Sunday, November 3, 2013

URL's Video Action - The First US Consumer Video Game after Odyssey?

Today’s post is about Video Action, a line of consumer/arcade video games made by URL from 1974-76. Normally this blog covers arcade games and does not veer into consumer (part of the reason I started the blog was because there are already so many sites, blogs, and books dedicated to home games). Occasionally, however, the two overlap, primarily when a coin-op company also makes consumer games, as was the case here.

Not only was Video Action made by a coin-op company but it was one of the earliest, if not THE earliest consumer video games to hit the US market after the Odyssey (though consumer Pong games had appeared on the European market earlier).
I actually thought I’d already posted on this, but I couldn’t find the post, so sorry if this is a repeat.
 
The Pong Story Website
 Usually, the go-to source for consumer Pong games is David Winter’s excellent Pong Story website. With Video Action, however, the Pong Story’s story seems a bit muddled.  Let’s look at what the site has to say about the game.

Here’s what is says about Video Action and Video Action II:
“They [URL] also produced their first Video Action arcade game, model VA-I, housed into an octagonal table. A few thousands were produced. After the Allied Leisure fire and other financial problems, URL found itself with millions of dollars of electronic components. URL had to do something with this inventory, so one of its co-founders quickly decided to get into the consumer market. Thus was born the second Video Action game, model VA-II. It was first announced in 1974, and released later in 1975 in two forms: one with a TV set and a coin box for use in bars, and a home version which could use any TV set. The former was more successful as it was designed to make money. The latter didn't sell as well as the former because of its high retail price of almost $500 (the circuit board itself cost around $200 to manufacture).”
The site then shows a photo of Video Action II and goes on to talk about Video Action III and Indy 500 (aka Video Action IV).
There is no photo of the initial game (Video Action).
Is this information accurate? Much of it appears to be, but some (particularly the info on the first unit) seems to be off. In researching my book and the game, I tried to verify this info but was unable to find anything definitive. I did find some things, however, that seem to indicate that URL’s first consumer game came out sometime earlier than Winter’s timeline indicates.
 
Bill Olliges
The first time I heard anything about a URL consumer video game was several years ago when I interviewed URL cofounder Bill Olliges. At the time (circa 1999) I barely knew who URL was, much less that they had produced a consumer video game. Here’s what Olliges told me when I asked how URL started in video games.
[Bill Olliges] We saw a game from Nutting called Computer Space and decided we could do the digital logic that was necessary to do that kind of game…So we started on a game called Paddle Battle and that graduated into a 4-player called Tennis Tourney. Paddle Battle really seemed to take off…and we were shipping boards down to Allied Leisure in Florida like there was no tomorrow. Suddenly we couldn’t find enough ICs to continue at the pace we were at so we began to buy much, much bigger lots. Somewhere along the way, Allied had a major fire that shut down their manufacturing operations and we had inventories of ICs coming out of our ears so I decided “As long as we have the parts we might as well build a consumer game” So that’s what we did. We built a board and chassis in a kind of a pedestal – a flat tabletop that you could put a small black-and-white television on and you had your own arcade game. . .It was a 2 or 4 player paddle game.

Olliges’ story seems to comport with Winter’s account except for a couple of things. First, he makes no mention of a cocktail game or any other video game made by URL before the Allied fire, other than the ones they did for Allied itself. He also mentions that “you could put” a TV on their game, indicating that it could be attached to a standard TV. This does not appear to be the case, however, at least not at first.
 
Flyers
One of the first sources I always check when researching a game is TAFA (The Arcade Flyer Archive). TAFA has two flyers for Video Action. The first is dated 1975.

 

Normally, I would suspect that this was the source of Winter’s claim that the cocktail arcade version came first. The cabinet doesn’t exactly seem “octagonal” to me but I could see where some might say it was. The flyer, however, includes no model number, “VA-I” or otherwise.
The second flyer (also dated 1975) is a four-page flyer with much more info.
 
 
 
 
It lists five models:

·         VA-II: their basic home or “waiting room” model

·         VA-IIC: the same model, but with a coin box

·         VA-T: the cocktail game from the first flyer

·         VA-TC: coin-op version of same
All four of the above include three games: Tennis, Soccer, and Hockey

·         VA-MP: A second cocktail model with different games (Volleyball and 4-Court Tennis) plus a “robot” option

Note that there is no model “VA-I” listed (though if there was a VA-II, you’d think there would have been a VA-I). Also note that the VA-MP model does indeed come in an unarguably octagonal cabinet.

Of course, we still don’t know when these games were released. The flyers are listed as being from 1975 but a) that isn’t very precise, b) this flyer was likely produced some time after the first game was available, and c) TAFA flyer dates (especially in the 1973-75 period) are often off by a year.

Trade Magazines

My next source for games is usually the trade mags. Unfortunately, they are probably not going to give us the full story here since Play Meter didn’t start until December, 1974 and RePlay until October, 1975. Vending Times and Cash Box were around earlier in 1974 but I don’t have the full issues with me right now. I do, however, have some scattered issues as well as my notes (which include all the release dates I could find). A bigger issue is that those magazines covered the coin-op market so they might not have listed a game that was available only as a consumer unit (though they generally did so if it was made by a coin-op company).

Here’s what I found.

The February, 1975 issue of RePlay contains an announcement that Control Sales (more on them later) “introduced” Video Action II at the winter CES in January (the same show, by the way, where Atari was showing Home Pong).

 

 
Essentially the same article appeared in the February, 1975 issue of Vending Times.
The most interesting line for purposes of this article is:
“Video Action II, which carries a suggested retail tag of $299, is priced considerably under its predecessor model which included a television receiver. The customer can now buy the electronic game and connect it to his television receiver at home.”
The “predecessor model” had a built-in 12” TV and, it was built-in – not an option – a seemingly fatal decision for a consumer product.  Especially given that over 90% of homes already had TVs.
The Pong Story claims that Video Action II cost “almost $500” (I read somewhere that the exact figure was $499) even without the television and indicates that the $200 board was the main reason. No mention is made of the consumer version being available with a built-in TV.
Reading the RePlay article, I’d guess that the “predecessor model” (presumably Video Action) was basically the same as Video Action II except with a built-in TV and a $500 price tag (the article does mention that the Video Action II was priced “considerably under” its predecessor).

The May, 1975 RePlay had the following:

 

So it looks like the arcade cocktail table version (VA-TC) was introduced around May (Cash Box reported the same thing), not prior to the Allied fire. Unless, of course, there was a previous cocktail version. The only other cocktails mentioned in the 4-page flyer are VA-T, which was a consumer cabinet and VA-MP, which I’d guess came out later given that it had 2 different games, plus a “robot” feature (a feature URL included on its Video Action III home unit in 1976).

These articles indicate to me that the original game was not a cocktail game, but instead was a version of VA II with a built in TV. The evidence, however, is far from conclusive, so we have to dig further.

Newspapers

One good source for info on consumer games is newspapers. While searchable, online newspaper archives are becoming more and more common and comprehensive, however, they still only have a fraction of total amount of data that’s out there in print form, so I didn’t have high hopes when I started searching.
Nonetheless, I did manage to find some good (if scant) info.
The first mention I found was this ad from the September 2, 1974 St. Charles (Missouri) Journal.

 

 

The photo isn’t the best, but that seems to be the same game as Video Action II and clearly includes the TV set (note how they try to make this a selling point). Too bad they didn’t list an SRP (though if it was $499, you can see why they might not want to).

The most interesting thing here is the date. September 2, 1974 was over a year before Atari introduced Home Pong and over four months before they showed it at the CES. And given that this was the only 1974 ad I could find, it may well have shipped even earlier.
Could this have been the first US home video game after the Odyssey?
The Pong Story doesn't seem to list an earlier one (at least not in the US, it does list ome 1974 models from Europe). Vendel and Goldberg state flatly that it was the first home tennis game on the market after Odyssey.

Of course, consumer games aren't my specialty so I may well be forgetting some obvious early home games.

The next ads I found for any version of the game weren’t until November, 1975 when I found a number of ads for Video Action II.
Here's one from the 11/2/75 Omaha World Herald


 
And here's a photo that was part of an article on the game in the 11/18/75 Galveston paper.



Given the above, it looks to me like the original Video Action came out sometime around the fall of 1974, included a built-in monitor, and had an SRP of around $499. They may have produced a coin version as well.
Video Action II looks to me like the same game but without the TV and at a lower price (probably created after URL realized how silly it was to produce a consumer game that couldn’t be connected to a TV).
Courtroom Testimony

In late 2014 (long after the original post), I came across some new information that pushes back the dates for Video Action even further. On June 14, 1974 Allied Leisure head honcho David Braun gave a deposition in the Magnavox v Bally case. During the deposition, plaintiff's lawyers presented a two-page brochure for Video Action by Control Sales. The first page included a photo, description, and technical specifications while the second included more specifications and a warranty. It is uncertain if the game was actually

on sale at this point. If it wasn't, it was likely close to being sold.






Sidebar – Control Sales and Venture Technology

OK, so what about Control Sales. Control Sales handled the marketing of the games (which were manufactured at URL).  Control Sales was a manufacturer’s representative organization founded in 1968 by Ron Rutkowski.

TAFA actually has another flyer that touches on this topic. It's from a company called Venture Technology. This one is a 6-page flyer but I’m only showing the most relevant page.


 

 The game here appears to be the same as URL/Control Sales model VA-MP. Note the claim that they sold “over 3,000” units, which comports with Winter’s claim of an octagonal cocktail game that sold “a few thousands”. (As I said, I suspect the flyers were the main source of some of Winter’s info).

But who is Venture Technology?

First, if you look at the rest of the flyer, you’ll not only see photos of the original Video Action but of a number of coin-op titles made by Electra Games. Electra was the coin-op division of URL, set up in early/mid 1975.

Look a little closer and you’ll see that Venture Technology and Control Sales were both in Des Plaines and in fact had the same address. A search through Replay reveals that both were headed by Ron Rutkowski, so I suspect that there were basically the same company.

I plan on trying to contact Rutkowski sometime soon and may even try to recontact William Olliges. If so, I'll report back what I hear.
 

 

 

4 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. I have one also. Did you ever figure out the price?

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    2. One of the home models? Given that it's so rare you could probably charge whatever you'd like, though certainly some pictures of its designation and serial number would be very useful research wise.

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  2. Always split test trying out a few different ads and subject headers then run with your best performer. US consumer email list

    ReplyDelete