On September 19, 2012, I had the pleasure of speaking with a genuine Odyssey² veteran over the phone: Jay Rogers, who worked as a plastics designer for Magnavox in the late '70s and early '80s. Jay was part of the approximately ten-person design team responsible for the Odyssey² mainframe's physical shape, and he also helped design The Voice of Odyssey².
Jay's a friendly, expressive guy who is genuinely shocked by, but proud of, the enduring interest in the machine he helped design so many years ago. Our conversation was not exactly an interview, but he was kind enough to answer a number of my questions and share many stories from his time at Magnavox. I took notes and have organized them into general topics. Each one will be of interest to Odyssey² fans. Ever wonder why O2 cartridges have handles? Now you can find out!
Jay is a professional plastics designer who originally hails from Indiana. He worked at the Magnavox consumer electronics division in Fort Wayne, Indiana, before being transferred to Tennessee when operations were moved to Knoxville. Jay explained that Magnavox had a plastics plant in Ashville, North Carolina. Among other duties, Jay's group was tasked with evaluating plastics produced by the plant. Magnavox reasoned that it would be cheaper to move the consumer electronics division to a closer location rather than continually paying to shuttle product and personnel between Fort Wayne and Ashville. Also, labor was cheaper in the Knoxville area. So, Magnavox offered to pay for some Fort Wayne employees to move, which included footing the bill for their home closing costs. In return, the employees signed a contract agreeing to stay in Knoxville for a specific length of time.
Jay was one of the first employees to make the Knoxville move. He recalls working by himself in a room on the second floor, before windows had even been installed in the building. He stayed until his contracted period was up – sometime in 1981 or 1982 – and then moved back to Indiana. He was in his early twenties during his tenure at Magnavox.
An important fact about the Magnavox of this era, which is often forgotten by those raised on their projection TVs and video-disc players, is that the company was an important defense contractor that produced numerous products for the United States Armed Forces. Naturally, security is of prime importance in defense work. While Jay never worked for the defense group, he distinctly remembers the culture of extreme secrecy that pervaded the entire company, extending even into the consumer division. This emphasis continued even after the consumer group moved to Knoxville while the defense group remained in Fort Wayne.
Security was extremely tight at Magnavox. There were armed guards on the premises. People from different departments were generally not allowed to communicate. The O2 plastics designers did not talk to the game programmers and barely knew their names, if even that much. Even Jay's boss – Vice President of Engineering Arnold Corti (sp.?) – did not have clearance to enter the area where Jay worked. Only critical personnel were allowed in, and the VP ran too many departments to have critical production-level knowledge.
Jay had little contact with the programmers. He believes that most of them were freelancers, although he confirms that Sam Overton, who programmed most of the early sports games, was an in-house employee. Jay and the others in his group were "kept in the dark" about the development process. He believes that Magnavox was afraid of the designers and programmers getting together because they might have taken their expertise and knowledge elsewhere. In retrospect, perhaps this fear was justified; Atari would face stiff competition in the next few years from Activision and Imagic, companies founded by ex-Atari developers. All the Magnavox designers had to sign non-disclosure agreements in front of the company attorneys. Their payment for signing was a $100 check – mostly to legally prove that they'd signed. Of course if someone refused to sign, they could be fired.
Even though the plastics designers weren't allowed to communicate with the developers, they played a crucial evaluation role for the games. Jay's group worked as play testers for the prototype programs. "Many days all we did was play games," he said. The plastics designers would receive prototype chips so they could design the cartridge board. Then they'd spend two to five days playing the game. Afterward they would fill out a five-page form evaluating the game, specifying what they liked, what they didn't like, how good the graphics were, and so on. This form would be forwarded to the programmers so that the games could be adjusted. The paperwork provided a way for the two teams to work disconnectedly; again, there was no direct communication.
The design team of which Jay was a part was responsible for the plastic molding of the Odyssey² mainframe. Naturally the team worked within some constraints provided by Magnavox management, and Jay indicated that he wasn't entirely happy with some aspects of the product. "I didn't like the mechanical design," he said. "I thought it was hokey-looking." In particular he doesn't like the Mylar overlay atop the keyboard. The console's silver coloring also was not the designers' idea. That was dreamed up by the Marketing department.Jay's team also designed the printed circuit boards that went in the game cartridges. In the early days, they also designed the cartridges themselves. "We had many meetings about the best design of the cartridge," he explained. Durability and longevity were major concerns. The cartridges would mostly be used by children of course, and children can be rough with their toys. Much thought was given to how to reduce wear on cartridges that were likely to be inserted and pulled out of the console many times. The cartridge design went through many revisions. At first it was straight, then angled. They changed the thickness of the gold plating on the cartridge contacts. They added a spring-loaded metal tray because they found the circuit board would be chipped without it. They stress-tested their designs using a machine that inserted and removed the cartridges over and over. They tried to figure out how often a cart would be inserted and removed, estimating something like 25 times a day, multiplied by 365 days a year. They needed to find a cartridge, board, and contact design that could stand up to that kind of wear.
In the early days they had trouble with the circuit board swelling when it got hot. The swelling required extra force to pull the cartridge out, which would strip the metal contacts. And this is why Odyssey² cartridges have handles. Having no handle was a "disaster" according to Jay. Without one, the cartridge was "cumbersome to get in and out," and certainly not good for children. At one point the designers thought of giving the cartridges a "stub" or a knob but rejected that idea because it could be broken off. So what inspired the U-shaped handle design that makes Odyssey² cartridges so distinctive? It was a bathroom towel rack! One of the designers (not Jay) went to the bathroom and almost fell, but saved himself by grabbing a towel rack. Designers know a good idea when they hear it, so five guys went to the bathroom and checked out this lifesaving bathroom fixture. The idea for the cartridge handle's shape was born.
Jay's group also designed the plastic molding for The Voice module. "That was a nightmare," he says. Circuitry to synthesize vocal tones was primitive at the time, so it was a huge struggle to "tune it so the voice was understandable and clear." As Jay recalled, the engineers would tune it one way and it would sound like Mickey Mouse, and then adjust it again only to have it come out sounding like the devil. They went through many iterations where they'd present The Voice to the president to see if he approved of the tone before settling on the vocal sounds we have today.
Jay was able to shed some light on one particular mystery surrounding The Voice. Its non-mechanical phrases (such as "Amazing!" and "Come on, turkey! Hit it!") are indeed the voice of a real person. Unfortunately, Jay does not remember his name. However, Jay does recall that the real voice of Odyssey² worked in the model shop, where early plastic models for prototypes and design proofs were produced. To find the most pleasant voice, Magnavox passed a tape recorder around to the different departments and had employees record themselves saying different phrases. The unnamed model-shop employee sounded the best, and his voice was forever immortalized in this favorite O2 peripheral.
According to Jay, it was no secret within Magnavox where the idea for K.C. Munchkin came from. "When you look at it, it's Pac-Man!" he said. Jay commented that it was like Magnavox was "daring" Atari to sue. "In the lab, we knew what was going to happen," he said, referring to the infamous lawsuit brought against Magnavox's parent company, Philips. "We had a president with ego then," he said. In Jay's opinion, multinational Magnavox/Philips may have felt so much bigger than Atari that the Pac-Man licensor wouldn't take them on in court. Of course we all know how that turned out.
Jay's work for Magnavox wasn't limited to the Odyssey²; he also worked on other projects such as the Star projection TV system. Jay is still working as a designer today, and is employed by one of the leading producers of devices in the cable and satellite TV industries. However, he never worked on video games since leaving Magnavox in the early 1980s. "I'm not a gamer," he said, claiming to have never played a video game since the Odyssey² days. Still, he's proud to have been a part of an important era of video game history and to have worked on something that touched so many people. "That was fun," he said, "It was the beginning."
At the time, nobody at Magnavox had any idea just how huge video games would become. "I never thought it would last," Jay said several times, referring to the whole phenomenon of video games in general and to the Odyssey² in particular. He was absolutely shocked that many people still remember the O2 fondly over 30 years later. Certainly Magnavox would never have expected it. When I suggested that Magnavox didn't really take Odyssey² seriously, he quickly agreed. Jay stated "they treated it like a fad" and didn't invest enough money or resources in it. Jay's comments confirm once again that Magnavox had little interest in video games and the only reason they stayed in the market at all was because Atari had proven so successful. Jay summed up the company's attitude: "Atari's doing OK with it... we'll try it."
Jay saved many design blueprints (on E-sized paper) from the O2 era but sadly, when he took them out of storage at my request, he found that they had all completely faded. None of them were salvageable. All he has left from his days at Magnavox is the Odyssey² console and stack of games that his kids grew up playing. Despite the fact that he helped design The Voice module, he never got one! "I didn't want it [at the time]," he said, "I can kick myself now." Over a dozen of his games are unlabeled copies of prototype chips in cartridges that he built himself, but all of them are titles that were later commercially released – mostly early sports titles.
I'd like to thank Jay for taking the time to talk to me and share so many stories from the early days. I certainly enjoyed talking to him and I'm sure others reading this will find it as interesting as I did.