Bally Sente: Saviour of the Arcades?

The 70s and early 80s arcade industry was cumbersome and wasteful to say the least. Manufacturers like Atari, Williams and Centuri built business models based on the ability to constantly sell new hardware to operators. The release of a new arcade title meant operators and distributors had to buy not only the game itself, but the new cabinet that housed it. The cost of these games was not insignificant.

In theory, the manufacturer got paid for the hardware, the game made a ton of money for the operator, players were hungry for new games, and so the cycle would repeat. But very quickly, the industry realised that the model was not sustainable. With all these cabinets flooding the market, housing games with a shelf life of around six months, what happened to the old cabinets? And as 1983 came around, the quality of arcade games was reducing significantly, but the requirement to keep feeding arcades with expensive new games was still there. With income dropping as arcade footfall reduced, you can start to see the problem that was very much apparent at this time.

Arcades were closing, manufacturers weren’t selling games. The industry was in big trouble. Have a read of my article about GDI from a few months back – it’s a perfect example of what was happening to the industry at this time.

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, who had left the company in 1978 subject to a non-compete clause that kept him out of the video game industry for five years, was sitting in the wings, watching and waiting to make his move.

Bushnell had kept his hand in the video game industry during his exile from Atari via his Pizza Time Theatre company. His Chuck E Cheese restaurant chains coupled video arcade games with pizza – Atari were OK with this, as ironically, Bushnell’s Pizza enterprise would turn out to be a huge buyer of Atari’s arcade games. But the lure of manufacturing and development was clearly something still in his blood; and with the coin-operated arcade market starting to decline, Bushnell saw an opportunity to solve the problem – he believed his solution to the industry’s woes was going to be rather lucrative. Rather than go through the expense, time and effort to set up a new company, he purchased Videa, a company set up by former Atari employees  two years previously, who were having some success developing video games. In the process, Bushnell re-branded the name to Sente.

Just like ‘Atari’, the name Sente, was another reference to Bushnell’s favourite game, Go. Sente literally means “having the initiative.”

Sente was incorporated in October 1983 and was immediately made a division of Pizza Time Theatre Company, with Bushnell placing himself at the new company’s helm.

Sente’s big idea was to turn the arcade business model on its head. In an open letter to the industry Bushnell described his idea:

There is no question that the state of the Coin-Op video game industry is a concern to us all. For some time now I have had to watch from the sidelines as the industry which I helped to create, go from a thriving and profitable business, to one fighting for survival.

All we hear are desperate cries for the next “big” game. One that will “save” the business. The one that will fill up the coin boxes and keep them filled for months. The trouble is that is all a dream. Those days are over. No one game is going to save this business.

What this business needs is a total rethink that begins making some kind of economic sense and provides levels of profitability that will guarantee future stability and growth.

I have a plan that I believe will do this. It’s called the SENTE SYSTEM.

Although not totally unique (Nintendo had already released a similar hardware system), Bushnell’s “total rethink” was revolutionary in many respects. Operators would buy the Sente System up front. Known as the Sente Arcade Computer or SAC-1, the system would be a metal framed arcade cabinet with a polypropylene skin designed to last for years and not just for the short lifespan of the game that it housed.

The games themselves would be on cartridges and would be delivered with interchangeable control panels and artwork. The theory being, when an operator decided a new game was required, instead of trashing his full upright Sente cabinet, a new game could be installed in the SAC-1 in a matter of minutes, by swapping out the control panel, artwork and game cartridge.

Sente called these game kits SAC-PACs, and would contain everything required to swap out games and give players a new reason to come to an arcade and drop quarters. This pre-dated the now popular JAMMA systems that many of you will be familiar with.

Todd Tuckey of TNT Amusements discusses a SAC-1 cabinet in this YouTube video:

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So that was the idea, but what about the financial model? Sente’s proposition was that the operator paid a one-time single fee of $3,195 up front for the Game Frame (the SAC-1 cabinet), and then a low weekly rental cost of just $20 for the games themselves. In return, Sente guaranteed to deliver at least four new game releases every year.

So with the new Sente system, operators were only rotating the software, not the whole game:

On paper, it was a neat idea. Being delivered by none other than Nolan Bushnell to an industry desperate for answers and solutions to the collapsing market they found themselves in, it went down very well. Despite having no hardware or games at that point to show off and with Bushnell positioning himself as the white knight they’d been waiting for, he managed to strong arm distributors into buying into the concept ahead of time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sente had a very successful launch, funded almost entirely by substantial cheques written by buyers who wanted in on this new vision for the arcade industry. By February of 1984, Sente had established a network of some 35 Distributors across America, and orders were flying in.

Things were looking positive, but trouble was brewing. Sente’s parent company was struggling. After operating Sente Technologies for less than five months, Pizza Time Theatre Inc. filed for bankruptcy and the Sente division was put up for sale. Distributors and operators were spooked, and many returned their SAC-1 cabinets to the company fearing that they would be left with an expensive dud with no further games coming down the pipe as promised.

However, Bally Manufacturing stepped in, and purchased Sente for $3.9 million in May 1984, aptly renaming the company Bally Sente.

Bally tried hard to make the concept work and made a number of tweaks. Like Bushnell had done, they kept Sente as a separate division, but were concerned at the cost, size and weight of the SAC-1 cabinet. Before starting up production again under the new company name, a redesign was quickly drawn up, this time made from traditional wooden (and cheaper) arcade materials. SAC PACs would continue to be compatible with both types of cabinet.

Howard Delman, one of Sente’s co-founders, described how this cabinet came about in an interview a few years back:

I can’t recall when we made the cabinet change. I remember that Bally was quite upset with the cost of the original white cabinet. Keep in mind that the Sente concept was based around the idea that the cabinet wouldn’t have to be moved once it was in a location. From that idea was born a cabinet with a steel frame, instead of wood, and plastic sides that could be quickly replaced if damaged or worn. The cabinet was a separate product from the game kits, although each cabinet was sold with one “free” kit of the customer’s choosing. Bally never bought into the convertible game concept, and so features like a robust cabinet were just seen as wasteful. The original Sente white “refrigerator” cabinet, and the subsequent Bally Sente “normal” black cabinet were compatible, as far as the hardware goes. Game kits would fit into either one. Our original intention was to include unique side art in each game kit, but it became clear very quickly that applying a decal to the side of a cabinet was difficult, and not likely to be done. I believe Snake Pit was the only game for which side art was made. Subsequent cabinets went out with generic side art.

A further innovation was developed by Bally Sente, known as SAC MAN:

The SAC MAN system allowed operators to convert old Pac-Man, Galaxian and Ms Pac-Man arcade machines into Sente SAC-1 game systems. A pretty obvious progression from the original Sente idea. Offering operators a way of re-using their old cabinets meant another potential income stream for Sente, and in theory got buyers locked into the Sente business model of renting their games with the promise of new titles in the months and years to come. Further efficiencies were made, with redesigned PCBs that were less expensive to produce compared to the original Sente cartridge design.

According to Wikipedia: “Sente’s games were never huge sellers and releases slowed down considerably as the years passed. Releasing twelve games in 1984 their numbers dropped to less than half that in 1985 (only two games) and picked up slightly in 1986 (five games). Only two saw release in 1987, this proved to be the last year Bally Sente completed any titles”.

But it was ultimately the obvious thing that was to bring an end to Sente: its games were receiving terrible reviews everywhere. As Roger Hector, Sente’s President put it:

What was wrong with the Sente system, is that while everything made sense, the games weren’t any fun to play.

The reality was that Sente found itself in a lose/lose situation. Passion for the product and its concept was strong within the company and the demand was there in theory, but Bally were proving to be tough ringmasters, always primarily focused on profitability and requiring sign off on every decision made and dime spent. Sente were constantly frustrated at their inability to get product out to market and take some risks. Production and game output slowed. Bally themselves had their own problems – they continued to struggle with the harsh realities of the mid-80s arcade environment, and eventually closed down Sente in 1987.

But before we go, it’s worth mentioning the amazing looking SAC-2 cabinet. This ridiculously ambitious system had been in development at Sente for three years and housed a game known as Shrike Avenger. The cabinet itself had a sit-in design, and was packed with technology designed to throw the player around in their seat as they played. It looks spectacular!

Dogged with development problems, the system was becoming something of a millstone around Sente’s neck. Given just six weeks, Owen Rubin (formerly of Atari) was brought in to finish the game started by Jim Turner who had decided to leave the company. While the cabinet and motion control computer were complete and in-game graphics were nearly done, the game itself was unfinished. Rubin got a working game of sorts out of it, and the cabinet was placed out for field testing.

Although very popular during testing (even at an unheard of $1 a game), the hardware turned out to be very unreliable: apparently, one machine’s safety cut-off feature actually failed, resulting in a player narrowly avoiding serious injury after the cabinet toppled over during play.

In any event, Bally deemed the SAC-2 too expensive to produce. Aside from the potential for future lawsuits from injured teenagers, the cost of a SAC-2 cabinet was coming in at $10,000 a piece – some five times more expensive than a typical arcade game. Given the slowdown in the coin operated market at this time, SAC-2 was likely to have a very limited market. Even after the huge costs and effort sunk into SAC-2’s development, Bally pulled the plug and killed the project before it could come to fruition.

Given the size and complexity of the SAC-2, coupled with the fact that only ten of them were made, you would think none would be around today. Incredibly, one turned up on eBay in Germany of all places. Even more bizarre is that it had been converted to house the Sega game G-Loc! Thanks to blog reader Sara Zielinski for this info and these pictures from the auction:

There was also a SAC-3 system in development, otherwise known as The Sente Super System which was actually complete and ready for release in 1987. Based on Amiga Computer hardware, it promised next-generation graphics and games. SAC-3 could be installed in existing SAC-1 and SAC PAC cabinets, and was going to be launched with a title called Moonquake. Sente’s closure during the same year meant the cabinet never made it out of Bally’s factory and onto arcade floors:

So there you have it. Although ultimately a commercial failure, Sente left us with some cool history and a great story to tell. Sente SAC-1 systems are pretty rare beasts, however, if you ever make the trip to The American Classic Arcade Museum in New Hampshire, you will find three of them:

Having played these, I can confirm that the cabinets are awesome in the flesh, and whilst the games leave a lot to be desired, they are quirky enough to warrant play – there is a strange irresistible oddity to them. Do check the Bally Sente SAC-1 system out if you can!

Credit: Bally Sente: Saviour of the Arcades?