The history of the VideoMaster Star Chess stated with Peter Gebler. Peter was a technical editor for the British magazine New Electronic, one of the most renowned publications on electronics of its time. A graduate of mathematics and physics, and with his experience in electronic design, Peter had managed to create a niche job as a journalist specializing in electronics.
During the summer of 1977, Peter visited a semiconductor company to write a piece and the marketing director made a joke to Peter that with all the privileged information he had access too as a journalist, he could probably come up with a new way to use microprocessors. At the time, the microprocessors were the next step in the evolution of electronic and every company was looking for ways to introduce new technology using microprocessors.
The same night, Peter sat at is kitchen table and tried to come up to a clever way to use microprocessors. The first idea was to use a microprocessor within a synthesizer. He rapidly discards the idea as the microprocessors available at the time were not powerful enough for the idea he had in mind. He then dabbled with the idea of incorporating microprocessors in toys, but the microprocessors were still very expensive. Nobody would want to pay hundreds of dollars for a toy, with one notable exception: video games.
With this revelation, Peter started to develop a video game concept. At the time, most of the video games were dedicated pong console and Peter thought that a fresh take on video games could be a game changer. At the time, the Star Wars film had just been released and even if Peter had not seen it yet, he decided to take inspiration from it. Peter then thought to use Chess as based for the game, but as he was not very proficient at this game, he decided to introduce elements of chance in the game so that the game would appeal to anyone and not only the few who can master Chess. By the end of the night, Peter had managed to define all the rules of the games on 2 hand-written pages.
A few days later while attending a press conference given by VideoMaster, Peter met Derek Martin, the marketing director of VideoMaster. As VideoMaster were one of the only video game companies in the UK at the time, Peter decided to pitch the idea to Derek. Derek immediately saw the potential and the presented the idea to VideoMaster executives. One week before Christmas 1977, Peter signed an exclusivity agreement for all rights on Star Chess.
At the time, VideoMaster was working on the Voltmace Database, a console based on the 1292 Advanced Programmable Video System concept. VideoMaster considered waiting to release Star Chess as a cartridge for the Voltmace Database, but the company management decided that Star Chess would be strong enough on its own. VideoMaster was very confident and made a massive order of Motorola 6800 microprocessors, the biggest order for this type of processor at the time. The design of the console was subcontracted to Frazer Design, a well-known British design company that previously worked with Videomaster on their Superscore TV Game. The design aimed toward a refine clientele and was made of luxurious materials (compared to other consoles at the time) so that the console could serve as a conversation piece. The manufacturing was contracted to an Asian company.
In 1979, the console was launched with champagne and a laser show during a huge press conference to which many televisions personally were invited, including Magnus Pyke. At the time of the launched all were expecting the product to be a success, but really broke that illusion very fast. VideoMaster had spent a lot of money of the marketing, packaging, the design and even the hardware and cut the corner on the manufacturing. The company they used to assemble the console did little to no quality control which resulted in a high number of faulty systems. Retailers had a return rate of almost 30% caused by faulty systems, which convince them to stop stocking Star Chess.
The demise of Star Chess cannot be attributed to one singe reason. Instead, it is a series of bad decision that led to the abrupt end of this system. For example, in 1978, the 1292 Advanced Programmable Video System was released all across Europe under different brands. This console was one of the first cartridge-based consoles to hit the European ground and was gaining a lot of traction. Consumers didn’t want to pay for a console that only plays a single game when you could purchase the console with cartridge support. Instead of waiting for the release of their own Voltmace Database. VideoMaster decided to release Star Chess as stand alone console. In a discussion we had with Pete Gebler, he mentioned: “What Videomaster should have done is bring out their console with Star Chess as its killer new game…”.
The other major factor was the cost. At £70, the system was extremely expensive. The main reason was the cost of the Motorola 6800. The Motorola 6800 was way too powerful to only be limited in a single-game console. In fact, the Motorola 6800 was considered by Atari for the release of the Atari VCS (Atari 2600), but was considered too expensive for a gaming machine. In fact, the aside from arcade cabinet, the only other console related hardware associated with the Motorola 6800 is the Imagination Machine, a computer that extend the capacity of the AFP MP-1000 gaming console and that was detailed at 700$ US. The MOS Technology’s 6500 would have a cheaper choice.
Lastly, the lack of quality control on the manufacturing side led to a high-return rate leading retailers to abandon the console.
In the end, VideoMaster had invested a lot of money in this endeavour was in a critical financial position. Waddingtons, a company well known for their wishing cards, decided to acquire VideoMaster and had every intention to pursue with Star Chess as the buyout was conditional to the transfer of the right from Peter Gebler to Waddingtons. But, by the time the deal was signed, Star Chess was already a thing of the pass and Waddingtons didn’t make any attempt to push Star Chess to the market again.
Although he would have preferred another outcome, Pete Gebler is not sore over the faith of Star Chess: “I am grateful for the many messages I have had from people over the years saying how much they had enjoyed the game. And I made about £20,000 from six hours of thinking at the kitchen table so I really can’t complain.”