His name won’t immediately ring a bell, but you’ve played a hell of a lot of the games that Howell Ivy has been involved with. After leaving a decorated military career, Howell found himself working on various arcade games. His learned skill has seen him work on everything from the infamous Death Race to Sega’s OutRun 2. Here he tells us about his early career.
We understand you joined the military after leaving school. How on earth did you end up making some of the earliest arcade videogames?
[Laughs] I spent seven and a half years in the military after I got out of tech school and around 1972, I was in Sunnyvale, California, at the satellite test facility there. On base there was the arcade game Computer Space. I thought, ‘hey, that looks like fun… I could do that!’ So I went back to the two-bedroom apartment I shared with my wife and started designing a game.
You make it sound easy but, back then, creating a videogame was a case of soldering together circuit boards, right?
Oh yeah, it was all done using hard logic. AND gates, OR gates, counters… microprocessors didn’t come in until much later. In the military, I had worked with CCTV systems and my speciality in the Air Force was telemetry systems. I had a really good understanding of how to move information from one place to another, using both analogue and digital technologies, and I was familiar with how TV screens worked so it was obvious to me how to put an image on the screen and move it around.
Did you manage to get a game working, then?
Yes. It was very similar to Pong but you could move the paddle along the X as well as the Y axis. There was a company in Sunnyvale called Ramtek, so I took my game round to show them and they paid me $2,000 for it! They never released it but they offered me a job.
An early picture of Howell from his air force days.
Did they give you a specific game concept to work on?
They basically left it up to me. I began designing Clean Sweep while I was still in the military, working on the game at night. It took me three months and that was my first commercial release. I started working for them full-time after that.
What did your wife make of you going from a career in the military to this new-fangled world of videogames?
She wasn’t into technology… it was a pay cheque!
You must have felt a real sense of pride seeing Clean Sweep in your local arcade.
I had that sense of pride and accomplishment before that, when I saw a hundred units on the production line all running my game at the same time. I was 24 years old and to have something I’d created from my own imagination, going from nothing to design, manufacturing and being shipped to customers, well, that’s a feeling that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
What other arcade games did you create on behalf of Ramtek?
I designed everything Ramtek released after Clean Sweep onward. I had a little table, mounds of data books and I’d be looking at what parts I’d need to put together a circuit to carry out a certain function. I did Wipe Out, Deluxe Baseball, which Ramtek licensed to Midway, Blocker… games mainly based around competitive sports themes.
Death Race was one of gaming’s earliest controversies.
One unusual title you did for Ramtek was Trivia, a very early quiz game.
That used 8-track tapes to store the questions. It was still done in hard logic but I designed an interface for the PDP-11 computer so we could use that to write data files to the audiotape for the questions. When you put a quarter in, the tape started running, so however long it took you to answer a question would determine what question it would take off the tape next. That made it random! The hardest thing to do was come up with thousands of questions. We were paying employees a dollar a question to come up with them!
You left Ramtek to help found Exidy. Was setting up on your own a big risk?
There were only three of us to begin with. I did all the hardware and software engineering, Pete Kauffman was more on the sales and marketing side and Bob Newsome, who sadly passed away in the late Seventies, was the financial guy. We were totally self-financed – we put our money in and built our first game and then built another and another and started employing more and more people.
An early success for Exidy was 1975’s Destruction Derby, a two-player competitive driving game with some impressive head-on collisions to boot.
We licensed that game to Chicago Coin [who released it as Demolition Derby] and we were shipping boards to them but they were behind on paying us. So I thought, ‘how can I change Destruction Derby to make it different so we have another game to put out there?’ It’s very hard to change the gameplay when a game is done in hard logic but to just change the images, that’s not so hard. It was a very early use of PROMs – Programmable Read Only Memory – and I realised I could change the cars to people! When they get run over, well, I can’t have a dead body, but how about just a cross? That’s how Death Race was born.
The game became infamous as the first ‘videogame nasty’. Didn’t you have any inkling that a game involving running over and killing people would cause controversy?
Absolutely none! I didn’t have any second thoughts.
When did you realise Death Race had caused
A newspaper in Seattle or someplace published an article about this game that let you run over people. The associated newswire picked it up and it escalated from there. I was as surprised as anyone. We had no intention of creating a controversial product. But I wouldn’t have done anything different anyway.
The game was vilified in numerous newspapers and television reports and even featured on hard-hitting news programme 60 Minutes. We bet that can’t have hurt sales…
We couldn’t have bought that much publicity for the product [laughs]. It was banned in some areas and they had to remove it but overall it turned out to be a big plus. It definitely helped Exidy get off the ground, though I’m not saying we wouldn’t have gotten off the ground anyway.
Didn’t you receive death threats over the game?
Yeah, we’d had some really threatening letters in the mail. For about a month we had to hire private security guards at the company. We thought we better take precautions…
We like the press release Exidy put out at the time, claiming you weren’t actually killing anyone in Death Race because those were ‘gremlins’ the player was running over, not real people. Did you really expect anyone to buy that?
[Laughs heartily] We made that spin up on the spot! After all the controversy, we said, ‘look, we’re getting some negative press here so hey, let’s pretend they’re ghosts or gremlins. That’d work!’
Do you ever hear the debate about violence in videogames and think, I started that?
I didn’t start it but maybe I was the catalyst. You know, the person that really started it was the reporter in Seattle who wrote the original Death Race article. Which I was perfectly fine with! And if you compare Death Race with violence in games today, there’s no comparison.
Sadly, the Exidy Sorcerer was not a success.
In 1977, the year after Exidy released Death Race, you had another big hit with Circus. You went from the ultra-violent to the super cute! Were you drawing on childhood memories of trips to the Big Top?
I wish I could say yes but it was just about coming up with another way to use the same hardware. You tried to recycle the hardware as much as you could so you didn’t have to start from zero each time.
We love the animation of the flailing limbs of those hapless clowns. It really gave the game a sense of character.
You always want to be able to do something a bit more exciting than you did last time, to give your game a bit more personality and to get the player personally involved. And you wanted to attract the female player.
Was getting girls playing arcade games an explicit goal, then?
Oh yes. Back then, there was the realisation that most people playing videogames were the more aggressive, competitive types, so we thought, ‘let’s try to do something females would like to widen our audience’.
That’s very forward thinking, Howell. We also like how Exidy experimented with cabinet design, such as 1977’s Robot Bowl.
We wanted to expand our market and get our games into more places like cocktail lounges and waiting rooms, not just arcades. For Robot Bowl, we even purchased about a thousand cabinets from another game that had a big hole in the front. We put the game in those cabinets and said it was like the ‘ball return’ you had in a bowling alley!
Did you see Exidy as challenging Atari for top spot as arcade innovators?
Oh, we were competitors from the early days, at Ramtek and then Exidy. Atari was only about a quarter mile away from our factory but we didn’t see them on a daily basis, only really at shows. It was a friendly rivalry. You know that every company is not going to have a hit game every time. You’re trying to do your best and have the right product at the right time.
In 1978, Exidy diversified and produced its own computer, the Sorcerer. What prompted your move into the home computer market?
Around that time, the transition to microprocessors happened. Exidy’s first game to use one was Car Polo and the ones that followed used more and more microprocessors. Paul Terrell had the Byte shops in the Bay Area which sold computers and he came to us with an idea. He said, ‘you’re using microprocessors in your games already, let’s make a home computer!’ We thought, ‘well, we have all this knowledge and experience… let’s do it!’
Notable Howell Ivy Games
You can read the rest of our interview with Howell Ivy in issue 125. Buy it now from GreatDigitalMags.com
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