Skelly History Part 2

I'll skip my humble beginnings and go straight to the day I interviewed for a job at Cinematronics in El Cajon, CA, just east of San Diego, sometime around May 1978. After talking to co-owner Jim Pierce, I was sent to the tech area to talk to Larry Rosenthal. There he showed me the "development system" he used to program Space War - a piece of plywood with the TTL board, some LEDs and buttons that allowed him to manually punch in Hex op-codes. That scared the hell out of me, but at least I knew how hex and machine code worked. Scarier was that my limited graphics experience had been with bit-maps. I knew next to nothing about vector displays. Larry didn't explain very much and answered very few questions. Whenever I mentioned our possibly working together he was evasive, so I figured I had failed the interview. I flew back to Kansas City, where I lived at the time, and waited to hear back from some other game companies. I was amazed when Jim Pierce called and told me to drive on out. I had the job!

 

After a fast packing job and a four day drive, I was shown to my office, which was the same tech area I had been interviewed in - except now it was empty except for some office furniture, a legal pad and a pencil. I met Jim and the rest of the Cinematronics employees, who informed me that during the four days I was on the road, Larry Rosenthal and Bill Cravens departed to start their own company in the Bay Area. Oh, yes, they took with them EVERYTHING that might have been necessary or useful for developing games using the vectorbeam board.  Cinematronics still had the legal right to use the board (as long as Larry got his licensing fee), but now they had nothing except me, a legal pad and a pencil to get them a new game to build and sell. Bill DeWolf and another couple of techs were there when I arrived, guys who mainly worked in testing and service, but who later did a great job with custom sound boards, controls and even the modifications to Larry's board that made the graphics in Sundance possible. Soon after I started, Dennis Halverson was hired to create a macro assembler that we ran on a DEC machine. Dennis handled only system stuff and utilities; he later wound up at Atari.

 

Obviously, things eventually worked out. I managed to crank out Starhawk in time for a winter game show in London. But what still angers me to this day besides being put on the spot like that, is the fact that more than a hundred employees were depending on a new game to maintain their livelihood, and I was clearly chosen as the guy who couldn't come up with one. I think you can see that, under the circumstances, there was no love lost between the Cinematronics and Vectorbeam camps.

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CINEMATRONICS

Larry Rosenthal and Me (a very short story)

Cinematronics and Me

I certainly had no 50% deal. My salary started at 15K a year and after three years had risen to 30k. I received 2 $1,000 bonuses. I've calculated that my games sold at least 59,000 units, total. Was I screwed? You do the math. Here are some events that I witnessed or was party to myself preceding Cinematronics' purchase of Rosenthal's and Cravens' company:

 

Like I said, the first thing I did was Starhawk, which I programmed first on legal pads in machine code, then on a teletype machine, then finally with Dennis Halverson's development software. It and Space War were the only 4K games. We immediately went to 8K for all future games. Jim Pierce designed the cabinet, which we later found had to have a cinderblock placed in the back or else it would tip forward onto the player! -- rather typical of Jim's design talents. The company that silkscreened the side graphics did the cabinet art. The indestructible joysticks, later used in Warrior as well, were handmade at Cinematronics.

 

 

Starhawk was enough of a success to keep the doors open, so I began my second game, Sundance. This game was an oddity in more ways than one. It had a vertical screen and a switch which could be set to display Japanese rather than English, the only game I ever did that had that feature. The controls were two matrixes of buttons (3x3, or 4x4. I don't remember which), one set per player. I would have to explain the whole game to tell you what they did and why. The biggest difference about this game was the addition of more levels of intensity for the vectors. This required a daughter board and lots of cut-and-jumpering. As a result, this game was very fragile and few lived long.

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