Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Forgotten Gems - Stern's Dark Planet

            Chicago’s Stern Electronics may not have had as many coin-op hits as Atari, Midway, or Nintendo, but during the video game heyday of the 1980s they produced a number of solid efforts, both in-house (Berzerk) and through their relationship with Konami (Scramble, Super Cobra etc.)  One game that wasn’t a hit was 1983’s Dark Planet. What it lacked in sales, however, it made up for in innovation. While companies like Atari and Midway with their massive production facilities and huge design staffs could crank out mega-hit games by the truckload, smaller firms like Stern often had to turn to novel gameplay elements in an attempt to catch the fickle fancy of the jaded gaming public. Dark Planet was a space shooter with genuine 3D effects in the mold of Sega’s Subroc 3D (though it used an entirely different technology). The game was the brainchild of toy designer Erick Erickson. At the age of 9, Erickson had begun taking art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving on to the Kansas City Art Institute where he graduated in 1974 with a degree in industrial design, Erickson had begun looking for work in his native Chicago. At the time, Erickson's portfolio consisted primarily of toys, novelties, and the like and a number of people suggested that he apply for a job at a company called Marvin Glass & Associates. Erickson had never heard the company's name but he certainly knew their products, which included some of the most legendary toys of the 1960 and 1970s such as Lite Brite, Toss Across, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Mouse Trap, Operation, STP Racers, Ants in the Pants, Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, Simon, Mr. Machine, Mystery Date, and even the original chattery teeth.

Marvin Glass, the man, from an article by Erickson himself at http://www.spookshows.com/toys/glass/glass.htm

Unfortunately, Marvin Glass didn't hire new college graduates at the time and suggested that Erickson come back after he had a few years of experience under his belt. Disappointed, Erickson took a job at Embossagraph Display Mfg Co, whose primary business was making point-of-purchase displays for breweries in the Milwaukee area. The company was looking to get the toy market, however, and Erickson was put to work designing cereal premiums and Cracker Jack prizes. Two years later he was hired by Marvin Glass. For a toy designer, it was pure heaven. His first major success was The Slime Monster Game, a board game released by Mattel in 1977 to make use of the popular "slime" product they had released the previous winter. At the center of the board was a green plastic monster with slime oozing from his mouth. The goal was to move your characters from the high school to the armory to pick up a landmine and knock over the creature before it "slimed" you. The game's success landed Erickson his own office.

As Erickson continued to design toys for Marvin Glass, he noticed that the video game field was exploding and suggested that the company enter the new market.

[Erick Erickson] I was watching the video game business go crazy in 1979. We were in Chicago and all the major video game manufacturers were in Chicago…Instead of selling something that retails for $20 now you can sell something that retails for $4,000. Look at the difference in royalties you can make on it.

Marvin Glass took Erickson’s suggestion and before long, he had about two dozen people working for him creating video game concepts for companies like Bally/Midway and Williams (the first was for a game called Mothership, which eventually turned into Midway’s Kozmik Krooz’r, but that’s another story). Then the firm's partners called a meeting, inviting everyone from the cooks to the accountants to the game designers and announced that all video game projects were to be shut down immediately. Erickson was stunned. Rather than coming to him in private and telling him about the decision, they had done so in a public meeting and he felt humiliated. He was also frustrated that he would no longer be allowed to work on video games when he knew that there was a goldmine out there just waiting to be tapped - especially in Chicago, the center of the coin-op universe. Then a coworker named Dan Langlois began encouraging Erickson to leave and start his own video game design company and before long the two of them did just that.

Erick Erickson, from http://www.houseofmasks.bizland.com/homabouterick.html

            Erickson felt he needed something big to start his company - something phenomenal. He and Langlois had just cut their apron strings and had no job to fall back on. Inspired by the asteroid scene in The Empire Strikes Back (where Han Solo flies the Millennium Falcon into what he thinks is  a crater, only to find it is the mouth of a reptilian creature), Erickson created an elaborate concept for a 3-D game that involved fighting aliens on the surface of an asteroid. Now he and Langlois needed to sell the concept. There was one problem. Neither of them were programmers and they lacked the engineering skill and materials to make a coin-op video game. They could have drawn up a proposal on paper, perhaps supplementing it with a storyboard of two, then shown it to one of the Chicago area video game manufacturers. Instead, Erickson took a much more innovative approach, based on something he had learned from Marvin Glass himself. When trying to sell toy concepts, Glass didn't want to leave anything to the imagination because he never expected executives to have any imagination. So he had his designers create prototypes that were as close to a finished product as possible. Erickson took the same approach with his video game idea. He decided to create a demo model that was as close as possible to a real arcade video game, but without the circuitry or programming.

[Erick Erickson] …what I did was [to] always create an illusion. Each cabinet was an illusion…in order to portray the illusion what I would do is rotoscope a puppet show … I took a super 8 mm camera and shot live action of me manipulating the icons on wands to get the rhythm, pace, and feel of the movement and then I would photograph that and …translate [it] to stop-motion…so it looks like it was pixelated in those days but what I'm doing is showing a video tape of a movie that I made that creates the illusion. When a client would come up to see one of my machines it would appear to be a full working machine with graphics and everything. The headers would light up. Everything would be in place so all the boss had to say is "Could I sell that". So I made it real easy for them.

Using stop-motion animation, models, rotoscoping etc. the duo created a video tape of simulated gameplay then mounted it in a full-fledged cabinet, complete with all the bells and whistles. Erickson even included a tape recorder with electronic music and sound effects. Most video games at the time used simplistic, upbeat music. Erickson wanted something more fitting for the game's theme. Something like Darth' Vader's theme from Star Wars or the electronic music of Alan Parsons Project's I, Robot (which Erickson was listening to at the time). In later years, when the two were designing electromechancial games, Dan Langlois would sometimes crouch behind demo units with a control box, making the game elements appear to move in response to the player's actions.

Working in the basement of Erickson's house, the pair had a demo unit ready in about two weeks and began calling various coin-op companies in Chicago. When they contacted Gary Stern, he was interested enough that he took a limo to Erickson's house to take a look. He bought the concept on the spot and gave the pair an advance and a contract granting Stern first refusal rights on any game they developed in the next year.  With an advance and a monthly check, Erickson and Langlois moved into their own office in a seedy neighborhood in Chicago's manufacturing section near the various coin-op factories (they had to chase prostitutes of their gangway every morning where they got to work turning their demo into an actual video game.

            The final game, Dark Planet, would incorporate a number of ideas from the demo, including the use of actual models inside the cabinet. Using urethane, Erickson sculpted an alien landscape, then used mirrors to create the illusion of a full planet curving away into space. The player peered through a small viewport to see the playfield, where green and red filters produced a 3D effect.

[Erick Erickson] I divided the red and blue colors through filtration. If I wanted something to be on the surface of the planet I would make it blue and if I wanted it to be flying above the planet I would make it red…You're flying above the planet your laser is focused [on the surface] and causing all kinds of havoc through its crackling fire scarring the face of the planet...There was a vacuum tube on the side built into the wall...you can fly into [the tube] and it transports you down to the lower [level where] you've got this civilization…building tracks so they can bring out the laser train...One system starts and you try to keep it under control, then the other system starts and you have to try to keep IT under control…and the third system starts…it's like spinning plates. You have to be everywhere at once. Then the volcano starts to erupt...you blast into the mouth of the volcano…and it's okay for a while but then it will erupt again and if erupts and covers your whole screen you don't know where you are and are going to get blown up…then the cannons on the rim start shooting - it's just a mayhem of a battle…you keep controlling this situation that's looking like it's out of control...it's a 3D wonderland and when people saw it they went ape

            Meanwhile, Stern needed someone to program the game. They turned to Bill Jahnke and consultant Dale Jurich.  Jurich, a computer science graduate of the University of Illinois, had opened an arcade called the Apple Duck in the Urbana-Champaign area in the early 1970s along with Andy Dallas (who went on to become a world renowned magician, hypnotist, and escape artist). After cofounding a company called Small Systems Services (where he developed one of the first microcomputer versions of FORTRAN) and working for Intel, Jurich founded his own consulting company called Dale Jurich Associates. Jurich (who was living in Oregon) landed a contract at Stern where his friend Bill Jahnke was already working. Jurich and Jahnke were tasked with turning Erickson and Langlois' video tape concept into software. It was an interesting coincidence that Jurich's first game involved a volcano. In 1980, he had witnessed the eruption of Mt. St. Helens from the second floor of the Intel facility in Aloha, Oregon and his first college roommate, volcanologist David Alexander, had died in the eruption.

Dark Planet programmer Dale Jurich (from his LinkedIn page)

            Working from Jahnke's home in the Chicago Suburbs, the two worked on the game for the better part of a year, creating one of the more interesting, if lesser known, games of the golden age. Stern showed Dark Planet at the 1982 AMOA show and "released" it in January of 1983 but only in limited numbers. Despite high hopes for the game, it never went into full production (Erick Erickson recalls that around 350 were sold). One problem was the high production costs. Some reports also claim that aligning the games optics proved difficult. Another problem was that the player had to be a specific height to be able to actually see the 3D effect properly. Players who were too tall had to bend over and players who were too short couldn’t reach the viewer at all (though a slide-out stool was reportedly included in some versions). While Dark Planet had failed to catch fire, Stern didn’t abandon the idea of 3D graphics. Even more ambitious was their attempt at a hologram-game that actually projected the image of a plane over the top of the monitor. Once again, however, engineers experienced technical problems with the game’s optics and it never made it into release.

            As for the team that created Dark Planet, Dale Jurich never programmed another coin-op video game (though he did program PC Pool Challenge for the IBM PC). After their contract with Stern ended, Erick Erickson and Dan Langlois inked another deal with Williams Electronics where they submitted a number of video game concepts (such as Cockroach - a bug-squashing game involving a kind of early touch screen). None of them were ever released- though Williams did release their Still Crazy pinball game. Today, Erickson designs high-quality custom sculptures and masks based on life masks of famous individuals (http://www.houseofmasks.bizland.com/). Marvin Glass later decided to give video games another go and designed a number of titles for Bally/Midway, including Journey, Wacko, Tapper, Domino Man, and Timber. While it may not have sold many copies, Dark Planet stands as one of the more interesting creations of video games' golden age.

See a video of Dark Planet's gameplay here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wO69GrbYiA
Thanks to Erick Erickson and Dale Jurich for taking the time to provide information for this article.

Extra - Kickstarter Projects

Finally, I thought I'd mention three Kickstarter projects that might be of interest to readers of this blog (though they likely already know about them). Two have already been funded and one still has about two weeks to go.

The one that still hasn't reached its goal is for a new retro gaming magazine called Retro It looks very promising and they have some impressive contributors lined up:

The other two are already funded.
One is a documentary about the Nibbler high score attempts (but it also includes interviews with the designers)

The other is for a book on "The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers" consisting of a number of exclusive designer interviews



  1. Anyone remember another old 3d arcade game where you were flying over a planet and bombing it? The trick was the planet was in 3d and was a large globe inside the sit down console?

    1. Sorry, that's probably not it. I know what you're thinking of though, just can't think of the name at the moment.
      Okay, Cinematronics Starhawk?

    2. Nope. This game had an actual globe inside the console that rotated and the arcade graphics was projected over. I know there was a physical object inside because they had to open it for repairs a few times. It was in a combined BMX course/Arcade.

  2. Through these interviews, did you learn who the artist was for the artwork on this game?