“A Billion Dollar Industry is in the Making”: The Gametronics conference on video games (1977)
Eimbinder, Jerry, ed. Gametronics: The Electronic Game Designer's Conference. Great Neck, NY: Electronic Engineering Times, 1977. First edition. 223p. 4to. Very good or better in original wrappers.
The video game industry was born in 1972, which saw both the development of the game Pong (released first as an arcade game), and the invention of the Magnavox Odyssey, a commercial video game console that used screen overlays to allow consumers to play on their television sets. Both sold steadily, but when Sears began selling a home version of Pong in 1975 through an exclusive contract with Atari, the boom really began. By 1976, domestic production of electronic games was $242 million, including $148 million in home video games. Forty years later, annual revenues from video games (including mobile, console, and personal computer games) are estimated at $77 billion. In stark contrast to the present situation, in 1977 nearly all of the components used were produced domestically, with exports ($8 million) dwarfing imports ($1 million).
Space Invaders (1978), Pac Man (1980) and Donkey Kong (1981) all postdated the Gametronics conference. From Gametronics: The Electronic Game Designer's Conference (1977)
In response, Jerry Eimbinder, the author of several works on linear integrated circuits and the editor of Electronic Engineering Times, organized the Gametronics Convention to assemble the leaders of the nascent gaming industry. The gathering was held on January 18-20, 1977, at the Hyatt House in Burlingame, California. Speakers included personnel from such pioneering firms as Sanders Associates (manufacturers of the Magnavox Odyssey), Signetics (the leading firm in integrated circuits), Mostek (makers of RAM memory chips), and other industry leaders. Attendees represented every sector of the entertainment industry, from the Ideal Toy Company to Walt Disney Productions.
The video game industry was born here. From Gametronics: The Electronic Game Designer's Conference (1977)
This rare volume (five copies in WorldCat) is the record of this historic gathering, collecting the texts of eighteen talks, and many photographs from the conference. As one speaker noted, “We are now in the midst of a ‘video revolution’ which ushers in the era when a person can control the television picture rather than just watch it — surely the most profound change in the nature of television since the inception of broadcasting itself.”
Pong was once the cutting edge. From Gametronics: The Electronic Game Designer's Conference (1977)
The proceedings offer a fascinating blend of the possibilities and limits of vision at during the early years of the industry at the moment of birth. The keynote address was by Ralph H. Baer, the primary designer and engineer of the Magnavox Odyssey. Among his predictions was the convergence of games with cable television, where game backgrounds, opposing teams, and “home viewer-participant game show” would all be broadcast remotely. Although cable TV did not fulfill Baer’s predictions, the internet – unimaginable at this point – certainly did.
What is a computer conference without mimes? From Gametronics: The Electronic Game Designer's Conference (1977)
The texts of other talks are equally fascinating to the historian of science and popular culture. Ronald Baldridge extolled the virtues of the new Mostek F8, an 8-bit microprocessor that brought a whopping 64k of RAM to the gaming world. The game Tank Squadron showcased the new levels of complexity and sophistication possible with the F8. Personnel from Peptek tried to sell the Trazor, which replaced joysticks and buttons with a touchpad. James McNulty of dtech addressed the problems of designing power supplies for coin-operated games that would resist the banging of enthusiastic players and avoid generating so much heat that the arcade was in danger of burning down. Robert Bogursky of Burndy Corporation offered a detailed discussion of materials in cartridge connector systems before resolving on a contact spring of phosphor bronze with layered overlays of nickel, gold alloy, and copper. Glen Southworth of Colorado Video discussed making computer portraits, “a personalized and distinctive product.” With the 1973 oil crisis still in recent memory, video designer Stephen Beck argued that electronic games reduced reliance on plastic:
As we see the price of petroleum rise and along with it the cost of plastic, as well as increasing trends away from plastic for ecological reasons, the electronic canvas of television will provide a new substance for game implementation.
Analyzing the trends, a spokesman from the marketing firm Gnostic Concepts predicted the development of a sophisticated market:
Most electronic games to date have been electronic versions of popular sports, card games, and similar well established concepts. Future electronic games increasingly will introduce unique concepts that will stand or fall on their success in appealing to the imagination and interest of consumers.
Introducing the Commodore PET 2001. From Gametronics: The Electronic Game Designer's Conference (1977)
The Gametronics convention was also notable for featuring an early appearance of the Commodore PET 2001, the first personal computer. The PET (Personal Electronic Transactor), preceding both the Apple II and the Radio Shack TRS90, had made its debut days earlier (January 13-16) at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. Eimbinder was swift to realize the significance:
Just as many households today have two or three television sets, it is argued that the coexistence of a home computer with one or more TV game systems makes just as much sense.
The conclusion of this conference would be followed by the golden age of video arcades, with the development of such games as Space Invaders (1978), Pac Man (1980) and Donkey Kong (1981). As historian Nathan Altice notes:
The era of game history Gametronics represents is routinely glossed as a precursor to videogames’ ‘true’ beginnings in the second-generation of cartridge-based consoles. But even before Atari or Nintendo cemented our idea of what home videogames could be, there were artists, inventors, engineers, and, yes, video design consultants thinking through videogames’ diverse potential, not only as commodities or entertainment, but as art and tool and medium and electronic canvas.
It is impossible to imagine popular culture today without the ubiquitous presence of video games -- on our television screens, computers, and mobile phones. It all started here.
These proceeding were distributed only to conference attendees and other industry insiders; original copies very seldom surface.
- Nathan Altice, “The Future of Videogames, 1977,” http://metopal.com/2016/12/19/the-future-of-videogames-1977/
- Roberto Dillon, The Golden Age of Video Games: The Birth of a Multibillion Dollar Industry (Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2011)