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  • The loons who developed arcade electromechanical games

    Posted on April 7th, 2011 keving 7 comments

    Hisashi Suzuki was the director of Sega-AM2 (Yu Suzuki was the head of development; Hisashi was the business dude) for much of its existence before retiring in 2004. Before that, though, he spent a couple decades making arcade electromechanical games for Sega through the 1960s and 70s — in fact, he was one of Sega’s first employees, as he explained in an interview published in Famitsu magazine’s Sega Arcade History (2001):

    It was a long time ago; it was 1962. That was before Akira Nagai [managing director of Sega in 2001] joined the company, even. Sega wasn’t Sega at that time; Nagai was the accounting department for Nihon Goraku Bussan, while I had joined Nihon Kikai Seizou, the company that eventually became Sega.

    Why did Suzuki join Sega?

    Really, it was just because they gave me a lot of off days. At the time we were looking for work, pretty much the only companies that had a five-day workweek as a rule were those funded by foreign outfits. Sega had that, and the third Friday of every month was an off day, too; it was just an unthinkable amount of holidays. The company’s work schedule had just changed when I joined in, so everybody left work at 6 pm, and people would get angry at you if you stuck around after that. There was a strict boundary between work and non-work, playaround time and so forth. On the other hand they were extremely serious about being at work on time, even if the trains were all shut down for a strike or whatever. Our salary was cut for whatever amount of time we were late. Since it was a foreign-owned firm, all of the top positions were held by foreigners and all of the internal documents and so forth were written in English. Everything was signed off with signatures instead of hanko, and that didn’t change until Sega joined the CSK family in 1984.

    When I joined Nihon Kikai Seizou, I was working on slot machines and jukeboxes. I designed a lot of slot machines. Japan was not exporting a lot of things at that time yet, so we built a name for ourselves as an exporter back then. After that, we went into the amusement market — starting out, we just purchased used machines from the US and either repaired them or took them apart so we could make copies. Eventually the internals went from relays to transistors and ICs, which then led to Pong, but before then it was all electromechanical machines. It was really fun, that era. There were racing games back then as well, but this was back before there were monitors or anything, so you took a model of a car and projected its shadow on a screen. There were no sound chips, either, so we loaded in an amp, stretched out a spring, and hit with a coil, which would create an explosion sound effect. Every machine we manufactured would sound slightly different.

    How were these things developed, anyway?

    There were development rooms for electromechanical games as well, but the hard part about these games were taking an idea and actually implementing it. With video games, very generally speaking, you can do anything as long as you have the program for it. With electromechanical games, you have to come up with the entire structure. There were lots of things to think about, from efficiency and cost and function to ease of repair. Design and development were two different jobs back then. Development would come up with a concept; they’d just present an idea for the entire function of a machine, and then design would implement it.

    Generally, a software developer becomes a seasoned employee in about three years’ time. Experience is a lot more important with hardware, so that takes five or six years. For electromechanical, that was more like 10 years. Younger people would come up with these bold concepts that would wind up becoming unreliable, breakdown-prone machines. How many millimeters thick should the cabinet’s outer layer be? You’ll never know unless you get experience. If you decide to just make it thick, then the entire machine will weigh far too much. Too thin, and it won’t be durable enough. Even with tabletop machines, you need to know how wide the doors are in an average arcade or else you won’t know how large the machine should be.

    It was a lot of fun, making these machines, but implementing ideas was extremely difficult, and you couldn’t afford to make anything that broke down too easily. With arcade games today, the only things that break are monitors or motherboards, and that’s really not all that often, but Sega needed an army of servicemen to take care of the electromechanical machines. We had to make sure to place all the intricate and delicate parts right nearby the small service door so they wouldn’t have so much work to get the thing apart.