The History of Q*Bert

As recalled by Jeff Lee (c.1994)

It has been said that Success has many fathers, but Failure is an orphan. While a wry observation of human nature, it is only half-true regarding the stand-alone, coin-operated video arcade games from the “Golden Age of Video Games”. Even Failure has many fathers, but in the Games bizniz, the failure of these “dead-beat” dads is not as a dire as in the real world. Allow me to present you the genealogy of Q*Bert.

As good a place to start as any is a phone call I received from my friend Richard Tracy in the autumn of 1981. I was supervising a small graphics department at Triton College in River Grove, IL. I have known Richard for years. He’s a very talented pianist (we used to jam together, before wives and children) and artist. He was then the art director at D.Gottlieb & Co. in Northlake, one of a number of pinball companies in the Chicago area, the world capital of pinball manufacturing. Gottlieb had been acquired by Columbia Pictures, which was in turn bought by Coca-Cola. The video-game boom was just underway. Gottlieb (or Columbia) decided to hedge their bets and start a video-game division. Richard needed to hire an artist for the video graphics and since he knew that I was a rabid gamer, I was a logical choice.

Gottlieb had an auxilliary plant in Bensonville which was converted into the video facility. Howie Rubin, who has been in the coin-op business forever, and whose tangential, leap-frogging brainstorming drove linear thinking engineers nuts, headed up the division. The vice-president of engineering was Ron Waxman, whose mournful eyes and obese frame housed a sardonic wit. I believe he came from the defense industry.

They’re a couple of characters. So was the staff of hardware and software guys. But I won’t get into that here. Needless to say, I’m perfectly ordinary and colorless in comparison. It was a very smart crowd, too. I felt like a complete ignoramus as they argued about RAM and ROM, but as far as I know, they didn’t hold it against me.

Gottlieb was trying get into the video business with several approaches:

Since their core business was pinball, they cooked up a pinball-video hybrid which was released as CAVEMAN. This was a pin-game with a small color monitor at the top. When your ball was captured, you went into the video mode. You abandoned your flippers and switched to the joystick, controlling a caveman in a maze. You alternately chased or fled from several dinosaurs. At some point your captured ball was released and you then continued the pinball portion. This was the first game I worked on. I think I had a total of 4 colors to work with and maybe 3 steps of animation per character.

They also hired Tim Skelly, as an independent contractor, to design and program their first all original, all video game. Tim had had several hit games . His first effort for us was REACTOR, a beautifully designed, abstract piece, with a thumping hard-rock musical theme by David Thiel.

Gottlieb also went the route of licensing games produced by third parties. This was not particularly successful for them, unlike Bally, which licensed the mega-hit PAC-MAN. What I remember most about these third parties were a couple of leather-trousered biker dudes from Australia, who tried to palm off some pirated software and hardware.

After CAVEMAN, I worked on a super-hero game and a weird quiz game, neither of which tested well. The guts of the quiz game were to be an Apple Computer. The super-hero game used our own board, designed by Jun Yum, who had come from Bally-Midway.

I used an Apple for the graphics on CAVEMAN, QUIZIMODO and some of the super-hero game (which had a number of working titles, including Howie Rubin’s suggestion: WHY ME?). By this time though, our hardware guys (such as Jim Weisz who designed an early color graphics board and the hardware that enabled the IBM PCs to replace the BLUE BOXES, as well as programming our foreground and background art tools [FOGUS and BOGUS] ) had put together more work-stations (THE BLUE BOX) like Tim Skelly was using and I was able to work with one of those when a programmer didn’t need it. It was quite a step up…16 colors for foreground objects (16×16 pixels) and another 16 colors for background(256 8×8 tiles). Nothing compared to even a home cartridge system 10 years later, but cutting edge at the time.

Consequently, sometime in 1982, one day I was tooling around with background tiles on the Blue Box. Being an 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! The pseudo-3D look was quite compelling. Nothing like it was out there (but not for long…by the time Q*Bert was released I believe ZAXXON made it’s debut).

I thought it would be an interesting premise to populate the cubic pyramid with critters which would exist on the 3 intersecting planes and began writing up game-play documents. I also created a little orange critter with a large nose (from which he would shoot missles at his opponents), two feet and no arms. I dubbed the game “SNOTS AND BOOGERS”.

Enter Warren Davis. Gottlieb had hired Warren recently. I believe he had been previously with Bell Labs. One day I was putting the characters up on the pyramid, when along came Warren. He took a liking to the picture on the Blue Box. He also thought it had possibilities as a game and asked me if he could use it. I said, sure, and he did. Warren recalls…”I saw a screen which had the hexagonal effect Kan was working on, filled from edge to edge with hexagons colored so as to appear like cubes. From that I saw an image IN MY MIND of the pyramid of cubes and balls bouncing down on it, and then worked to implement that. That was before there was a game or Q*Bert was programmed in. It was really a programming test for me. I was still pretty new to games, and I needed a simple programming task so I could teach myself animation, gravity and randomness. That was where the balls came from. I was trying a random number generator, and the balls randomly picked which way to bounce from each bit of the 8-bit random number. And I also was learning to program gravity as the balls bounced from level to level.”

Kan Yabumoto, presently of Pixelab was another of Gottlieb’s early video game programmers. His recollection is that I had done a study of the cubes on the Apple, which I don’t remember at all. He then put up similar cubes on the real hardware. Kan notes, “The aspect ratio was different and the way I drew them was pretty much the only way to make the cubes look right based on the limitations of the way the hardware worked, that’s why it was vertical.”

Warren came up with the notion that as the critter jumped from cube to cube, the color should change. Once all the colors were changed, that rack was ended. It was a brilliant notion! I wish I had thought of it!

Warren remembers it differently: “The person who thought of the cubes changing color when Q*bert jumps on them was not me, but the one and only… Ron Waxman! He was sitting behind me while I was working late one night. (Did he ever do that to you? It was kind of unnerving) We were still at Bensenville. I had Q*bert jumping around the playfield avoiding balls, and I was trying to figure out what to put in next. (I recall that there was never really a plan for the game. Every element was put in as we came up with it because I was pretty much learning how to program things as I did them.) And Waxman said very simply, ‘What if the tops of the cubes change color when he lands on them?’ The proverbial light bulb went off and I think that was the moment when it went from ‘programming exercise’ to ‘game’.”

By the time Howie Rubin had returned from a licensing hunt in Japan, Warren had a simple version of the game up and running. The game play and layout necessitated a joystick set at an X angle and Warren took some heat for that because people just didn’t like it.

During the game’s development, I think we all felt that we had a hit on our hands. I added a word balloon to Q*Bert, the “@!#?@!”, which in turn inspired David Thiel to generate the wacky gibberish which added so much to the character. I forget a lot of the details, like who thought of Coily the bouncing snake, Ugg and Wrongway, the balls, the spinning disks. Probably some of me, some of our co-workers, but mostly Warren.

Warren recalls,”…back in those days, the programmers were responsible for every aspect of game design (by default, since we had to implement it all). Sometimes I implemented other people’s ideas because they were good and appropriate. But I probably passed on many more ideas than I took. [Jeff’s] input was invaluable, and I always thought of Q*Bert’s creation as a collaboration between [Jeff], me and Dave [Thiel].”

I can claim credit for Slick and Sam, including the names. Sam was named after co-worker Sam Russo and a play on the phrase “spick and span” (clever, huh?). Rick Tighe came up with the idea of adding the pinball hardware which generated the very mechanical KA-CHUNK when Q*Bert falls off the pyramid. Terry Doerzaph did the marquee, control panel and side panel art and separations, based on my sketches. I think Rick Pathe engineered the cabinet.

Howie was all for keeping the name “@!#?@!”, evidently “SNOTS AND BOOGERS” not being classy enough, but Waxman objected that no one would know how to say it. Warren recalls a meeting in the conference room with himself, me, Howie Rubin, Ron Waxman, Frank StarshakBill Jacobs and Dave Thiel, in order to generate a name. I don’t recall that, but I do remember a meeting in Howie’s office with Richard Tracy, which must have been a follow-up. Richard and I had compiled a list of the names for the characters. One of Richard’s suggestions for the main character was Q*Bert, a combination of CUBE (QUBE) and HUBERT. Don’t ask me who Hubert is. Waxman recalls an intermediate step, “It went from*&!!#$$! to cubert but I was afraid it would be pronounced ‘cub bert’ so I had suggested that the ‘cu’ be changed to ‘q’.”

Upon Q*BERT’s release in early ’83, our hopes and expectations were fulfilled. It was an unqualified success and is considered by many video-game fans to be a classic in its field. The collections were good, sales were brisk and the reviews enthusiastic. Relentless licensing brought in piles of money and produced a cornucopia of tie-ins. I have quite a collection, given to me by people over the years, though, if I may grouse, I was never given samples of any the spin-offs by the company or the vendors.

Over the years I’ve picked up numerous action figures, odd tin boxes, a wastebasket, a children’s book, game cartridges, a stuffed squeaking Q*Bert, coloring books, a sleeping bag, card games and so on. I never did get copies of the short-lived TV show, so if anyone has copies, let me know!

Gottlieb gave me a raise and a bonus, but I retained only bragging rights, and barely that. The April ’83 issue of Video Games magazine featured an interview with Warren, David and me. Gottlieb refused to let the “design team” be publicly acknowledged. In the article we were given pseudonyms, respectively- D.Ziner, J.Walkman and R.Teeste.

Gottlieb (later the name was changed to “Mylstar”, which Warren immediately pointed out was RAT SLIME spelled backwards!) followed up Q*BERT with Q*BERT’S QUBES, programmed by Neil Burnstein. At some point we did a special version for a Mello-Yello soft drink tie-in. Between certain racks a big Q*Bert on a spinning disk would fly up to a can of soda. Then his nose extended out like a straw into the can and he then presumably slurped it up. I was recently reminded of another spin-off, this was a pinball game called “Q*Bert’s Quest”. Of this I remember absolutely nothing.

Of course, a slew of other games were in various stages of development. None of the other videos, however, except perhaps M.A.C.H 3, the first “live-action” laser disc coin-op, caught on like Q*BERT.

Regardless of the merits of the games we were producing, by 1984 the coin-op video industry had peaked. The market was oversaturated and the general public’s interest waned. This sent coin-op into a tailspin. Arcades and manufacturers were dropping like Coily off the pyramid.

That summer we had a round of layoffs and in the fall, despite assurances to the contrary, Coke pulled the plug. The pinball end of Mylstar/Gottlieb was sold to a VP and European investors, which operated until recently as Premier Electronics, producing pins under the Gottlieb name. The video business was liquidated and the licensing rights and technology acquired by a group including Waxman, which held them for several years, although the copyrights and trademarks were either sold off or retained by Columbia Pictures and eventually passed onto Sony.

I have continued working in the computer game field as a free-lancer, occasionally in association with my former colleagues. I am currently embarking on a small publishing enterprise, producing printed novelties. The company is called PHLIPart, Inc.. Warren Davis alternates programming with the pursuit of a career in acting. David Thiel became a partner at Incredible Technologies and then moved off to do research at Microsoft. Howie Rubin was president of Jaleco, USA for years, was a vice-president of Mattel Media for awhile and now is back at Jaleco. Richard Tracy went back to his old job as art director at Wilton Enterprises.

As for Q*Bert, he’s still hopping around on the jillionth rack of cubes, somewhere in cyberspace.



Updated: 3 Sep 1998

Gottlieb/Mylstar “Videography”
(all computer graphics by Jeff Lee unless otherwise stated)

  • CAVEMAN (Joel Krieger and Jim Weisz: software and hardware)

  • REACTOR (Tim Skelly: design, programming and graphics; David Thiel: audio)

  • VIDEOMAN (Tom Malinowski and Warren Davis: programming; David Thiel: audio)

  • QUIZIMODO (Sam Russo: programming)

  • Q*BERT (Warren Davis: programming; David Thiel: audio)

  • MAD PLANETS (Kan Yabumoto: design and programming; David Thiel: audio)

  • KRULL (Matt Householder and Chris Krubel: programming and design; David Thiel: audio)

  • ARENA (Fred Darmstadt: design and programming; David Thiel: audio)

  • INSECTOR (Tim Skelly: design, programming and graphics; David Thiel: audio)

  • Q*BERT’S QUBES (Neil Burnstein: design and programming; David Thiel: audio)

  • M.A.C.H.3 (Chris Brewer and Fred Darmstadt: programming; Unknown: filmed footage)

  • JUNO FIRST (A licensed game)

  • US vs. THEM (Warren Davis: design and programming; Warren and Dennis Nordman: filmed footage; Dave Zabriskie: audio)

  • THREE STOOGES (Sam Russo: programming; Dave Zabriskie: audio)

  • VIDEO VINCE (Chris Brewer: programming and graphics)

  • SCREW LOOSE (Tim Skelly: design, programming and graphics )

Note: Probably another dozen games were in various stages of development before the plug was pulled.