January 18, 2011

Q*Bert (1982)

There is a purity to early videogames that ensures their continued popularity, either on a small-scale level of cult appeal, or with a much larger pop culture cache. These games were programmed on computers that are by today’s standards ridiculously limited, yet the limitations provided a structure within which some of the most enjoyable gaming experiences ever were successfully created.
This isn’t an attempt to claim that all early videogames are enjoyable. Truth be told, a lot of them are dreadful – either dull retreads and ripoffs of other more successful titles, or quite simply straight-out bad games.
When all of the elements are well designed, and one of these early titles has a unique and iconic look, memorable and original gameplay, and challenging and interesting design, then generally that game is going to be remembered and re-played for years to come.
I have a lot of favourites from the early days of videogames: Frogger, Galaga and Ms Pac-Man immediately come to mind. Another favourite is Q*Bert, a strange-looking but wonderfully addictive American arcade game from 1982.

Q*Bert is, like all good early videogames, pretty simply to play. There’s a pyramid of cubes, and you control a round orange character (also named Q*Bert) as he jumps from the top of one cube to the next. As he jumps onto each cube, the top changes colour, and once all of them have changed the game moves on to the next level.
Of course there are obstacles in Q*Bert’s way: balls fall down from the top of the screen to the bottom, bouncing from cube to cube, and an array of monsters move around in pursuit of Q*Bert as he goes. It’s a classic game mechanic: to stay alive you need to stay out of everything’s way, but at the same time to progress through the game you need to keep moving all over the screen. Juggling the instincts to reach every cube and to stay well out of danger is what makes Q*Bert (and games like it) so challenging to play.

The creation of Q*Bert may be credited to three men, all employees of the Gottlieb Company, a pinball manufacturer owned by Columbia Pictures (and, by the time Q*Bert was released, the Coca-Cola Company). The three creators were: Warren Davis, who designed and programmed the title; Jeff Lee, who designed the artwork and graphics; and David Thiel, who composed the games music and designed its iconic speech-like sound effects.

In 1982 the videogame phenomenon was in full swing (and, unbeknownst to the industry, just over a year away from its first major crash). The Gottlieb Company was founded in 1927 as a pinball manufacturer, an industry they continued to work in until the company closed down in 1996. In 1977 the company was taken over by Columbia Pictures, as part of the studio’s attempts to expand beyond the movie business. By the time Q*Bert was in production, Columbia had itself been taken over by the Coca-Cola Company.
The Gottlieb Company took to the videogames industry a little too tentatively and a little too late. Before the industry temporarily crashed in 1984 they managed to get six games into the market, and only two of those – Reactor and Q*Bert – were particularly successful. By late 1983 Coca-Cola relocated their videogame division to a company named Mylstar, which primarily made Laserdisc-based titles.

As part of their foray into videogames development, Gottlieb went about poaching programmers wherever they could find them. One programmer was Warren Davis, who was at the time an employee of IBM. Keen to jump into the games industry, Davis took up a position at Gottlieb alongside programmers such as Tim Skelly and Kan Yabumoto. He was originally assigned to program a game titled Protector.

One of Gottlieb’s artists at the time was Jeff Lee. In playing around on one of the computers, he had managed to generated a tessellated pattern out of thin diamonds, which – when coloured – managed to create a fairly convincing illusion of being three-dimensional cubes. Lee would later write that ‘being a fan of the great Dutch artist M.C. Escher, the master of optical illusions, I constructed a stack of triad-based cubes. Admiring my derivative handiwork, it struck me, there’s a game in here somewhere’.1
While walking through the office, Warren Davis noticed Lee’s cube artwork and commented in much the same fashion – it was an interesting graphic, and logically there would be some way to transform it into a game of some kind. Davis’ first suggestion was to reduce the number of cubes down into a triangular pattern, creating a three-dimension pyramid. As Davis later said: ‘Then I thought of balls bouncing down the pyramid. This was really a thought of convenience, since every time a ball landed it had two choices of which way to bounce. Two choices means one bit and that meant in one byte I could determine a ball’s path.’2

At this stage there still wasn’t a game concept. However, the cube-based visual design looked exciting, and Davis’ quickly programmed set of cascading balls had promise. Gottlieb shelved Protector and assigned Lee and Davis to start working on how to combine their two ideas into a playable game.
Production on the untitled project started in April 1982 in a Gottlieb office in Bensenville. The game was developed in 8088 assembly language, re-using a lot of the code from Tim Skelly’s game Reactor, which was also in production at Gottlieb.
At the time Lee had been working on a completely unrelated game concept, which he had named Snots and Boogers. The game was to centre on an odd-looking orange creature, with a tube for a nose and two short legs. The original idea had been for the character to shoot balls of mucus from its nose. Lee suggested to Davis that the character could be adapted to work on their cube game. Davis agreed, but insisted on dropping the mucus-shooting elements. He was keen to develop a game that didn’t rely on the industry’s already over-used mechanic of shooting things.
The game was slowly taking shape: the play area was well established, the balls dropped down the pyramid in seemingly random order, and now a playable character could jump from cube to cube dodging the balls. Davis would later recollect a night when Ron Waxman, Gottlieb’s Vice-President of Engineering, wandered into his office to see what he was working on ‘There was never really a master plan,’ Davis said, ‘I would implement something and then start to think, “OK, what should we put in next?” Out of nowhere, the voice of Waxman behind me says, “What if the squares change colour when he lands on them?” This struck me as a particularly brilliant idea, and that is the moment when Q*Bert actually became a game.’3
Halfway through development the team was relocated from Bensenville to Gottlieb’s pinball plant in Northlake, Illinois. There the game was developed using then-state of the art IBM PCs, whose disk drives could accommodate an unthinkable 1 megabyte of data per disc.

The game’s unusual sound effects came from programmer David Thiel, who had been tasked with manipulating a sound chip to simulate human speech – one noise at a time. Gottlieb had plans to use the synthesised speech in their pinball machines, and Thiel was finding the meticulous task to be stretching his patience. Thiel later said: ‘Being very frustrated with this, I said “Well, screw it. What if I just stick random numbers in the chip instead of all this highly authored stuff, what happens?” It sounded alien. It sounded like somebody should be able to understand it, but of course you couldn’t understand it because it was gibberish. By that time, Warren had Q*Bert bouncing around on the cubes, and I said, “Have I got something for you”.’4
One unusual addition to the game was the inclusion of a pinball hammer inside the videogame’s cabinet. When the player dropped the Q*Bert character off the edge of the pyramid, the computer would trigger the hammer to bang into the bottom of the cabinet. It was an amusing illusion, creating the idea that somehow Q*Bert had physically fallen down inside the machine. It was also arguably the first case of a force-feedback mechanic in a videogame.
Production on the game started to wind down in October 1982, with only a few tasks left to complete – including deciding on a name for the final product.

Naming the game proved to be one of the most difficult tasks. The game had entered development under Jeff Lee’s title of Snots and Boogers, before rapidly being dubbed “the Cube Game” for several months.
Gottlieb’s Vice-President of Marketing Howie Rubin suggested naming the game after the string of punctuation marks that popped up in a comic-style speech balloon each time the player’s character died on screen. The problem with that idea was fairly obvious: how would you actually pronounce a string of random symbols?
After a company-wide request for title submissions, one staff member came up with the idea of naming the player character Hubert. This was rapidly combined in a development meeting with the word ‘cube’ to form Cubert, and subsequently to Qbert. Warren Davis said ‘somehow the asterisk got stuck in there and we all knew we had found it. It felt right.’5

As was common practice at the time, the game went through final testing by being quietly placed inside an actual videogame arcade. The designers could then watch children and teenagers playing the game, and determine if any changes need to be made to the gameplay or the difficulty.
At first the game wasn’t particularly successful. A lot of players had difficulty with the diagonal layout of the game, which differed from the more square, ‘up-down-left-right’ mechanic. One bone of contention regarding the design was the player’s ability to direct Q*Bert off the pyramid – at which point he or she lost a life. Davis admitted the problem himself, saying that ‘some people would put their quarter in, jump off the pyramid three times in a row, and not even realise why the game was over.’6 The producers at Gottlieb were intent on removing the problem, but Davis refused to compromise – he liked the extra risk it created for the players.
One compromise Davis was forced to agree to was to slow the game down. Players testing it in the arcades found it ran at a breakneck pace, and struggled to master the game. Davis argued to keep the speed as it was, but was forced to change it. Within a few weeks of release, and largely due to the lower speed, players who took the time to learn the game’s patterns and layout were able to ‘camp’ on the machine on a single quarter for hours at a time.

Proof of Q*Bert’s success came from how quickly its design was emulated and reworked by other videogame publishers and developers. By 1983 games such as Boing (First Star Software), Frostbite (Activision) and Quick Step (Imagic) were taking the Q*Bert formula and applying their own distinctive spin.
Q*Bert also joined Pac-Man as an unlikely licensing property. Pretty soon the character was appearing on school lunchboxes and backpacks, and even featured in his own short-lived Saturday morning cartoon.
Gottlieb didn’t hesitate to license Q*Bert to Parker Brothers for home consoles, although technical restraints prevented most of them from accurately replicating the arcade version. The Atari 2600 edition missed a lot of elements. The entire bottom row of cubes was omitted, as were several of the enemies, the level intermissions and the two-player mode. The Atari 5200 version was more complete, but suffered as a result of that system’s poor joystick quality. Other versions were released for the Intellivision and Colecovision, both in 1983.

Like most arcade games, it is the original arcade version that continues to prove the most enjoyable and addictive. Played either on a rare surviving arcade unit, or via emulation software such as MAME, Q*Bert continues to challenge, entertain and impress after almost 30 years.
It is a slightly odd game in a modern context, however, because unlike pretty much all of its contemporaries Q*Bert has never been reworked or re-imagined for new consoles or platforms. Namco still produce new versions of Pac-Man. Frogger still gets an underwhelming 3D version every couple of years. Q*Bert seems oddly consigned to semi-obscurity. For those who never encountered it in the 1980s, it’s an unheard-of oddity. For those who did, it’s often a lifelong favourite.

1 Jeff Lee, History of Q*Bert (no longer online, quoted in Steven L. Kent, The Ultimate History of Video Games, Prima Publishing, 2001.
2 Van Burnham, Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984, MIT Press, 2001.
3 Burnham, 2001.
4 Steven L. Kent, The Ultimate History of Video Games, Prima Publishing, 2001.
5 Burnham, 2001.
6 Burnham, 2001.

1 comment:

  1. The Commodore 64 version of Q*Bert is actually rather good, although I honestly never played the arcade machine... I have the actual, official, C64 cartridge around somewhere though, and later on I also got an unofficial disk/dumped version of it as well.

    Thanks for the article, told me a lot more about the history of this great game.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.