The Exidy Experiment
Portrait of a Feisty and Futuristic Independent
In a business world dominated by conglomerates, the existence of a small independent is unusual. But when that independent happens to be one of the prime movers in its industry, there has to be something special about it.
“We are a privately held company,” says President Pete Kauffman, “and with good reason. Sales and expansion are nice to have, but to give up control and flexibility isn’t worth it. We can have more fun making games our way than we could otherwise. As long as we keep our internal controls, we’ll get only as big as we have to.”
Director of Market Analysis Arlen Grainger quietly agrees. “Not only are we small, we’re the only small company that does its own research and development. We don’t go to Japan for licenses or new products, we rely on in-house talent.” Grainger adds, “Our small size also makes it possible to respond immediately to changes in the market, right down to making modifications or advancements on models we’re about to ship. The fact that we’ve been around for eleven years is attributable to our ability to capture the vital, inventive people required to keep a small operation alive.”
Exidy has had remarkable success capturing a vital percentage of arcade players as well. They did this, in the beginning, with innovative games like Video Pinball, Robot Bowl, Circus, and Tailgunner 2. However, their biggest success of the early years was with the controversial Death Race, a followup to their Destruction Derby romp.
The object of both games was to run things over with your video car. In Death Race, the quarry was people.
“It sold a lot of units because of the controversy,” Grainger recalls, “but we all thought it was kind of laughable. It was so cartoony we never thought anyone would take it seriously.”
Exidy took pains to refer to the figures as “Gremlins,” but the dark humor came through in gameplay where, when the player mowed down a pedestrian, it would change into a cross-marked grave. Gremlin or not, Death Race remains the Rabelais of videogaming. Luckily for Exidy’s corporate image, Death Race wasn’t the only high point of their early history. Star Fire was one of the first space war games, as well as one of the first sit-down units. More recently the company produced Targ, a novel grid-race game in which players try to outrun ominous Spectar ram-mobiles, and the treasure hunt Venture. All of these games offered players something new in gameplay or hardware, reflecting Kauffman’s bias toward innovation. His ambitions for the field are evident in the choice of a name for his company: EXcellence In DYnamics.
“It’s easy to say that you’re going to make the finest games in the field,” he admits, “but we’ve been able to pursue that goal. I think the best way to do that is by establishing the right working conditions for our staff. We challenge our people, of course. But apart from our employees enjoying the work itself, one of the things we do is hold in-house contests to brainstorm new games. There are cash rewards for creators, money which is often greater than an employee’s salary.
“Another program we have is to set aside ‘X’ number of dollars per game, money which goes into a profit sharing plan to be divided up among the employees.” He notes with great satisfaction, “That’s one reason we’ve got people who come to work in the morning and stay until midnight. It’s the reason a small company like ours can get a lot done in a short period of time.”
Because the company is preoccupied with trailblazing, one is initially surprised to find their much-ballyhooed Pepper 2 something of a Pac-Man variation. There is, however, a good reason for the similiarity. Grainger, who was one of the originators of the attraction, walks us through a game.
“Let’s begin by noting that it’s different from any other game in that you play on the maze rather than inside the walls,” he explains. “As your character, a little fellow with a halo, passes over the path, it’s zipped up. If you cross any section you’ve already traversed, you unzip it. All the while, there are ‘Evil Eyes’ and a ‘Whipper Snapper’ chasing you and unzipping your handiwork.
“Then there’s the aggressor mode,” Grainger continues. “There are territories marked by a pitchfork with a halo around it. If you reach them, you enter an energized state. Your own halo is replaced by horns and the hunted becomes the hunter.”
Grainger defends the superficial resemblance to Pac-Man by stating that, “Videogames are a technological extension of the human. By responding to what colors, sights, patterns, and sounds affect players, we can begin to make games that will, in essence, force people to have fun. Where we adapt some of those qualities, it’s only to expand upon them in our own games.” He laughs in response to a query about this process being akin to mind control. “No,” he assures Videogaming Illustrated, “it’s all part of a very complicated theory of learning, one which involves sensory input as the key to making one’s body and mind work in unison.”
Kauffman elaborates. “All good games have some sort of biofeedback. We simply shape that, and in the projects we’re preparing for the future you won’t find anything resembling a ‘me too’ game.”
In terms of the future, Kauffman sees the industry headed in several fascinating directions. “It’s going to remain a fairly large industry, though I see it going through a leveling-out period. So many people jumped in, unprepared, and they’re dying out now. Looking ahead a few years solely in terms of technology, there might be electromechanical, 3-D, or more interactive games in the future — in other words, hardware to support the fresh and original ideas which the best of the companies will continue to produce.”
“What an arcade game will be,” Grainger asserts, “is like dropping into your favorite cartoon. You’ll be able to participate more fully and feel more acutely any and all effort, achievement, and reward. It’s going to be an extraordinary experience.”
Exidy’s headquarters in California may be surrounded by the over four-dozen buildings which house Atari’s operation, but Kauffman’s small company is pushing as hard as any to see that the limits of videogame technology are tested to their utmost. Above all, he insists, “I’m convinced that as long as videogame creators have as much fun originating games as others do playing them, there is no limit to what the field can do.”