Bob Fritsche

1TL200: A Magnavox Odyssey

In June 1967, Ralph Baer received permission from the leadership of Sanders Associates to complete his TV game prototype and bring it to market.  While this represented a significant milestone for Baer, however, there was still a great deal of work to be done.  At this point in his life, Baer was not a particularly accomplished game designer, and he felt his prototype did not offer the level of entertainment value necessary to justify its price.  Development on the project almost stalled completely until the addition of a new team member that lobbied for generating a third dot on the television screen, which finally led to the addictive game the system needed.

Even after the team overcame all the design hurdles, however, there was still the matter of introducing the system to the general public.  As a defense contractor, Sanders did not have any of the retail experience or clout necessary to produce a consumer product and would therefore need a partner to place Baer’s system on store shelves.  After multiple deals fell through at the last minute, Baer finally enticed Magnavox to build his TV game, and the long journey that began on a bus terminal step in August 1966 ended in September 1972 with the debut of the first home video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey.

As in the previous entry, there is little controversy regarding the design and development of Ralph Baer’s “Brown Box” prototype and its final incarnation, the Odyssey, due to Ralph Baer keeping meticulous records of the project and preserving them for posterity.  There is, however, considerable confusion over the success — or lack thereof — of Odyssey in the marketplace.  In this post, I will attempt to untangle the contradictory evidence of the Odyssey’s market performance and place it in the context of early video game history.

Three Spots

Harrison and Rusch

Bill Harrison (l) and Bill Rusch, the men who built Baer’s video game prototypes

In the aftermath of the successful demonstration of TV Game #2 to Royden Sanders and other company executives in late June 1967, Ralph Baer turned his attention toward refining his system into a viable commercial product.  According to his autobiographical work, Videogames: In the Beginning, Baer hoped to create a relatively cheap game, setting a target price of $25.00 for the complete package.  This meant refocusing the system around what Baer considered the best ideas he and Harrison had developed in order to reduce the part count.  Harrison removed the pumping game mechanic, which despite being the first game implemented had never been particularly fun, as well as the specialized circuits that allowed for color graphics and the placement of additional dots on the screen through a random number generator.  By August 1967, Harrison had completed his scaled-down version of the system, dubbed TV Game #3, which now only played chase and shooting games.  Unfortunately, despite cutting as many corners as they possibly could, Baer and Harrison were unable to come near their target price: the system they built would have to sell for a minimum of $50.00 at retail.  Baer felt his simple chase and light gun games did not provide nearly enough entertainment value to justify that price, so he put the color circuitry back into the system and tried to develop additional game concepts.  When he proved unable to find a way to make the system more interesting, Campman, who sensed Baer had hit a wall in development, decided to loan Baer his former brainstorming partner, the creative engineer Bill Rusch.  On August 18, 1967, Rusch formally became the third member of the Sanders TV game team.

According to both Ralph Baer and Bill Harrison, Bill Rusch was not the easiest person to work with.  In an interview by Benj Edwards, Harrison called Rusch “very different” and “a colorful character,” while Baer lamented to Tristan Donovan that he would show up late, putz around for an hour before turning to the task at hand, take a two hour lunch, and generally spend as little time as possible actually working.  As Baer told Kent in The Ultimate History of Video Games, he was so desperate to motivate the frustrating engineer that he let him work on a pet project involving changing the octave of notes played on a guitar in addition to the TV game project.  Despite these difficulties, however, there was no doubting Rusch’s intelligence or creativity.  Indeed, soon after joining Rusch proved his value by proposing the idea that saved the entire project: adding a third, machine-controlled dot to serve as a ball for use in a game of ping pong. (Note: Kent states that Rusch implemented the chase game on the system as well, although this was already completed by the time he joined the team.  Chase games were one of several concepts in Rusch’s May game memo, however, which may be the source of Kent’s confusion.)

According to Videogames: In the Beginning, Harrison and Rusch spent October 1967 making the new three spot system a reality, which became TV Game #4.  While Harrison built the new system, Rusch spent the majority of his time designing advanced circuits that would allow for the generation of round spots instead of squares and allow the speed and direction of the ball spot to vary based on the velocity of the impact with a player-controlled spot.  Ultimately, however, neither of these features were incorporated, the former because it remained buggy and the latter because Baer felt they did not have time to complete it.  This led to considerable friction between Baer and Rusch, who did not appreciate Baer telling him what could and could not be incorporated into the system.  Nevertheless, by November 1967 the team had a video game unit that could play ping pong, chase, and shooting games with three controllers: a light gun for target shooting, joysticks for the chase game, and a three dial control for ping pong that controlled the horizontal and vertical movement of the player’s paddle and allowed the player to manipulate the ball to put a little “English” on it.  After another demo for Campman, the R&D director concurred with Baer that the system finally contained enough interesting gameplay variants to be worth selling, so Baer turned his attention to finding a retail partner.

Baer turned first to the fledgling cable industry.  At the time, there were no dedicated cable channels, so cable TV was basically just an expensive way to receive the exact same channels that a person could already get for free over the air.  While cable eliminated the need to adjust antenna to improve the quality of a broadcast signal, unless a person lived in the mountains or in a similar environment where reception was exceptionally poor, this convenience did not justify the cost.  As a result, the cable industry was struggling, and Baer felt that a novel product like a TV game could be just the thing for the industry to break out of its slump.  He therefore had Harrison modify the game so that it could accept background graphics transmitted by a cable signal and contacted the largest cable provider, TelePrompter, which supplied roughly 60,000 subscribers at that time.  The idea was that the cable company could point a camera at a highly detailed view of a tennis court or some other venue which would be broadcast to the TV game to provide a background for the action.  The spots generated by the hardware would then be superimposed on top.  TelePrompter expressed interest, and negotiations proceeded on and off between January and April 1968.  While the cable company thought the game a good idea, however, an economic recession ultimately left it in an untenable financial situation, and it could not afford to develop the product.  Baer would need to find another partner.

Brown Box

brown box

The “Brown Box” prototype

In December 1967 and January 1968, Harrison continued to work on improving the TV game, incorporating some of the velocity circuitry designed by Rusch and re-implementing the light pen quiz game with a new light gun peripheral that would allow answers to be chosen from a distance.  In this game, four answers would appear on the screen with dots next to them.  The dots would all blink rapidly, with the dot next to the correct answer blinking in a different pattern than the others.  This was all imperceptible to the naked eye, but the light pen would respond differently to the correct and incorrect dots in order to determine if the player answered correctly.  Two new ball-and-paddle variants were created during this time period as well, handball and volleyball.  In handball, the “net” was moved to one side of the screen and served as the wall of a handball court, while in volleyball, the centerline was modified to serve as a net.  Otherwise, the gameplay remained the same as in the ping-pong game.  Work on TV Game #5 ceased at the end of January when funding ran out.  The same recession affecting TelePromper also hit Sanders hard, and the company scaled down from 11,000 employees to just 4,000 during this period.  This marked the end of Bill Rusch’s short, but productive time on the project.

In September 1968, Baer secured additional funding and brought back Bill Harrison to create another prototype, TV Game #6.  The switches used to select different game modes in previous versions were replaced with a rotary dial, while the game also sported an improved light gun.  Still feeling they could do a little better, Baer and Harrison developed one final prototype in January 1969, TV Game #7, which they also called the “Brown Box” because Harrison wrapped the casing in self-adhesive woodgrain to make it more attractive.  This version also included an expanded set of games.  In addition to Ping-Pong, Handball, Volleyball, Target Shooting, and the Checker chase game, there were now Hockey, Soccer, and Football variants of the ball and paddle game, which featured the same basic game play with different overlays, and a golf putting game with a new peripheral: a golf ball mounted on  a joystick.  The player would place the joystick on the floor and tap the ball with a putter, after which the spot representing the ball would move based on the contact with the joystick.  If the ball hit the dot representing the hole, they both disappeared.  A final attempt was made to add Rusch’s velocity circuit to this version as an add on, which was dubbed TV Game #8, but it was ultimately left out due to cost.

By the end of 1968, Baer and Harrison had essentially finished the Brown Box, but they were no closer to selling it.  Finally, the Sanders patent attorney, Lou Etlinger, provided the solution: approach the television manufacturers.  These firms were already using the exact same components contained within the Brown Box in their TV sets, so ramping up manufacturing would be relatively simple.  Additionally, the TV companies would most likely be interested in anything that could spur television sales.  One by one, Etlinger invited some of the most prominent TV manufacturers — RCA, Zenith, Sylvania, General Electric, Motorola, Warwick, and Magnavox — to view the Brown Box in action.  While many of these companies showed some interest, however, Baer and Etlinger were never able to close a deal.  Warwick, the manufacturer of televisions sold by Sears, was impressed and told Sanders to contact the buyer at the department store, but the executive refused to sell the product in his stores, afraid parents would drop their kids off in the electronics department to play the games and transform Sears into a glorified babysitter.  The General Electric engineers were likewise impressed and helped set up a meeting at the company’s small-color-set assembly facility in Virginia, but nothing ever came of it.

The first company to view the system, RCA, ultimately proved the most enthusiastic.  Coming to Nashua in January 1969, RCA liked the system so much that it started negotiating a licensing agreement with Sanders in the Spring.  An agreement was hammered out after several months of negotiations, but Sanders ultimately backed out of the deal.  Baer has never specified the exact reasons Sanders did not like the final agreement, only calling the terms “onerous,” but RCA probably either wanted to completely own the technology and the patents behind it or offered a paltry royalty deal.  Sanders appeared out of options at this point, but luckily one of the RCA negotiators, Bill Enders, remained highly enthusiastic about the product, so when he left RCA to join Magnavox, he urged his new employer to take another look at the system.

Magnavox

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Edwin Pridham (l) and Peter Jensen, two of the founders of the company that formed the core of Magnavox

The Magnavox Corporation traces its history to a partnership formally established on March 1, 1911, called the Commercial Wireless and Development Company that brought together three individuals, Danish electrical engineer Peter Jensen, Stanford-trained electrical engineer Edwin Pridham, and San Francisco financier Richard O’Connor.  According to The Early History of Magnavox by Billy Malone, Jensen, born in 1886, was a brilliant student forced to forego university and take a job at a sawmill upon the death of his father.  The superintendent of the mill encouraged him to find a job more suited to his academic abilities, however, and in 1903 he was able to secure a position in the laboratory of Valdemar Poulsen, the Danish inventor of the Telegraphone, the first magnetic wire recording apparatus, the predecessor of magnetic tape recording.  In this capacity, Jensen helped Poulson develop his continuous wave arc transmitter, one of the key technologies that allowed for practical radio broadcasting.  In 1909, Jensen came to Palo Alto, California, which even before forming the heart of Silicon Valley was an important hub for wireless research, to grow the Poulsen Wireless and Telegraph Company, formed in October of that year in partnership with Stanford engineer Cyril Elwell and investor John Coburn.

While at the company, Jensen met Pridham, a fellow employee originally hailing from Maywood, Illinois, who helped him learn English and assimilate into American culture.  He was also introduced by Coburn to O’Conner, an investor in the new venture frustrated that he had no say in company affairs.  Coburn proposed that O’Connor travel to Denmark to secure patent rights from Poulsen to start his own company and suggested Jensen resign his position and join the negotiating team.  Jensen agreed on the condition that Pridham be allowed to join them as well.  Although the Danish trip was unsuccessful, O’Connor pressed forward with his plan to establish the Commercial Wireless and Development Company with Jensen and Pridham in 1911.

Once their new company was established, Jensen and Pridham turned their attention to developing a more sensitive telephone that could pick up signals transmitted from a greater distance.  According to an article hosted on the website of the Audio Engineering Society entitled “Peter L. Jensen and the Magnavox Loudspeaker,”, the result of this research was an improved version of the Poulsen arc radio transmitter featuring thicker wires connected to a diaphragm and a coil of copper wire placed between magnets.  Driving a current though the coil produces a magnetic field that causes the coil to move back and forth rapidly.  This causes the coil to push against the diaphragm, thus converting the electrical signal into soundwaves.  Per The Early History of Magnavox, this resulted in a telephone with much clearer sound, but AT&T chose not to adopt the “dynamic telephone” because they were already partnering with Lee DeForest to use his audion tube in their equipment, and the Jensen system was too large and bulky to be practical.

In 1915, a blacksmith named Ray Galbreath visited Jensen’s lab.  An avid baseball fan, he lamented that he often had difficulty hearing announcements made at the ballpark and thought the dynamic telephone could be used to amplify the announcer.  This suggestion caused Jensen to shift his focus from improving the clarity of sound over a long distance to increasing the volume of sound over a shorter distance.  After several months of work, Jensen publicly demonstrated the first loudspeaker public address system in San Francisco on December 10, 1915.  He decided to name the system after the Latin term for “great voice,” Magnavox.

In 1916, Jensen, hoping to find a mass market application for the new loudspeaker, developed an all-electric phonograph incorporating loudspeaker amplification.  A demonstration was arranged for the largest phonograph company, Victor Corporation, but they were not interested.  Victor’s main competitor, Columbia, also turned them down.  As Jensen and company continued to refine their player, however, they purchased large quantities of records from the Sonora Phonograph Distributorship Company, which attracted the attention of its president, Frank Steers.  Steers saw the potential of the electric phonograph and arranged a merger between Sonora and Commercial Wireless to manufacture the device.  On July 6, 1917, the combined company incorporated under the name Magnavox.  At the time, PA systems remained an integral part of the company’s business, but according to the AES article AT&T came to dominate this market in the 1920s, so Magnavox shifted its primary focus to phonographs and radio.  According to Malone, the company moved its headquarters to Emeryville, California, in 1927, and then consolidated its various facilities in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1930.  According to an oral history with former Mangavox employee Arthur Stern, the Great Depression nearly killed the company, which barely avoided bankruptcy in the late 1930s, but the onset of World War II and lucrative military contracts for electronic equipment saved it.  After the war, Magnavox entered the television business, and it remained a major player in the field in the early 1970s, when Ralph Baer and Lou Etlinger approached the firm to license the first home video game system.

Building Odyssey

Odyssey Motherboard

The motherboard of the Odyssey

According to Baer’s book, in July 1969, Bill Enders, recently relocated from RCA to Magnavox, returned to Nashua for a personal demonstration of the Brown Box.  Still impressed with the technology, he began heavily lobbying his superiors to license the product.  This campaign culminated in a demonstration of the technology at Magnavox headquarters in Fort Wayne on July 17, 1969, for Gerry Martin, the VP of the Magnavox Console Products Planning Division.  Martin was immediately taken with the technology, though it would take him months of lobbying with Magnavox corporate before he was finally authorized to negotiate a deal in March 1970.  Nearly a year of negotiations followed, culminating in a preliminary licensing agreement between Sanders and Magnavox in January 1971.

With a license agreement in place, further development of the Brown Box — known within Magnavox by the product designation 1TL200 — shifted from Baer’s lab at Sanders to a team of Magnavox engineers in Fort Wayne led by George Kent.  While Baer and Harrison would consult with these engineers from time to time, their active role in the development of the video game was now over.  At Magnavox, management placed a great emphasis on reducing the cost of the system as much as possible, ultimately leading to the removal of the chroma circuitry for generating color backgrounds, the golf putting game, and any chance of including the pumping and quiz game functionality that Baer and Harrison had already stripped out of earlier prototypes of the system.  They also chose to move away from switches or dials to select games by including a group of plug-in circuit cards instead that would unlock individual games.  This last innovation has led some to label the system the first cartridge system, though this comparison is not apt.  There was no memory or game code on these cards, which merely complete different circuit paths within the hardware itself to define the rule set for the current game.  All of the game information was contained in the dedicated hardware, and inserting a new circuit card was really no different an act from flicking a toggle switch.

Initially, the video game project was placed under the control of Bob Wiles, the product manager for color TVs, but it was soon placed in its own product category.  The man ultimately responsible for bringing the Odyssey to market was a product manager named Bob Fritsche, a 1966 graduate of Miami University of Ohio with a degree in marketing who joined the Air Force right out of school, mustered out in October 1970 at the rank of captain, and subsequently joined Magnavox.  According to court testimony delivered by Fritsche in December 1976 during the case of Magnavox v. Chicago Dynamic Industries and Seeburg Corporation, he started in the purchasing department before becoming the first product planner on the video game system in September 1971.  At the time, Magnavox had just begun performing consumer playtest and marketing surveys using prototype hardware of what was now being called “Skill-O-Vision.”  The first, conducted in Los Angeles, proved highly successful, so a second survey was scheduled for Grand Rapids, Michigan, to gauge the response in a more technologically conservative part of the country.  According to Fritsche, this test proved highly successful as well.  Indeed, original market projections had called for an extremely limited production runs of 50,000 units for the first holiday season, but based on the marketing surveys, Fritsche argued that they should build 100,000 units instead.  In order to insure Magnavox dealers across the country had sufficient stock to meet market demand, the company decided to release it in only eighteen major markets, one metropolitan area in each of its 18 sales territories nationwide.

According to Fritsche, Magnavox unveiled the final version of the system, now dubbed the Magnavox Odyssey — a name whose origin has been lost to time — to its authorized dealers for the first time in May 1972 in Las Vegas.  Soon after, the product was formally introduced to the press at an event hosted by Tavern on the Green in New York City (according to Baer, this event occurred on May 22, though he mistakenly calls the restaurant “Bowling Greene”).  Over the next few months, Magnavox took the product on the road, hosting shows in roughly 16 cities to allow their dealers and other interested industry parties to familiarize themselves with the product.  When exactly the system first went on sale is not known.  According to Fritsche, Magnavox started shipping the system in mid September.  Frank Cifaldi claims in an article on Gamasutra that the system was available as early as August 28 based on an ad in the Edwardsville Intelligencier, but this add merely invites people to “See Odyssey” and contains no language implying that the system is actually available for purchase.  Most likely this was a preview event in anticipation of the product arriving in the next month.

The System

Odyssey

The complete Odyssey package, including overlays and accessories

The Magnavox Odyssey hit store shelves at a suggested retail price of $99.99, roughly double what Baer had originally planned.  The system shipped with 12 games unlocked by six circuit cards, most of which were variations on the ball and paddle and chase games that Baer, Harrison, and Rusch had developed at Sanders.  The system remained capable of generating only two player-controlled dots plus one machine controlled dot and a single line of varying height, so all of the game mechanics were based around moving dots around the screen.  Each game required a plastic overlay, which would cling to the TV through static electricity to provide background graphics and other game features.  Additionally, the system shipped with cards, play money, and dice to provide additional play mechanics.  According to an interview with artist Ron Bradford, all of the final game designs — as well as the overlays and packaging materials for the system — were done on a contract basis by his firm, Bradford/Cout Design, which had previously done creative work for Magnavox’s ad agency.  Bradford developed the games in conjunction with Steve Lehner at the agency.

While Baer had developed several different control schemes for different types of games, the final system only shipped with one: the three dial control that allowed the player to move his dot horizontally or vertically as well as exert a small amount of control over the machine-controlled dot.  The controller also contains a reset button, which is not used to reboot the console, but rather to reset certain game elements during play.  Two additional controls are present on the main unit: a dial to adjust the position of the center line on the screen and a dial to set the speed of the machine-controlled dot.  While many sources, most notably Kent, claim the internals were analog, the system was constructed using digital logic circuits.  As Baer explains in his book, however, these were not the cutting edge transistor-to-transistor logic (TTL) circuits becoming increasingly common in the early 1970s.  Instead, the system used more primitive diode-to-transistor logic (DTL) to keep down the cost of the hardware.  The twelve games that shipped with the system are as follows:

Table Tennis (Game Card #1): Each player controls a paddle and they knock a ball back and forth across the screen.  The only game that does not require an overlay or any other additional elements.  Score is not tracked by the game and must be recorded manually.

Ski (Game Card #2): A timed racing game.  The overlay provides several different paths and includes pictures of obstacles like trees and mountains.  The player navigates his dot along the path and takes a penalty defined by the instructions any time he goes off the path and hits an obstacle.  Players must keep track of their own time using a clock or stopwatch.

Simon Says (Game Card #2): A three-player variation on the classic children’s game.  The overlay depicts a boy and a girl, each of which is claimed by one player.  The third player draws from a deck of 28 “simon says cards” that each depict a part of the body.  Each time a card is drawn, the players must move their spots to the proper body part on their person.  Whoever gets there first wins the card.  If there is a tie, the card is returned to the bottom of the deck.  Players only move if the card drawer uses the phrase “simon says.”  If they move when the phrase is not used, they have to return a card to the deck.  The player with the most cards at the end wins.

Tennis (Game Card #3): Plays essentially the same as the Table Tennis game except there is an overlay on the screen depicting a tennis court and service must follow the rules of tennis (i.e. in order for a serve to be “good” it must land in the other player’s “service box”).

Analogic (Game Card #3): An arithmetic game presented with the conceit that it takes place in a “numeric maze of a computer-charted galaxy.”  The overlay consists of a grid in which each square has a number.  Players start on opposite ends of the screen on “Planet Odd” and “Planet Even.”  The former player can only move to a square containing an odd number, while the latter player can only move to a square containing an even number.  After the first turn, a player may move to any square containing a number that corresponds to the sum of the other player’s last move and any other number so long as the sum results in an odd number for the Planet Odd player or an even number for the Planet Even player.  The first player to reach the opposing player’s planet wins.

Hockey (Game Card #3): Again like Table Tennis except the overlay is a hockey rink.  A player scores if the dot touches the opponent’s goal on the overlay.

Football (Game Card#3 and Game Card #4): Easily the most complicated game.  Uses a combination of on-screen maneuvering, dice, and “play cards” to simulate a game of football.  The kickoff as well as passing and punting plays use the ball spot and are done with Card #3.  Running plays use only the two player spots and are executed with Card #4.  Full rules can be viewed at a page hosted by the University of Waterloo that is dedicated to the Odyssey.

Cat and Mouse (Game Card #4): A chase game played on a grid.  The mouse must return to the square designated as his “house” without being caught by the cat.  The players get a varying number of points depending on where the mouse is caught.

Haunted House (Game Card #4): Another chase game with a haunted house overlay.  One player is a “detective,” while the other is a “ghost.”  The overlay contains “clue” spaces that the detective must traverse in the order determined by a deck of clue cards, but if he passes over a window on his way to a clue, he forfeits the card.  At the beginning of the game, the ghost also picks a clue space to place his ghost.  When the detective approaches that space, the ghost player hits the reset button to reveal his spot.  After that point, the detective must avoid making the ghost spot disappear or he forfeits half his clue cards.

Submarine (Game Card #5): A target shooting game played with an overlay showing various shipping lanes.  One player navigates his spot along the lanes.  The other player uses the reset button to launch the machine-controlled dot, which represents a torpedo.  The players take turns in the roles, and whoever sinks more ships wins.

Rouelette (Game Card #6): A game of chance played with a roulette wheel overlay.  Bets are placed using chips and a number board that come with the system.  After bets are placed, a player randomly turns the control dials and then presses reset to launch the ball on the roulette wheel.

States (Game Card #6): An educational game played with an overlay of the United States and a deck of fifty cards — one per state — with trivia questions about that state.  Players use the controller to select a state and answer questions to gain control of cards.  The player with the most cards at the end wins.

Six more games were sold separately, most of which just provided new overlays and instructions for use with the circuit cards that shipped with the game.  These were available for $5.49 each or in a pack of all six for $24.99.  The games are as follows:

Fun Zoo (Game Card #2): A racing game for three players using an overlay of a zoo.  The zookeeper draws an animal from a deck of cards, and the other two players see who can reach it first.

Baseball (Game Card #3):  Like Football, this is a complicated game that uses a combination of cards, dice, and tokens.  The players on each side have some basic statistics determined by rolling dice.  Full rules can be viewed on the Internet Archive.

Invasion (Game Card #4, Game Card #5, and Game Card #6): Another complicated game in which strategic moves are made on a separate game board and tactical combat is resolved on the screen.  Different kinds of assaults require different circuit cards.  Full instructions at the Internet Archive.

Wipeout (Game Card #5): A racing game using both a track overlay and a game board.  Player laps are completed by maneuvering a dot around the screen.  The second player dot and the machine-controlled dot serve as a primitive timer, with the machine dot moving across the screen and then bouncing back when it hits the second player dot, which remains in a fixed position.  Laps are tracked on the game board.  Players take turns racing, and the first to pass the finish line on the board wins.

Volleyball (Game Card #7): A ball-and-paddle variant with a volleyball court overlay.  The players must use the English control to arc the ball over the net.

Handball (Game Card #8): Another ball-and-paddle variant with a handball court overlay.  Both players are on the same side of the screen and hit the ball to the white line, which acts as a wall.

Additionally, the light gun developed by Harrison was released as a separate accessory that came with four games using two additional game cards and sold for $24.99.  The games are:

Prehitoric Safari (Game Card #9): The overlay features ten different targets.  One player lines up the dot on a target, which the other player tries to hit with a single shot.  Each player takes fifteen shots, and the one with the most hits wins.  A variant gives different point values for different targets.

Dogfight! (Game Card #9): The overlay features a flight path.  One player maneuvers the dot along the path, while the other attempts to shoot it.

Shootout! (Game Card #9): The player-controlled spot is an outlaw that must traverse a set path through a western town overlay, pausing at each window long enough to give the other player a chance to shoot him.

Shooting Gallery (Game Card #10): The overlay contains several rows of standard shooting gallery targets.  The player-controlled spots are placed at either end of the first row of targets, and the machine-controlled spot then moves back and forth between them as the player tries to shoot it.  After ten passes, the sequence is repeated with the next row of targets.  Whoever has the most hits after taking shots at every row of targets wins.

One final game created for the system was held back and given out free to players that mailed in a survey card packaged with the system.  This game, called Percepts, used Game Card #2 and is another racing game in which the overlay contains squares with patterns and symbols on the them.  The players must race to the proper square when a card containing that pattern or symbol is drawn.

Market Performance

Magnavox_Odyssey_Game_Tennis_small

The Odyssey Tennis Game, complete with overlay

The Odyssey initially launched in 25 markets in September 1972, seven more than originally planned.  According to Fritsche’s testimony, Magnavox expended considerable effort to increase production capacity and build additional systems based on the favorable feedback gathered during the marketing surveys.  Rather than making these systems available to retailers generally, distribution was restricted to the Magnavox network of dealers that sold the company’s products exclusively.  According to Fritsche, this decision was made by a senior marketing VP who felt that since the Odyssey would be the world’s first video game system, it would draw customers to Magnavox dealers and therefore present an opportunity to sell them a full range of Magnavox products.  Indeed, while the suggested retail price of the system was $99.99, when purchased in conjunction with a Magnavox television set, the price fell to just $50.00.

According to Baer, the launch of Odyssey was supported by a national advertising campaign featuring glossy sales flyers, in-store displays, and national television and radio ads.  A video available at the Pong Story website also shows that the Odyssey was demonstrated on the popular game show What’s My Line? in 1972.  Baer claims that the television commercials featured Frank Sinatra, but no video has surfaced of a Sinatra-led advertisement.  In fact, the only ad that has been discovered, which was on the air by early 1973 at the latest, only features two adults playing several of the games available for the system.  The September 29, 1973 edition of Billboard, however, reported that Magnavox had just negotiated a deal to sponsor a Sinatra television special to promote its consumer products line.  I believe that in this case, Baer is confusing this television special and the associated ad campaigns with Magnavox’s 1972 advertising campaign and that there were no Sinatra-led commercials for the system at launch.

According to Baer, Magnavox ultimately produced 140,100 Odyssey systems in the first year, far more than the originally projected 50,000.  Don Emry, an assistant product planner that joined the Odyssey team in Janaury 1973 after working on the technical documentation for the system the previous year, stated in an interview with the Digital Press that he believes most of the numbers Baer reported are a little high, and he recalls the original production run being closer to 120,000.  Either way, according to Fritsche’s testimony, Magnavox only sold 69,000 units in the first holiday season (he initially says 89,000, but corrects himself during cross-examination), and Emry remembers the warehouse was still full of systems in early 1973.

Why did the system sell so poorly in the first season?  While impossible to say for certain, a number of factors have been identified.  Baer believes price was a major factor, as $100, equivalent to $569 today, represented a significant investment in a new and unproven technology that offered relatively limited game play.  He also points to the limited distribution to Magnavox dealers as a factor, and Fritsche relates in his court testimony that he would have liked broader distribution but was overruled by marketing.  Baer also claims that Magnavox dealers were not properly trained in pushing the additional cartridges, which often remained under the counter unsold.

Baer further believes that Magnavox’s television ads confused customers into thinking the system only worked on a Magnavox television set, but the 1973 ad clearly states that the game will work with any television regardless of brand.  Its possible that an earlier ad in 1972 resulted in confusion and led to a revised ad being aired early the next year, but since no other Odyssey ads from the period have surfaced, this cannot be verified.  Even if Baer is wrong on this point, however, the system was only purchasable from Magnavox dealers as part of a marketing strategy to sell Magnavox TV sets, so even if the ads were not ambiguous, many consumers may well have been left with the impression that the system only worked on Mangavox TVs when they saw it at retail.  In his interview with Digital Press, Emry states that he does not believe Magnavox had an official policy of implying exclusivity, but he concedes its possible that certain dealers could have marketed the system that way to benefit their own business.  Don Emry also points out that sales were actually in line with the original Magnavox projections, so the relatively poor performance of Odyssey in 1972 may have more to do with an over-excited marketing department ordering the production of more systems than the market could actually bear.

According to Baer, Magnavox management soured on the Odyssey after that first holiday season and considered liquidating the remaining stock and exiting the business altogether.  Ultimately, however, modest continuing demand by retailers for additional systems for the 1973 holiday season convinced the company to manufacture a small run of 27,000 additional systems to complement existing back stock.  The result, according to Fritsche’s testimony, was a modest sales improvement to 89,000 systems.  According to Baer, the system was also released internationally for the first time this year and was eventually available in twelve countries: Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Soviet Union, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela.  The international version removed five games (Cat & MouseFootballHaunted House, Roulette, and States) and replaced them with three games sold separately in the United States (SoccerVolleyball, and Wipeout).  (NOTE: According to Pong Story, the console was also released in Mexico) The company also authorized the release of four new games in 1973, two of which were started by the Bradford/Cout team and completed by Don Emry and two that Emry designed completely on his own.  The games were:

Brain Wave (Game Card #3): A complicated strategy game using cards and dice.  Full rules at the Internet Archive.

W.I.N. (Game Card #4):  Players must highlight letters, numbers, and symbols displayed on the overlay with their spot to fill out their “Win card” to win the game.  The player actually renders his dot invisible by touching the other dot on the screen and then has to guess where to move the dot before hitting the reset button to make it appear again.

Basketball (Game Card #8): Another ball-and-paddle variant played using a basketball court overlay.

Interplanetary Voyage (Game Card #12): Unlike other variants, the spot in this game has momentum, so it will continue to move after the player stops turning his dial.  The goal is to complete missions by guiding the spot to planets on the overlay based on instructions contained on mission cards.  The player has only so many “rocket blasts” to reach the planet.

 As reported in the September 22, 1973, of Billboard Magazine, Magnavox decided to stage a massive promotion of its 1974 consumer products line in late 1973 through an unprecedented $9 million advertising campaign highlighted by a sponsored television special featuring Frank Sinatra.  According to Billboard, all of Magnavox’s products benefited from the campaign, and according to Fritsche, sales of Odyssey reached 129,000 for the year (Note: Baer reports 150,000 for the year, but his numbers always appear to be high based on the recollections of others.  Interestingly, in 1975, Mechanix Illustrated stated Magnavox sold only 90,000 systems in 1974.  Magnavox did release the system in several European countries, so its possible that the 90,000 figure represents domestic sales, and the other 40,000 were sold overseas).  According to Baer, Magnavox discontinued the original Odyssey after 1975 and sold roughly 350,000 total systems.  Mechanix Illustrated states that Magnavox planned to sell 100,000 systems in 1975, yet Fritsche, who left Magnavox in the middle of 1975, states that the company planned to sell 210,000 systems that year and was close to reaching that goal already when he left the company.  If his figures are accurate, Magnavox may have sold as many as 500,000 Odyssey systems (NOTE: The context of the testimony implies that these were projected sales of the original Odyssey only.  However, Magnavox did release the Odyssey 100 and Odyssey 200 in 1975 as well, so its possible this projection includes sales of these two systems, which would explain why it is abnormally high compared to other estimates.  Fritsche left the company before Magnavox began selling its newer systems, so it’s also possible that Magnavox cut its targets after he left, perhaps due to retailers cutting orders of the old system when they realized the new system would be a bigger hit.).  Either way, these represent fairly modest sales for a product on the market for four holiday seasons.

So can the system be considered a success?  Baer certainly thinks so, calling it successful on the strength of its sales alone, though he doubts it did much to help Mangnavox’s bottom line when factoring in production and advertising costs and the processing of roughly 40,000 product returns.  Both Bob Fritsche and Don Emry reported that the system was well received by the public, though Emry notes that the overproduction of the system hampered the ability of the Odyssey team to expand the product line.  Historical works tend to take a more negative view.  Kent considers it a failure, but he reports wildly inaccurate sales figures of only 100,000 units over the life of the console.  Phoenix author Leonard Herman also declares it a failure, while Harold Goldberg cites Baer’s sales and costs estimates in All Your Base Our Belong to Us to conclude that the system did not perform well.

In the end, the Magnavox Odyssey cannot really be considered a success.  Though it remained on the market for three years, sales remained modest, and Magnavox provided little support to the product team.  No new games were created after 1973, and according to Emry plans for both a cheaper version of the console with fewer games and a four-player variant had to be shelved when Magnavox declined to expand the product line.  Baer, too, noticed a lack of interest on the company’s part to improve the system: when he took it upon himself to create an add-on that would add sound to Odyssey games, it was turned down.

The console also failed to spur a larger adoption of video games in the home.  According to Pong Story, two consoles that largely cloned the Odyssey were manufactured in Europe, the Overkal in Spain in 1973 and the Kanal 34 in Sweden in 1975, while a clone called the Telematch appeared in Argentina, but these systems were produced only in extremely limited quantities.  No other company attempted to enter the home market until 1974, and home videos games did not really take off until 1975.  This boom resulted from better technology and the popularity of arcade games rather than any success on the part of Magnavox with the Odyssey.

Still, the Odyssey remains an important milestone for being the first designed and patented device that met the original technical definition of a video game, that is an interactive game played through use of a video signal transmitted to a television, as well as being the first video game system released for the home.  It also played a crucial role in the evolution of the video game industry greatly out of proportion to its commercial success after Nolan Bushnell and his cohorts at Syzygy Engineering built on Ralph Baer’s concepts to create the first video game to take the United States by storm: Pong.