The Making Of: Q*bert

The Making Of: Q*bert

During the early days of videogames, players could rarely identify with the game’s hero. The spaceship in Asteroids had no feelings, neither did the cannon in Space Invaders. There was more character in Pac-Man’s villains than there was in the Man himself. Q*bert was different. Unlike his predecessors, Q*bert was adorable – a fat, squat, tubular-nosed orange creature with expressive eyes. Similar to Pac-Man in gameplay, Q*bert bounced around a pyramid trying to clear the screen while staying away from his cartoon-like enemies – Wrong-Way, Ugg, Coily, Slick, Sam and the Whammy Balls. But unlike Pac-Man, when Q*bert got caught, he did something that all players do. He cursed.

Thanks to this alien’s human connection, Q*bert the videogame soon became Q*bert the doll, Q*bert the breakfast cereal, and Q*bert the Saturday morning cartoon. Who thought a pixelated computer character could generate so much interest? Merchandising had always been relegated to movies and TV shows. What kind of person designs a videogame with a loveable character that swears?

For three years, Warren Davis begrudgingly worked as an engineer at Bell Labs. “I was sort of disillusioned with the engineering world. I felt like I didn’t fit in,” he says. Completely naive yet with a pocket full of money, he quit his  job and started studying improv in Chicago. Although he caught the acting bug, he simply couldn’t ignore the fact that he had a masters in electrical engineering. So with an eye to his former source of income, Davis would open the paper every Sunday and look at the engineering jobs, and, one day, he saw an ad for videogame programmers. “I wrestled with it because I didn’t want to get back into an engineering environment. On the other hand, I thought you had to be somebody really special to get that kind of job. I never even considered that somebody like me could get a job as a videogame programmer.” So, with a ‘what the hell’ attitude he sent in a resume and, by January of 1982, Davis was programming games for Gottlieb.

Davis had never designed a game before. He never set out to make Q*bert, he just wanted to learn how to make a videogame. “I was just trying ideas to teach myself some simple graphics programming concepts like gravity, bouncing and randomness. Another programmer, Kan Yabumoto, had filled a screen with an Escher-like cube pattern, and when I looked at it, it occurred to me you could sculpt a pyramid out of it such that if a ball fell onto the top, it would have two choices of which way to bounce, so with one random byte I could create a path for a falling ball.” That Escher-like drawing probably came from the hands of Jeff Lee. As Gottlieb’s one and only artist, he did all the artwork for all the games. Davis and Lee, who have the utmost respect for each other, admitted quite a while ago that their respective memories on the origins of Q*bert differ. Lee has in his sketchbooks a design for a pyramid-like game very similar to Q*bert in its joystick control and hero, but the gameplay was very different.

Davis needed characters, and Lee had them. Since Lee was a kid he had been drawing goofy and grotesque characters inspired by comics, cartoons, Mad magazine and the Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth school of monster hot rods. Lee’s selection of characters for his six-page proposal for an Escher-like game was not huge, but the menu was large enough for Davis to put players on the pyramid field.

Within the Gottlieb development environment, Davis saw himself more as an editor absorbing suggestions. “As the game got noticed by others at Gottlieb, everyone seemed to have ideas and I saw myself as the filter through which all ideas passed. Since I was the only programmer, if I didn’t like an idea it didn’t go in the game.” Often, ‘liking an idea’ depended on Davis’ ability and desire to code it. “It’s not so much a matter of couldn’t, but it was a matter of I didn’t want to go through that effort.” Jeff Lee initially gave Q*bert a tubular nose because he wanted him to shoot stuff out of it. Everybody at Gottlieb wanted Q*bert to shoot. Davis didn’t. Hating the complexity of multi-button games like Defender, he strove to develop a game you could play with one hand. But more importantly: “I didn’t know how to make that work. You’re shooting, you have to figure out how you’re going to aim it, and then you have to figure out how you’re going to do the collision detection. It was too much for me. I really wanted to keep it simple. It was my first game.”