June 1985. Having just brought my first major software venture, Business Solutions Inc., to a graceful landing after a four year thrill ride, I was looking for something to do. I took my two boys to Planet Photon in New Jersey where people were leaping around in the dark shooting light guns at each other. At $6.00 for a ten minute romp, the lines were unbelievable.
A week later I got a call from a guy I knew who asked what I could do with $50,000. He knew what I did with my previous venture and wanted to help me roll the dice again.
I looked into setting up a Planet Photon franchise on Long Island. The cost was steep. It was New York and the number of licenses and bureaucrats who have to be bribed was staggering – assembly permits, UL inspections, town approval, county approval, satte approval. And then there was insurance. A bunch of crazies leaping around over barriers in the dark was a liability lawyer’s dream come true.
I wondered if I could simulate an arena with computers in networked chambers. I could create fancier weapons, vehicles, shields, and like that. My boys were nine and eleven years old. I asked what they thought. They thought armed hovercraft and invisibility shields were a lot more fun than financial planning software. Chambers of MUON was born.
1985 was years before first-person shooter games became popular. I got started using the original Amiga 1000 computer with 256KB of RAM and no hard disk. I needed to network six of these machines together at a time when network technology would have cost thousands. So I whipped up a simple protocol and used $3 adapters to let six Amigas listen in on instructions from a seventh Amiga that managed the party line.
I built a chamber in my basement out of particle board and acrylic – seven feet tall, four feet deep, and thirty inches wide. The interior was upholstered with black automobile carpet. Players hoisted themselves up into a darkened cavity with their face a few inches from a computer monitor. The rest of the world disappeared.
My first experiment was to output a sine wave from the Amiga through a fifty watt amplifier and twelve-inch woofer aimed at the player’s kidneys. I set the software to ramp up from 5 Hz to 20,000 Hz, got inside the chamber, closed the Plexiglas door, and pressed a joystick button to start the sound.
At first I couldn’t so much hear the sound as feel it. The frequency increased and different parts of the chamber and then different parts of my body began to resonate. About a third of the way up I realized I had no idea what was about to happen and leaped out of the chamber just in time to see some nuts holding the door start to turn.
Essentially I had created a giant speaker box with a player standing inside it. The sound was so intense I could remove a player’s fillings if I wanted. Cool.
Next I needed a virtual battlefield. I decided on a maze. I needed to put something in that maze. I sketched a hovercraft. It was a seat atop two horizontal cylinders that might pass for weapons or engines. I added a helmeted pilot and began working on making it move through the maze with first person perspective.
I was debugging software a couple of weeks later when my wife said we had a problem. Vincent’s third grade teacher wanted a conference. We met his teacher. She said, “I’m afraid Vincent’s imagination is getting a bit out of hand. I asked my students to write a sentence describing what their fathers did for work. Look.”
She handed us a piece of paper that said in crude block letters, MY DADDY BUILDS SPACESHIPS IN THE BASEMENT.
I said, “There may be a problem – but it’s not Vincent’s.”
My brother-in-law, an avid gamer, had grown weary of performing life-support for trailing edge mainframe technology for a large software company. I invited him to join me and help refine MUON while I concentrated on building chambers. He accepted.
Chambers of MUON was a team sport. I needed to build six simulation chambers and a control station. There was simply no room to do that in my basement. I rented a 1200 square foot unit in a factory complex. I began cutting particle board in earnest and a month later had six seven-foot tall cabinets arranged three facing three.
A month later we had our first test play. It was a Saturday night. I partitioned off a twenty by thirty foot play area in the factory with black fabric and hung red lights, black lights, and plastic tubes edge-lit with hidden Christmas lights. A few neighborhood kids showed up and we let them play each other for a couple of hours noting the comments, what they liked, what they didn’t understand.
We repeated the test play the next Saturday. Forty kids showed up asking to play. Word of mouth.
The next week I announced that the seventy kids who show up could play as much as they wanted at a cost of $2 each for a six minute simulation. We run the machines until 2:00 in the morning before kicking the last kids out. We had something.
Kids were coming from thirty miles away to have their three-man MUON teams battle each other in our virtual mazes. We continued to add weapons and features like cloaking and transport stations and intercoms so teammates can shout to each other during battles. I made an observation area with an overhead monitor and benches to hold fifty kids. For four hours every Saturday evening kids lined up for a six minute adrenaline rush. The test plays are bringing in $72 an hour.
My son Joseph has a bright idea and starts selling candy from a pass-through window between our front office and the play area. The first test play he sold twenty Hersey bars in a half hour making a $10 profit. Next week he returned with sixty candy bars – a $30 profit in the same half-hour. Within a few weeks he added pizza and soda to his menu and was earning over $100 in profit from a single test play. He made enough to pay his friends to tend the cash box while he fought his way to notoriety as the dreaded DAZUMA.
One evening DAZUMA’s team was dominating the play with an unbroken string of victories. The crowd watched the overhead monitor as Vincent’s team entered the chambers. DAZUMA against MIK. Brother against brother. The simulation began.
MIK and his teammates had planned a surprise attack. They sped to key locations in the maze, stopped, and cloaked themselves. Their strategy worked. DAZUMA’s team zipped through the hallways looking for their opponents without success. MIK waited until he was looking at DAZUMA’s back. He uncloaked and fired, fired, fired! Shields were down, one more hit and… DAZUMA was sent back to his home base with a ten second penalty to recharge. The room went wild.
The game ended and MIK’s team was victorious. The crowd erupted. Invincible DAZUMA had been defeated.
The expression of victory on Vincent’s face couldn’t have been any more intense if he had clubbed a mastodon. Punching the air, his scream was feral.
To a normal person that may seem like a horrible thing. But to a game developer, it was mother’s milk. We captured something visceral in our design – something that gave expression to ancient instinct and emotion. We had a prototype system with real possibilities.
We needed capital to set up actual play arenas, properly tool chamber production, turn our little factory demonstration center into a real business. The east coast distributors for Bally arcade machines paid us a visit one afternoon. They were two partners who supplied most of the video games for arcades from Maine to Florida. We put them in chambers, turned on the lights, cranked up the system, and started a simulation.
I maneuvered my craft to their location in the maze and fired a shot at each of them. I heard one of them shout Jesus! when my shot turns into a booming crash in his chamber. A few minutes later the simulation ended. One of them asked, “How do you make it move?”
“You use the joystick on the right for navigation,” I said.
“No. How does the chamber move?”
How does the chamber move? “What do you mean?”
“I felt the chamber moving. I was spinning around, getting dizzy. I don’t see any mechanism. How does the chamber move?”
I said we did it with sound. There were little directional speakers in the chambers in addition to the big woofer. The inside of the chamber was black. You had no visual cues about where you were except the monitor. The software made sounds that spin you, shake you. We could hit the resonant frequency of your kidneys, your stomach, your throat, your eyeballs. It was all done with sound.
They were sold. They order a test system for an arcade at Echelon Mall in New Jersey. $60,000 for six chambers and a control booth. Our manufacturing cost was about $10,000. If the test was successful they’d order four hundred more – $24 million. And that was just the east coast.
The next day I loaded up my station wagon with particle board and started cutting. Each chamber consisted of twenty irregularly shaped pieces of particle board. The dust raised was staggering. I joked that I was one-third particle board by weight. It took a couple of week’s worth of cutting, gluing, and screwing but we finally had six raw chambers. Next came upholstering, wiring, and installing computers and amps and woofers and monitors and a dozen other components.
A few weeks later we rented a truck and drove the chambers to Echelon Mall. The video machines at the arcade were in full swing – beeping and booping and whamming and bamming us into a stupor. In that setting we hauled the chambers into place, put up a framework to darken our space so the red lights and black lights and multicolored plastic tubes could be seen.
Joseph and Vincent helped test out the equipment. It worked. A few curious passersby paid their $2 and tried a simulation. And then a few more and a few more. Word began spreading.
A fellow showed up in scrubs. He was in his mid-twenties and worked at a nearby hospital as an aide. He paid his money and tried his first simulation. He chose VIPER as his moniker. At the end of six minutes he was hooked.
Within a few days VIPER was spending $40 a day playing MUON – nearly $300 a week. He seemed to be there when the arcade opened in the morning and when it closed in the evening. It appeared that he worked only to earn money for MUON tokens.
To help the test along I bought a motor scooter, a windsurfer with a nice bright sail, and a twelve speed bicycle and mounted them on top of the chambers. We announced that we’d hold a day long tournament at the end of the month with the three highest scoring players winning those prizes. The response was ferocious.
Tournament day came and the contestants lined up. I brought DAZUMA, MIK, and their friend SPYDER as well. I told them they could play but they had to make sure they didn’t win a prize.
VIPER and his team entered the chambers. A team of three first-time players opposed them. The simulation began with the usual ramp up sound. Six minutes later it wasn’t a big victory, but the newbies defeated VIPER’s team. VIPER stormed out of his chamber cursing. “It’s fixed. It’s a scam!”
For all his time in the chambers, VIPER was a lousy player. He couldn’t move well, couldn’t aim, and got flummoxed the first time anyone else fired at him. When he calmed himself I slipped him three free tokens for a replay.
He eyed me suspiciously but took the tokens and got back in line. A half-hour later VIPER’s team was up. I motioned to Joseph to come to the control station. “You’re up against VIPER,” I whispered. “Make sure he wins.”
Joseph nods. He took a chamber and logged in as DAZUMA. The battle began. DAZUMA materialized in his home base. He guided his craft through the maze and stopped three squares away from VIPER. VIPER was facing the wrong way. DAZUMA hovered in place waiting for an attack. None came. VIPER was still waiting for someone, anyone to show up in the hall he was watching. The crowd was shouting Behind you!
DAZUMA fired a single shot at VIPER to get his attention. VIPER spun around. And around and around. The game ended and VIPER’s team had lost. He roared out of his chamber, face red, and stomped out of the arcade.
A half hour later VIPER returned. He recruited a new team member to replace a twelve year old whose mother picked him up from the arcade. He had a look of confidence. He paid for his entire team and I put them on the waiting list.
VIPER’s team was finally ready to go. I called DAZUMA and MIK over and whispered, “Make SURE he wins this time!”
DAZUMA said, “I tried. He’s an idiot. He can’t play.”
I said, “Make sure.”
The teams entered the chambers. The game began. I watched the observation monitor. Once again DAZUMA rushed off to face VIPER. Once again VIPER seemed disoriented and failed to shoot. Then it happened. DAZUMA was hit. His shields dropped a bit, then some more as the second, third , fifth hits took their toll. At last the fearsome DAZUMA faced defeat. One more shot and he’d be transported back to his home base to recover.
There it was. The shot that killed DAZUMA. His hovercraft dissolved – revealing MIK’s hovercraft behind him. MIK has been shooting DAZUMA to boost VIPER’s score. The game ended. Despite VIPER’s lame performance his team had won. That was all that mattered. He leaped out of his chamber high-fiving his teammates. Victory, glorious victory. DAZUMA and MIK exited their chambers doing their best to hide their grins.
All the way home I heard the boys in the back seat saying VIPER in their scariest voices followed by giggles.
It was time to talk business. The Bally distributors kept their own records of revenue from MUON. The six MUON chambers occupied 120 square feet including a center aisle for entering the chambers and a little space behind for maintenance. Dollars per square foot of arcade space was the key measure.
Our competition was the new Ms. Pac-Man. Comparing MUON to Ms. Pac-Man, we only produced about 90% as much revenue per square foot. Our equipment was non-standard, it was harder to repair, and it took longer to install than just wheeling in a Ms. Pac-Man console.
We did a second installation for Fame City in Houston with similar results. No cigar. Fifteen months after my first ride in the basement it was time to bring MUON to a graceful landing. We came so close – so very close. Second place.
About five years later I read on a gaming chat-board that a car full of MUON devotees set out one weekend from Queens to see if they could find the fabled Long Island Chambers of MUON factory. They drove around for a couple of days but of course by then there was no evidence that MUON ever existed.
Well, except for the joystick mounted on a black upholstered armrest that I keep on a shelf next to my violin and other reminders of dreams that might have been.