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Concept to Console: the creation of ‘Q*bert’

If you’re thinking of gaming icons of the arcade era, you’d probably think of Mario or Pac-Man. You may not picture a small orange alien with a habit for swearing leaping around a 3D-looking pyramid, but Q*bert was a success on its release and it remains one of the most fondly remembered games of the golden age. And yet, unlike its contemporaries, Q*bert has largely vanished from the scene. 40 years after its initial release, let’s look back on the creation of Q*bert.

The game was released by a company called Gottlieb, which was largely known for creating pinball games. It started catering for the video game market in the early 80s with games such as Insector and Tylz, although neither of them were released. The basic ideas for this game were thought up by Warren Davis and Jeff Lee – Lee drew a pyramid of cubes inspired by M. C. Escher, and created an orange, armless main character, feeling a game could be derived from the artwork. Lee intended that the character would shot snot-bombs from his nose, and called it ‘Snots and Boogers’ in his description.

 

He removed the shooting to keep the control scheme simple, and changed the objective to saving the protagonist from danger.

 

The ideas came the way of Warren Davis, who asked if he could use them to practice programming randomness and gravity as game mechanics – as a result, he added balls that bounce from the pyramid’s top to the bottom. He removed the shooting to keep the control scheme simple, and changed the objective to saving the protagonist from danger. It was an interesting concept, but what would come next?

Davis describes one of the key moments in development: “One night, I was sitting at my desk playing with what I had so far, which was Q*bert hopping around the pyramid avoiding balls. It was fun, but it wasn’t a game yet. There was no goal, and no way to move from round to round. Sitting behind me was Ron Waxman, our VP of Engineering. Ron can be a very intimidating person, but once you get to know him, he’s a pussycat. He would do this thing occasionally at night – sit behind someone and just silently watch them work. It’s a little unnerving, but I had gotten used to it.

So I was just playing with what I had, wondering what to do next. The entire development of the game was very much like that. There was never really a master plan. 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 said, ‘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.”

 

Gottlieb’s VP of Marketing wanted the game to be called ‘@!#?@!’

 

From then on, the decisions came thick and fast. Davis implemented a unique control joystick, rotated 45° to match the directions of Q*bert’s jumping. The swearing emerged from audio engineer David Thiel’s difficulty in producing English phrases with a speech synthesiser. A change that Davis would later regret was the dialling down of the difficulty, after a number of focus groups recorded different responses to the game – some adapted quickly, while others found it frustrating.

Then, it came to naming the game. It was untitled in production, aside from a working title of ‘Cubes’. Gottlieb’s VP of Marketing wanted the game to be called ‘@!#?@!’, as an idea rejected by staff as being ridiculous and unpronounceable (although some test models did have this name on the artwork). They gradually came to the consensus that it was best to name the game after the main character, though he too was unnamed at this point. ‘Hubert’ was suggested, and then combined with ‘Cubes’ to make ‘Cubert’. Art director Richard Tracy was the one who tweaked this to make it Q*bert.

The game was released in arcades in October 1982, and proved a hit (the only of Gottlieb’s games to earn critical and commercial success). People loved its unique gameplay and visual appeal, with one even suggesting it would dethrone Pac-Man. Edge put the success down to the title character, suggesting players could easily relate to Q*bert because he swore. As a result, Davis immediately started work on a pseudo-sequel, Faster Harder More Challenging Q*bert, which did what it said on the tin. The project was eventually cancelled – Davis suggests it would have come “too soon” – but sequels did emerge down the line. Perhaps the best known is Q*berts Qubes, either a year or two later (the copyright dates are sketchy), which sees the player try to match lines of cubes, but it was hardly noticed.

 

Q*bert’s legacy in gaming history is secured, and it’s one that its creators are still proud of.

 

Despite having been somewhat of a gaming icon, Q*bert would largely vanish from games consoles apart from sporadic releases of the original game (some of which tweaked with the formula somewhat) every seven years or so. To gamers of my generation, you’re likeliest to have seen Q*bert in the cinema. He made an Easter egg appearance in two films linked to games – Adam Sandler’s Pixels (although the less said about that, the better), and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. In the latter case, the renewed interest in Q*bert sparked by the character’s appearance led to the release of a new game, 2014’s Q*bert Rebooted, which contained both a port of the classic game and a new version that uses hexagonal shapes.

He may not have seen a lot of games, but Q*bert’s legacy in gaming history is secured, and it’s one that its creators are still proud of. Reflecting on Q*bert’s 30th anniversary, Davis said: “I think as a team of the three of us [Davis, Lee, and Thiel], I think we all share that pride in that legacy and it is rewarding to know that it’s still remembered this far along.

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