Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Ultimate (so Far) History of Nutting Associates - Part 3






Part of the reason Bill Nutting had turned down Bushnell’s offer of a 10% royalty to license Pong was that he was sure he could produce a similar game without Nolan’s help. Bushnell’s visit, in fact, may have given him a leg up on the competition. Not surprisingly then, Nutting’s Computer Space Ball was one of the first Pong imitators on the market, perhaps even the first. Though some evidence suggests that the game was in production prior to March, when Allied Leisure released Paddle Battle, the evidence is unclear[1]. If Nutting did get its game to market first, it didn’t do them much good. Aside from its possible status as the first Pong clone and its supremely uninspired name, there is little to distinguish Computer Space Ball from the horde of Pong imitators that appeared in 1973. 
Nutting’s other ball-and-paddle games were a bit more interesting. Wimbledon was a four-player tennis game that used distinctive slider controls in place of the standard rotary controls or joysticks. Paddle Derby featured advancing color bars in place of a score. What made the games interesting, however, was not the controls but the graphics. They were among the earliest games to use computer-generated color rather than the cellophane overlays found in other games. Wimbledon was designed by Miel Domis. Domis was serving in the navy in the Dutch Navy in 1971 when he got an offer to come to the United States and work on the Cartrivision – one of the first American-made consumer VCRs and the first to offer prerecorded movies for rental (Electronics Vol 47, 1974; Domis 2016). After the Cartrivision project failed, Domis went to work for Nutting in 1973 and was tasked with designing a color version of Pong. Wimbledon debuted at the 1973 MOA show in November and its release was announced in the December issues of Vending Times and Cash Box. Though the game was billed as the first arcade video game to use real color, Atari’s Color Gotcha probably preceded it by about a month. Wimbledon, however, was in all likelihood the second true-color video game and it is possible that it beat Color Gotcha to market[2].
















Note that the headline inadvertently refers to Nutting Associates as Nutting Industries, which was a different company




Wimbledon at the 1973 MOA show


Nutting also produced a handful of other video games, including a two-player version of Computer Space in July 1973. Missile Radar was potentially significant in that, according to Atari’s Steve Bristow, it later served as an inspiration for Atari’s Missile Command – though the claim is unsubstantiated. Nutting also continued to produce non-video games such as 1972's Psychic, in which the player used “ESP” to guess which of four symbols the computer would randomly pick. The major news story of 1973 was the ongoing Watergate investigation and Nutting attempted to cash in with Watergate Caper. Introduced at the 1973 MOA show, the game invited players to “discover the secret combination and break into the Watergate yourself.” Though it is often listed as a video game, its flyer makes no mention of a TV monitor and it may have been an electro-mechanical game along the lines of Milwaukee Coin Industries The Safe. Video game or not, it stands as a rare example of an arcade game based on a political scandal[3]. 























Though Nutting had introduced some interesting innovations in 1973 and 1974, they did not translate into profits, in part because the they were not the right innovations. Players weren’t exactly clamoring to have their rotary controllers replaced with sliders or their numeric score with colored bars (significantly, none of Nutting’s rivals followed its lead). And color, while a significant development, was of little use in a ball-and-paddle game. As a result, by the end of 1974, Nutting had gone bankrupt. But it was not finished. In April 1975, the court approved its plan to repay its creditors and in October, just in time for the MOA show, Nutting was once again solvent (Marketplace 7/30/75). To launch its reentry into the video game arena, Nutting planned to introduce a slate of new games, including Computer Space II, Computer Quiz II, Table Tennis II, and a top secret game referred to only as “Project X”. It is not known if any of them was ever released, but the fact that all were sequels is telling.















In 1977, Bill Nutting sold Nutting Associates to Reno slot machine manufacturer William “Si” Redd (a colorful character, known as the father of video poker, whose story will have to wait for another time), who felt that Nutting might serve as a good cover for the gray-area gaming machines he was sending to California, Hawaii, and Guam (Harpster 2010). Engineer Dale Frey suggests that Redd may also have wanted to gain control of a lawsuit Bill Nutting planned to launch against Nolan Bushnell over Pong (Harpster 2010). In July 1977, Nutting Associates of California was merged into Nutting Associates of Nevada. The final game to bear the Nutting Associates name was Ricochet, which debuted at the 1977 AMOA show in October and appears to have been a clone of Exidy’s TV Pinball from 1974. That Nutting chose to release a three-year-old ball-and-paddle game when the industry had long since moved past them is perhaps the best summary of its post-Bushnell history. In any event, it was a sad end for a company that had released the world’s first commercial arcade video game just six years earlier.  





Bill Nutting


In fall 1979, Si Redd merged Nutting Associates with his own A-1 Supply to form a new company called Sircoma and hired Bill Nutting as production manager. By the end of the year, Nutting had left Sircoma and was serving as a pilot for a small Nevada airline. One night, while returning to Reno, the engine on his Cessna quit, forcing Bill to make a belly landing in a city dump. Despite facial lacerations and two broken ankles, he walked two miles to a farm house to find help. Three months later, he was back flying charter, but the accident had led him and his wife Claire to think about their purpose in life. The pair flew to Redlands, California and joined Mission Aviation Fellowship, an air-taxi service for Christian missionaries formed in the late 1940s, where they served as administrators in Nairobi from 1981 to 1985 before returning to the states. Bill Nutting died on July 28, 2008 in Prescott, Arizona, his role in video game history largely forgotten. (Petersen 1992)

[1] In an interview in the August 1976 issue of Play Meter, Vic Leslie, chair of England’s Cherry Group, claimed that Nutting VP Rui Lopes approached him at the 1973 ATE show (held January 31-February 2), asking if he would be interested in marketing Computer Space Ball in England. – though It is uncertain if the game was anything more than a name at that point. The earliest solidly dated reference I have found to the game is a mention in the June 16, 1973 issue of Cash Box, which noted that the game was “still going great guns,” suggesting that it had been introduced sometime earlier.

[2] Another true color video game that some sources claim was produced in 1973 was Kasco’s Playtron – a game in which a whale ate small fish. Only two prototype units were produced, however, and it is unclear exactly when they were made. Nutting's Paddle Derby, Table Tennis, and Table Tennis II also appear to have used true color. KLOV lists Paddle Derby as a 1972 release, but gives no source for the date, which is almost certainly inaccurate given that Pong was released in November 1972. The release of Table Tennis was announced in the June 1, 1974 issue of Cash Box. The Model numbers of Table Tennis II (751) and Paddle Derby (752) imply that they were released after Wimbledon (model 730). An Atari financial document lists Color Gotcha as an October 1973 release, but it is possible that they were just assuming it came out at the same time as Gotcha – though all other release dates in the document seem to be accurate.

[3] No copy of Watergate Caper or Missile Radar has ever turned up and it is unclear if the games were ever produced. Game flyers include only crude drawings along with a bare-bones description. Cash Box confirms that Watergate Caper was on display at the 1973 MOA show, but it is not known if it was ever released.

7 comments:

  1. Was Kasco's Playtron intended to be coin-operated video arcade? It's hard to tell from the photos here:
    http://shmuplations.com/kasco/

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sadly, Rock-Ola's QB-3 has been dropped!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Stupendous article. I want a Watergate Caper...ha ha!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Stupendous article. I want a Watergate Caper...ha ha!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Table Tennis used color overlays: https://www.maaca.org/viewtopic.php?t=16545

    I suspect Paddle Derby also did. The photograph on Arcade Museum suggests the monitor is out of alignment with the overlays. http://www.arcade-history.com/?n=paddle-derby-model-752-b&page=detail&id=4270

    ReplyDelete
  6. Good to know the history of Nutting Associates, imagine how it evolved for the past 30 years. This stuffs are collectibles now and should be display in the museum.

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