Monday, November 26, 2012

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Cinematronics/Vectorbeam, Pt. 3


The success of Space Wars had put Cinematronics on the coin-op map and made its owners a fortune, but Larry Rosenthal didn't stay around long enough to see it. In the spring of 1978, he left Cinematronics to form a company of his own. Accounts as to why he left differ. The most common version is that he felt he didn’t benefit nearly as much as he should have and was unhappy with the royalties he was getting. Cinematronics, on the other hand (according to this version), felt he was getting too much (some sources say he’d received millions from the deal). Popular as it is, the story is completely false. Rosenthal was only getting a royalty of around 5% and was quite happy with the deal (he recalls that his total take on the game was not the seven or eight figures that has been reported, but was “well into the six figures”) Ken Beuck recalls that Rosenthal had been approached by Marty Bromley, who offered him a multimillion dollar deal to develop games for Sega, but this appears to be false as well. Around this time, Ed and Joanne Anderson, who would later join Rosenthal at his new company, were working at a garment company called Moonlight.                                            

[Ed Anderson] Larry came by… We told him “License this thing and … get your zillions of dollars and never go to work. (He’d never had a job.) Why work? You’re going to take all that money you’re making and spend it all on parts and if the product doesn’t sell then you’ve got a bunch of worthless parts because who else can use these specific parts... He said he always wanted to be chairman of his own corporation and this way he could go straight from nothing to chairman.
The truth, was actually quite simple. As Anderson indicates, Rosenthal, merely wanted to own a company of his own. 
[Larry Rosenthal] Yes, I wanted to have my own company. I was in my late 20s, that's what I wanted to do. At Cinematronics - again I'll preface it with “these are my own recollections” - the quality of the games going out the door were not the highest…and they weren't cranking them out nearly as fast as the market demanded. As far as the quality went - because the demand was there they were pushing them out without sufficient burn-in and back in those days TTL chips were not the most reliable…I specced a Sylvania picture tube. They found another manufacturer I forget the name but the tubes were constantly arcing over and…blowing out the interface between the TTL boards and the display. And I also believe at that time that my friend Bill Cravens, who was the sales manager there. Let me preface it with I believe - I don't want anybody to sue me for slander - He was fired because he had received a small royalty with each game and they believed “Why do we need him? This game is selling itself." So all those things went into my forming Vectorbeam.

They did not push me out. I left on my own, which was a big mistake. If Id' stayed I would have been rich.

<talk at California Extreme 2014 ->
 Rosenthal's contract with Cinematronics specified that he could leave whenever he wanted to and in spring of 1978, he decided to form a new company and take his vector technology, along with Cinematroncs sales chief Bill Cravens with him (Ken Beuck would join them as well). Rosenthal and Cravens went to the Bay Area to scount out a location for their new venture. Rosenthal wanted to establish headquarters in expensive San Francisco, but Cravens talked him into a cheaper location at 33441 Central Avenue in Union City, about 20 miles from Oakland. On May 5 their company was incorporated as Sunrise Research[3], but three weeks later the name was changed to Vector Beam, Inc. and then to Vectorbeam, Inc. While the headquarters were in Union City, the company at one point was located in a rather interesting location at 2180 Bryant Street in San Francisco[4]:

[Ed Anderson] We put a little lab over in San Francisco at the old school building. . . they had Last Gasp Comics[5] (Zippy the Pinhead, Keep on Truckin and all that). It was quite a unique place. So we put in a little electronics room and started testing monitors and putting the hardware together while we were still running Moonlight and we had a series of red phones and a series of white phones. When the red phone rang, it was one company and when the white one rang it was the other one.

      At the suggestion of his lawyer, Rosenthal brought in Moonlight’s Gil Levine as president (a decision that he may have later regretted). He also hired a single programmer – Dan Sunday, a friend who’d first met Rosenthal during his student days at Berkeley where he worked with Larry’s brother. With his own company, Rosenthal was now free to produce his own vector games without executive interference. While Rosenthal had licensed his technology to Cinematronics, the contract purposefully did not say that the license was exclusive, meaning that Vectorbeam was free to use the technology to create their own games. In addition, he had retained patent rights to his Vectorbeam system, which would entitle him to a share of the profits on any game Cinematronics sold using the system, not just Space Wars. Vectorbeam’s first game was simply a copy of Space Wars called Space War. The two games were basically the same - though the Vectorbeam version reportedly used a higher quality board, monitor, and cabinet (plywood instead of particle board). The Vectorbeam version was also slightly smaller than its Cinematronics counterpart, which itself was one of the largest upright video games made at the time[6].


At the suggestion of his lawyer, Rosenthal brought in Moonlight’s Gil Levine as president – a decision he would later regret. He also hired a single programmer – Dan Sunday, a friend who’d first met Rosenthal during his student days at Berkeley where he worked with Larry’s brother. With his own company, Rosenthal was now free to produce his own vector games without executive interference. While Rosenthal had licensed his technology to Cinematronics, the contract purposefully did not say that the license was exclusive, meaning that Vectorbeam was free to use the technology to create their own games. Vectorbeam’s first game was simply a copy of Space Wars called Space War. The two games were basically the same - though the Vectorbeam version reportedly used a higher quality board, monitor, and cabinet (plywood instead of particle board). The Vectorbeam version was also slightly smaller than its Cinematronics counterpart, which itself was one of the largest upright videos made at the time[4].
Larry Rosenthal and Dan Sunday at Vectorbeam, 1978. From Vending Times.

Scramble/Speed Freak

            Vectorbeam’s first original-concept release was another game Rosenthal had created (along with Dan Sunday) called Scramble.

[Dan Sunday] [Scramble] was the very first game the new Vectorbeam company made. Remember, Vectorbeam only existed for 1 year: I recall Sept 1978 to Aug 1979, but may be off a month either way. So when it first started things were really hectic -- a scramble. We were trying to get everything off the ground, and get a game to a big annual trade show in Chicago. We managed to quickly put together a video pinball game, Scramble, and actually took it to the Chicago trade show[5].

Scramble at the 1978 AMOA show. From Vending Times

 The game was shown AMOA show in November, 1978[6] and over the years, it has been become a much-storied collector’s item as no copy has ever turned up (though some boards were found in 2008 that may have been from the game). Some have speculated that the game was never actually released. Gameplay, was reportedly extremely crude. Tim Skelly, who played the game on a visit to Vectorbeam, describes it as a video version of pinball.

Play Meter describes the gameplay as follows:

"each player has his own three -sided playfield located on one side of the screen . The open ends of each player's playfield face each other. In the open space in the middle of the screen are located player paddles that move up and down in a vertical fashion . Two balls are put into play at the start of the game. As with Gee Bee , the object is to keep the balls bouncing  around in your playfield without letting it bounce past you and into your opponent's playfield . Inside each playfield are various targets that vary constantly in value . Game time is determined by the number of times the balls pass from one playfield to another."

Rosenthal, vaguely recalls that they shipped around 65 units to an African distributor and probably didn’t release it in the U.S. at all (a German flyer exists for the game).

The first original game that Vectorbeam is known for certain to have released was Rosenthal’s Speed Freak[7] (March 1979). The game was a vector version of Atari’s Night Driver with a number of additional graphical elements such as oncoming cars, ambulances, trees, cacti, cows, dogs, signs, and the occasional hitchhiker (who, many players were upset to find, you could not run over). From time to time, an airplane even passed overhead. As in Night Driver the object was to stay on the road and avoid crashing. Controls consisted of the standard steering wheel, accelerator, and 4-speed gearshift (though when it was demonstrated at the Amusement Trades Exhibition in London, it reportedly contained an Atari joystick and steering wheel). While it featured a few new gameplay elements, Speed Freak did not prove the hit that Vectorbeam needed to stay afloat, and sold only 700 copies (the last 200 at a loss). Desperately, the company began looking for other ways to make money.

            Meanwhile, back at Cinematronics, engineers were busily trying to re-create Rosenthal’s vector system. When they left, Rosenthal and Cravens took all the development hardware and documentation with them. While Rosenthal thought he’d taken all traces of the system with him, engineers discovered a copy of the system’s op-codes and were able to create a compiler from it. Head engineer Bob Hale was able to reverse engineer the logic game's logic board and fix its many timing issues.

[Rob Patton] The instruction sets acted quirky from variations in chip performance from various batches of parts as well as the way Rosenthal had used layers of logic feeding into other layers of logic to form the instruction set in the hardware. Sometimes debugging required placements of NOP instructions between real code to allow circuits to catch up before the next instruction was performed

NOPs were "no operation" instructions - code that basically did nothing - to slow down the signal and solve timing issues. Assisting Hale was engineer Dennis Halverson.

[Dennis Halverson] I was working for the US government at the Naval Electronic Laboratory Center. I did system design in the electronic warfare department. It was my  first job out of college. I was initially a part time contractor at  Cinematronics designing a microprocessor-based controller for a pin ball machine they wanted to build. I went full time when they cancelled the project in about 1977.

One of Halverson's first jobs as a full-time employee was to help with reverse engineering Rosenthal's system, simplifying the design to use fewer chips. Bob Hale also made other improvements needed to produce a stable hardware system for developing new game.
Tim Skelly recalls that Jim Pierce fired Hale when Rosenthtal and Cravens left to form Vectorbeam - speculating that Cravens may have been behind the move in an effort to convince Cinematronics to get rid of the one person who understood Rosenthal's system[8]. If true (and I have not confirmed the story with anyone else) the firing did not occur in time to prevent Hale from reworking the Space Wars hardware.

     In early 1979, over a year after the introduction of Space Wars, they began releasing original games using the re-created system. One reason for the long lag after the introduction of Space Wars was the company’s lack of large-scale manufacturing capability. In 1978, the company started to address that problem by acquiring an additional 18,000 square feet of manufacturing space that included an in-house board manufacturing facility. The company was also busy adding new employees. From just 14 in January of 1978, the company had grown to almost 100 a year later.


Tim Skellly. From Joystik, November, 1982.

The first Cinematronics release after Space Wars was Starhawk, (March 1979[9]). The game was the first creation from a man who would go on to be one of the most successful game designers of the industry’s early years - Tim Skelly. Skelly grew up in Canton Ohio and became interested in computers when he walked past an IBM showroom on a visit to Chicago when he was about 11. While he studied programming on a primitive desktop computer in high school, it wasn’t until much later that he began to pursue computers as a career. In the meantime, he obtained a BS in Radio Television and Film from Northwestern in 1973 and began a career as a video artist.

[Tim Skelly] My work was an amalgam of abstract pieces using video feedback live action, puppets, and anything else that looked cool. At that time the closest thing to computer art was being done on Dan Sandin’s analog Video Image Processor - a sort of video Moog synthesizer.

While Skelly had his success as an artist (he had a computer art show at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 1973) he eventually left the field for financial reasons. In 1977, after being fired from his job as a sandwich-maker, Skelly was sitting in a Kansas City bar getting ready to see Star Wars for the fifth time when an event occurred that would turn his career in a new direction:

[Tim Skelly] . . .a guy walked in with a computer under his arm. The computer was a Poly 88[10], an orange metal shoebox with one button (reset) and one of the first (pseudo) bit-mapped displays. It loaded and stored programs on an ordinary cassette player. [He] was going to open a video arcade with a bunch of these little computers. I just wanted to design and paint the sign for the store.

The Poly 88 by Polymorphic Systems
Skelly was hired (he never did get to see Star Wars that night) and he and Douglas Pratt (the man with the Poly 88) created the Cyborg Computer Gaming Center in Kansas City. Skelly's career took another unexpected turn when Pratt's programming partner took off, leaving Skelly as the sole creator of video games for the arcade. His first project was a modification to Oregon Trail  (a seminal early text-only educational game created by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dilenberger in 1971). Skelly liked the game, but he hated the doctor who showed up every few turns to inform you that you had a deadly disease he could cure - for a price. Skelly altered the game to allow the player to shoot the doctor. Over the next three months, Skelly wrote a number of games in BASIC including MazeBomb, Star Thief, Space Pirates and a conversion of Oregon Trail called Street Gang. Then a local operator gave Skelly a copy of Replay’s annual industry guide and he began sending resumes to all of the manufacturers in California. In May 1978[10] Cinematronics flew Skelly out for an interview with Jim Pierce and Larry Rosenthal (still with the company at the time, though just barely). During the interview, Rosenthal showed Skelly his “development system” which consisted of a TTL board attached to a piece of plywood with some LEDs and buttons that allowed the (manual) entry of Hex op-codes. Skelly looked at the crude system with a trace of fear. To make matters worse, what little computer graphics experience Skelly had, had been with bit-mapped, not vector, graphics. Certain that he’d blown the interview, Skelly returned to Kansas City where he hoped to hear from one of the other game companies to which he’d applied. To his surprise, he received a call from Jim Pierce telling him he had the job. During Skelly’s four-day drive from Kansas City, Rosenthal  left to form Vectorbeam, leaving Skelly as the company's only game designer.
   If Rosenthal’s design system had been crude, Skelly’s would be even cruder. When he arrived at his office, the only thing there besides his office furniture was a legal pad and a pencil. With the AMOA show coming up in November (of 1978) and the ATE in London in January, Cinematronics needed a new game quickly and Skelly, with almost no equipment or staff, was expected to design it.

            By this time, Dennis Halverson had begun to work on a development system based on the DEC PDP-11. The PDP 11 had dual 8" floppy drives. The drives allowed developers to save their work to disk rather than having to burn EPROMs every time a coding change was made, which made debugging much easier.   Halverson also wrote some macros for the PDP-11's macro assembler (the RT-11, which translated assembly language source code into instructions the machine could understand).  Bob Hale built a ROM emulator so that developers could test final code without writing to actual EPROMs. Engineer Bill DeWolfe created a sound board

     In the meantime, Skelly went to work coding his first game in machine code on his legal pads. Later, he was able to switch to a Teletype machine and then to Halverson’s development software. In addition, Skelly was also limited to working with 4k of memory (later games would have at least 8). Skelly’s game was to be a two-player, simultaneous game (like Space War) and, given the memory limitations, Skelly decided to keep it simple. His first idea was for a hang-gliding game, but he realized that would require too much graphics processing and  switched to a simple outer-space shooter. Cinematronics game design philosophy was to “make it loud, make it fast, and make it shoot a lot[12].” This was due in large part to the fact that the company was making only black-and-white vector graphics games at the time and felt that lots of explosions and action would make up for the lack of colorful graphics.

     With this concept in mind, Skelly got to work on his new game. He wrote an algorithm that drew a rotating ball in the background and then created a number of enemy ships that could be destroyed for points. Inspiration was provided by Ted Nugent’s Weekend Warrior (often played at 3 A.M., much to the annoyance of Skelly’s neighbors). By this time the Cinematronics executives were getting desperate. When Skelly successfully got a space ship to appear on the screen, they got out of their beds in the middle of the night to come and take a look.
One amusing story concerns the games joystick controller (designed by Bob Hale):

[Tim Skelly] At that time, while there were companies that built and sold pinball parts, no one was yet manufacturing joysticks cheap enough or strong enough for arcade games. The engineer who worked at Cinematronics when I started came up with this wacky joystick design. It involved two pieces of plate steel, four steel bolts, a hunk of steel tubing welded to the top plate, a button, and some standard leaf switches. Designed to be cheap and VERY durable, we tested the design by running a shipping truck over it a few times. Not a scratch. One problem, though. The amount of play in the stick depended on how tightly the bolts were screwed down. Without any way of knowing how far down to screw them, the workers on the line bolted them down all the way, making it very difficult to play the game! This was soon corrected, but every one I ever played seemed tight to me. I imagine those steel beauties were all eventually replaced by operators, but they were used on Starhawk and Warrior. They also were very heavy and made excellent weapons for self-defense.

Despite all the hard work, Starhawk was not finished in time for the AMOA show but did make the ATE show in London. Starhawk was a 3D-like game in which the player controlled a crosshair gun sight that they could move across the screen to destroy a variety of enemy spaceships. The rotating sphere in the background resembled the Death Star trench in Star Wars (the similarities didn’t end there, periodically a ship that bore an uncanny resemblance to an x-wing fighter would travel through the trench).  The trench idea had come from a visit Skelly had paid to computer graphics professor Tom Defanti when he was living in Chicago. On one visit, Skelly saw Defanti's animation of a spaceship flying through a trench. After seeing something similar in the Death Star trench sequence in Star Wars (which was released after Skelly's visit to Defanti), Skelly decided to put it in the game.

Starhawk screenshot - from MAME

One unique twist was a UFO that would appear occasionally to zap the player’s score, subtracting 800 points if it was not destroyed quickly. While Skelly did the programming for the game, Jim Pierce designed the cabinet, which the company soon found had the nasty habit of tipping forward onto the unsuspecting player. The problem was solved in a decidedly non-technical way – a cinderblock was placed in the back of the cabinet as a counter-balance[13]. While Starhawk was not a smash hit, it did well enough to keep the company afloat. Now they needed another game from their new designer. 


          While Skelly was finishing up Starhawk, Jim Pierce dropped by his office with a Mattel hand-held football game. Released in 1977, the game was extremely popular. It featured a 3 x 9 grid on which players were represented by red LEDs. The object was to avoid the enemy players using 4 directional buttons as you ran the length of the field. A second version in 1978 extended the field to 3 x 10 and allowed the player to pass by lining up with a receiver and pressing the pass button. Passing was a somewhat risky proposition since any defender stepping into the line of fire could intercept the ball. While the gameplay was relatively simple, it was the football trappings that made it so much fun. The game had downs, quarters, touchdowns, and extra points. Pierce asked Skelly if he thought the gadget would make for a good video game. Skelly did not think that it would make a good game at all and besides that, it might not be legal to try. The idea to create a coin-op version of the game had actually come from Hank Blake (who had replaced Bob Hale as head of engineering).  The game was assigned to Rob Patton.

[Rob Patton] Hank proposed the game to Jim Pierce and neither Tim nor I thought it was a good idea. I was forced into it because Tim lobbied for him to assign it to me. I hoped they would not produce it because it all details were defined by Jim Pierce (I had no creative freedom to improve the game) and it didn't seem like it would be a competitive coin op experience with the lackluster elements of the game

Patton had been hired as Cinematronics' second programmer/designer (after Skelly). While he had not designed games before, he had a strong background as an electronics hobbyist. He built his own computer and was an advanced ham radio operator. One of his first projects after arriving at Cinematronics had been to create a number of new development tools

[Rob Patton] One of the first things I did when I was hired was to write a full-fledged symbolic assembler and linker using my UCSD Pascal background and it included a screen oriented editor and many game tools including a bit tablet to speed up the digitizing of our drawings into data tables that could be shown immediately on the screen. It was my updated tools that propelled the efficiencies of development to a far greater level than before, and enabled several people to be trained to program, including (Scott) Boden and (Jack) Ritter.


Despite his reservations, Patton was able to complete the game in just 2-3 weeks (due to its simplicity).

Mattel's handheld Football - the inspiration for Barrier

The game, which started out life as Blitz, was released in 1979 as Barrier. In the game, the player maneuvered a triangular ship across a 10x3 grid avoiding a group of diamond-shaped opponents. The player could move in any of four directions, including backwards, but he only got points for making forward progress. As Skelly and Patton predicted, Barrier flopped badly during play-testing but Jim Pierce insisted on continuing work on the game  - perhaps because he had other plans for it.

The End of Vectorbeam

            After Speed Freak, Vectorbeam was looking desperately for a hit of its own and Cinematronics agreed to sell them the rights to Barrier. While it is not known why Cinematronics sold the game, it may have been precisely because it was such a poor performer. Selling Barrier allowed Cinematronics to get some revenue from the game while at the same time providing a rival with a game that was sure NOT to be a hit. Another reason may have been that Cinematronics was angling to buy back the patents on Rosenthal's Vectorbeam technology.
            With the release of Barrier things went from bad to worse at Vectorbeam. The company was leaking money like a sieve and Rosenthal, who had sunk all of his Space Wars royalties into the venture, was looking for a way out. In addition, management at the company was reportedly lax, with people sometimes not showing up until well after noon. With his new company on the brink of failure, Rosenthal decided to sell Vectorbeam, along with his patents, to Cinematronics. Jim Pierce reported that he paid Rosenthal “a substantial amount of cash[1]Various rumors place the figure at $1 million or $2 million - a figure Rosenthal said was “fairly close” to accurate, nothing that that’s how much he would have gotten if Cinematronics had paid him the full amount. They didn’t, however, and a lawsuit resulted in which Rosenthal ended up settling for about half of the remaining balance

For Rosenthal, however, cash may not have been the primary motivating factor. He may simple have wanted to wash his hands of a venture that hadn’t been nearly as much fun as he thought it might be and had never seen much in the way of success.
[Larry Rosenthal] The only game we had was Space War, which was near the end of its run. (I) put together this factory. (I) had a payroll. Payrolls take a lot of money and we never came up with a decent game. Every royalty check I was getting from Cinematronics I was putting directly into the company, which was not really managed all that well. I was driving around the same '68 Pontiac that I drove out to California to go to graduate school while people working for me were driving around in Cadillacs. And I had a line of credit with Bank of America that was about a half a million dollars and I was personally guaranteeing it. I owed the IRS probably four or five hundred thousand dollars. I don't know what it was. It was getting scary. Pierce and Stroud gave me a sizeable royalty…but they wanted those patents so they could stop paying me…and one day I just said 'I've had enough. I've got to get rid of this company. The company is not worth anything but Pierce and Stroud want those patents. I think as part of the deal they'll take the company off my hands and (inaudible) the guarantee I had with Bank of America” and that's exactly what happened. I had to get rid of the company. They wanted the patents. I sold them the patents. And in exchange for taking the patents, they took the company as part of the deal. That's the truth.
<talk at California Extreme 2014 ->

In its July 15, 1979 issue, Play Meter discussed the sale with Vectorbeam president Paul Jacobs.

"Jacobs, and sales manager Hal Watner, were unsuspecting victims of the sale. "I was surprised," said Jacobs. "I was not aware that Larry had been talking to the Cinematronics' families. But I'm not in the least bitter. They (Cinematronics) were looking to promote Tom and David Stroud, and there was just an excess of executives" Apparently the sale came together when Larry Rosenthal tired of the demands of his position. "Larry was getting a little bit nervous," continued Jacobs. "He's an engineer, not a businessman." And Cinematronics was all too happy to take those unwanted burdens off Rosenthal's shoulders, along with his patents"
<Play Meter, July 15, 1979>

Jim Pierce and Tom Stroud were likely ecstatic over the deal. In addition to getting acess to Vectorbeam’s plant and facilities (at the time they were backed up on orders of Starhawk), but they would no longer have to pay royalties on ever vector game they sold since they now owned the rights to Rosenthal’s Vectorbeam system. Others at Vectorbeam were none too happy with the deal. President Gil Levine eventually took Rosenthal to court over the issue (though the suit was dropped). As for Rosenthal himself, he went on to create a new video game system using a high-resolution color raster display but was never able to create a decent game for it and eventually dropped it. By then, producing a video game had become much more expensive that it had been when Rosenthal started in the business and a single designer could no longer produce a game by himself. Exiting the video game field, Rosenthal started a software business producing a C compiler and other software tools. He later founded another company to produce a key-finding device that he had patented.
One of the ironies of the deal was that Cinematronics now found itself having to promote Barrier, the game that some said they’d “unloaded” on Vectorbeam. Only about 150 units were produced and Cinematronics had to bundle them with other games in order to sell even the limited production run.

Sidebar - Jim Pierce
            Jim Pierce was one of the coin-op video game industry's unknown fathers, manning the helm of Cinematronics from (almost) its founding in 1975 until its purchase by Leland in 1987. Little is known about his life before Cinematronics (or after, for that matter). At the time of the company's founding he was apparently a farmer in El Centro. Some report that he had also worked as a car salesman. Opinion on the man himself varied. Tim Skelly's accounts give the impression of a typical executive short on gaming knowledge and long on snake-oil-salesmanship. Others paint a more sympathetic picture. Artist Dana Christianson (who arrived at the company in December, 1983) remembers that Pierce let him drive the company truck when his own car conked out and brought him groceries when he was working on World Series: The Season without pay. Medo Moreno, who served as designer and programmer on World Series: The Season also has fond memories of Pierce.

[Medo Moreno] Jim was from Imperial Valley so he always played-up a little bit of a "dumb hick" routine to extract info he wanted: he was anything but dumb. He could also be personable. I remember him putting his arm around me and asking, "So how long do ya think this project'll take; just ballpark, I won't hold ya to it". Off the top of my head, I responded "oh ... 4 or 5 months". Later, of course, he came back with "but I thought you said it would take 4 months." He drove a Rolls Royce. He had a picture hanging in his office with a Rolls and a woman dressed to the nines sipping Champagne with the saying "Poverty Sucks".

Programmer Phil Sorger also remembered Pierce fondly

[Phil Sorger] He embodied my idea of what a CEO should look like and act like. Still does, I suppose. He was very encouraging, would come play the games often, gave great feedback, took us to trade shows to demonstrate the games and really cared about my career. Remember, he steered us into and back out of Chapter 11.

Others, however, weren't nearly as positive and some preferred not to talk about him at all. All seem to agree that Pierce was a larger-than-life character adept at getting people to do what he needed and willing to do whatever it took to save his company (a skill he would need, since Cinematronics teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for most of its existence). Art director Dan Viescas reports that after Pierce sold his company to Leland in 1987, he seemed to have lost his purpose in life. After selling the company, he seems to have disappeared from the industry altogether. Some report that he retired to the Portland, Oregon area.  
            Cinematronics next release was another Tim Skelly creation – Sundance (October 1979). The game featured two 3x3 grids with a number of “suns” bouncing between them. Via a 9-button control panel, players could cause a hole to open in one of the 9 squares on the bottom grid. The object was to catch the suns in these holes and the game ended after a certain number of misses. In keeping with the theme of the game, Sundance featured a yellow vector display rather than the traditional white one. The yellow color was achieved by laying a piece of yellow cellophane over the monitor. After finishing Sundance, Skelly asked Cinematronics not to release it, since it was not up to his standards, but the company released it anyway. Predictably, it was not a hit. Less than 1,000 units were made. In addition, the game suffered technical problems.

[Tim Skelly] The technical problems specific to Sundance were due to a daughter board that was cut-and-jumpered onto the main board so that we could get 8(?) levels of intensity. It was very flaky and was never used again. All of the Cinematronics games would short out if the beam was not controlled properly. If they scanned too far over onto the side of the tube, BOOM! There went the circuit breaker. Scanning the side of the tube really looked cool, and I would have used it as an effect if I could have controlled it better.
Sundance screenshot - from MAME

Others have reported that the monitor coating on Sundance tended to flake off and cause the game to short out.

[1] This conflicts with the 7% figure given earlier but the royalty structure may have changed or Beuck or Rosenthal's memory may be off).
[2] On Monday morning September 25, 1978 PSA flight 182 collided with a Cessna 172 over San Diego killing 144 people (including 7 on the ground). It was the deadliest crash in US history to that point. Flight 182 was returning to San Diego from Sacramento (with a stopover in L.A.), not taking off, when it crashed. Neither does it seem possible that Beuck was mxing up a departing flight with a return flight, since they likely would have been flying out of San Francisco or Oakland rather than Sacramento, which is 80 miles from the Bay Area. In any event, this flight occurred far too late for it to be a factor in the formation of Vectorbeam.
[3] Neither Rosenthal’s nor Cravens’ name appear on the ariticles of incorporation, which were drawn up by Phillip Seymour DeCaro.
[4] The July 15, 1978 Play Meter article announcing the formation of Vectorbeam lists 2180 Bryan Street as the company's address, so this may have been the original location that Cravens talked Rosenthal out of. The articles of incorporation, however, list the address as 33441 Central Avenue.
[5] The famous underground comics publisher founded by Ron Turner in 1970.
[6] Arcade Fever reports that the game was so heavy that counterweights had to be installed to prevent it from tipping over and crushing a hapless arcader, but the author may have been confusing this with Starhawk.
[5] Email from Dan Sunday to Zonn Moore, October 1998. Posted at
[6] The company was supposed to show a second new game at the show, but it is not known if they did
[7] In a letter to Zonn Moore, Dan Sunday recalled that Vectorbeam also developed a word game of some sort whose name he couldn’t remember.
[8] Skelly referst to him as Bob Long, but was probably talking about Hale.
[9] KLOV and Wikipedia list the game as having been released in 1977 and Wikipedia claims that it was the first Star Wars based game but this date is clearly too early given the game's history (and the fact that its release was announced in trade magazines in 1979).
Seeming support for the 1977 date can be found in Skelly's article from Before the Crash, which specifies that he came to Cinematronics in 1976. This is likely a typo, however,  (see footnote below)

[10] Introduced by Polymorphic Systems in 1976 and based on the 8080 microprocessor, The Poly-88 was one of the early personal computers to appear in the wake of the Altair 8800's success.
[11] In Before the Crash, Skelly says he interviewed in fall of 1976 but all other sources (including Skelly himeslf in other interviews) have him coming there in 1978 (the fact that Rosenthal left to for Vectorbeam when he was driving to California makes a 1976 date impossible).
[12] Interview with Tim Skelly, Video Games, October 1982, p.23
[13] Some have told this same story about Space Wars.


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  2. In Star Hawk, the ship that went down the trench resembled a T. I. E. Fighter, not an X-Wing.

    Lotta good information otherwise though!

    -Darryl B.

    1. Hmm. That ship looks more like an X-Wing to me. It has a long, pointed body, not a round one like a TIE fighter. Maybe it's a TIE fighter, though. I supposed that would make more sense.
      One of the ships that flies outside the trench looks like Vader's TIE fighter but it has the round body.

      The one in the trench looks like an overhead view of the ship on the cabinet art to me.

  3. ADP's logo looks more like a ripoff of the ABC logo.(the American one, not the Australian one)