Saturday, November 15, 2014

Company Profile - Mirco Games

One of my favorite parts of writing my book and this blog is discovering the stories of the smaller, lesser-known companies that usually go completely unmentioned in standard video game histories. Inevitably, I find that even the most obscure of them has an interesting story to tell (and for the few that don't, it's only because I haven't found it yet). Today's post is about just such a company - Phoenix, Arizona's Mirco Games.
 
Located in Phoenix, Arizona, Mirco Games was primarily known for its foosball tables and for producing the first pinball game with a microprocessor. What is far less known is that between 1973 and 1979, it also released over a dozen video games and what is almost completely unknown is that one of them was one of the earliest video games to use a microprocessor – perhaps even THE earliest.

Origins

In 1967 Dick Raymond and John Walsh were working for GE in Germany when they noticed the growing popularity of table soccer (aka foosball) in the bars and taverns of Germany, France and Italy. Seeing that the games were also popular with American servicemen, the pair discussed the idea of starting a business exporting them to the US (RePlay¸2./28/76). In 1969 or 1970[1], Raymond returned home to Phoenix, AZ and formed a company called Arizona Automation to sell European soccer tables in America under the Champion Soccer name. With just 600 square feet of office space, Raymond (the sole U.S. employee) handled everything from taking orders to packaging the tables while Walsh shipped them from Germany. Within a year, Raymond bought Walsh out and became the sole owner (Leontiades, 1982). When the value of the German mark began to tumble, Raymond decided to manufacture the games domestically. After contracting with a local company called Western Woodcraft to build the tables, he flew to Taiwan to find a company to manufacturer the men, rods, and other hardware. Arizona Automation’s big break came when it exhibited at the 1970 MOA show. The following year, it released the Regular Coin Model table, followed by the Regular Club Model. Both proved to be hits and in four years, Arizona Automation went from $15,000 in sales to $1 million (RePlay, 2/28/76).






            Meanwhile, John Walsh had returned to the U.S. and (along with Bob Kessler, another former GE employee, and Bruce Kinkler) formed a company called Mirco, Inc. as a successor to a partnership called John L. Walsh & Associates (Leontiades, 1982). Incorporated on November 11, 1971, Mirco initially produced software used in automatic testing systems for electronic equipment (such as FLASH – Fault Logic and Simulation Hybrid). In its first full year, the company had sales of over $1 million[2] and began to expand. Realizing that they were doing all the work while the hardware companies that bought their software were making all the profits, they began manufacturing microprocessor-based circuit board test hardware[3], such as the Micro 500-Series Logic-Circuit Tester and (in 1976) the Model 615 Programming Station, which included a printer, CRT, and keyboard (Datamation, 1976).  In addition, on December 15, 1972 it had formed a new division called Mirco Electronic Distributors to distribute electronic components (resistors, capacitors etc.) to companies in the southwest[4]. On December 26, 1973, looking to finance the expansion of its hardware business, Mirco Inc. acquired the assets of Arizona Automation and merged it into a new subsidiary called Mirco Games (Leontiades, 1982). Mirco Games continued to produce foosball tables, starting with Grand Champion, its signature table with at least half a dozen different versions, including home versions produced for Montgomery Ward. Mirco also promoted its tables via a deal with 1968 Olympic pole-vaulting gold medalist Bob Seagren and through the sponsorship of tournaments, like the 1973 and 1984 Louisiana State Soccer Tournament (Leontiades, 1982). Heading up the marketing for the tables was former champion player Bob Edgell. Bob and his brother Steve had become hooked on foosball as graduate students at the University of Minnesota when they discovered the game at a college bar called Big Ten. Before long, they were ready to test their newly-developed skills and headed to a seedy biker bar in Minneapolis called Moby Dick’s that was known to be a foosball hot spot. After going down in defeat, they returned to the Big Ten and continued to hone their game. Unable to find any books on the subject, they decided to write their own and produced the seminal “Table Soccer Rules and Strategy” (Steve later wrote “Adventure in Foosball” – a table-soccer-themed mystery novel loosely based on his life on the tournament circuit). A few months later, they paid a return visit to Moby Dicks. This time they held the table for the entire night. By late 1973, the book was finished, but the brothers still needed a publisher. By then, they had moved to Phoenix. While trying to persuade a reluctant publisher to take a chance on his book, Bob Edgell recalled an ad he had seen for a local foosball manufacturer called Mirco Games and suggested the two pay the company a visit. When the publisher asked Richard Raymond if he would order 5,000 copies of the book in exchange for having one of his tables on the cover, Raymond jumped at the chance. Meanwhile, Edgell and his brother went on to form the International Table Soccer Association. When the venture failed to take off, Bob joined Mirco Games as marketing manager.

 
The 1973 Greater New Orleans Football Championship - Bob Kaiser is on the far left and Ralph Lally (future founder and editor of Play Meter on the far right)
 

             Foosball tables weren’t Mirco’s only product line, however, or even its most successful. After the Arizona Automation/Mirco merger, the company began producing video games as well, starting with the cocktail Pong clones Champion Ping Pong (1973 – initially released by Arizona Automation and later under the Mirco banner). Mirco felt that its experience with test equipment would give it two advantages over the competition: a more reliable product, and the ability to offer a 24-hour turnaround on service (Leontiades, 1982). Outstanding service, however, meant nothing without a solid game, and Mirco didn’t have one – just another tired two-player Pong game. In March, 1974 (Leontiades, 1982) Mirco introduced Challenge, an upright four-player game that offered a free game to players who beat the computer in player-versus-machine mode. While Mirco claimed it was the first video game to offer such a feature (likely a false claim), it wasn’t enough to cover for the fact that Challenge was another uninspired game (not to mention that four-player games had already been on the market for at least eight months). Mirco realized that it needed to develop some more original games if they were to succeed, but they had already invested heavily in R&D for their test equipment, leaving nothing over for video games (Leontiades, 1982). In July (Leontiades, 1982), it introduced a cocktail model of the game and initially tried to sell it to conventional distributors, but none were interested (one suggested that they stick to foosball). Cocktail games had something of a bad reputation in the industry. Many distributors didn’t know how to sell to the more upscale locations that often bought the games and were leery of the sometimes dubious companies that sold them. Frustrated, Mirco went outside the industry and began selling its games to nontraditional “distributors”, often real estate agents, lawyers, doctors, or other professionals looking to cash in on the video game boom.



 
[Bob Edgell] The table-top pong game came about because they tried to sell a stand up model and the market was already saturated. Bob Kaiser, VP of Sales and Marketing came up with the idea of a table-top pong game. His sales model was to attend 'business opportunity' conferences and sell franchise territories. These franchises didn't compete in the normal (pool tables, pin ball games, etc.) coin op world. Instead, they targeted bar lounges, hotel lounges, airports and other non-traditional locations. At the height of the table top pong business, we were shipping over a hundred games a week at a price of $1,000 per table. In the 1973-4 period, several thousand units were sold and all business was COD. Needless to say Mirco had some strange business partners in this market.



Eventually, Mirco was able to convince C.A. Robinson of Los Angeles, one of the country’s largest distributors, to carry its games. Before long, video games were Mirco’s most lucrative product line. Leontiades reports that of the $9.4 million in revenue the company made in fiscal year 1976 (which ended January 31, 1976), $7.3 million was from games - $1.2 million from foosball (about 10% of the total table soccer market) and $6.1 million from video games (by comparison, game sales in the previous two years were just under $1 million). In addition, in 1975, Mirco had begun manufacturing video games in Australia and Germany[5] as well as introducing two new games in the US: Slam (another ball-and-paddle game with a button that allowed the player to “slam” the ball into the opponent’s backcourt) and Scramble (a non-video game that used a grid of light bulbs under a glass top). By January of 1976, about half of Mirco’s ca 150 employees worked in the games division (Leontiades, 1982).

PT-109 and Spirit of ‘76




Flushed with cash from its cocktail Pong games, Mirco began to expand its game offerings. And this time, they came up with something truly innovative.  Mirco’s first non-ball-and-paddle video game was PT-109, one of the forgotten breakthrough games of the video Bronze Age. The game itself was mildly interesting – a naval combat game in which 2 or 4 players navigated around islands, mines and other hazards while attempting to blast one another with torpedoes and howitzers (in 4-player games, each 2-person team consisted of a PT-boat and a battleship). What truly set it apart, however, was that it used a microprocessor – one of the first video games to do so. The game was on display in Mirco’s booth at the 1975 MOA show in October – the same show where Midway debuted Gun Fight, generally considered to be the very first microprocessor video game[6].




            Despite the innovation, PT-109 sold poorly. By the time it appeared, the cocktail video boom had passed and the same doctors and lawyers who had purchased TV Ping Pong and Challenge were unwilling to buy another video game (PT-109 was only produced in a cocktail cabinet). As a result,  PT-109 is all but unknown today, and even the most ardent video game collector is probably unaware that it had a microprocessor, much less that it was one of the first video games to use one. It’s a bit ironic since the one Mirco game that anyone does remember (if they remember one at all) is the pinball game it introduced at the very same show called Spirit of ’76 – which has long been considered the first to released pinball game with a microprocessor[7]. While Mirco released it, Spirit of ’76 had been designed by one of pioneers of the coin-op industry – Dave Nutting. Nutting had developed the game after Bally chose to pass on the Flicker prototype he and Jeff Frederiksen had developed in 1974.

[Dave Nutting] When I did the first microprocessor pinball game, Bally at first didn’t want to pay the price I wanted for the patent so then I went to Mirco and had a contract with them and we came out in 1975 with a game called Spirit of ‘76.

The microprocessor would absolutely revolutionize the pinball industry, leading to a 3-year resurgence that saw it become the most popular kid on the coin-op block. While Mirco may have led the revolution, they didn’t reap its rewards. Spirit of ’76 sold a reported 140 units[8] and it remained for Allied Leisure and Bally to popularize the concept of the microprocessor pinball machine. The problem (or at least one of them) was that despite its innovations, Spirit of ’76 was one ugly game. The dull-as-dishwater backglass consisted of little more than a stylized American flag and the playfield art was virtually nonexistent.  Not surprisingly, Mirco made just one other pinball game – the 1978 cocktail pin Lucky Draw.

Entering the Consumer Market (or trying to)

In truth, the failure of Spirit of '76 likely wasn't entirely due to lack of demand. At the time, Mirco was having problems of its own. With the disappearance of the cocktail video game market, Mirco’s video games were barely generating any revenue and its pinball games were generating even less. In addition, more advanced circuit board testers had appeared on the market and foosball alone wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat. In 1976, Mirco posted the first loss in its short existence. The loss was largely due to a failed effort to enter yet another market –home video games. On January 14, 1976 Mirco entered into a contract with Fairchild Camera and Instrument. Fairchild was to produce and deliver 50,000 units of a programmable home video game based on Mirco's Challenge chip. The idea had come from Tom Conners, an experienced electronics industry executive who had joined Mirco from Motorola.
 

[Bob Edgell] Tom Conners had contacts throughout the electronics' industry and began discussions with Fairchild Electronics. He proposed that Fairchild develop a home pong game, using all the outdated TTL parts being stored in the Fairchild warehouses. Mirco would use the automatic tester to insure quality control and ship the units from Phoenix

The game never made it to market. Fairchild encountered problems with one of the game's circuits and failed to deliver the product on time. In response, Montgomery Ward cancelled its $4.3 million order for the game and in November, 1977, Mirco sued Fairchild for breach of contract. They sought $6 million in damages, claiming the Fairchild had made fraudulent statements to lure them into the contract as part of a plan to monopolize the home market with its own Channel F cartridge-based system. In 1978 Fairchild countersued claiming that Mirco refused to accept delivery of the 50,000 units at the agreed-upon $25 purchase price and, further, that Mirco knew the finished game would not meet FCC requirements and had entered into the contract in bad faith "in an effort to create a controversy with Fairchild which could be used to force forgiveness by Fairchild of Mirco's indebtedness to Fairchild arising from other transactions.[9]"  By the time of the lawsuit, however, Mirco already in serious trouble. The Fairchild deal had left Mirco short on cash and forced it to halt production of Spirit of '76. In addition, Mirco was already committed to fund a German subsidiary. As a result, the company cut its staff from 208 to 103 employees and forced the rest to take a 10% pay cut.







Despite the failure of PT-109, however, the video game division was reportedly doing well. Between 1976 and 1978 it released almost a dozen titles. Skywar (1976) was a dual-joystick, World War I, air combat game. Formula M Vrooom (1977) was a rare example of a cocktail driving game. Break In and Block Buster were knockoffs of Breakout. Dawn Patrol (1978), the company’s last known traditional video game, was another World War I dogfighting game with a U-shaped controller and an overhead view[10]. Its most successful video game line, however, may have been card games. Starting with 21 in 1976, Mirco released at least six titles by 1979. By then, however, Mirco was on its way out of the business and in 1980 another Phoenix company – Amstar Electronics – purchased its games division.






 
NOTES - sources for this article included interviews with Bob Edgell and Dave Nutting, Milton Leontiades Management Policy, Strategy, and Plans (Little, Brown, 1982 - which included an excellent chapter on Mirco), "Fun and Games in Phoenix" from Datamation, February, 1976, the Arizona Secretary of State website, and (as always) the TAFA and Flyer Fever websites and various issues of RePlay, Play Meter, and Vending Times (especially the article "The Table Soccer Phenomenon" mentioned in Note 1 below)
 





[1] RePlay, February 28, 1976 (“The Table Soccer Phenomenon”) places the founding in 1969 while Leontiades places it in 1970 – though Leontiades clearly seems to have used the RePlay article as a source.
[2] Leontiades, 1982, who reports sales of $1,156,319 for fiscal year 1973, which ended January 31, 1973. Datamation, 1976 reports that the company earned $357,000 in its first year, but it is unclear where they got the figure whereas Leontiades numbers were taken from Micro’s consolidated statement of income.
[3] Leontiades reports that on December 18, 1973, Mirco formed a new division called Mirco Systems to handle the testing hardware and software.
[4] Leontiades, 1982, who reports that Mirco’s territory included Arizona, the Albuquerque/Las Cruces/Roswell area, the Denver/Henderson CO area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City.
[5] Leontiades, 1982, who reports that Mirco had begun making video games in Australia in April (under the Mirco Games of Australia Pty Ltd division) and in Germany in September (under the Mirco Games of Europe division. Of the $6.1 million in video game sales in FY 1976, $600,000 were from Australia and $200,000 from Germany.
[6] The November 1975 issue of Play Meter reports that Mirco had “entered the pinball market at the Chicago MOA show in October with the first pinball game to use a microprocessor – Spirit of ‘76”. The same article later says “Aside from introducing the microprocessor into pinball, Mirco Games…also put a microprocessor into it’s [sic] new cocktail table game, PT-109”. The January, 1976 issue of Vending Times explicitly states that Mirco showed PT-109 at the MOA show. Cash Box announced the introduction of both Spirit of 76 and PT-109 in November, 1975.
[7] Though Allied Leisure showed Dyn-O-Mite at the same show and may have released Rock On as early as September. A third pin, Komputer Dynamics’ Invasion Stratogy, was also introduced at the 1975 MOA.
[8] As reported in the Clarence Bailey article, but they may have put the game back in production later. Bill Kurtz claims that they produced 500 units.
[9] The lawsuit was covered in the January, 1978 and April 7, 1978 issues of Play Meter and the December, 1977 issue of RePlay
[10] Both the May 15, 1978 issue of Play Meter and the May, 1978 issue of RePlay reported that Mirco showed a game called Zircus “in a wall model, a cocktail table, and an upright version” at the International Coin Machine  Exhibition in Berlin in April, but no description was given. From the title, it may have been a German version of Exidy’s Circus.

9 comments:

  1. Hi Keith, I have really enjoyed reading all of this, because my Dad is Richard Raymond whom you have written about above. I was just talking to my daughters about my Dad's life this evening and decided to see what I could find on the internet about the Champion Soccer Games...and here was your article. John Walshe's daughter and I were childhood friends, and our families did many things together. I have many memories of our two families in Germany and Europe and then in Phoenix, and was actually just remembering much of this history this evening. I will have to send this to my Dad, as I think he would really enjoy reading it. Thanks for the post. I hope your book does well.

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    1. Hi. I have 2 machines of this. I leave my email if you are interested.
      alicia_miriabillis@hotmail.com

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    2. Hi. I have 2 machines of this. I leave my email if you are interested.
      alicia_miriabillis@hotmail.com

      Delete
    3. I have a very nice specimen of the Challenge cocktail and just recently purchased, with the help of other members of The Dumping Union (arcade preservation society), a "Strikes & Spares" cocktail from 1977. We're working out the shipment from NY to TX right now. Assuming it was a microprocessor game I will be dumping its ROMs and it, too, will be preserved for all time. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on it.
      I would love to find a PT-109 and anything else from Mirco. Thanks to this very informative article I've really got a spot for Mirco now.

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  2. Hi Pam. Thanks for the comments. Glad you liked the article. If you dad has any more information he can give me, tell him to post a comment or drop me a line. I'd love to talk to him.

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  3. Hi Keith- Thanks for the post, very informative. I used to work at Western Woodcraft back in '75-'76 on the Pong cocktail table line. I also got to play the prototype of the Scramble game, I thought it was a great game but apparently no one else did. Western Woodcraft's other income was building the interiors of Circle K stores. Anyway thanks again.

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  4. Hi i have a gaming table that is super 21 made by Micro Gaming Inc. and can not find anything on it . Can you guys help me if you guys know anything about it. Thank you

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  5. can anybody teach me how to play Foosball(table soccer)?
    foosball table cheap

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  6. I brought the original Scramble idea and home made prototype to Mirco. One part of my contract with them was that I would receive a production machine. I still have it and it may be the only Scramble machine still in existence. The engineer, Dave Nolte, that worked in-house on the Mirco development also received one at the time. I don't know if it still exists and I have lost track of him.
    --Lynn Kurtz
    kurtz@asu.edu

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