A Fiery Reception
A prototype version is shown at the spring 1983 AOE show in Chicago, creating a large buzz around the game from operators. What’s not well-known is that the project is in trouble. So far having pumped $600,000 into creating animation that is indeed lush, Bluth is alarmed to discover that on the technical side, the game play is just not there. Utilizing his filmmaking and narrative skills, he ensconces himself in the lab with Dyer’s team and they redesign the game in about four days, emerging with something closely resembling what ends up in the arcades. Financial disaster continues to loom over the project until Eric Bromley, VP in charge of R&D at video game company Coleco, shows up at their door in April, having seen the prototype footage. His company has a laserdisc add-on planned for their immensely popular ColecoVision home game console, and, possibly sensing another huge system-seller like they had in Donkey Kong, licenses the home game rights to Dragon’s Lair for $2 million, along with first right of refusal on any future games from Starcom. With Coleco paying half of that fee upfront, thusly does Bluth and Starcom get the money to finish the game. Bromley further contributes to Dragon’s Lair by offering further instruction on game design.
Excited arcade operators, sensing a game that might be the solution for their sagging collections income, finally get their chance to purchase it when Dragon’s Lair starts arriving in quantity to distributors just after July 1. Cinematronics manufactures and markets the game, and by doing so phase out the vector game division on which they built their fortune. Since the units cost on average an unprecedented 4,300 dollars each, twice the cost of a conventional cabinet, it comes factory-set to cost 50 cents a play. It is NOT, however, the first game to be set to cost 50 cents per single play by the manufacturer. In 1980, Atari had set Missile Command to cost two quarters by default when shipped from the factory. Explaining the reasoning behind this price increase, at the time Director of Marketing Frank Ballouz said, “50 cent play has been needed by the industry for some time to help offset the rising cost of manufacturing and to help increase location revenues…” Operators, however, quickly realized they weren’t going to get away with charging that much at the time and reverted the machines back to 25 cent play. On Dragon Lair‘s release, I remember being incensed by the increase to 50 cents a play; in a decade or so, among games costing $1.00 or more, I’ll be thinking back to how good I had it at 50 cents.
The game is the first arcade system with filmed, animated action, but it is barely interactive. While the compelling attract mode lures passersby with the promise of the ability to “control the actions of a daring adventurer”, a player can merely decide at certain moments when and in which of four directions Dirk should move or use his sword. But despite the price hike and the lack of deep interaction, Dragon’s Lair causes a sensation in the arcades. No one can certainly complain about its rich, beautifully drawn images, harkening back to the classical animation days of yore. At its peak, Dragon’s Lair brings in on average around $1400 a week, compared to an average of about $200 or so per week for a hit conventional game at the time. After being installed in Bally’s Aladdin’s Castle arcade locations, in the first month, the game increases general revenues by 33%. In the first eight months of its release to arcades generally, the game grosses 32 million dollars worth of sales. Cinematronics gets 2,000 units out the door initially and then struggles to meet demand as orders head north of 8,000. Production of Dragon’s Lair cabinets is unfortunately capped due to the scarcity of the laserdisc players employed in their construction (see below). Still, Cinematronics sells ten thousand cabinets within the first three months of release. In the arcades, huge crowds gather around the machines, causing operators to install additional monitors on top of them to appease the thronging masses of players vying for a look. According to Don Bluth, one operator in Berkeley goes so far as to install seating akin to a movie theatre around the game and a red velvet carpet leading up the cabinet with a monitor on top, creating a cheering section for the gamer currently at the controls. Overall, the game is said to have increased arcade revenue across the board by 40 percent. Starcom eventually sells 43 million dollars worth of systems.
Dragon’s Lair also makes the biggest inroads into popular culture since the Pac-Man bonanza. Lunch boxes, board games, books, trading cards, and a moat-load of other merchandise hits the streets. Perhaps best cementing its status as an early 80’s icon, ABC’s cheese-fest human interest show That’s Incredible! features Dragon’s Lair in an on-air contest between champion players. It makes another TV appearance as a permanent prop on NBC’s popular sitcom Silver Spoons, debuting in September 1983. Featuring Ricky Schroder as a young kid who moves in with his rich father, seeing his Dragon’s Lair (along with Asteroids, Tempest and Gorf) sitting in the background unused drives me crazy with jealousy. The game goes on to receive the San Diego-based comic convention ComicCon’s Inkpot Award for the First Interactive Laser Disc Arcade Game, as well as an Arkie Award from Electronic Games magazine for Best Arcade Audio/Visuals. It’s also profiled in an all-Dragon’s Lair episode of the videogame TV show Starcade. The game also sparks a debate along the lines of “Why is the Mona Lisa smiling?”, as people wonder what Daphne whispers in Dirk’s ear to elicit such a reaction at the end of the game.
The Record Skips
But even as the game becomes a cultural phenomenon it is apparent there are problems, both technical and conceptual. The first Dragon’s Lair games contain the Pioneer PR-7820, one of the first lines of laserdisc players, released in 1979. They are notoriously unreliable and unsuited for the rough-and-tumble environment of the video arcade. Pioneer produced 25,000 of the units, with a majority of them ending up in every GM auto dealership in the U.S., used for training mechanics and demonstrating their 1980 model lineup. 5,000 disc players are purchased by Cinematronics, and another 5,000 used for parts since the 7820 has been discontinued by the company. The units had been gathering dust in a warehouse until Dragon’s Lair takes off, creating a huge demand for them. They are eventually replaced by LD-V1000 players from Pioneer, first introduced to the market in 1983, which are more reliable but still skittish. The nature of Dragon’s Lair is inherently frustrating to players learning the ropes (literally and figuratively), relying on split-second timing and sometimes obscure on-screen clues on what to do. Therefore, when a player protests a seemingly correct move ending in one of many death scenes, a swift kick or jostle of the game easily knocks the disc player out of alignment, rendering the game inoperable until it is repaired. Thus, many Dragon’s Lair cabinets spend more time with “Out of Order” signs taped to their faces than actually working. When the game IS operating, it does suck up many a player’s quarters, but critics point out that its gameplay sucks as well. While it tends to happen between scenes and not in the middle of crucial moves, there is an annoying 2-second blackout while the scanning heads of the player find the next track, breaking the flow of the story. As well, the game is highly repetitive, extending the length of play by simply reversing the image of many rooms. Gameplay relies on rote memorization of the patterns and sheer reflexive movements of the joystick and button, keeping the player on a “rail” from which they cannot deviate. This also leads to the game’s problem with “coin drop”. Once someone knows all of the moves necessary to play, they can tie up the machine for all the time it takes to play through to the end. Thus is anyone else prevented from dropping in their two bits, limiting the number of players and infuriating arcade owners. Despite these issues with Dragon’s Lair, the AMOA arcade operators show in late October 1983 is afire with the laserdisc games of other manufacturers who, you guessed it, have swarmed out of the woodwork with their own takes on a massively successful game. In a rabid race for a slice of the pie, game companies will again valiantly smite a trend with over-production.
Ace In the Hole
As the plan is for Starcom to make a new animated laserdisc game every three months for distributors to upgrade their previous cabinets into, the animation for the official Dragon’s Lair follow-up is started even before Dragon’s Lair is released to the arcades. With an animation budget increased to $1.8 million and an overall price tag for design at $2.5 million, the new game has a working title of Space Nerd. This slightly pejorative label is eventually zapped, with the title becoming Space Age….and then finally Space Ace to reflect one of the main characters of the story. Written by Shannon Donnelly, it details the exploits of the dashing, heroic title character who’s girlfriend Kimberly is kidnapped by the evil Commander Borf. Wielding the diabolical Infanto-ray, Borf zaps Ace into the nerdy Dexter and is threatening to turn everyone on Earth into squealing ankle-biters. Dexter must race to save the girl and the planet before Borf infantizes the universe. I guess Space Age would have worked as a title, too! As well as a new story, along with actual running dialog between the characters, the game also incorporates some new design concepts over Dragon’s Lair. There are three different skill levels available to players: Space Cadet, Space Captain or Space Ace. Playing Cadet level, gamers miss about half of the animation in the game, while playing Ace covers the whole story. In addition, while Dexter is the main hero, at certain points in the story the energizer button on the game’s control panel will flash, allowing the player to transform Dex into the muscle-bound Space Ace and complete the scene as him, turning back into Dexter at the end of the sequence. This branching option not only increases the total amount of animation to fourteen minutes, it also helps to give the player a sense that they have more control over what is happening in the game.
During the creation of the animation, actual models are built of Dexter’s spaceship StarPac and Ace’s Space Cycle, which are then filmed using a periscope camera and then traced into the hand-drawn cells to be recoloured. This process, known as rotoscoping, is done to aid animators with aspects of perspective and depth. Some of the voices are again done by staff members, including the processed voice of Don Bluth as the nasty Borf. There are, however, some other great strides in the area of audio: Space Ace has 35 separate tracks for sound effects, compared to only 14 in Dragon’s Lair. Chris Stone returns to compose a complete musical score for the game, featuring three separate tracks for music.
Changing With the Times, Dragon’s Lair Artist Don Bluth Sketches Kimberly Kicking Some Ass Instead of Standing By for Rescue
When it comes to gameplay, things are much more frenetic, with more moves placed closer together during a scene. However, there are also more flashing light cues to alert the player to the required moves. With Dyer’s company now known as RDI Video Systems, they refine the technology, allowing Space Ace to access information on the laserdisc 50% faster than its predecessor. But as in Dragon’s Lair, the action still offers only limited interaction for the player, as well as numerous scenes repeated in reverse mode. Hoping to defer the hefty cost of the Dragon’s Lair units, arcade owners are assured that any sequels to the game would be available as upgrade kits, allowing them to avoid the cost of purchasing a whole new game. This includes a free replacement of the older laserdisc players with new and improved units. Space Ace is demonstrated at the October 1983 AMOA show in New Orleans, and it is there that Coleco exercises its first-refusal rights by picking up the home rights to the new game. By the time Space Ace is released late in 1983 by a newly renamed Magicom following the final bankruptcy of Cinematronics, the laser game fad is already losing steam. Space Ace blasts off quickly with 1500 units sold in its first week of release, but the cabinet ultimately sells only $13 million worth across its short lifetime. This despite Magicom’s aggressive merchandising campaign waged at a cost of around $100,000, featuring items such as press books, posters to hang up in arcades, and even flip books to demonstrate some animation from the game.