Monday, October 8, 2012

The Story of Rock-Ola Video Games (Part 2)

While video games revolutionized the coin-op industry in the 1970s and 1980s, the major jukebox manufacturers largely stayed away. AMI/Rowe and Wurlitzer never entered the video game market at all (Wurlitzer largely abandoned jukeboxes in the 1970s, though they did return to limited production in the 1980s). Seeburg released a single video game under its own banner and owned Williams Electronics when they produced their first video games in 1973. Rock-Ola initially stayed out of the field but after the success of Space Invaders they threw their hat in the ring.

Rock-Ola entered the video game market in late 1980 via a licensing agreement for two Cinematronics games - Armor Attack and a cocktail version of Star Castle. They also obtained rights to Cinematronics' vector system.  

[Tim Skelly] When Cinematronics gave Rock-Ola the license to manufacture Star Castle as a cocktail unit, they also licensed the right to develop their own games on the system. They built their own motherboard and used Larry’s card as a display driver. (The Cinematronics hardware had no processor. It was all TTL logic). Besides Demon, Rock-Ola also did this really weird game that was played on the surface of a rotating cube.  I only saw it at a game show once and no one I’ve talked to knows if it was ever built.

The iconic image of the old west - giant gorillas
from SNK/Rock-Ola's Pioneer Ballon
       It would be a while before Rock-Ola produced any games using the Cinematronics system. Donald Rockola (David's son) needed a game for the U.S. market as soon as possible so Rock-Ola went back to the licensing well. From Namco came Warp Warp, a maze game in which the player warped between two different worlds where they killed pursuing tongue-wagging aliens with either bullets or bombs. Play started in the free-form “space world” with a “warp zone” in the middle. When the warp zone started flashing, they could enter it and be transported to “maze world”. The player had two weapons – a laser, and a supply of time-delay bombs (the length of the delay could be set by holding down the button longer). Shooting three aliens in a row of the same color caused an octopus or snapping-jaw-like bonus monster to appear.
       Hoei's Jump Bug put the player in control of a bouncing VW beetle using a laser to fight off enemy aliens while collecting money bags and other treasure. The game took place over eight different screens in six different environments: a city, clouds, a plain, volcanoes, a pyramid, and an undersea scene. Mermaid (aka Yachtsman) from the obscure Sanritsu was a video version of a yacht race with the player maneuvering their yacht through a series of gates while avoiding rocks, sharks, seagulls, and other hazards (but, alas, no mermaids – Mermaid was the name of the player’s boat). The best of the Japan-licensed games came from SNK. Pioneer Balloon was an odd, though enjoyable, game in which the player piloted a hot-air balloon over a southwest landscape while dropping bombs on wagon trains and Native American villages before landing in a fort. The weird part came via the games many anachronistic (or downright bizarre) elements. The “Native Americans” lived in huts and hurled boomerangs (in the Wild West?). An even stranger enemy was a series of killer waterspouts (in the Wild West??). Strangest of all was a stage involving a series of islands populated by hopping-mad giant, yellow apes (in the Wild West???).
          Fantasy (another SNK license) was a multi-stage game that was, if anything, even weirder. As the game started, the player’s girlfriend Cheri was captured by pirates. The player then set out to rescue her in – a hot air balloon?? (again with the balloons). In the first scene, the player boarded the pirate ship and made his way to the capture Cheri, only to have her snatched away by a giant red bird (or was it an insect?). But wait, it gets weirder. The player then floated amidst smiling clouds with eyeballs over a tropical landscape avoiding off birds and coconuts thrown by – hopping mad giant, yellow apes (again with the apes!). But wait, it gets weirder. Next came a climbing level featuring an apple-throwing baboon. The goal was to reach the bird (or insect) nest where the lovely Cheri awaited. Once again, however, she was whisked away by a native at the last minute, this time to a jungle filled with tigers. The player then reached a native village where Cheri was tied to the top of a stake over a fire. After defeating the natives (who looked like yellow triangles with horns), Cheri was taken away yet again. This time by a helicopter. But wait, it gets weirder. After avoiding fleets of helicopters, the player reached – wait for it – London Bridge!??! Where the player finally to rescue his blue-haired damsel-in-distress, carrying away in his balloon as she cooed “I love you.”
       Cinematronics wasn't the only U.S. company from which Rock-Ola licensed games. 1982’s Eyes was a maze shooting game in which the play guided an eyeball (after Pioneer Balloon and Fantasy, that seems almost normal) through a series of 8 mazes, collecting dots and shooting at enemy eyes. The game was licensed from Digitrex/TechStar. Located in Miami, TechStar had been formed by former Allied/Centuri executives Bill Olliges and Ed Miller. The game was designed by former Allied Leisure and Arcade Engineering engineer Luis Sanchez. Eyes reached #5 on RePlay's software charts.

Meanwhile, the company had formed an internal design team to produce games of their own. At the top were engineering manager "Uncle Larry" Gleason and engineering group leader Mike Perkins (the company itself was being run by David Rockola's son Donald). Perkins had come to Rock-Ola in 1978 after doing consulting work for Williams Electronics. Rock-Ola was looking for people with digital experience to work on their microprocessor-based jukebox system. Perkins was hired by an audio engineer who had little experience with digital electronics.
[Mike Perkins] When we began discussing how much memory their MPU devices had, and he expressed 1K as being exactly a thousand bytes, I knew if I were hired that I would have a free hand to run the digital portion of engineering for them. They did not generally find too many high-tech people interested in working there because of the location, so I was a shoo-in.

Gleason had worked at Motorola and Seeburg before coming to Rock-Ola. Interestingly, both Gleason and Perkins had worked on their respective companies' first microprocessor jukeboxes and both worked with prestigious outside firms. Perkins worked with National Semiconductor to develop Rock-Ola's first microprocessor jukebox while at Seeburg, Gleason headed a team from Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the world's most prestigious technology consulting firms (founded in 1914).

When Rock-Ola decided to create a video game team, Gleason began building a work area (they eventually ended up using some abandoned rooms used for vending machine testing) while Perkns began assembling a team. Perkins first tried to teach a technician named Jerry Sakamoto to turn his pseudo-code into an assembler for a video game. A quiet but jovial man with an infectious laugh, Sakamoto had spent time in a Japanese internment camp during his youth. While he was an excellent jukebox technician, programming was too abstract for him and Rock-Ola soon began to hire experienced programmers.

The first developers to arrive were John Jacobsma and Joe Ulowetz (who had a masters degree in astronomy). The two were tasked with learning the Vectorbeam system by programming something on it.

[Mike Perkins] We had Star Castle running on the emulator… Before I knew it, Joe had created a “game” where you would input parameters for orbits, and using the laws of orbital mechanics, you could watch how your values for gravity, velocity, altitude, etc. would give you either stable or unstable orbits. We had a riot. But we also had to learn new things like hit zones and be able to calculate an entire frame’s worth of data within the 35 milliseconds of the frame.

Jacobsma also wrote line-drawing code for the Vectorbeam 2076 board.

[Mike Perkins] It was a processor in itself. It was an amazing processor for the time. It had an instruction set of 26 instructions. Later I expanded it to something like 33 or so. But it was what you would now call a RISC processor. It had one job, and that was calculate line stroke vectors, while keeping the beam speed fairly constant so that the beam intensity would not vary during the stroke, or from one stroke to another. It was a brilliant piece of engineering. I used to describe it as a RISC microprocessor splattered out onto a board of 100 TTL chips. I still have one at home.

We saw the distinct disadvantages of not having color VectorBeam against color raster scan games. So, where angels fear to tread, I jumped in and agreed to make a color interface board. I quickly learned about DACs, color space, and expanding the I/O space of the VectorBeam processor to make room for color. And viola – we had eight-bit color. Plus some tweaking to get the beams back running straight and true. Drove me crazy for a month until Larry jumped in.

In addition to Ulowetz, the main game developers were Joe Bak, John Jaugilas, Robin Mueller, and Lonnie Ropp. Many of the designers had grown up playing video games. Lonnie Ropp had first gotten interested in computers in high school, where he had access to computers that could connect to a university mainframe via acoustically coupled modems (a rarity for a high school in 1970s, especially in southeast Iowa). He went to the University of Iowa to become an architect, but took a few programming classes on the side. Then an event occurred that pushed his career in a different direction

[Lonnie Ropp] Right across from the campus Aladdin's Castle had just set up an arcade [and I realized] "Wait a second. All these games have microprocessors in them…and those are the classes I'm taking right now. That's what I want to do". My favorite games back then were Centipede, RipOff, and Tailgunner. I remember going home one night and I'd played [Rip Off] for so long that my eyes were having difficulty focusing.

Ropp switched his major to Computer Science (he got the job at Rock-Ola by submitting a game he'd designed in college as his resume).

[Mike Perkins]  Lonnie lived in the wilds of Iowa, where he was living with his parents. He drove the family’s green Impala all the way, by himself, to the raunchy Chicago neighborhood on a Saturday for an interview with me. It went well and I wanted to hire him. But Larry wanted to meet him first. Larry and I were both pilots, so a few Saturdays later, we rented an airplane and flew to Iowa. The interview went very well and Larry, who is hard to impress, was impressed with Lonnie’s bubbling enthusiasm. We also played Stump the Microprocessor Programmer, and he passed that, too. So we made him an offer. He accepted with a huge rolling, thunderous laugh and whooping, which has always belonged to Lonnie. 

Larry gave the bill for the flight expenses to Donald [Rockola] in person. Donald got furious with Larry and I. It wasn’t about the cost. Donald said that if Larry and I perished together, his game development group would perish with us, and we were henceforth forbidden to ever fly together, and that included airline travel.
When Lopp joined Rock-Ola, the video game team was secreted away in their own section of the factory secured by key-coded locks. This was in part due to fears of industrial espionage and in part due to concerns over crime. At the time, Rock-Ola was still located at the same building on 800 N. Kedzie that they had occupied since 1934. By the 1980s, however, the neighborhood had become one of the highest crime areas of town


            The first game they produced was Demon, a black-and-white vector game created by Joe Ulowetz. The game put the player in control of a backpack-wearing space miner who collected crystals and loaded them into a shuttle while avoiding or shooting mutated aliens.

Rocket Racer

Rocket Racer flyer
            While Demon was the only in-house designed vector game that Rock-Ola released, they did create two others that made it to the prototype stage. Rocket Racer was designed by John Jaugilas; an electrical engineering who had come to Rock-Ola from AT&T. Rocket Racer was a first-person game in which the player piloted a ship through a series of outer-space tunnels.

[John Jaugilas] You had mines that hurt your ship and slowed it down but if you could stay flying within the 4-D  tunnel…it accelerated you faster and faster so you tried to use these as electromagnetic accelerator lanes. Fly through one and you went faster. Hit a mine flying from one to another…and you got slowed down. To give you a 3-D effect I made things shake subliminally one frame per on 30th of a second. the closer things shook more and the thing further away didn't shake. But this only happened while you were moving. It was something you couldn't see, but you could absolutely sense it. Really cool effect… the 2076 didn't have enough horsepower to do what I wanted so I designed a Z-80 processor board to do all the gameplay logic and make the 2076 just a drawing graphics machine so it could draw and draw and not waste time calculating anything. that made for a pretty incredible system. I had wire wrapped my first prototype and the other 5 were done by one of the techs that worked on some of the juke box stuff.

The game also featured a new game controller that used a Zilog Z-80 microprocessor to control the VectorBeam processor and a separate sound board (the latter created by Mike Perkins). One of the game's sounds came from an unusual source.

[Mike Perkins] One day, while John Jaugilas was working on Rocket Racer I walked by the woodworking prototype shop and heard the whine of a high-speed router winding down. I thought it was perfect for the engine sound, so we tried to duplicate it electronically. I think we came pretty close.

The video game group at Rock-Ola was disbanded before the game made it to field testing.


       Probably the most innovative, and undoubtedly the most unusual of Rock-Ola's vector games was the unreleased QB-3. It started from an idea suggested by a letter a customer had written (Rock-Ola received man such letters and routed them to Mike Perkins) but the final game bore little resemblance to what it looked like when it started. The main designer and programmer was Robin Mueller, a brilliant IBM 370 programmer from Nebraska whose mind was, as Mike Perkins describes it "a machine running at 10 GHz". The game was original called Cubie but the front office changed it to QB-3.
QB-3 was a color vector game that took place on the surface of a rotating 3-dimensional cube. Ala Robotron, the player used two joysticks - one for moving and the other for "frying" a variety of enemies, including nerds and squirters. The enemies were shaped like numbers and each had their own attack characteristics.

[John Jaugilas]  The "ones" only had one move, the "twos" had two ways of attacking, the "threes" three...The "sevens" could track you as you left the face of the cube and the "eights" could actually follow you across an edge. Heck, you're playing a game where you need to clear off enemies on all six sides of a cube and when you hit an edge you roll to that other face. Then you have the edgies that keep you from lurking on an edge. It was Robin's game but I contributed to some of the gameplay. The downside to the game is that it got very intense after wave 3 or 4 and conceptually it took a while to learn but once learned it was great.


An extra man could be earned by scoring 20,000 points or by collecting six dollar signs. Robin Mueller and the rest of the design team spent months on the game, stretching the Cinematronics VectorBeam system to its limits. The game was first tested at an arcade owned by the Rockola family located in a strip mall in Aurora, about an hour outside of Chicago. The game fared poorly - so poorly in fact that they designers thought there must be something wrong with the game or its play meter. A few weeks later they decided to test the game in another arcade in the Chicago loop where it did much better. The results were puzzling, however. On some it was player for 5-6 hours, often ranking as the 2nd or 3rd highest grossing game in the arcade for 3 or 4 days a week. On other days, however, it was barely played it all. The team couldn't figure out what was causing the strange results. Innovative as it was, QB-3 was never released, in part because Rock-Ola shut down its video game division and in part because the lead designer left. Robin Mueller didn't care for life in the big city and returned to his home state of Nebraska to work on accounting programs before the game was finished. The day he quit, he called his boss Mike Perkins and told him he wasn't coming into work that day, or any other.
            After leaving Rock-Ola, Perkins went to for an R&D firm in Chicago run by Jeff Frederiksen (of Dave Nutting Associates fame), where he eventually solved the mystery of QB-3s anomalous test results. Part of Perkins' job involved interviewing potential new employees.
[Mike Perkins] One candidate came in bubbling with enthusiasm with the idea of working on the fringes of video game development. We didn’t hire him, but we had a very interesting talk about his interest in video games. He told me he loved them. In fact, he said, there was a game he played very often while attending college in Chicago, that the game had been in the Chicago loop, and that he played it hours at a time. This young engineer said that he was disappointed he never saw the game anywhere else and it suddenly disappeared from the arcade.
The game, he said, was based on a cube that could be rotated, having enemies on the faces of the cube. He said he had no idea what the game was about, but that he loved the sounds and game intensity, and that he played it for many hours at a time, mostly after classes sometimes even before classes began in the morning.
I asked if he ever saw anyone else playing it or if he played it with friends. He said, “No, it was just me.” . . . Mystery solved.
While QB-3 was shown at the 1982 AMOA show, it was never released.

QB-3 screenshot from MAME
(NOTE that the MAME version was may have been an early version of the game.
and later versions may have featured much better gameplay)

            Not all of Rock-Ola's internally designed games were vector games, however. Levers was a climbing game developed by Joe Bak and Joe Ulowetz in which the player controlled a tiny man in a red straw hat who climbed a series of teeter-totters while avoiding balls that fell from the top of the screen. Because of the main character's hat, the game was known as Amishman during development (though Amishman may have been a different, unreleased, game). If the resulting game had a rushed look, there was good reason.

[Mike Perkins] Donald [Rockola] had some kind of game exposition show coming up, and he demanded a new game in something like six weeks. Larry told me the great news that this game had to be done in lightning speed. I thought it was impossible, and it was. But, afterwards, grudgingly, I huddled with the game guys and asked them to come through for us. There were lots of shrugs. Joe [Bak]  popped up and offered Levers in six weeks. He got some help from the other guys, and together they pulled some all-nighters. Donald got his “new game,” we went to sleep for a few days, and the real game guys at the show I’m quite sure had a good laugh...It looked like a Hasbro reject for kindergarteners, but didn’t even play as well as one.

Another  game in development was a 3-D maze game called Suzam designed by Lonnie Ropp. Suzam never made it to completion but the idea of a maze game was far from dead.

The "Amishman" from Levers
Next time - Nibbler and life at Rock-Ola

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