All Your Base Are Belong To Us - Chapter 1 - Pt. 4

It took Magnavox another eight months to begin work on the project in earnest at their Morrison, Tennessee, manufacturing plant. For the Brown Box to hit store shelves in time for Christmas, Magnavox engineers had to break their backs working overtime as the deadline approached. They had proved their mettle as far as Baer and his team were concerned. Meanwhile, Sanders was doing poorly in the recession, and Baer became concerned about the future of his job. To make matters worse, he heard some disturbing news from Magnavox. For cost reasons the company axed the golf putt add- on and the fireman game with the pump, which would have required a higher retail price tag. There had also been heated discussion about whether or not to make the Brown Box work with four players at once, but this, too, never made it past the planning stages. Adding circuitry for color spots on the TV screen was also nixed. Only those overlays remained.

“You know the one thing that bothers me,” Baer told Harrison in their small office.

“What’s that?”

“The fact that it won’t be in color. Color would make a big difference.”

Harrison nodded. That was all he could do.

Just as sad was that once Magnavox licensed the idea for TV Games, Ralph Baer didn’t have much say in anything that happened, not even in the product’s new name, Skill-O-Vision. To Baer, the moniker sounded like a cheap sideshow penny arcade game.

By mid- October 1971, Magnavox felt they had a potential hit on their hands. Market surveys were held over a period of four days at the company’s retail stores in Los Angeles and Grand Rapids. Eighty- nine percent of those who played Skill-O-Vision for a couple of hours liked it “very much.” Even though just eighty- two people participated, a laughable number by today’s standards for surveys, there was a certain tempered glee in the interoffice memos that circulated to key executives in Magnavox enclaves around the country. On October 15, one executive wrote with barely muted enthusiasm, “The price of $75 presents no barrier.”

When Magnavox became involved in Ralph Baer’s project, they took over in the way a giant wave totally engulfs a small shell on the beach. The change of the name from TV Games to Skill-O-Vision was kind of a move sideways. The latter recalled Hollywood producer Mike Todd’s Smell-O-Vision, a dated technique of adding scents to movies that never really took off. When the name was changed to Odyssey, it was an inspired move, to a name that Baer thought really sang. It sounded like the beginning of a mysterious, futuristic adventure. Additionally, the look of the box was quite beautiful for the time. That fake brown wood grain was gone. Added were pieces of sleek white and black plastic and a box that looked like something out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nonetheless while TV Games wasn’t a sexy name, it did say exactly what the console would do. The name Odyssey did nothing of the sort.

The inventor’s input became even less valuable to Magnavox as the launch date approached. Baer himself was transferred between two divisions within Sanders, and he began to suffer from depression. After a hernia operation in February 1972, he languished in a hospital room, saturnine and in some pain. Then Campman and Etlinger arrived with Cheshire cat smiles on their faces. They unrolled a long sheet of paper that bore an oversized facsimile of a check for $100,000, the first payment from Magnavox for licensing. It didn’t matter that the check went into Sanders’s bank account. Baer felt valued again, and his doldrums lifted in moments. In the second or two it took for a blip on the Odyssey to cross the screen, Baer felt happier and years younger than his age.

When Baer attended the press presentation for Magnavox products at a restaurant in Central Park in late May, he beamed like a proud father. Everything was hyperreal, from the heady smell of spring flowers to the excited looks on journalists’ faces in the room. But he wasn’t introduced as the inventor of the Odyssey. He wasn’t introduced at all. To Baer, it mattered little. He was struck by the splendor of the finished machine. As he left and walked through the park, he was flying high.

The Odyssey hit the stores backed by a fairly odd marketing plan. Consumers were somewhat bemused by a Frank Sinatra commercial touting the machine. After all, Sinatra had retired from the music business in 1971 because his career was doing so miserably at the time. His recent movies (like the awful western comedy Dirty Dingus Magee) were failures, as were his recent albums; although critically acclaimed, the album Watertown had sold just thirty thousand copies. (Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t release his landmark comeback tune, “New York, New York,” until 1973.) Kids, the target audience, didn’t care about Sinatra; kids then liked the Beatles’ solo efforts, Elton John, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder. Magnavox’s pitch was considered completely uncool. Worse, the Sinatra commercial indicated, perhaps intentionally, that the system would work only with Magnavox televisions. In reality, it worked with any TV that had a rabbit ears connection in the back and a picture tube large enough to hold the overlays. Despite the confusion, people paid for one hundred thousand Odysseys at $100 each during the 1972 holiday season.

The stylish magazine and newspaper ads were perhaps better selling tools. They were artfully detailed and packed with juicy information, so exciting that the games seemed to jump off the page and proudly dance in midair. Even the copywriting sang like the best of Madison Avenue poetry: “With Odyssey, you participate in television. You’re not just a spectator. The fascinating Casino Action of Monte Carlo, the excitement of Wimbledon, the thrills of a heated game of football—can all be duplicated right in your own living room.”

Yet the Odyssey did not reap the expected rewards. Each machine cost Magnavox almost $50 to make. The 350,000 made and sold between 1972 and 1975 cost approximately $15 million. Testing the unit with consumers added at least $1 million. Sinatra’s fee added another million. Magnavox’s receipts came in at only $20 million. Baer postulated that the returns of some defective products ate up much of the remaining profits. He tried to convince the company of the need to release more and more games to support the machine, perhaps the first time the razor- and- blades economic theory was applied to videogames. In other words, the Magnavox system should have been sold like a Gillette razor, cheaply, and forward- thinking games should have been sold like blades, where the real profit lay. As the years passed, Baer wrote impassioned letters to Magnavox, suggesting new games. He told Magnavox of numerous Odyssey knockoffs around the world, but the company didn’t immediately pursue these ripoff artists in court. There were plans to sell a kind of Magna- Odyssey, a fattened device that included a seventeen- inch color TV and an impressive cabinet for $424. Baer was brought in to try to figure out what to take out to get the price down appreciably. But the Magna- Odyssey was never released. Like many ideas at Magnavox, it became severely bogged down by company posturing and politics.

Through most of the brainstorming and all of the hoopla, Baer was relegated to the sidelines, like an aging football star aching to be sent in for a big play. Yes, he and Sanders had licensed the rights to a mammoth corporation. And Sanders certainly received monetary rewards for the contract into which they had entered. But Baer was not just a “company man” who didn’t care about anything more than his weekly salary or about becoming rich from his videogame inventions. In fact, he did think about asking for more money and getting himself a lawyer on a few occasions. He was never told exactly how much money was coming in from worldwide licenses of his game technology and from where; Sanders feared he would sue for more money. They tried to keep all sales data from him. But he saw the total projected on a big screen at Sanders’s monthly meetings. He knew he could have gone to court. He was sure he could have won. But he chose not to, feeling as he did that he still had much more inventing to do.

Excerpted from All Your Base Are Belong To Us: How Fifty Years of Video Games Conquered Pop Culture by Harold Goldberg. Copyright © 2011 by Harold Goldberg. Published in the United States by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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