The solar company’s bankruptcy was a disenchanting introduction to the legal system. It felt like being in the midst of a feeding frenzy, watching dozens and dozens of sharks thrashing about as they gorged themselves on the remains of the dead company, and once they picked the bones clean, all the attorneys, accountants, and trustees immediately disappeared. No one really seemed to care about helping the innocent creditors. Not the bankruptcy trustee. Not the debtor’s attorneys. Not the attorney for the creditors’ committee and not even the attorney representing all the customers. No one. When my partner and I met with the creditors’ committee’s attorney in his gigantic corner office overlooking the San Diego Bay to discuss ways to help our customers recoup their money, he interrupted our meeting to take a call from another bankruptcy attorney, and they gloated over how much money they were going to make off the misfortune of our customers and the other creditors. I was incensed. I sold my insurance practice and devoted time to trying to help our customers, all to no avail.

Without any income coming in, my partner and I regrouped to find a way to make money using the assets we owned. Microsoft launched the DOS operating system for personal computers that same year, opening up lots of computer programming opportunities. So we started a new venture writing and selling a number of basic computer programs for use on personal computers.

During this time, my partner wrote a computer role-playing game based on Star Trek for our personal enjoyment. Our employees, my partner, and I would usually stay after work to play for a while before we drove home. We enjoyed the game so much that people started quitting work early each day to play the game. So, as the boss, I put my foot down and said, “We either have to find a way to make money with this game or stop playing it during work hours!” Well, everyone immediately said, “Let’s figure out how to make money with it.”

I analyzed the entertainment industry to see if I could learn elements for success. I discovered that the bowling industry struggled until it introduced leagues and tournaments. Another key to success was evoking emotions by immersing the participant in a new environment as the movie industry had done a generation earlier. Laser video discs were a new technology that allowed a viewer to jump to different scenes on the disc. Additionally, there was the possibility of overlaying computer graphics onto the video image. We assembled these ingredients and created the concept of Simutron Tournament Centers, where teams of consumers could play multiuser simulator games against each other. We met with Paramount Pictures and bought the rights to the Star Trek film footage. We then hired a defense contractor who had developed tank simulators using laser discs to produce a commercial version of the game for our new simulator game system. That was how the first laserdisc video game system was born.

Simutron entrance

We built our first facility in a commercial center near San Diego State University. It consisted of three areas: 1) reception, where one would book and pay for play time and other memorabilia; 2) the waiting area, where people could watch instructions and entertainment on a large screen TV or look at individuals in the simulators through portholes in the wall; and 3) the playing area, where combatants would sit in their individual simulators as they played the game with other participants. Two teams would wait until they were called to board their ships. On cue they would walk up a ramp to automatic doors that opened to welcome players into the dark universe where the Enterprise battled Klingons, Romulans, and the unknown perils of space. Cool air blew down on each individual when they walked through the automatic door, making their transition to a new world complete. Track lighting and large conduits overhead led them to the simulators, where they sat in RECARO bucket seats designed for Porsche and other sports car manufacturers.

The new captain of each spaceship sat in front of a control panel that they used to control activity on the computer navigation screen in front of them―like a typical video game―and the film footage on the larger screen above it. Players were able to zoom in or out on their navigation screen for close-up battles, to scan the vicinity, or to view a portion of the broad universe. Another computer screen displayed the user’s allocation of power between shields, warp drive, photon torpedoes, life support, and so on. A third computer screen displayed the status of the ships’ damage. Each simulator contained a camera connected to a closed-circuit video system so players could hail their opponents on their large overhead screen to gloat over the damage they caused or to summons their teammate to plan their attack. This would allow for such dynamic dialogue as: “You dirty rat! You caught me off guard, but just wait. I’ll get my revenge!” or “John, get the %!0*# over here! My warp drive is out, and my shields are down. I’m a sitting duck! I need time for repairs. Hurry!”

The first version of this multiuser game was basically a typical shoot-’em-up video game that matched the wit, skill and strategy of players and teams against each other during their allocated play time. We planned to launch a subsequent territorial conquest version and eventually, a version in which teams would need to conquer planetary systems or explore distant parts of the universe to find clues and resources to build the ultimate weapon to destroy their enemy, all while trying to defend themselves and their resources. This concept would encourage teams to save their games and return week after week to continue their quest to conquer and bring peace to the universe. This was pre-internet as we know it today, but we explored ways to rent satellite time so we could hold tournaments for the championship team from one region to play the champion from another area, and even be able to broadcast the game on television.

Star Trek was not the only game we anticipated creating. Our whole strategy to make this a successful long-term venture was to periodically come out with new multiuser games that would use the same simulator to avoid the costs of constantly replacing hardware. The simulator could just as easily be the inside of a jet, tank, or submarine. The tournament centers would maintain a library of games and laser discs that players could choose from, providing more flexibility than a multiplex movie theater. Our projections indicated that we would be several times more profitable than an arcade based on the same level of price for play time because we avoided the need to make new game consoles each time a game’s popularity waned.

We attracted the attention of hotel magnate Robert Brock, who had invested heavily in opening up a chain of animated pizza restaurants and later acquired the Chuck E. Cheese chain. One day, he brought film director Steven Spielberg with him to discuss our new game system and tour our San Diego facility. I was very pleased that Steven Spielberg was impressed with our venture. He did make one good suggestion: to have the buttons on the instrument panel make sounds when the player made keystrokes in order to engage more senses and enhance the out-of-this-world playing experience. Mr. Brock was interested in placing our facilities in each of his restaurants to expand his market beyond children and their parents.

Grant Hallstrom

Realize that we were doing this at the same time the early video game Pacman came out. We truly were ahead of our time. And that was partially our downfall. The company we hired to program the initial commercial version of our game wanted to use our technology for the military. In subsequent litigation, we discovered a memo from its chairman of the board to several key executives titled “Grant and Brent Architecture,” in which the opening line read that from the very beginning, he felt that our technology would be useful for the military and that their last progress review confirmed it. This memo was written a couple of months before our planned joint release with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with its opening no-win Kobayashi Maru simulator scene. The memo continued to discuss setting up tank simulators at Camp Pendleton in California and another installation at a base in Virginia so the two tank divisions could engage in virtual war games through the satellites and get the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) salivating. At the end of the memo, he told everyone that in light of the sensitive nature of the memo, they needed to “maintain radio silence.”

Delivery of the finished product kept getting delayed. During the Christmas holiday, we planned a private preview and party for our investors and Paramount executives. People flew in from around the country. The day before the preview, we were still waiting for the company to install our game at the facility in San Diego. The first excuse was that they were trying to debug a minor glitch, and then the excuses kept getting more serious throughout the day. Shortly before four o’clock, I told my partner that we needed to call Paramount Pictures and cancel because the executives would likely be going home soon. That was a very difficult and embarrassing phone call. Finally, after midnight, the developers told us they were not going to install anything, but they would show up to meet our investors and discuss our project.

Month after month, we kept waiting while the contractor kept telling us that they would be finished soon. Meanwhile, they knew that we were running out of funds. Unfortunately, in one of our earlier progress reviews, my partner told the contractor how much money we had and our burn rate and demanded to know if we needed to raise more money. They assured us that we didn’t, but they never delivered. We filed suit and closed our company, and on my thirtieth birthday, we auctioned off all our physical assets. I was devastated.

Up to that point, one of my life’s goals was to be a millionaire by age thirty. The stark reality of the situation was as far away from my fantasy as anyone could imagine. We sold our home and rented a house in Escondido. The trauma from the betrayal was so acute that when I paid the cashier at the grocery store, I wondered if she would actually give me the proper change. I realized that this was completely illogical, but emotionally, I still wondered.

Years later, we settled our lawsuit at the mandatory settlement conference just before trial. We were able to get our investors’ money back, and my partner and I chose to receive stock options in the contractor we had hired because they had a $67-million-dollar ($200,000 million in 2022 dollars) contract with the military to use our technology pending resolution of our case. We figured that once we settled, their stock would rise, and we would be able to make money by selling it at a higher price. We were delighted to watch their stock rise as we had planned, until a few months later when they were sued by a large Israeli company for stealing their technology, just as they had ours, and their stock plummeted, never to recover.

At the time, I felt that this whole experience was unjust and a bitter disappoint. Today, I thank God that we were not successful. I was too young and unready to handle fame and fortune. I would not be the person I am today had this venture turned out the way we had planned. I praise God for his wisdom and mercy in protecting me from myself.

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