D. Gottlieb & Co.
In the mid 1970s, pinball was still the king of the American arcade and few companies had been in the pinball business as long as D. Gottileb and Company. Along with Williams Electronics, Bally/Midway, and Stern, they were at the top of the pinball heap. As the 70s came to a close, however, pinball’s leadership faced an increasing challenge from an army of beeping, buzzing, and thumping creations known as video games. Replay magazine’s November 1978 industry survey revealed that pinball was still the top money maker with video games trailing at third (behind pins and pool tables). In the next year, however, the hegemony would change. Pinball rival Bally/Midway would have tremendous success with the Japanese import Space Invaders and in November of 1979, Atari would introduce the even-more-successful Asteroids.
By 1980, it was becoming increasingly clear that video games were the wave of the future. D. Gottileb (which had been acquired by Columbia Pictures in 1976) had yet to jump on the video bandwagon, choosing to stick to pinball. They started out the Eighties by announcing their “Decade of the Stars” featuring the “Star Series 80” product line incorporating solid state technology (“System 80”) and a new standard in playfield size that they dubbed “Dimension 80”. The line, which included pinball machines such as Spider-Man and Panthera, failed to stem the rising tide of video games and in 1980, Gottileb finally entered the video arena with two Japanese imports- No Man’s Land, a tank combat game licensed from Universal Co. Ltd. and New York, New York a talking, Galaxian-like game licensed from Sigma Enterprises (a few years later, the company would also license the vertical shooter Juno First from Konami). Neither game, however, could match the success of games introduced during the year by Gottileb’s pinball rivals such as Williams Electronics Defender, Stern’s Berzerk, and Bally/Midway’s Pac-Man (licensed from Namco).
In 1981, the video tide continued to rise. While Gottileb did have some success with pinball games like Mars, God of War, company revenue fell 46.5% and in the summer they began to set up their own in-house video-game division. An auxiliary plant in nearby Bensonville, IL was quickly converted into a video production facility and Howie Rubin was chosen to head the division. Soon he and engineering VP Ron Waxman began to assemble a talented team of programmers, technicians, and artists who would produce almost a dozen video games in the next few years. For its first in-house effort, Gottileb chose to stay close to its pinball roots by designing a pinball-video hybrid called Caveman created by Joel Krieger and Jim Weisz. The game started out as a pinball game but at certain points the player’s ball would be captured and the action switched to a color monitor featuring a simple maze game where a caveman fled from pursuing dinosaurs. Jeff Lee, who created the graphics for most of the company’s in-house games, used an Apple II personal computer to create the graphics for Caveman and was limited to 4 colors and about 3 steps of animation per character.
Caveman, was followed by two video games that were never released. First was Videoman, a side-scrolling superhero game where the player’s on-screen alter ego(which at one point was designed to look like Ron Waxman) could make use of super powers such as heat vision to thwart his video enemies while protecting resources from destruction. The second effort was a trivia game dubbed Quizimodo that consisted of an Apple II computer mounted in a cabinet.
1982’s Reactor would be Gottileb’s first all-video game. Reactor was designed by the legendary Tim Skelly who was working at Sega/Gremlin when Gottileb in the Summer of 1981 when Gottileb signed him to a six-month contract to produce a video game for them. The idea for the game had come to him at Sega. As he describes it
I kicked around an idea where, as the player, you wouldn’t shoot projectiles, you would BE the projectile. My working name for it was Ram-It
Casting about for some sort of metaphor that would fit the player-as-projectile theme, Skelly came up with the idea of nuclear particles.
A new hardware system was still in development when Skelly arrived so for three months, he did his design work on paper (Skelly also did all of the game’s art). The hardware system that emerged was called the “Blue Box” and featured an Intel 8088 processor and nine-inch floppy drives. When finally released, Reactor was a physics geek’s dream come true. Gameplay took place in a nuclear reactor whose core expanded slowly but surely as the game progressed, threatening to engulf the player, who was represented by a particle controlled via a trak-ball. A series of sub-atomic particles (among them pions, leptons, and nucleons) surrounded the player who would attempt to destroy them by knocking them into the reactor’s walls while avoiding the walls himself. Hitting the particles into a group of control rods caused the core to “cool down” and shrink to its original size, only to start growing again immediately. Players could also earn bonus points by trapping particles in either of two chambers located at opposite corners of the playfield. As levels advanced, enemies got faster and more numerous (some even split in two when hit) and the number of control rods required to cool the core increased.
While Reactor’s gameplay was original, the thing many people remember best are the games sounds. For that credit goes to sound engineer Dave Thiel, who created the sounds for most of the company’s games. ““If there were a history of interactive sound, that was probably the first place that somebody actually tried to make something that sounded like rock and roll”” Thiel recalls. He realized that his main audience consisted of thirteen year-old boys and tailored the sound to the audience, creating a driving, hard-rock “sound track” for the game. Like the hardware system, Gottileb’s sound system was primitive – perhaps even more so. An adaptation of their pinball sound system, it consisted of an Apple II processor with a digital/analog converter and a Votrax chip to provide limited speech capability. Since the sound system provided only 2k of storage, digitized sounds were impossible so speech was synthesized using the 64 phonemes that the Votrax could produce. In addition to the music and speech, Reactor’s sounds included a submarine like ping and the steady throbbing of the reactor core.
Tim Skelly was only one of the dozen-odd programmers working at Gottileb – another was Warren Davis, who’d come to the company after responding to an ad in the Sunday newspaper. His precious experience included work at Bell labs where he’d designed hardware for a speech recognition system. While he helped out with some of the early games, it wasn’t until Reactor was in its final stages that he began working on his own game. That game would go on to become one of the all-time classics of the golden age of video games – Q*Bert. Serendipity played a large role in the creation of Q*Bert. For Davis, the idea started wen he came across a program by Kan Yabumoto who had filled a screen with a pattern of hexagons. At the same time, Jeff Lee had created a computer-generated pattern of, M.C. Escher-inspired cubes. Davis thought it might be interesting to combine Lee’s cubes with Yabamoto’s hexagons but to arrange them in a pyramid rather then having them fill the screen. He imagined a ball falling down the pyramid and thought it would be a good way to experiment with programming randomness. Davis soon showed his “programming exercise” to Jeff Lee who had created a number of characters for use in a video game. One that Davis especially liked was a fuzzy, yellow, round character with a large tubular nose that he thought “looked kind of helpless”. Lee had originally intended that the character would shoot out of his oversized schnoz in a game that he called “Snots and Boogers”. Soon the little fellow was added to the pyramid where he would jump around avoiding obstacles. Lee had also created a number of other characters that would appear in the game.
To create Q*Bert, Davis made use of a new hardware system created by Jim Weisz. The system made use of some of the first IBM Pcs and had a whopping 1 MB hard drive (considered voluminous at the time) The game, however, still lacked something and the next piece of the puzzle fell into place thanks to another serendipitous event. One night, as Davis was sitting at his desk thinking about what he could add to the game, Ron Waxman sat behind him and began to silently watch him as he worked (a tactic he was fond of). As Davis wracked his brain for inspiration, the voice of Waxman piped up with “What if the squares change colors when he lands on them?”. The idea provided the final piece that was needed to make Q*Bert a real game.
The sound for Q*Bert was yet another example of serendipity. Dave Thiel had been experimenting with the Votrax chip trying to get it to form sentences. At one point, he spent 20 hours trying to get it to say “Ten Thousand Bonus Points” only to have it say “Bogus Points” every time. Encouraged by Chris Brewer, he then began having the chip play phonemes at random, producing what sounded like an alien language. When he saw Davis’ game, he knew he had the perfect voice for the character. By varying the pitch of the random phonemes, Thiel could also produce voices for the games other characters. Despite rumors to the contrary, Q*Bert’s speech was entirely random. The only actual words spoken intentionally during the game occurred when it was turned on and off. Other memorable sounds in the game included an echo-filled ring when the player inserted a coin and a loud splat when Q*Bert fell to his death. The latter sound was courtesy of pinball technician Rick Tighe, who’d suggested that they use a pinball thumper, a mechanical device used to produce the “special” sound in a pinball game by knocking against the game’s wooden cabinet. At one point, the designers tried to muffle the sound by inserting a piece of cardboard between the cabinet and thumper, but the idea proved impractical.
The game was now almost finished but it still lacked one thing – a name. During development, Davis had referred to it simply as “The Cube Game”. Management, with an eye towards the game’s marketing potential, wanted a cute name. Howie Rubin suggested that they name the game “@!#?@!” after the cartoon balloon of curses that Q*Bert made when he died, but few others liked the idea (although some games were produced with that name on the marquis). After soliciting employees for names (none of which worked), a meeting was called and at some point someone began playing with variations of the word “cube”. “Hubert” was suggested, then “Cubert”. The spelling was soon changed to “Q-Bert” and finally an asterisk was added and the game had a name.
Introduced in late 1982, Q*Bert was a smash hit at the arcades. In the game, the title hero jumped around a pyramid of cubes trying to change them all to match the screen’s target color. Jumping off the edge of the pyramid was fatal (an idea that some disliked but that Warren Davis had insisted on keeping) The action was controlled by a single joystick (which during development, had been mounted on the bottom of an inverted bucket) which moved diagonally rather than horizontally and vertically (another feature Davis had insisted on)
The game also featured a host of other enemies, including Coily, a snake who hatched from a purple ball that tumbled to the bottom of the pyramid. then made a bee-line for Q*Bert; Ugg and Wrong-way, two purple villains whose touch was fatal; Slick and Sam, a pair of green characters who changed the colors of the cubes they hopped on (like all other green things in the game, they were safe to touch), and two balls, a dangerous red one, and a green one that would momentarily freeze all action on the screen. At certain points, the player could jump onto a floating disk, luring Coily to a fatal plunge off the pyramid’s edge if timed correctly. On the second level (each level consisted of 4 rounds), the player had to hop on a cube twice to change its color and later levels introduced an even more nefarious twist – hopping on a cube would change its color even if had already reached the target color.
In addition to being a hit as a game, Q* provided a marketing bonanza with a host of toys, games, and other products bearing the hero’s likeness. (including a Q*Bert pinball game). There was even a Q*Bert cartoon. “Saturday Supercade” was a CBS cartoon which featured a number of different segments starring various video game characters. In addition to the characters from the game, the Q*Bert segment featured Q*Tee (Q*Bert’s girlfriend), Q*Bit (his little brother), and others.
Meanwhile, a few changes had taken place at Gottileb. The company’s video game division moved from Bensonville to Northlake and the company itself became part of a new family. In 1982, the Coca-Cola company was looking to diversify and at the suggestion of a consultant, they purchased Columbia. The $750 million purchase price was greeted with derision, since it was almost twice what the company was worth. As a result, Coke’s stock dropped 10% in a week. Nonetheless, Coca-Cola now owned Columbia and with it, Gottileb. The Coke acquisition may have been responsible for a new, Mello Yello version of Q*Bert featuring animation showing the title character rising to top of the playfield extending his nose to slurp a giant container of the beverage . The animation would be re-used in Davis’ follow-up which he called Faster, Harder, More Challenging Q*Bert. Soon after the game’s release, reports had started filtering back to Warren Davis that some people were playing for hours on a single quarter Davis began working on an advanced version of the game that would challenge even the most expert player.
FHMC Q*Bert (as it was also known) featured a number of gameplay enhancements As Davis himself describes the game:
The game looked basically the same except it was faster from the start. . .the disks would flash every few seconds and then move up one step of the pyramid so you’d have to time your jumps. The waves were all re-tweaked and structured differently. A new character was added called Q*Bertha (a female Q*Bert with affections for Q*Bert who replaced Coily after a few waves). Also, when Slick and Sam came down they changed the squares into a pattern that Q*Bert couldn’t change back. Instead, he had to lead Coily or Q*Bertha over those squares to get them to revert to a solid color.There was also a bonus round after every couple of levels.
Unfortunately, FHMC Q*Bert was never released (perhaps because it was tested too soon after the debut of the original) In 1983, however, a sequel WAS released. – Q*Bert’s Qubes designed by Neil Burnstein. In the game, Q*Bert jumped around a diamond-shaped playfield causing the six-colored cubes to rotate. The object was to rotate a row, or rows, of cubes to match the orientation of the target cube. Another new feature in Q*Bert’s Qubes was the name of the company that made it. During 1983, Gottileb had changed its name to Mylstar Electronics to reflect expansion of its product line.
Between the introduction of the two Q*Bert games, the rest of the Gottileb team was also hard at work. After having a hand in the creation of Q*Bert, Kan Yabumoto had begun work on the space shoot-em-up Mad Planets, released in 1983. One memorable feature of the game was its unusual control arrangement comprising a joystick and a rotary control which allowed the players ship to both move around the screen AND rotate. In Mad Planets, the players spaceship would attempt to destroy a series of Earth-like planets which emerged from the center of the screen and began to grow. Destroying all of the planets in a round before they reached maturity netted the player a hefty bonus. Fully grown planets were orbited by a number of small moons which, if destroyed, caused the planet to go “mad” – turning red and making a bee-line for the player’s ship. The game also featured bonus rounds where stranded astronauts could be retrieved for points. Once again, Mad Planets benefited from Dave Thiel’s excellent sound. Explosions produced a satisfying bass rumble that Thiel achieved in part by making use of the game’s cabinet:
For this reason, Theil always tried to have an actual cabinet at his station when he created sound so he could test its acoustic effects.
At the time of Mad Planets, most video games did not include the designers names since many companies feared that well-known designers would be lured away by competitors. This policy approached ridiculous heights in an April 1983 Videogames magazine interview with Davis, Thiel and Lee. While designers from Williams were identified by name in the same issue, the Gottileb trio was identified as D. Ziner, J. Walkman, and R Teetse due to the company’s policy of keeping designers’ names secret. In spite of these policies, designers often found ingenious ways to get their names into their games. In Mad Planets the method was the games default high score screen which featured the initials or names of most of Gottileb’s video-game team
After Mad Planets, Gottileb’s parent company Columbia Pictures decided to try to take advantage of their video game division by releasing a movie tie-in game based on the 1983 movie Krull, a sword-and-sorcery epic concerning the attempts of the hero Prince Colwyn to rescue the Princess Lyssa from the evil Slayers. Krull, the video game was developed simultaneously with the movie with game designers being given access to the movie’s script, score, and production stills. In the game, you played the role of Prince Colwyn as you traveled through five separate stages of gameplay to rescue the princess Lyssa. In the first stage, you traversed a barren landscape dodging rolling boulders as you tried to recover pieces of the glaive, a five-bladed sword. Stages 2 and 3 were Robotron-like stages where Colwyn rescued members of his army while destroying a band of enemy Slayers. The 4th stage was a brief Break-out like stage where the hero broke down the walls of a hexagonal fortress. In Krull’s final stage, Colwyn had to rescue Alyssa while avoiding :”the beast” and his deadly fireballs.
While Gottileb achieved record revenues in 1983, the video game industry continued to decline with companies beginning to fall by the wayside. The collapse, which had started in 1982, continued unabated in 1983. There was one development, however, that many thought would be the savior of the industry, the arrival of laserdisc games. Cinematronics Dragon’s Lair was the hit of 1983 and produced profits that hadn’t been since the heyday of Asteroids and Pac-Man. Gottileb’s entry into the laserdisc market started when Ron Waxman challenged programmer Dave Pfeiffer to create a game using an old Pioneer laserdisc player that was laying dormant. Pfeiffer quickly located a disc containing airplane footage and designed a game prototype. A demo won Howie Rubin’s approval and the design of M.A.C.H. III was under way. Clay Lacy, who’s work included the Clint Eastwood vehicle FireFox, was hired to shoot footage for use in the game. Lacy had a specially designed plane with cameras in the belly and nose and soon produced suitable footage for a shoot-em-up game. Unlike Dragon’s Lair. which simply allowed the player to contol which segment of the laserdisc was played. M.A.C.H. III would combine video footage with computer graphics to allow a greater degree of interaction. It was no easy task to lay computer graphics over existing video. In order to make sure that the computer and video portions stayed in sync, target data had to be painstakingly entered by hand, a single frame at a time, on the disc’s right audio track. The game also experienced technical problems The discs themselves, for instance, tended to warp slightly, especially in hot climates, which threw the computer graphics and video out of whack. The problem was eventually solved when Pioneer added an aluminum backing to the discs to prevent distortion.
Dave Thiel had long wanted to design a custom sound system specifically for video games and with M.A.C.H. III he was finally allowed to do so. His original plan was to use two Commodore 64 sound chips and 2 microprocessors to create a system would allow six voices and multiple simultaneous sounds (Previously, Thiel had been limited to playing one sound event at a time, though each sound could have 4 voices. While it may seem hard to believe, in games like Krull and Reactor only one sound event was playing at a given time). At the last moment, however, Commodore decided that they would need all the sound chips they could make for their own personal computer. Since sound chips at the time were limited, Thiel had to turn to a more utilitarian General Instruments chip which produced simple square waves. Nonetheless, Thiel designed a system and it made its way into M.A.C.H III. The sound system also included an improved speech systhesis chip, which was used to create some of the rocket and missile sounds.
In spite of the production challenges and expense, M.A.C.H. III proved to be worth the effort. The seamlessly blended video and computer footage made for excellent gameplay. The player could choose to fly either a fighter or a bomber as he piloted his way through a myriad of ground and air targets such as enemy airplanes and oil refineries. The game eventually reached the number one position on Replay’s “Player’s Choice” charts and made millions for the company in a few short months. Mylstar’s second laserdisc effort, Us Vs. Them, did not fare as well but game play was not the culprit. By the time the game was released, the laserdisc market collapsed as rapidly as it had risen and with it, the entire video industry. Us Vs. Them was created by Warren Davis with film footage by Dennis Nordman (who’d also come up with the concept) and audio by Dave Zabriskie. As usual, Jeff Lee provided graphics. Released as a conversion kit for M.A.C.H. III, the game featured starship pilot defending his planet against alien invaders. The action was occasionally interrupted by tongue-in-cheek video sequences featuring live actors which combined to provide a back-story for the game. In addition to creating the game’s sounds, Dave Zabriskie wrote a full musical score for the game and an orchestra was hired to record it (with Zabriskie conducting) Us Vs. Them did well in initial tests but when it was ready for release, arcade owners were already weary of laserdisc games. In addition to their declining popularity, the games were often plagued by technical problems. Many of the games, for instance, tended to skip when jarred or kicked which led to customers demanding their money back. Many distributors, in fact, refused to accept Us Vs. Them machines that they had ordered months before leading to legal action. The upshot of all this was that very few units made it into arcades.
Gottileb/Mylstar’s video game division did not last long after the release of Us Vs. Them. They would release only one more game before the group was disbanded. That game, The Three Stooges (programmed by Sam Russo with audio by Zabriskie and graphics by Lee) would make use of another of Columbia’s film properties. The action took place in a restaurant. Players could assume the role of Larry, Moe, or Curly and up to three could play cooperatively. The object was to escape from a room by uncovering three keys hidden behind various pieces of furniture. Enemies included Flat Foot (a cop), Beauregard (a Maitre’D), Wags (a dog), Pierre (a waiter) and Muffy who the player could clobber with a hammer, attack with a cream pie, or (lacking the former) just slap them silly. Later rounds allowed players to silence lounge singers by tossing pies at them and the gameplay was occasionally interrupted by a humorous intermission. The player achieving the highest score was dubbed the “Top Banana”.
Three Stooges was the last game Gottileb produced in-house – or at least the last one that was released. There were other games made during the previous years that made it to various stages of development, some as far as the prototype stage, but never saw public release. Among them was Chris Brewer’s Video Vince and Fred Darmstadt’s Arena, a raster-graphics game similar to Tempest where the player’s “ship” patrolled the edges of an arena blasting various enemies as they tried to climb up the walls. Tim Skelly also created a pair of games that were not released – Inspector, which he describes as “my own answer to Robotron” and Screw Loose, a 2D/3D shooter.
In 1984, the collapse of the video game market was complete and Coke decided to pull the plug on Gottileb/Mylstar. The pinball division was sold to a vice president and a group of European investors who formed Premier Electronics which continued to make pinball machines under the Gottileb name (Warren Davis worked there for a time and created the game Exterminator). The video game division was dissolved outright in September and most of the programmers and artists went their separate ways. In 1989, Coca-Cola had the last laugh on its neigh-sayers when it sold its Columbia Pictures division to Sony for $3.4 billion. While Gottileb’s video game division was in existence for a relatively short period of 3 years, they nonetheless produced an outstanding series of games, some of which are among the classics of the genre.