Friday, June 10, 2016

The Ultimate (so Far) History of Nutting Associates - Part 2

The last time, I discussed the early years of Nutting Associates before they released Computer Space. Today's post will cover Computer Space in terms of Nutting's relation to it. Be sure to read the notes, as they provide a good deal of background info and detail on the evidence supporting various claims. They do not show up as hyperlinks, so you will need to scroll to the bottom to read them.Thanks to Alex Smith of the They Create Worlds podcast/blog for the excellent photos.

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The above photo of Bill Nutting with a Computer Space unit appeared in the June 1978 issue of Loose Change - though I don't know when it was taken.



Though Nutting’s follow-ups to Computer Quiz had met with little success, help soon arrived in the form an Ampex engineer named Nolan Bushnell, who showed up on Nutting’s doorstep in early 1970. Bushnell and a colleague named Ted Dabney had designed a coin-op game of their own based on Steve Russell’s mainframe classic Spacewar, and were unsuccessfully trying to find a buyer for it. And this game was unlike anything ever see in the coin-op industry. Rather than using filmstrips, its images were computer-generated and displayed on a video monitor – in other words, it was a video game. I will not go into the story of that game’s development, which started long before Bushnell came to Nutting Associates and which merits several posts of its own. Instead, I will pick up the story in early 1971[1], when Bushnell paid a visit to his dentist. 

When Bushnell told his dentist about his new game, the dentist told him about another patient named Dave Ralstin, who had recently started working for a local coin-op company named Dave Nutting Associates. A few days later, Bushnell called Ralstin, who arranged a meeting with Bill Nutting. Nutting, who desperately needed a follow-up to Computer Quiz, expressed interest in Nolan’s idea but the meeting ended without a deal. Bill Nutting, however, had more problems than just finding another hit game. The departure of Ball and White had left him without a chief engineer and he needed a replacement quickly. He called Bushnell back and asked if he would be willing to join Nutting as head engineer and to oversee production. Nolan was interested, but he wanted to keep control of his new game. Over a series of meetings, the two hammered out a deal whereby Bushnell would work at Nutting during the day while working on his version of Spacewar after hours, for no pay. When the game was finished, Nutting would pay for the manufacturing and marketing and Bushnell would receive a 5% royalty on each unit sold[2] (Goldberg and Vendel 2012). Bushnell was happy because he would keep control of the game's underlying technology and Nutting was glad to get someone to work on a game free of charge as well as the chief engineer he desperately needed. Bushnell quit his job at Ampex and went to work for Nutting Associates, where he was eventually joined by Ted Dabney (once again, I will skip the details of Bushnell and Dabney’s subsequent work on the game in order to concentrate on Nutting Associates). 

By late summer, Bushnell and Dabney had completed a prototype version of their game. Now they just needed to find a place to test it. Dave Ralstin operated a coin-op route and Bill Nutting suggested they try the game out in The Dutch Goose, a bar on Ralstin's route located near the Stanford campus. At this point, the game still did not have a name. At one point, it was called Cosmic Combat but that did not last (Bushnell 1976b[3]). Someone – perhaps Nutting or Ralstin[4] - suggested they call it Computer Space. In August, Bushnell and Dabney loaded the test unit into the back of Ted's pickup and headed for The Dutch Goose, where the game proved quite popular (Goldberg and Vendel 2012[5]). When they tried the game at other locations on the route, however, such as a pizza parlor, it did not fare nearly as well. This was not surprising since the average pizza parlor patron was far less technical than the engineering geeks who frequented The Dutch Goose. Another problem may have been the complicated controls, which consisted of four buttons. An attempt at a crude aluminum joystick that could be twisted to control the ship was abandoned after it was tested at a Round Table pizza parlor in Alameda and disintegrated within a few hours (Goldberg and Vendel 2012; Edwards 2011)[6]. Control issues aside, testing went well enough for Nutting to market the game. 


Computer Space on display at the October 1971 MOA show. From Cash Box. I know that you can barely see the corners of the actual game, but could this be the earliest published photo of an arcade video game? I can't really say. It's possible that a photo of Galaxy Game could have appeared in the Stanford student paper or that a photo of Computer Space on test at the Dutch Goose could have appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, but this is the earliest one I've found yet. I don't know who the person is with his back to the camera standing in front of the game, but it could be Nolan.

Computer Space reached a national audience at the Music Operators of America expo, held at the Conrad Hilton Hotel in Chicago on October 15-17, 1971. Nutting had built four units for the show, in four different colors (yellow, red, white, and blue) but when Bushnell and Dabney unpacked them, they found that the monitors had fallen out. They were able to get three working but the fourth was still DOA. Thinking fast, they turned it around backward, telling visitors they did so to "display" its internal workings. During the show, an overenthusiastic Bushnell talked about his game to anyone who cared to listen, and a few who did not.

[Ed Adlum] That show happened a long time ago, but I still remember Nolan and his weird machine to this day. You couldn’t miss the big, yellow machine with the TV tube. And you couldn’t miss Nolan…he was the most excited person I’ve ever seen over the age of six talking about his game. He was so hot about it, I remember backing up, trying to get on my way to see the other booths, and he was still talking! (Webb 1997)




Many of those who did listen told Bushnell he was crazy to try to market such a thing – especially in California, when everyone knew that the center of the coin-op universe was in Chicago. One visitor was sure that customers would steal the televisions out of the games. Bushnell (1976a) later claimed that Nutting took no orders at the show, though other accounts claim they took a handful (Goldberg and Vendel 2012). Orders or not, Bill Nutting was reportedly so pleased that he took Nolan for a spin in the Waco SRE Biplane he had spent the previous two-and-a-half years restoring (Goldberg and Vendel 2012; Cox 1972). Nutting showed the game again at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) show on November 9-12 and began selling it in November of December[7], likely producing around 1,500 units - though this figure is a bit uncertain[8].


Bill Nutting with his Waco SRE biplane around the time Computer Space was released - from the May 1972 issue of Sport Aviation . Below is a color shot of the plane from the magazine's cover.



The design of Computer Space stands out even today. The game was housed in a sleek, rounded, fiberglass cabinet, allegedly built by a swimming pool and hot tub manufacturer named John Hebbler (Edwards 2011). Though Hebbler may have built it, the cabinet was designed by Nolan Bushnell[9], who built the prototype out of clay on his kitchen table (Goldberg and Vendel 2012). With its ultramodern style, the cabinet resembled something from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was available in multiple colors – metallic flake red, green, or blue. The hardware consisted of a Xentek power supply, a GE television set, and a series of circuit boards, dubbed the “brain box” in company flyers. 

If the game’s cabinet is still impressive 40 years later, the gameplay is much less so. Unlike Spacewar, Bushnell’s game was strictly a one-player affair. Instead of a human opponent, the player squared off against a pair of computer-controlled UFOs that flitted randomly about the screen. The controls consisted of four buttons – rotate left and right, thrust, and fire missile. There was no hyperspace. The game was timed, with bonus time for a good performance, and the player's shots could be guided after they were fired. The instructions, printed beneath the monitor, were simple

1. Insert quarter and press start; your rocket ship will appear
2. There is no gravity in space; rocket speed can only be changed by engine, thrust
3. Evade the saucers’ missiles and use yours to score hits
4. Outscore the saucers for extended play in hyperspace

Modern gamers would probably be bored by Computer Space. The graphics were crude, even by the standards of games released just a few years later, with the ships represented by dotted outlines. The background was static, the sound effects primitive, and the “steerable” shots made it difficult to score a hit. Of course, it is unfair to judge the game against what came after. For its time, it was a remarkable achievement unlike anything the coin-op industry, let alone the general public, had ever seen. The game left onlookers, most of whom had never seen anything on a television screen other than a television broadcast, gaping in amazement.

[Ted Dabney] They were blown away by it. That is something that really boggled their brains. All of a sudden, there’s a TV picture that they have control of. It was totally new to them. (Edwards 2011)

Though building the machine had its difficulties, marketing it proved even more challenging. Nutting initially had a hard time getting anyone to purchase the units. Dave Ralstin gave away the first five as a promotional gimmick – one to each of the five largest distributors. Eventually, however, the game began to sell. If production numbers on the game are somewhat uncertain, sales numbers are even more so. According to Goldberg and Vendel, Ralstin was able to sell around 1,000 units but his workmanlike efforts only got him fired when Bill Nutting decided he did not need to pay a commission to someone for doing what he could do himself[10]. Nutting was able to sell about 500 additional units, reporting that he had to sell some of them “by force” (Bloom 1982b, Goldberg and Vendel 2012). Other sources give sales figures ranging from 500 to 2,200[11]. Similarly, the amount of money Bushnell and Dabney made on the game has been variously reported as ranging from $500 to $150,000[12].


 Computer Space on the production line at Nutting - from Cash Box.


Regardless of which sales figures they use; most accounts portray the game as a monumental flop. Compared with the sales figures of video games of the late 1970s and 1980s this is arguably true, but by the standards of the time, the claim seems a bit of an overstatement. A search of the Internet Pinball Database for pinball machines released between 1969 and 1971 shows that of the circa 90 games for which they have production figures, about half sold less than 1,500 units, with just three topping 5,000. An article in the February 12, 1972 issue of Cash Box notes that Nutting was reporting “geared up production to fill sizeable back orders for their new Computer Space unit and quoted Dave Ralstin as saying that “acceptance of the unit by the industry has been tremendous” and that income reports for the game “may well be the all-time high industry producer.” The May 1972 issue of Vending Times repeated the Ralstin quote and mentioned that Nutting had started a second shift to keep up with demand.




The July 22, 1972 issue of Cash Box noted that the game was a “top item” at Portale Automatic Sales. Though Ralstin’s quotes were likely marketing puffery, the claims that Nutting had started a second shift and that the game was selling well for Portale indicate that they were not entirely inaccurate. One 1973 article called Computer Space “a moderately successful game” and noted that “it was particularly popular around college campuses” (Kocher 1973). Benj Edwards (2011) quotes Bushnell as saying, “I thought it was a great success, but it could have been better.” Brad Fregger is best known for his work as a video game producer at Activision in the 1990s. Earlier in his career, however, Fregger worked as a service technician for Nutting Associates. Fregger recalls that Computer Space was actually quite popular but that its success was limited by lack of management support.

[Brad Fregger] I found myself between jobs and a friend of mine, Rod Geiman, president of a small company called Nutting & [sic] Associates asked me if I would help him out…Rod had a number of…products out in bars, arcades, laundromats, even in the San Jose Airport…with no one to service them. Rod wanted me to help him out until he could find somebody to take the job. I said sure. Computer Space was a hit; there were times when I got complaints the machine wouldn’t work, only to discover the coin box was jammed full and the coins were backed up the shoot [sic]…Nutting…closed down a couple of years later. The owner (not Rod) was more interested in evangelism. He built his own plane in his warehouse and flew off to save souls in Africa. It was his focus on evangelism that limited the success of Computer Space, not any lack of acceptance on the part of the playing public. (2012)

Bill Nutting, on the other hand, claimed that the game received a mixed response and that he had to force some distributors to take it, while Steven Kent reports that the game failed to sell its production run (Bloom 1982a; Kent 2001). Flop or not, the game had its fans. In an interview in the August 1976 issue of Play Meter, Vic Leslie, chair of England’s Cherry Group, which distributed and operated Atari games in the UK, discussed having seen the game at the MOA show[13].

[Vic Leslie] I was pretty bowled over by a machine there called Nutting Computer Space. I thought it was the most fabulous game I had ever played; I couldn't tear myself away from it. I felt at the time it was going to revolutionize the industry. However, I didn't feel it prudent at that time to purchase because of the technology involved in the game: it was way beyond anything we could handle in England. Even people here in America who were better judges than I were pessimistic about it.


Bob Portale getting his "super spaceman" award from Bill Nutting - from Cash Box.



One person who saw the game at an LA area airport was so impressed with its design (he searched in vain for the phone wires he was sure were transmitting a film image) that he reportedly offered Bushnell a $60,000-a-year job. Luckily, Ted Dabney was able to talk Bushnell out of accepting the offer or Atari might have died before it even got started (Dabney 2012b). Bob Portale of Portale Automatic Sales, a well-known Los Angeles area distributor, became the game’s champion and largest distributor, earning him a “super spaceman” award from Nutting (Cash Box 11/4/72). The game was also a hit at Sunnyvale's Andy Capp's Tavern and even made its way into popular media. In 1973, it appeared in the cult sci-fi classic Soylent Green, a movie about twenty-first century America’s grisly solution to the twin problems of overcrowding and hunger. In an early scene, a character named Shirl (Leigh Taylor Young) is seen playing a gleaming white version of the game, an expensive present from the wealthy suitor for whom she “works” (and who is soon to be rendered into kibble). On leaving, she proudly proclaims, “I demolished five saucers with one rocket!” to which a companion (Chuck Connors) replies “Not bad for an amateur.” Another piece of celebrity trivia involves the game’s iconic flyer, which featured an attractive blonde in a see-through white nightgown with her arm draped over a yellow Computer Space machine. A long-standing rumor claims that the woman is none other than actress Yvette Mimieux who had appeared in a number of films in the 1960s, including George Pal’s The Time Machine. The claim, however, is in all likelihood false[14]. Computer Space also had the honor of being installed in Orlando’s Contemporary Resort Hotel for the grand opening of the new Walt Disney World, allowing Nolan, at least vicariously, to finally make it to Disney (where he’d always wanted to work). Another sign that the game may have been more than a flop is that is spawned an imitator. In September 1972, a company called For-Play Manufacturing released a clone of the game called Star Trek- though it apparently did not last long.




Even if Computer Space was not the total flop it has often been portrayed to be, it does seem to have been something of a disappointment. The game failed to match the success of Computer Quiz and certainly did not revolutionize the industry, as Bushnell hoped, if not expected, it would. There are a number of possible reasons for this. For one thing, the game may have been too complicated. The average arcade or bar customer was a far cry from the bleary-eyed hackers of MIT or Nolan Bushnell’s engineering buddies. Bar patrons were used to simple, easy-to-understand action games like pinball and pool. Some reported that the game was also slow and was not a lot of fun for the casual player. Another reason may have been that while Spacewar had been a two-player game, Computer Space was only a one-player game, and thus lacked the competitive appeal of the MIT original. 
Nolan Bushnell's career at Nutting did not last long after Computer Space. In spring 1972, he met with Bill Nutting to discuss creating a simpler version of the game that might have broader appeal. During the meeting, Nolan dropped a bombshell, telling Nutting he wanted one-third ownership in the company plus a greater role in management (Bushnell 2003). Nutting countered with an offer of 5%, but Bushnell would have to stay on as engineer (Bushnell 1982b, Bloom 1982a, Goldberg and Vendel 2012). After discussing the matter with Ted Dabney, the two realized they had no future at Nutting and Bushnell began talking to other coin-op companies. In May 1972, Bushnell and Dabney quit Nutting to strike out on their own and the following month, they formed a new company called Atari – and the rest, as they say, is history. Though Bill Nutting’s decision to let Bushnell go may seem foolish in hindsight, he claimed to have had no regrets 

[Bill Nutting] Well, Nolan walked away with $20 million and I didn’t. I just wouldn’t do the kinds of things that had to be done to get successful. In my mind, I’ll always believe I did the smart thing by getting out. (Bloom 1982a)

Bushnell did have more contact with Nutting, working on a two-player version of Computer Space and offering Bill Nutting a licensing deal on Pong that would have paid him a 10% royalty – an offer that Nutting declined. At this point, Nutting Associates and Bill Nutting fade from the pages of most video game histories, which generally treat them as something of a footnote in video game history: the company that passed up a golden opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a revolution, thanks largely to Bill Nutting's mismanagement and myopia. Not only did Nutting let Nolan Bushnell, the father of the arcade video game industry, slip through its fingers, but it rejected his offer to license Pong, the game that launched the industry. Had it taken advantage of either, might Nutting Associates, rather than Atari, have become the fastest growing company in American history and a touchstone of 1980s pop culture?

Almost surely not. Though Bill Nutting may not have deserved his reputation as a clueless bungler, he was no Nolan Bushnell and lacked the drive and single-minded vision to launch a revolution. Contrary to popular belief, however, Nutting did not abandon video games after Bushnell’s departure. Between 1973 and 1977, the company released almost a dozen video and arcade games – though even students of video game history would be hard pressed to name one. The next time, we’ll take a look at Nutting’s post-Computer Space history.

Sidebar – Which Was First?

I have not discussed Galaxy Game in this post, though I have covered it at some length in an earlier post. Galaxy Game is a one-off (actually a two-off) game designed by Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck and placed at the Stanford student union. Some maintain that it, not Computer Space deserves the title of “world’s first coin-operated video game” I personally find this claim unconvincing. Though it may be true that Galaxy Game was placed on location in September 1971 – at least two months before the first units of Computer Space went on sale, it is a bit inaccurate to claim that Galaxy Game was thus the first coin-op video game. According to Goldberg and Vendel, Computer Space was initially tested at The Dutch Goose in August, a month before Galaxy Game was installed at Stanford[15]. If these dates are accurate, then it seems that Computer Space was the first coin-op video game that the public could actually drop their coins into. Claiming that the August date does not count because it was not a release date is unfair. Galaxy Game was not a commercial product and thus was never really “released” at all, nor was it ever sold - its testing date essentially was its release date. For some, the important date in establishing priority is not the release date or the testing date but the date work actually started and here the data is less clear. Bushnell and Dabney probably started working on Computer Space in the summer of 1970 and according to Bushnell (1976), the first time “they had an apparatus completed in which you could play any version of Computer Space” was “probably in April or May of 1971.” It is unclear exactly when Pitts and Tuck started working on Galaxy Game, but they did not form Computer Recreations until June 1971, well after the formation of Syzygy. If the August testing date is correct, it seems that the title of world’s first coin-op video game should be returned to its original holder – Computer Space.


NOTES

[1] The exact date of Bushnell’s dentist visit is a bit unclear. Goldberg and Vendel place it in February 1970, but this is clearly too early as Bushnell was still negotiating with Data General to purchase several Nova mini-computers to create a mini-computer-based, multi-display version of the game in January and February 1971. The date will likely be corrected in subsequent editions. February 1971 is a more likely date, though even this may be a bit too early. 

[2] Bushnell (2003) claimed that he also got twice the salary he had at Ampex ($1600 a month vs $825) and a car.

[3] During the deposition a document was entered into evidence titled “Position and Line Counter Cosmic Combat” by S.F. Dabney, dated January 26, 1971. Bushnell later said that Computer Space had been called Cosmic Combat at one point. Goldberg and Vendel report that it was referred to merely as “The Rocketship Game” early on.

[4] Edwards (2011) says it was Ralstin who came up with the name. Goldberg and Vendel (2012) say it was Nutting. 

[5] Donovan (2010) places the location test in November, but this is clearly too late as the game was shown at the MOA show in October. He may have been confusing the test date with the release date. 

[6] Bushnell (1976a) speculated that the joystick version was made “I guess in January” of 1972.

[7] The November 1971 release date has been reported in most accounts of the game’s 
origins, but almost none of them give a source for the date. One possible source is Cash Box magazine. In the November 27, 1971 issue, Nutting ran an ad for Computer Space, claiming that it was “available now at your distributor.” The December 4 issue included an article announcing the game’s introduction, which noted that it was “being readied for U.S. distribution.” Nolan Bushnell (1974) said he thought the first unit was sold in late December 1971 or early January 1972 but was not certain. Steven Kent (2001) reports that Keith Feinstein - curator of the Videotopia exhibit - found shipping and sales records that proved the game was in production in 1971.

[8] The majority of sources cite the 1,500 figure, including Bisgeier et al. (1973), Video Games (12/82), Cohen (1984), Sheff (1993), Kent (2001), Burnham (2001), and Goldberg and Vendel (2012). Webb (1997) says that “maybe 1,500” were built. Trachtman (1981) and Kubey (1982) give a figure of 2,000. Nolan Bushnell later said that he thought they may have made as many as 2,200 (Drury 2011b).

[9] Ted Dabney designed the game’s original cabinet, which was not nearly as futuristic. 

[10] Cash Box and Vending Times both report that Ralstin was still with Nutting in May 1972, so it he was fired it likely took place after that date. 

[11] Bloom (1982) quotes Nutting as saying, “We built 1,500 and had to sell some of them by force” – though this does not mean that they sold all 1,500. Bushnell (1982b) said that he thought they sold “about 2,000” and in other accounts he has placed the figure at 2,200. In his 1976 deposition, however, he said he thought they sold 1300-1500 (Bushnell 1976a). Donovan (2010) reported that they sold “more than 1,500.” A number of sources (Bloom 1982a and 1982b, Slater 1987) report that Bushnell earned only $500 in royalties, which at 5% would translate to less than ten units sold – which is clearly too low. Edwards (2011) claims that sales estimates for the game range from 500 to 1,000 units, though it is unclear where these estimates came from.

[12] See previous note for the $500 figure, which probably results from confusion with the initial seed money used to establish Syzygy. The $150,000 figure is from Benj Edwards, but is probably inaccurate. Edwards based his figures on sales of 1,000 units - the most he thinks were sold - reporting that the game grossed about $3,000,000 in unit sales, of which Bushnell and Dabney got 5%. This seems inaccurate for three reasons. First, the 1,000-sold figure is probably too low. Second, the revenue figures are probably too high. Third, Bushnell and Dabney probably would have received 5% of the sales to distributors, not to operators (distributors normally added about 30% to the wholesale price). When the game was introduced at the 1971 MOA show, brochures advertised a price of “less than” $2,000. Bushnell (1976a) said he thought they sold the game for $1295 or $1195 and later dropped the price to $950. If Nutting sold approximately 1,500 copies of the game, at a wholesale price of $1000-1300, and if Bushnell and Dabney got a 5% royalty, their cut would have been $75,000 to $100,000

[13] Leslie claims he saw it at the 1972 show. He may have been referring to the 1971 show, or he may be talking about the two-player version, which was shown at the 1972 show (Drury 2010a).

[14] No source is given for the claim and it is uncertain where it first appeared. One possible source is Bueschel (1995), which notes that the flyer shows Yvette Mimieux “before movie fame.” In fact, Mimieux was near the end of her movie career in 1971. Computerspacefan.com speculates that the woman was “more likely an employee of The Brass Rail” – a Sunnyvale strip club popular with engineers. The source for this claim may have been a talk Nolan Bushnell gave to high school entrepreneurs in Los Angeles on May 17, 2013 as recounted by Walter Isaacson (Isaacson 2014). In Isaacson's account, Atari produced a "sales brochure" for Pong that "featured a beautiful young woman in a slinky sheer nightgown draping her arm over the game machine" whom Bushnell claims they hired "from the topless bar down the street." I have not seen the original interview, but Isaacson clearly seems to be describing the Computer Space flyer. 

[15] Donovan (2010) reports that the first Computer Space unit was “installed” at the Dutch Goose in November, but he may be referring to the first production unit

3 comments:

  1. As to the Ralstin mystery, were Cash Box and Vending times printed at the beginning of the month or the end of the month? Marty and Curt talked to a lot of people so I'm assuming that Ralstin being fired is correct unless they've said anything that's uncertain about it.

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  2. Excellent work, as always. One smallish thing jumped out at me. You mention Computer Space was shown at IAAPA on November 9-12. I have here a scan from Cash Box 12/18/71 p.47 that reports on the recent IAAP "1972" show and lists the dates of the show that year as December 2-5 [1971]. I believe the November 9-12 dates go with the IAAPA show of November 1972. (IAAP became IAAPA sometime in 1972 according to their website.)

    Computer Space may well have been at the IAAP show in 1971, I just didn't find evidence of it in my scouring of Cash Box.

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  3. Thanks for providing good information,Thanks for your sharing.

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