Friday, February 1, 2013

The Ultimate (So Far) History of Cinematronics/Vectorbeam - Pt. 10

Today's post covers one of my favorite Cinematronics games - World Series: The Season. A game that I consider one of the best, if not the best, arcade baseball games ever. Sadly, it seems to be almost forgotten today. I'm not sure why. Perhaps because it came out in that brief period after the crash of 1983/84 and before of games like Gauntlet and Hang On spurred an arcade comeback.
First, however, I have updated a number of past installments in this series with new information from Bob Skinner, Dennis Halverson, and Brooke Jarrett, including new info about Cosmic Chasm and the DARPA tank simulator project plus a couple of fun stories/rumors about subliminal messages in Dragon's Lair and employees feeding marshmallows to geese with slingshots.

The parts that had the most changes were parts 3,6, and 7

On to Part 10

 
 
            So far, Cinematronics' attempts to follow up on the success of Dragon's Lair and Space Ace had met with dismal failure. Scion, Freeze, Cerberus, Express Delivery, Mayhem 2002, and Power Play had gone nowhere and the situation had gone from grim to borderline disaster. But Jim Pierce had an ace up his sleeve. He had long wanted to create a video version of baseball and in 1985 he would finally get his chance with World Series: The Season - a game that would give the company its first hit since the laser disc days. It almost didn't happen however.
            The game was a team effort with most of the design staff contributing in one way or another. Spearheading the effort was programmer Medo Moreno, who had come to Cinematronics in January of 1985, after a stint at Gremlin/Sega where he worked on games like Carnival and Eliminator.  A Strat-O-Matic baseball fanatic, Moreno was a natural choice to lead the programming effort.  Moreno started working on the game in February but the idea had come about before he got there. Joining him on the project were David Dentt, Dan Viescas,  Jerry Huber, Dana Christianson, Phil Sorger, Steve Hostetler (and, eventually, many others). 
 
 
            The game was developed on the relatively new Cinemat system. The team experimented briefly with digitized graphics but the poor resolution and limited color capabilities of the Cinemat hardware made that impractical. Instead, artists turned to a crude but effective means of creating the game's graphics. Using standard SLR cameras the trooped out to the company parking lot and took photos of one another going through the motions of batting and pitching.  

[Dana Christianson] We didn't have scanners, we didn't have digital cameras. We did all the animation with a camera with a motor drive [using] slide film and we projected those up on graph paper [then] we basically took a black sharpie on the graph paper and did outlines of all the characters. But there were hundreds of animations so we would hand these piles of graph paper to these women in the engineering group where they were burning EPROMs and have them hand enter [the data from] these sheets of graph paper. Then they'd have to burn the EPROMs. So to see animation we'd have to wait until the EPROMS were burned  and then I'd see all the flaws and I'd have to go back and reedit it on graph paper - it was absolutely Neanderthal.
Eventually someone created a graphics tool and the artists no longer had to rely on assembly line workers hand entering the data.
With the company banking on World Series to pull them out of the doldrums, many of the designers worked almost nonstop on the game. Medo Moreno and Dana Christianson practically lived in the Cinematronics building for 9 months working from 10 in the morning until at least midnight. Both of them had sleeping bags and would often stay the night (living at work was hardly unknown at Cinematronics.  Sound designer Dave Cartt had a house in the mountains an hour away and would drive in on Mondays and stay for a week, living out of a camper on the back of his truck and showering at a nearby gym). Before long, almost everyone in began to pitch in on the game. Then disaster struck. The company was still in Chapter 11 (as they had been off and on since 1982) and Jim Pierce found himself unable to make payroll. A number of employees were laid off and it looked like the end of the line for Cinematronics. Wanting to see the project through to the end, some employees agreed to work on the game for several weeks without pay (some were asked to do so while others apparently volunteered).

[Dana Christianson] Because they were in Chapter 11, we needed to get baseball done for that show - it was make or break for Cinematronics. Jerry Huber and I worked for 6 weeks, maybe 2 months, for no money…Some of the women from work brought us groceries - not only was our job eventually at stake but there was a spirit of - it was like we were at war we were trying to survive so everybody joined in.

[Jerry Huber] Jim Pierce pulled me into his office and asked me to help finish off the game. The plan was to get the game out ASAP, sell enough units to raise the money reserves and then hire everyone back. Long story short… we did it. Everyone got rehired and the company lived to fight another day. I was totally broke at that time… so working without pay was tough. But the thing that I remember the most about that time was that the people that were still employed all chipped in and bought me groceries so I wouldn't starve to death. How awesome is that?

[Bob Skinner] I only remember going without pay for 30-60 days. We had a meeting where JP basically said. “I need your keys.” He explained he could not make payroll, because the product wasn’t finished or ready to sell. So we all said we would work for free. Weighing risk/reward, we all felt good about it. This was a real gung-ho time as everyone was in survivor mode and wanted to be thought of as valuable to the effort.

[Phil Sorger]
At one point Jim Pierce said he would have to lay me off (among others) and not be able to ship World Series. When I told him I believed in the company, the game and him and would work for free (just health insurance) I saw him get very emotional and thank me personally. He later repaid me once the game was a "home run".
Thanks to a superhuman effort by the design team, World Series: The Season was ready in time for the 1985 AMOA show in October. Then, just when it seemed like things were finally looking up, disaster struck yet again. In the middle of the show, a police officer came in with an injunction and forced Cinematronics to turn off their games.

[Dana Christianson]
We went and [the game] made a huge, huge splash. I think it was the first or second day when the police came in and forced us to turn all of our cabinets toward the wall of our booth because somebody had filed a suit against Cinematronics for stealing an idea.
The problem was a lawsuit filed by Roland Colton of Electronics Sports Research. According to Colton, he had met with Jim Pierce in May of 1984 to discuss his idea for a baseball game and the possibility of Cinematronics manufacturing the game. According to Colton (details can be found at  http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F2/916/916.F2d.1444.89-55297.89-55296.html) Pierce had signed a confidentiality agreement and only then did he explain the game's "secret design" to Pierce. Pierce eventually turned down the game only to release it on their own (without paying Colton a dime).. Whether this meeting occurred and what exactly Colton's idea was is unknown. Medo Moreno recalls that the initial concept involved a player coming to bat in certain pre-determined game situations. The design staff had been unaware of the Colton situation and was surprised (if not panicked) when the games had to be turned to the wall. In any event, the injunction was eventually lifted (though the legal case stretched at least into 1989) and Cinematronics was able to begin selling their game. Dana Christianson speculates that the controversy may even have helped in the end.
   
         When it finally became available, World Series proved to be the hit that Cinematronics so desperately needed. The game reached #2 on the Replay charts and #4 on Play Meter. The controversy may have helped but it was the gameplay that really made the game a success. World Series was one of the best arcade baseball games ever created. In the game, the player alternately controlled a batter and a pitcher in a semi-first person simulation of the national pastime. The player could face off against a computer opponent or another player. While the game included a number of excellent features, two stand out. First was the controls - which included a pair of tiny spring-loaded joysticks the player used to control the batter and pitcher. The player could use the stick to precisely position the bat or (by means of a white aiming dot) the location of the pitch. In addition, the farther the player pulled the stick back, the harder they swung (or threw).  While the joystick in many ways made the game, it was prone to break.
  
[Phil Sorger] I remember I used to bring handfuls of steel springs to trade shows and give them out to distributors and operators. The spring-loaded analog stick (usually the baseball bat one) would break springs from time to time, and they liked the springs much more than pens or other typical booth giveaways.
 
            The second key feature was that the game kept track of the player's stats. When the player started the game, they entered their initials and birthdate and the game tracked a host of pitching and batting stats over time. The game's "high score" board was a statistical leader board that could be sorted on a variety of different stats. For the stats obsessed baseball fan (and is there any other kind?), it was pure heaven. I personally remember logging in with multiple birthdays so that I could make the leader boards in  multiple categories (if you were "leading the league" in batting average, you didn't want to risk losing your top spot).
 
One idea that didn't go over so well was to allow the player to store their stats on a "stat key" and take them from location to location.
[Phil Sorger] I showed [Jim Pierce] once that I could make a "key" that players could insert into the games that would store the players' stats so they could play the same game on another cabinet and have their information transferred. The key was really just an EEPROM but it worked more like magic. He bankrolled the idea, we tested it in a few arcades, but the keyhole got used more often for chewing gum than account transfer, but he never blamed me for having a boneheaded idea. Hey, it might have worked...

The idea was that operators could sell the keys or give them away as promotions. While some operators liked the idea, they didn't want to support selling the keys (or cleaning the gunk out of the keyholes).
Overall, however, World Series was a hit (it was later redone as Baseball: The Season II) and got Cinematronics (temporarily at least) back in the black, even allowing them to rehire some of the employees they'd had to let go (though some had had enough and never returned).  The game remains one of the best coin-op baseball simulations ever made, even if few now remember it.

[Phil Sorger]
I was in a pizza place in Florida one evening, and I was bummed to see an old World Series with the power turned off in the corner. I asked the guy working there why it wasn't turned on and he said it was broken. I asked him for the keys and in a few minutes had the game up and running again. The door switch was broken (the power turns off when you take the back off) so that was the first thing. Also, the EEPROM was dead, but there was a bookkeeping/diagnostics option, accessible via the service button/menu system, that could be used to reset it. I realigned the monitor, reseated the background EPROMs (one was loose) and checked everything out. I played a couple games on free play with the family, before returning it to 1coin/credit mode. So I got to play my old game AND they gave us free pizza..
 
 

5 comments:

  1. Congrats on the Retro Gamer shout-out. I figured that you'd have something to do with that article when I read it...

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  2. Thanks. I wasn't directly involved in the article (though the author mentioned it to me in an e-mail a few months ago). I think they mostly just used some photos from my blog and a little info on the early days of Cinematronics.

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  3. Just got the game for my son who is 20. This is his first arcade game, I have many. We love it. We couldn't believe it kept stats. My son is a baseball fanatic. We have played x box but anybody can play this sober or not. Loved reading how ot came about!!!!

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  4. I have one of these games,! Seems to be all original, missing the locks. Works but just needs cleaning and looked over. Would love to sell it but I'm not going to give it away!! You can email me at t.staton8159@ g.mail.com

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  5. Perfect example of speculation, empathy and expression. Here I learned a new way to speculate through author’s writing. It allowed me to feel a new way to speculate your thoughts and express them in an easy and clear way. Perfect example of speculation, empathy and expression. Here I learned a new way to speculate through author’s writing. It allowed me to feel a new way to speculate your thoughts and express them in an easy and clear way. ขายเกมหายาก ขายเกมหายาก

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