The Robot Wars Story: By Marc Thorpe
Robot Wars has become a huge success which engages audiences around the world but where did it come from? What were the seeds that became the Robot Wars we now know?
In the early 90’s San Francisco based artist/designer/engineer Marc Thorpe was working for LucasFilm as a toy designer. Here he was able to use his expertise of LucasFilm’s established special effects experience to really enhance and bring a new level of creativity to the toy market. It was also here that the very first idea for Robot Wars was conceived, Marc explains:
“The idea for Robot Wars came about as a sort of ricochet from two very separate things. The first thing was a failed invention. It was a radio controlled vacuum cleaner for which I had built a radio controlled tank on which I attached a “dustbuster” type battery powered vacuum. It was a fun idea but you can’t vacuum anything effectively with a dustbuster and you can’t drive the thing around in your car where it is useful either.
Around the same time as I was pursuing this idea I was working for LucasFilm as a senior toy designer within the licensing division. It was a short lived partnership with a major toy manufacturing company. We had a presentation to prepare for involving vehicle play. I came up with an idea involving destructive vehicles that I called Danger Zone. I did a sketch showing vehicles with hammers and saws etc mounted on them.
Well, at the presentation, out of all the concepts (over thirty) mine received the least attention. The only comment it received was “someday someone is going to figure out how to do this.” In removing the pointless vacuum from my tank shortly after it hit me. I know how to do this.”
The concept grows and the first event appears in the US
“Once I had the idea I set about finding ways to make a visual representation and I filed a trademark application. My biggest fear was that the trademark, the brand would not be recognized due to the conceptual stretch implied in the name. How do you define what a robot is or is not? I did not know if people would accept the characterization of what are essentially R/C vehicles as robots. As it is no one has challenged RW as misleading. I feel that people want this so much that they just disregard the issue.
So I started to modify my tank putting scary, sinister looking devices etc on it. Literally just putting them on it. None of them worked. It was all for show. Next, I took photos, created rules and advertised. I took out adds in an art magazine and an R/C magazine. I was not prepared for what was about to happen.
It was new years 1993 and I was laying on my couch with the flu. The toy division at lucasfilm had dissolved. I didn’t know what to do. Then I got this call from Wired magazine. As I recall, it was the editor of the magazine. I forgot about the promotional material I sent them. She said they were going to do an article about the event and a photo. The photographer called me and said he was coming over to photograph my robot and I told him I didn’t have one. He said something like, “thats ok. We’ll work something out.” Thinking fast I went to the hardware store and bought a small chain saw. I put the saw on my tank. I told the photographer when he arrived, “the saw is just sitting on the tank. They are not connected.” he said, “that’s fine. This will work for the shot.” After he positioned me and my “robot” as he took the picture he started shaking the camera. I asked him about it and he didn’t say much as I recall. So the Wired issue came around May 1993. All of a sudden I was up to my ears in calls of every sort from around the world, the photo was fantastic. It was a full page with me looking over my “robot” full of motion blur (from shaking the camera with the aperture open) and a cool article printed on the same page written by Jef Raskin, who also happened to be the true inventor of the Macintosh computer.
Now I had to raise money. I did not know how to do that. Not a clue. I did have an agent and an entertainment attorney. The agent generated some excited interest. Specifically Reisher Entertainment. The head of Reisher called me directly and asked what the event was going to be like and I told him I didn’t know. It had not been done before as far as I knew. He said, “so you are asking me to buy a pig in a poke?” and I replied, “yes, I guess I am.” A salesman I am not.
One of the people that called me was Gary Pini from Profile Records in NY. He called many times and in that raspy whiskey voice of his he would ask if I had found any sponsors yet. I kept telling him no because I was clueless about such matters so one time I asked why doesn’t his company sponsor the event? His tone changed and he told me to figure out the least amount of money it would take to produce the event. He further said he would be flying to the UK with the owner of Profile Records and that he would have several hours to persuade him to invest. As far as I was concerned this was going to happen with Profile or not at all. So I entered into a joint venture agreement with Profile Records and Steve Plotnicki. The agreement was signed just hours before the first event. The first annual Robot Wars was August 1994 in San Francisco, CA. Of the 1200 people who attended, 178 were press from around the world”
The first event in the USA was a huge success. It captivated the audience with a spectacle unlike any other live entertainment show. I am sure the teams would have loved being part of this new hobby too. As a roboteer myself, when it comes to the big event, I can’t wait to see what the other teams have come up with as much as the actual battling. Roboteers often spend most of the time when they first arrive admiring other people’s creations and talking about how their machines work. Marc recalls how the first ever robot combat event went.
“The first event was raging success. The contestants were a wonderful mix of imagination, skill, humour and just plain fun. I created a house robot to ensure that there would be at least some power and destruction and I came up with an event called Escort. I built what I called a drone for that. It was like a two foot long sow bug that bad no weapons and the contestants used their robots to protect and “escort” the drone from one end of the area to the other as the house robot tried to destroy the drone as well as the escort.
There were no wedges and only one spinner, Charley Tilfords South Bay Mauler. He won the final melee event. The second year 1995 people knew what to do. Out of nowhere came La Machine, the first wedge which was a middle weight that ended up dominating the whole field of competitors including the heavyweights. That event was a screaming success as well. Steve Carsey from Mentorn films was one of the attendees that year and he reported back to Mentorn. Mentorn then invited us to bring a few robots over to the UK for a sort of demo for the head of BBC, Michael Jackson. The demo went very well and negotiations began for a Mentorn license.”