Cover Story (April 2009)

When Incredible Technologies (IT) decided to exhibit its new game--Golden Tee Golf--at the Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA) International Expo back in September 1989, the company was stymied. After all, Golden Tee was only available as a kit, and IT had no dedicated cabinets to demonstrate the groundbreaking product.

So, working with Grand Products, IT made two dedicated units. According to IT's Marketing Vice President Scott Morrison, IT needed to make sure that the monitor was tilted at an angle so players wouldn't jam their fingers.

"They actually created a cabinet that allowed for an upright monitor, or one that was tilted," he said. "It was very innovative for the time. Dave Marofske and his team at Grand Products did a great job of creating a cabinet that was both attractive and functional."

Today those two cabinets have become a part of the rich lore of Golden Tee. To help celebrate the game's 20th anniversary during last year's Golden Tee World Championship held at the Las Vegas Hilton, 350 competitors were treated to the first public display of "Old '89" (as she's affectionately called in IT's offices) since that first show 20 years earlier.

"We wanted to give the players a real treat, so we shipped the game to Las Vegas," Morrison said. "It was a pretty emotional moment when CEO Elaine Hodgson and Game Development Vice President Larry Hodgson pulled the cover off the old game. The players were stunned too--clearly it was difficult for them to comprehend that the state-of-the-art game they know and love today was once so simple and unsophisticated."

And the one constant that hasn't changed in 20 years? The trackball. "1989 or 2009--our players know what to do to play the game," he said.

1996: IT's first dedicated cabinet

When the factory decided to bring Golden Tee back in 1996, the cabinet housing the game took on added importance. With the advent of the International Tournament System--the first commercially successful out-of-home tournament network--the company was concerned about the literally hundreds of different cabinets in the field.

According to IT's Co-Founder and Executive Vice President Richard Ditton, the company determined that the fairest way to run the tournament was to allow play only on dedicated tournament cabinets.

"No one had ever conducted an online tournament system before, and we were worried about legalities," he said. "We didn't want players complaining that they were at a disadvantage because of the configuration of the cabinet they played on. So we made it mandatory that tournament operators use a dedicated cabinet."

That ubiquitous tournament cabinet, with its yellow scrolling LED topper, went on to become an iconic symbol in bars across the U.S. and around the world. 

As Golden Tee grew in popularity, operators began buying dedicated cabinets for offline and non-tournament locations as well. This was a shock to company management.

"Our core business was designing games and selling kits," Ditton said. "But our hardware and engineering team was the best in the business, and with the assistance of Grand Products we manufactured the sturdiest and most attractive cabinet on the market. Nearly 100,000 dedicated cabinets--with our familiar swoosh side panels--were sold from 1996 to 2005 as Golden Tee exploded in popularity."

2000: Hard drives and card readers

When Golden Tee Fore! was introduced in 2000, there was discussion of changing the cabinet design. With the hardware change from a chip-based system to one where the game was stored on a hard drive, this new technology enabled the game's designers to offer the player more features and a deeper, more compelling entertainment experience. 

"Players were demanding more, especially higher resolution graphics," Ditton said. "And with Fore's superior hardware, the only thing holding us back was the low-resolution monitors that were the norm with the 3D platform. As much as we hated to, we offered a 3D to Fore! conversion kit because of the thousands of 3D cabinets out in the field. We had to support our operators--even if it broke our hearts to see this beautiful new game on those old monitors."

The other obvious change was the addition of a card reader. Golden Tee Fore! was the first coin-op video game where every game could be online. No longer was the online experience limited only to tournament competition. Statistics, averages, handicaps--all this became possible when the game was connected to IT's servers through an ordinary phone line.

And players ate it up, and demanded more. Larry Hodgson knew that players needed a quick and easy method of identification if the system was going to thrive.

"We couldn't have players fumbling with the trackball and buttons inputting names and Social Security numbers before every game," he said. "So we created a player card that enabled the player to make a quick swipe and head straight to the first tee. 

This was a defining moment in the evolution of Golden Tee. Now our players were connected to the game in a more intimate manner. They could access information about the game when they were at home or the office. The Golden Tee Gold Card--and the card reader--were directly responsible for the formation of our player community."

2005: Dual monitors, wireless connectivity, and a vault

With the release of Golden Tee LIVE in 2005, technology advances again provided the impetus for a cabinet change. Wireless connectivity and the instantaneous sending of game play data after each hole allowed every game to be a tournament game--whether it was for cash or just bragging rights. 

This important new feature forced the company to develop a new means of displaying leaderboards and alerting players to their order of finish. Simply adding more screens after each game and to the attract mode was rejected as being too unwieldy. 

"The rich new features of LIVE brought new levels of depth to Golden Tee," Larry Hodgson said. "And we didn't want to bog the player down any more than was necessary. So we solved the problem by adding the second monitor. Now within minutes of a player finishing a game, he could see the results on the upper monitor without having to scroll through screens on the main monitor. It also freed up the machine for more game play."

The new cabinet made its debut at IT's Golden Tee LIVE Operator Summit in November 2004. The attendees, most of them savvy industry veterans, were astounded. Other than the ever-present trackball, and the iconic side wings swoosh, nothing was the same. Gone was the traditional curved cathode ray tube (CRT) that required a protective tempered-glass screen, and in its place a sleek, 27-inch hi-resolution flat-screen monitor.

To protect the game's receipts, the traditional coin door (and its ugly security bar) was replaced with an innovative money vault that was attractive, accessible, and secure. Inside the cabinet was a new operating system with state-of-the-technology hardware. The designers even added a rubber bumper to the control panel.

"We're very proud of the Golden Tee LIVE deluxe cabinet," Hodgson said. "It's nearly a perfect melding of form and function, and it's served operators and players very well for nearly five years. But stylistically and functionally it's more like Old '89 than it is a product of the 21st century. We knew that it would be the last of the species."

2009: We live in a high-definition world

When IT released the 20th anniversary edition of Golden Tee in the fall of 2008, the company shocked the amusement industry and the entertainment world by debuting the update in a radically designed new cabinet. The Showpiece(tm) cabinet was unlike any other production cabinet ever made. The trackball was there--surrounded by the familiar playfield--but other than the vault, nothing else was the same. The most glaring difference was the lack of a monitor.

The lack of a monitor?

As far back as 1999, CEO Elaine Hodgson was convinced that the traditional upright cabinet's days were numbered. Since the advent of coin-op video games, the upright cabinet's main responsibilities were housing and protecting the monitor. In fact, arcade games were all about protection. 

"Think about it," she said. "The machine was located in an entertainment venue, and was designed to attract the public. So we had to protect the money that went in--the monitor, and all the internal equipment--from thieves and vandals. All of that protection was counter-productive to the entertainment experience. 

Today we live in a high-definition world, where bigger is better, and realism reigns. It's still our responsibility as entertainment providers to create compelling games, and to present them to our players in a form that's both functional and attractive, but it's clear that today's players are not motivated to stick their heads in a box to play a game with fuzzy graphics."

She challenged her team to develop a cabinet that would connect with an external monitor.

At home gamers employ large screen high-definition TVs on which to play their console games. They connect their Wii, Xbox, and PlayStation units to them. The big screen, high-definition experience is now so ingrained and so overwhelming in this generation of gamers that we shouldn't expect them to accept something less when they are out of their homes. 

"The amusement industry needs to conform to the player's world view of gaming. A tiny monitor with blurry graphics is obsolete today. That's why we developed the Showpiece cabinet," Elaine Hodgson said.

Big screen TVs: affordable and adaptable

Two important developments made the move to a monitor-free cabinet possible: the cost and flexibility of big screen TVs.

"The prices of high-definition, large screen TVs have come down so far that anyone can afford them," said Vice President of Engineering Steve Jaskowiak. "When operators shop at local electronics retailers, they get great pricing, a solid warranty, and no shipping costs. What once cost thousands of dollars can now be purchased for hundreds."

Nearly as important as price is the ability to purchase the right monitor for the right location. According to Matt Randazzo, IT's Senior Mechanical Engineer and Showpiece Project Manager, the Showpiece cabinet and its integrated stand can handle any size monitor from 32-inches to 52-inches. 

"Most operators are using 42-inch and 46-inch flat panels, and they look fantastic," he said. "The game play experience is optimal with these sizes, and players just love them."

Early adopters are having great success with the Showpiece. When comparing revenues, the Showpiece outperforms the traditional upright cabinet.

"I'm using 46-inch Sonys with my Showpieces," said Bill Westerhaus of Pioneer Vending in Cincinnati. "It costs a bit more, but I think it's worth it. My Showpieces earn 20-percent more than my uprights, and eventually all of my top locations will have them. We believe in Golden Tee and this new cabinet."

Westerhaus is not alone in his praise. Reports of Showpiece cabinets earning double their upright counterparts are not uncommon. 

Where do we go from here?

Smaller. Faster. Easier. More personal. 

As technology advances, so will video game cabinets. The Showpiece--as radical as it appears today--may one day be looked upon as nostalgically as we do its ancestor of 20 years ago. 

In order to stay meaningful and relevant in the bar environment, video games in particular, and the amusement industry as a whole, need to adapt and change and embrace the opportunities that technology provides. 

IT's Scott Morrison made this observation: "Nobody questions if games should be online anymore. It's been proven that the online versions of games--like Golden Tee Golf and Silver Strike Bowling--earn more than their offline counterparts. And now the same holds true for the cabinet and monitor. We need to keep up with the times, or we run the risk of becoming irrelevant."

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