(ftom left to right: Gabor Szakacs, Robert Dickson, Mike Shields,
Glen Dash, David Agans, and Joseph Corkery. This photo was taken
at the MIT laboratory where TV Tennis and Face Off TV Hockey/Soccer
were developed. All were MIT students at the time of the photo)
collectors willing to acquire Executive Games consoles on eBay:
On this page:
- Executive Games History
- Detailed Executive Games History Article
- David B. Lamkins memories (email sent to David Winter)
- FCC Problems
- Interesting Television Tennis hardware, pictures and press articles
- Face Off A, B, C and E1 revisions
- Face Off joystick problems
- Unreleased AY-3-8600 and AY-3-8700 prototypes
Executive Games History:
If Atari and Magnavox had funds
to design complete lines of video games, there were other small businesses
that tried to enter the market as they could. Executive Games is a great
Executive Games Inc. of Dorchester, Massachusetts was incorporated in 1968 under the direction of owner Peter Stepanek. Games and novelty items, such as chess and backgammon, were the company's original product line. Foot-high chessmen and a plush checkered playing surface rug evidenced the unique and novel appeal of one chess set. By 1974, yearly sales had grown to $2-million and the company was on the verge of a major two-fold product expansion.
Executive Games became one of the leading producers of home video games by January 1976. The electronic games market flourished in late 1975 as a major development in the consumer electronics industry, following hand-held calculators and digital watches. Until then high costs had restricted video games to coin operated machines in public areas. Peter Stepanek recruited the engineering skills of a group of M.I.T. students to develop a less expensive version of these popular games: Gabor Szakacs, Robert Dickson, Mike Shields, Glen Dash, David Agans, and Joseph Corkery. Glen Dash continued working on video games after the Executive Games plant closed in 1976. He was another key person in this field, not only for his unique competences in FCC testing, but also as an engineer. More details can be found at the end of this page about the works of Glen Dash.
The company released two video game systems in 1975 and 1976: Electronic Television Tennis and Face Off (TV Hockey/Soccer). Electronic Television Tennis was the third American home video game system (excluding URL Video Action II and III. See why on the URL page). It passed the FCC tests only a month after Atari Pong and began selling in the fall of 1975. Executive Games continued to sell Television Tennis until October 1976. Despite being a small company, Executive Games managed to sell approximately 65,000 Television Tennis games during that time (Magnavox produced 140,000 Odyssey units in 1972, and only around 60,000 in 1975). Approximately 18,000 Face Off units were produced and approximately 13,000 units were sold between October and December 1976. The remaining 5000 units were either sold as surplus in 1977 or went missing in a robbery of the Executive Games' Dorchester, Massachusetts plant just before the close of the 1976 Christmas season.
The whole history of Executive Games is detailed in a well-written business case study authored by an MIT student, Victor Tom, in 1977. Glen Dash, one of the MIT students who developed Television Tennis, made corrections to this document and sent it to us. Click here to read it. (It is in a PDF format so you may need to download the Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it.)
Once you have read the PDF document, you might wonder why Executive Games did not design a single video game chip to lower the cost of their units and bring more advanced games. Here is the answer, which Glen Dash emailed us in March 2003:
As far as I can remember, the chips that Atari and GI were making were the most complex LSI devices that, up until that time, had been designed for the consumer market. Though we knew of GI's intentions in 1975, we did not think that they could produce something on the order of six million of these devices in 1976 and early 1977. That was quite a remarkable performance. Secondly, timing in the games market is very tricky, and dangerous. While public demand greatly exceeded supply in 1975 and 1976, I am not sure if that was the case by Christmas of 1977. Anyone stuck with inventory when demand dried up would have been killed. I agree that we had a window in which to produce chips in 1976 and early 1977, but being successful in the games market in late 1977 and 1978 would have required extraordinary vision. (As I am sure you know, hand held games were a rage for a while and then Mattel's Intellivision and Atari's microprocessor based video game fought it out until the early 1980's. But that's a story for another time.)
Left: Television Tennis unit and its two hand controls. Right Television Tennis screen-shots (Tennis and Practice)
Click the pictures for larger view.
David B. Lamkins memories:
David B Lamkins who originally did board-level repairs on Executive Games systems remembers really well the story of that company, and emailed us in mid-2001 to tell what happened exactly.
Here's what I remember about Executive Games:
|Email courtesy of David Winter.|
Another interesting detail of this history: problems with FCC tests. Every video game system had to pass special FCC tests before going to production. Glen Dash sent us another email in April 2003 to explain what happened exactly:
The manner the FCC used for testing was not well documented so one had to see it to understand it. That is, in part, why most video games manufacturers in the mid 1970's had so much trouble getting FCC type approval. Even TV Tennis failed to pass the FCC on its first try. I made the changes and we passed the second time.
Basically, the method used by the FCC involved a great deal of cable movement to maximize the emissions from the device under test. The cables moved were the power cable, the cable to the TV and in our case, the cable to the hand controls. If the FCC found any position of the cables that put the device over the limit by more than a couple dB at any frequency between 30 and 1000 MHz, the device would be failed. This coupled with very tough limits (15 uV/m at 1 meter from the device under test) and made things very difficult in those days.
Interesting Television Tennis hardware, pictures and press articles:
Below is an interesting set of
early TV Tennis circuit boards, from pre-production to last versions. These
circuit boards were given to us by Glen Dash under a specific agreement. Three of
them come from his collection, the other two come from David J. Agan's collection. We
sincerely thank them for their unique help. Move your mouse over them to get
Television Tennis circuit board, Rev. B (Prototype):
Television Tennis circuit board, Rev. C (earliest version):
Television Tennis circuit board, Rev. C (blank):
Television Tennis circuit board, Rev. AD-1:
Television Tennis circuit board, Rev. PCK-E1:
Prototype unit of Televison Tennis. As can be seen, this prototype does not have the "robot" option implemented yet, hence the
only two switches. Also, the speaker holes were hand drilled (compare with picture below). Pictures courtesy of Glen Dash.
Dave Lamkins is on the left, Jim Riggins on the right. Both were
talented technicians. They are playing the Face Off game.
Picture courtesy of Glen Dash.
Mike Shields and Glen Dash playing the tennis game at the MIT lab.
The game shown is an early prototype, possibly the first one made using a pcb.
Note that it only has two switches: the robot paddle had not yet been added.
Picture courtesy of Glen Dash.
The Innovation Center set up this display in the lobby of MIT's
main building at 77 Massachusetts Ave. in Cambridge.
The TV Tennis unit (right of the TV set) is rapidly flashing
the field of the second player, who just missed the ball.
Picture courtesy of Glen Dash.
AR Brochure (scans courtesy of Glen Dash). Click pictures for large size.
Left: Advertisement for Electronic Television Tennis (large scale here)
Right: Interesting article about Executive games (part 1, part 2)
Face-Off A, B, C and E1 revisions:
Rev. A and B never went to production. Rev A is a unique prototype which Glen
Dash build and fixed. Rev B is only known as a blank board.
Rev. C boards used a separate PC board for the score module. Rev. C-1 was
identical but used "Launie" joysticks. No Rev. D is known to exist.
Rev. E1 eliminated the separate LED board to reduce production costs. The
problem that created was how to raise the LEDs so they could be seen. The
solution was the raised socket. It wasn't a great idea because the LED blocks were
unstable during production (however, once the housing was put on, they were
fixed in place, and Glen Dash doesn't remember having any units returned because
the LEDs had popped free).
Most of the pictures below can be clicked for viewing in original size.
Left and right: Unique Rev A prototype board.
The white arrows and circles show some of Glen's fixes.
Left: blank Rev B prototype board. Right: the Red Mock-Up (wood) prototype,
as used in the picture showing Ken Launie and Glen Dash playing the game.
Face-Off units, Rev. C (left) and Rev. E1 (right). Note the different center labels,
and the different depth of the scoring area due to the way the LED displays are mounted.
Circuit board of Rev. C with Zamco joysticks, before Executive Games
decided to make its own joysticks. Two of the four pots are used.
Left: Rev. C-1 with later "Launie" joysticks.
Right: Rev. E1 with LED blocks on raised sockets.
Face-Off box with its attractive illustration.
Face-Off joystick problems:
Revision C units were sometimes returned due to a joystick problem. These games
used Zamco joysticks which were originally designed for quadraphonic audio
systems. The joysticks were designed to control four separate audio channels,
hence the four pots. The Zamco joysticks had a steel ball into which the
joystick shaft was pressure-fitted. Some players would rest one hand on the unit
and work the joystick with the other hand, causing an upward pressure on the
joysticks which sometimes pulled the shaft out of the ball. The later molded-on
ball of the in-house designed "Launie" joysticks survived this kind of pressure.
Ken Launie was another MIT student.
Glen Dash found the data on the sales and returns of Face Off:
Of the 13,000 or so sold, 1,200 were returned. Of this, 580 units were unopened and not defective. Of the defective returns (about 620), 50.8% were due to joystick problems, 17.6% were due to electrostatic discharge problems, 7.4% were due to problems with the Videocube (switch-box), 8% were due to solder defects, and other problems accounted for 16.5%. These returned units were checked and repaired, if necessary, then shipped to the above mentioned discount and surplus outlets.
Ken Launie and Glen Dash playing the Face Off game.
Actually, the game shown is a wooden mockup.
The electronics were hidden for the photograph.
The game was in wire wrap form at that time, so this photo would
have been from early 1976. It was taken at the lab at MIT, Room 33-214.
Ken Launie later designed the replacement joysticks for the game.
Picture courtesy of Glen Dash.
Unreleased AY-3-8600 and AY-3-8700 prototypes:
After the close of the Executive Games plant in 1977, Glen Dash continued
working on video games as a consultant. He proved to be a key person in his
field, principally FCC testing. In America at that time, few people had the
expertise needed to get FCC approvals for electronic games, which the FCC held
to strict limits.. For that reason, he was responsible for testing a large
number of video and handheld games, some of which never made it to the market.
As an engineer, he also worked for General Instruments to design test prototypes
for their new AY-3-8600 and AY-3-8700 game chips, for Texas Instruments (who
released a game chip containing the TV Tennis circuits including the same
bugs!), and for Mattel (Intellivision console, etc).
The AY-3-8600 prototype was housed in a TV Tennis unit. It used the AY-3-8615 color encoder and the circuits were rather simple. Glen optimized the circuit board to minimize radio frequencies generated by the local oscillators. This prototype was designed while the AY-3-8600 chip was still in late development stages. For that reason, the schematic mentions three versions of the chip: AY-3-8600/001, /002 and /003. The differences between those versions are currently unknown.
The AY-3-8700 prototype was housed in a Face-Off unit and used an early chip version /001.
Once completed, the prototypes were sent to General Instruments, and the (official) story doesn't go any further.
Glen Dash kept his original drawings, which you can see below by clicking the various pictures.
AY-3-8600 test prototype in a TV Tennis unit.
AY-3-8700 "DASH-II Battle I" prototype unit in a Face-Off case.