Friday, September 25, 2015

The Ultimate (So-Far) History of Gremlin Industries Part 2

Continuing with our history of Gremlin, we take a look at their first video games and an almost forgotten personal computer.

Blockade



One person at Gremlin who was interested in video games was Lane Hauck. Since his arrival, he had been badgering management to get into the field, only to be told "not yet" every time. Nonetheless, Hauck continued to tinker with the idea, creating a computer blackjack game (DeWyze 1982). The idea that led to Gremlins first video game came when Hauck created an original-concept game that put the player in control of an on-screen “snake” that grew longer and longer as it slithered around the screen. The goal was to surround your opponent in such a way that they had nowhere to turn and were forced to run headlong into a wall, their opponent, or themselves.

[Lane Hauck] While we were designing wall games, I was tinkering in the back room with a video circuit that became our Blockade game board. I kept showing my work to Frank Fogleman and Jerry, pestering them with the “can we get into video now?” question. I made a 32x24 cell frame buffer with graphical characters. I was intrigued by the random walk in Physics…which said a drunk taking steps in random directions around a lamppost would gravitate to the lamppost. I decided to program an arrow to be the drunk, and watched it flit around the screen for about a minute before getting bored. Then I thought, what if the drunk can’t visit the same square twice? I made that adjustment, and watched the arrow move a bit and then get trapped. The step from there to Blockade was a small one. (Hauck 2012)

Frank Fogleman liked what he saw (he was the one who suggested the name Blockade) and agreed to test the game in public. After obtaining a cabinet from a company that had just gone bankrupt, the engineers slapped together a prototype.

[Lane Hauck] I think we bought an old Motorola TV set and we go some nail-on letters from the hardware store up the street. We put the game in a miniature golf center. We watched very carefully and we saw a lot of people put money in it and have fun with it. It was exciting. (DeWyze 1982)

Encouraged, Hauck began to turn his prototype into an actual game, enlisting the aid of his coworkers.

[Lane Hauck] I understood the importance of sound, so I asked our analog designer, Bob Pecoraro, to make a good explosion sound. In those days we did it all analog—a reverse-biased diode makes a decent white noise generator, which you can shape and apply an envelope to make a boom. I designed the tone circuit that sounded different pitches depending on player and direction with a couple of counters. (Hauck 2012)



By the time of the 1976 MOA expo in November, Hauck had not only completed the game but had also created a four-player version called CoMotion. Blockade was an instant success at the MOA. RePlay named it best of show and it provided Gremlin with the hit it needed to establish itself as a video game manufacturer. The video game newcomers returned from the show with 3,000 orders at $995 each (DeWyze 1982). Sounds from the game were later used in the introduction to a radio news program in Puerto Rico (Play Meter 6/77). The game’s quick success gave Gremlin an initial burst of confidence.

[Lane Hauck]  We were giddy, saying 'Wow, this video stuff is easy, you know!' I mean, you do a good game and you steal the show and people give you all these orders. Fantastic!" (DeWyze 1982)

 When they returned to San Diego however, reality sunk in as the company realized that it didn't know the first thing cabinets, TV monitors, or many other components of video games. As they scrambled to catch up, a bigger problem became apparent. While the game’s concept was original for the time, it was also very easy to copy, and knock-off versions began to appear within months. The fact that Gremlin had no experience making video games certainly did not help matters.

[Lane Hauck] We introduced Blockade at the AMOA show in Chicago. I watched every video game company president drag one of his engineers into our booth, point at Blockade, and say, “that one.” By the time we figured out how to manufacture a video game we were last to market with our own game. (Hauck 2012)

Ramtek’s Barricade, Meadows’ Bigfoot Bonkers, Midway’s Checkmate, and Atari’s Dominos were all on the market by February 1977 and others quickly followed. While Gremlin took measures to put a stop to the copycats, they were only marginally effective at best. In January 1977, they filed suit against Ramtek for trademark infringement over Barricade. While Ramtek claimed the suit had no merit, they voluntarily agreed to stop making the game and vowed that if they resumed production, they would call their version Brickyard (Play Meter 4/22/77). Gremlin found Atari’s Dominos particularly objectionable, given Nolan Bushnell’s public fulminations against copycats. Atari, on the other hand, claimed they had the technology for a blocking game before Gremlin released Blockade but offered Gremlin $100,000 in "conscience money," which Gremlin refused[1]. Not every video game company was so blatant, however. One of the few that actually bothered to license the game was Japan’s Namco, a somewhat unusual move for a Japanese company at the time. In any event, the incident taught fledgling video game maker Gremlin a valuable lesson.

[Gene Candelore] It was very, very successful but we were very na├»ve…When we got into the video games and took Blockade to the MOA show in Chicago, we were inundated with orders. Two weeks later, it was the National Amusement Game Show in New Orleans and again we were inundated with orders. We were doing $5 million a year in wall games and in those two weeks alone we took in something like $8 million worth of orders…Well the game was such a success that I think every video game manufacturer out there copied it…We did have a patent for a video game that as the cursor moved, it left a trail. So we did bring lawsuits against people and we won and they had to cease making the games. However, by the time everything was settled, so many games had flooded the market that our orders just disappeared. The distributor would call up and say, “I’m sorry, you can’t deliver next week so I’m buying something from somebody else.” So we learned in a hurry. (Candelore 1998-2002)

The copycats, however, may not have been the game's only problem. In January 1978, Malcolm Baines (Gremlin’s president of sales), told RePlay

[Malcolm Baines] We returned from the MOA back-ordered 3,100 units. People who never ordered more than five or ten pieces were ordering a truck a week…But we all learned something because actually everybody was wrong. It wasn't a good game from the standpoint of making money...The industry loved Blockade but the public yawned.

The public may have yawned, but they did not grow tired of the concept and the influence of Blockade lasted long past the video game “Bronze Age.” Perhaps the best-known use of the idea in a coin-op game came in 1982 with the light bikes sequence in Midway’s Tron. Later games, such as the PC games Worm and Snake Byte, Rock-Ola's Nibbler coin-op, and the Nokia cell-phone game Snake added the idea of a snake that only grew when it ate something.

Hustle



One result of the Blockade fiasco was that Gremlin was left with a huge inventory of boards, cabinets, and monitors and no demand for their games. To use them up they dashed off a handful of new games using the same hardware.

[Lane Hauck] [My main inspiration came from] walking through the stockroom and seeing which piles (of unsold material) were the highest.  That's creativity in a very applied context. (DeWyze 1982)


Above: Gremlin Girl Sabrina Osment

1977’s Hustle was another variant on the same theme that added targets that the player could surround to score a varying number of points. To make sure they could meet the demand, and determined not to get beaten to market again, Gremlin produced 1,000 units of Hustle before they started selling it. They introduced  Hustle in April 1977 via an innovative (for the time) marketing promotion. Gremlin conducted a 19-city tour (12 U.S. cities and 7 European) in which players competed against the “Gremlin Girls” – a pair of attractive young ladies (Sabrina Osment and Lynn Reid) scantily clad in T-shirts and short-shorts. Players skilled enough to win two out of three games from the girls took home a 100-dollar bill. The girls reportedly sent 1,233 challengers home in defeat against just seven winners (Play Meter 7/77; RePlay 6/77). Malcolm Baines claimed that Gremlin racked up $1.5 million in orders during the tour.

Depthcharge



While Hustle had helped to clear out inventory, it had done little to address the problem of the company’s inexperience. Despite the Gremlin Girls promotion, they still had no marketing to speak of and often ordered more parts than they needed. And while Hustle had done moderately well, to have lasting success in the video game world Gremlin was going to have to do something besides trot out more variations on the Blockade theme. They needed something new and different. With their next release, they got the latter, if not the former. With the Blockade board inventory used up, Hauck and Ago Kiss began to work on a new game board based on the 8080 microprocessor. The first game using the new hardware was Depthcharge (ca September, 1977) in which the player moved a destroyer left and right while dropping depth charges on enemy subs lurking below. Depthcharge was certainly different from Blockade, but it was not exactly new. It was basically Midway’s Sea Wolf in reverse (maybe Gremlin decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em). It did, however, feature a number of improvements over the original. One of the biggest was the excellent sound effects (again courtesy of Bob Pecoraro), which included an echoing sonar ping and the booming explosion of depth charges. To create the former, Gremlin had contacted the Navy and asked to borrow tapes of an actual sonar. The Navy refused but agreed to listen to what Gremlin created and tell them if they got it right (RePlay 9/77). Depthcharge had actually been ready a year prior to its release but after it fared poorly during field testing. The main reason was the controls, which included a lever that the player used to adjust the depth at which the charges exploded. Players hated it.

[Lane Hauck] The charges would go right by the subs. Players would pound the console! Every single player had this problem. They wanted the game to play the way they thought a depth charge would blow up - on contact. (DeWyze 1982)





Gremlin brought the back in for tweaking, completely redesigning the confusing controls (Reid 1977). After the success of its Hustle promotion, Gremlin decided to try the same thing with Depthcharge. A new “Gremlin Girl” (Michele Anderson) was hired to join Sabrina Osment on a multi-city tour. Perhaps mindful of the shellacking Osment had delivered to competitors during the Hustle challenge, Gremlin planned to select one name from all the nationwide challengers and award them an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas, complete with $1,000 in chips (Reid 1977). While it may not have matched the success of Blockade (at least in terms of sales), Depthcharge provided Gremlin with another solid money maker. The game was licensed to Taito, who released it as Sub Hunter and in 1979 Gremlin created a sequel or sorts in Deep Scan, which added color and a miniature radar screen. On the other hand, the copycat issue still had not been completely solved. At the same time Gremlin released Depthcharge, Atari came out with Destroyer, a game with a nearly identical theme (at one point, Atari had even called its game Depth Charge) but improved graphics.

Safari and Blasto





Gremlin’s next release, Safari (ca November 1977), cast the player in the role of great white hunter gunning down charging boars and lions, as well as, somewhat paradoxically, snakes and vultures. Most of the game’s background graphics were painted on the screen rather than computer generated – including trees for the prey to hide behind and a small hut where the player could seek refuge. While the game concept was somewhat fresh, Play Meter referred to it as a one-player version of Gunfight (it used the same combination of joystick and pistol-grip control and may have actually been a licensed version of the Taito’s Safari, which had the same gameplay but different animals). Around April 1978 came a final game released on the Blockade hardware. Programmed by Bill Blewett, Blasto had the player maneuvering a space ship about a screen filled with mines, trying to destroy them all with their “gremmaray” before time ran out. Shooting a mine that was adjacent to another would initiate a satisfying chain reaction of explosions. Catching your opponent in the chain reaction, garnered you a plum 1,000 points. If you managed to blow yourself up, however, the points went to your rival. While Lane Hauck remembers that the game sold 3-4,000 units, it was not the major hit that Gremlin needed.

Noval 760 and Telemath




Coin-op games were not the only products Gremlin made. Realizing that the new 8080 game board they'd created was at least as powerful as the personal computers that were just beginning to appear on the market, Gremlin decided to create a home computer of its own and formed a division called Noval Inc. Lane Hauck, Ago Kiss, and programmer Terry Sorensen (who created the operating system) went to work and created a Z-80 based personal computer called the Noval 760. While little known today, the system was quite ambitious for the time. The units were mounted in an expensive cherry-wood desk with a rear portion that sprang open at the touch of a button (Gremlin used springs from automobile hoods) and a slide-out keyboard caddy. Each unit included a built-in 12” monitor, a 32-column printer, 16k of memory, eight IO ports, and a mag tape system for data storage (later models had 8-inch floppy drives). Noval's version of BASIC was available separately but for assembly language programmers, the 760 offered a novel feature called Instant-Edit. As each line was typed, the 760 checked the syntax and displayed an error if there was something wrong, providing a kind of interactive debugging. Unlike some other early PC manufacturers, Gremlin embraced the idea that people could play games on its system. While designed for the business market, the 760 also played computer versions of Gremlin coin-op hits like Blockade and Depthcharge (not surprising, since it also served as the development system for the coin-op designers for a time). Gremlin exhibited the Noval 760 at the first West Coast Computer Faire in the spring of 1977 (the now legendary event that witnessed the debut of the Apple II and, some say, if inaccurately, the birth of the personal computer industry). Gremlin introduced the Noval to the general public with a four-page ad in the June 1977 issue of Byte. While the personal computer industry was still in its infancy, it was nonetheless a crowded field. The same issue had ads for over a dozen other computers by companies like Cromemco, Ohio Scientific, and Polymorphic Systems. Despite its innovative features, the Noval 760 fared poorly, The Telemath, an educational computer system sold to the San Diego School District as part of a math education program, did better. The computers were installed in a number of San Diego elementary schools, where a select group of students were allowed to use them. In Gremlin-designed software titles such as Fraction Football, the students were presented with a math problem that they had to solve. The teacher could select what kind of problem they received. When the students’ progress was compared to similar groups that did not use computers, the students had much higher rates of retention. While most of the Telemath units were sold to the San Diego School District, a few (less than a dozen) were sold to the general public. In the end, however, neither the Noval 760 nor the Telemath had much lasting impact on the personal computer world and they remain almost-forgotten relics of a bygone era. Whatever chance Gremlin had to compete in the nascent home computer industry came to an end when Sega acquired the company and shut down the computer division entirely. (Hauck and Nash 1977; Craig 1978; Hauck 2012)







[1] As per the letter column in the March 1977 Play Meter, which attributes the information to "a high placed Atari official."


Sources
In addition to the sources cited in Part 1, additional sources include:

John Craig. "Around the Industry: The Noval 760: Here it Comes". Kilobaud May 1978.
Lane T. Hauck and James D. Nash. "System Description: The Noval 760". Byte. September 1977.
Lynne Reid. "The Emergence of Gremlin". Play Meter. November 1977.

4 comments:

  1. A 12" monitor? Talk about overkill. Definitely one of the weirdest stories I've yet heard from this blog. I wonder if anyone out there ever recalls actually using one.

    Glad you've got a nice dig behind Gremlin because they've been a well known mystery for some time. Now only if it were so easy to get info about the company who purchased them...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Safari is 100 percent Gremlin's game. It was licensed to Taito.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. I had actually discovered that myself recently but didn't realize I needed to update my book. Safari was one of many games designed by Lane Hauck.

      Delete
    2. The question is, did Taito import the HW or otherwise duplicate the PCBs of Gremlin's Safari? Or did they implement their version on their own HW? When you look at games like Taito's Missile-X (all TTL-based with ROMs) versus Midway's Guided Missile (CPU using with ROMs) one begins to wonder just how many "licensed" games used their own HW. In some cases all the licensing seems to have extended to was the game name and concept?

      Delete