free to reach out! See you again soon.

2 thoughts on “The Forgotten First GDC: Gametronics

    1. Thank you for the comment Mr. Eimbinder! I really regret not seeking our your father as soon as I found this book. He was a supremely interesting man whose insight really shaped the world of technology as we know it today.

      Do you happened to know if any issues of the EE Times have been kept or preserved? I’ve always wanted to read those issues.


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