Countless video games are made every year, so it's easy to forget that behind each is a team of talented programmers and artists. While we've come a long way since Pong, the achievements of early video games are often more impressive than the technological marvels produced today. Twenty years ago, designers had to make do with relatively primitive tools and limited memory. That such games as Pac Man, Space Invaders, and Q*Bert remain classics is a testament to the time and ingenuity that went into their creation. The Onion recently spoke to Jeff Lee, one of the men behind Q*Bert, about the Golden Age of video games and the state of the industry.
The Onion: People are so entranced by the final product that the people behind video games are often not given their due.
Jeff Lee: Well, it certainly doesn't get the attention that other entertainment forms do. We're obviously pretty aware of authors and musicians, and particularly people who make movies. You see the credits and can identify the stars, writers, and producers with a product. I guess if you're really into video games, you might know a handful of the people. Back in what we called the Golden Age of video games, there were a few designers who were somewhat well-known, at least within the industry. People like Eugene Jarvis, with Defender, were pretty well-known. But beyond that… I think that maybe it's because it grew out of the pinball industry, which was kind of secretive. The toy industry is very much like that; they're very secretive about their product for whatever reason. Maybe that's why they keep people under wraps.
O: Was it frustrating to create something popular and remain relatively anonymous?
JL: Not particularly, because it was just kind of a given. No credit had ever been given before. I don't think people really expected that. It was more of a demand that kind of arose later. At least with the Gottlieb games, or Mylstar games [Lee worked for Gottlieb, which later became Mylstar], the high-score table was where that information got out. Generally, the initials on the default table were the people who were behind it. There were memory limitations in terms of what could be stored, but when you think about it, there was a character set of alpha-numerics and it wouldn't have taken much to give credit. But it was just something they didn't do. I mean, space was a limitation. Look at the Y2K problem: That arose because they were trying to save just a couple of bits in their programs. As far as our efforts being uncredited, that offended our youthful egos at the time but, again, a little perspective: These games aren't exactly significant artifacts or hallmarks of Western Civilization. Many people toll at vital tasks most of their lives and receive little recognition in the public eye. Dr. Paul Zoll, who pioneered the heart pacemaker, recently died, and how many of the beneficiaries of his work know his name? Even the creators of the most popular board games were generally uncredited. People probably think the Parker Brothers, whoever they were, created Monopoly, and that some guy named Milton Bradley came up with the game of Life. Very few hardcore wargamers could even tell you the names of the designers of the credited games which came out in the '60s and later. It's the fate of the industry: The strongest link seems to be with the publisher, which the publishers prefer, or the genre. It'd be like buying a CD by "Rap Artist" or watching Single-Dad Sitcom.
O: One of the easier ways to see the effect of a game and a designer on the market is in the number of rip-offs that appear. But Q*Bert was unique and, I imagine, tough to rip off.
JL: It's not a genre that has been widely explored. I don't know. Maybe that means the popularity was not that widespread. [Laughs.]
O: I think most people remember Q*Bert fondly.
JL: Yeah, I've heard from a lot of fans over the years, especially since I put up this website [http://members.aol.com/jpmlee/qbert.htm, which provides a detailed history of Q*Bert's creation]. I get a couple of e-mails a week. I mean, it's not a torrent of praise and memories from people, but it's been fairly consistent. I don't follow the industry too closely any more, in terms of what's out there in the arcades. I mean, when was the last time you went to an arcade? My son is 13, and we went out to Haunted Trails, this miniature-golf place on the South Side of Chicago. I took a walk, and they have two arcades there. One is what they call redemption; games that pay out in tickets you trade in for a prize.
O: Like skee-ball.
JL: Yeah, that kind of stuff. And a lot of mechanical games. A lot of it's pretty bland. There are a few racing games, but the only one I saw that was tied into anything was this Austin Powers redemption game. But there's also a regular arcade section, which is where all the older kids were hanging out. There are basically two genres of games: the fighting game and the racing game. As far as I know, that's about all that's out there.
O: There are also the first-person killing games.
JL: Right, those are with the fighting games. Killing games. I'm not sure what the first in that series was. Mortal Kombat? There were some before that. But, yeah, all those martial-arts, fighting-and-killing games. That has been done so many times and, unfortunately, the audience for it has outgrown that. There's this new crop of kids who won't do that kind of stuff. You know what it boils down to in that business: collections. What kind of money does this game make? I think that, left to their own devices, many of today's designers would produce some outstanding and original games. But the bottom line and the lowest common denominator rules.
O: Just like any other business.
JL: Right. Well, I guess Hollywood turns out a lot of product based on formulas. They know what's going to appeal to their target audience, which, of course, is usually a younger crowd that tends to go the shows more. But there are films that appeal to a more minority audience: art films, historical films. But there's a broader range of films being made than there are video games, you know? It's mostly young males playing video games. You don't have your senior-citizen segment playing those games. [Laughs.] There aren't a lot of people who play video games as much as they did when they were younger. Of course, they've gone on to other things, too. PCs didn't exist 15 or 20 years ago. So, if you want to play a game with a little more complexity, you can just play it on your PC, right?
O: Back in the Golden Age, did you have more leeway in terms of what you could do? Because it was still the beginning, there must not have been as many commercial restrictions placed on the games. You were just limited by your imagination.
JL: Yeah, but there were obvious limitations, too: memory, graphics display, really some great restraints. I think it allowed the companies… They really didn't know what was going to catch on. At Gottlieb, when they started that division, they hired a slew of people. We must have had a dozen programmers, and they could pretty much do whatever they wanted, at least in terms of getting something off the ground. If someone had an idea, they were allowed to experiment with it, up to a point. I think that allowed for a variety of things. The formulas hadn't really kicked in. There was an arcade game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, that was very popular. It was one of the first four-player games. By then, there was this real copycat thing going. That came out, and then a bunch of other similar games came out after that. And Warren Davis [the other main guy behind Q*Bert] and I were working for Premier, which was kind of the successor company to Mylstar; we had done a game that Warren wanted to make called Exterminator. We followed that up with another game, and they wanted something in the mold of the four-player Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles thing. For better or worse, that never took off.
O: Did you just kill bugs in Exterminator?
JL: Yeah, you had these hands… Are you familiar with it?
O: Fill me in.
JL: It don't know if they ever produced any units of it. It didn't test very well and, therefore, I don't think they made many. It might be out there on the web. Are you familiar with this MAME project? I don't know who's done this, and I'm sure it's real illegal, but they've taken the real ROM, that data, and made simulators that are all software-driven.
O: Oh, you mean all the video-game emulators?
JL: Yeah. I think the ROMs for Exterminator are out there. I haven't seen it, but just about every game was out there. I haven't tracked it too closely. All the galley games were up there, and of course they've even done this with the old Sega and Nintendo cartridges. I've heard that they've all been removed because the copyright-holders are chasing them.
O: The nature of the web is that nothing is ever removed, only moved. It's only a matter of time before they show up again.
JL: Or set it up in some country where they don't respect copyrights or patents. But, in Exterminator, you control these hands. You're in this house and you go from room to room where there are all these waves of bugs—in some cases monsters—that you come out and try to squash with your hands. I think you had some other weapons. It's been a while since I thought about it. It was the first game I had done that was really digitized. We shot a lot of video and put those images into the art. Warren had written some utilities that could process it all. It was kind of neat, but, like I said, it didn't test very well.
O: How heavily did the companies test-market the games before releasing them?
JL: Oh, everything was tested. That goes back to pinball. They'd make a couple of prototypes, put them out in the arcades, and see what the collections were. Now, I'm not sure exactly what the criteria were. Did the distributors look at the numbers? I'm not sure. But on the strength of those collections, they could sell them. All this stuff was posted in trade magazines. They had little tallies of the collections, like they do with movie box-office tallies. A lot of people in the amusement industry kept a close eye on things, which only makes sense. I mean, they only have so much floor space, and they expect a certain return on their investment. I never really understood some aspects of it: You would think one pinball machine would be pretty much like another. I guess I preferred some machines to others. But there would be this team of guys working on a machine; it would get turned out and it would sell for a while, and then they would move on to something else. And I don't think they ever revisited a design! You would think that five or ten years later, they could just put out an old machine with a new design and artwork. [Laughs.] Where have all those old pinball machines gone? People collect them, but how many pinball machines do you want in your basement?
O: Can you think of any game that was pulled due to pressure? Wasn't there once a game based on the Death Race 2000 movie, where you got points for running over pedestrians?
JL: That sounds vaguely familiar. One that comes to mind is this game called Custer's Last Stand. It had to do with General Custer, and I guess you were the U.S. Cavalry killing Indians. But the reward when you finished the round was that you got to ravish an Indian maiden! That was considered pretty sexist and racist.
O: Go figure.
JL: Yeah, imagine that! I can't think of any arcade machine like that that really made it that far. You can see some hacker producing something like that; it has this porno edge to it. There are a lot of things, rightly or wrongly, that they don't do today. People's attitudes change. It's like showing people smoking on TV. A friend of mine had the Leave It To Beaver pilot episode, and it was pretty much the same cast, but there was a different guy playing Ward. Some character actor. It was kind of jarring to see this guy sitting around in his house with a smoking jacket on, smoking cigarettes. Of course, that was back in the '50s.
O: Do you find the violent nature of so many games depressing? Instead of "jump on the bad guy," it's "dismember the bad guy and watch his limbs fly through the air."
JL: I find it very distressing. It's disturbing. Aside from the subject matter, it's the main genre of arcade games, and even to a certain extent, cartridges and PC games. Fortunately, in the PC world there's more leeway. A lot of the classics are out there, if you enjoy that. A more challenging game like Tetris is amazing in itself. Even by then, the genre was pretty heavily violent, and then a game like that came out—so simple, a brilliant idea, and so abstract—and really achieved some popularity. At least that kind of stuff is out there. There's software out there to make your own games, which is cool. There was something for the Amiga that must exist for the PC that was a design-your-own-shoot-'em-up game, where you supplied your own artwork and set some parameters. That's good for at least stimulating some ideas in some of the kids. You can get on this whole jag of lamenting certain aspects of popular culture, but there are always going to be people with bad taste, or uninformed taste, or perverse taste. That's the way of the world.
O: Were you surprised that video games have only increased in popularity, despite distractions like VCRs and computers?
JL: No, I guess it's not surprising that something that entertaining would stay around for a while. Really, when you think about it, it's still kind of in its infancy. Well, maybe the infancy has past, but, you know, movies came around and they're not going away, and it's been, what, 100 years? The same thing with recorded music: There will always be an appeal of these games, no matter what the subject matter. There will always be an audience for it. Barring some sort of Luddite revolution, I'd say they're here to stay. [Laughs.]
O: Did you ever wonder why more animation-intensive games like Dragon's Lair, which ran off a laserdisc, never really popped up?
JL: I don't know. My son and all his friends have been playing that newest Zelda game for the Nintendo 64. It's kind of the same thing: I'd walk by and see him playing it with his sister, and just watch them. It's like a cartoon that you can control, and it's really cool. They've been at it for weeks, and it doesn't sound like anyone's cracked it. I would have liked to have worked on some games like that, a cartoon that you can control. It would have been pretty cool. I proposed some of that to some people, but it never got going. But it would be a fun project.
O: Have you ever considered revisiting Q*Bert, as perhaps a Q*Bert 2000 or something?
JL: We've talked about it. Howie Rubin, who was the vice president in charge of our division, has been in the games business forever and still kind of is. I've done some work for him over the past few years, mostly redemption games. He was trying to get something going with Q*Bert, maybe a 3-D Q*Bert. The problem gets bogged down at the ownership level. Sony Pictures owns the game name. They had bought Columbia, which owned Gottlieb, and Howie couldn't get anything going with the people at Sony. Either they wouldn't speak to him or they weren't interested. As far as we know, they haven't developed the property, and that's too bad. Warren and I even came up with a design for the game. When you think of the power that systems have today, the scenarios could be endless. It would look really cool, but if they're working on something right now, it's top-secret. Sony didn't seem interested. Everything gets beaten to death these days with sequels, so I find it very curious that Q*Bert hasn't been developed. And they're a movie company, by God!
O: There was a TV show once, a cartoon.
JL: Right, in Q*Bert's heyday. I would love to see tapes of that. I remember they gave Q*Bert arms so he could have these adventures. He needed arms for some reason.
O: Why didn't you originally give him arms?
JL: For the game, you didn't need 'em! We just needed something that jumped around, and the arms were superfluous.
O: Is it neat to have been part of the creation of a video-game icon? There aren't that many.
JL: Yeah, that's cool. I take some pride in that. Without a doubt, it's been the high point of my professional career, and I'm proud to be associated with something that has given so much pleasure to people. However, I try to keep things in perspective. I'm just a regular guy of modest talents. There would have never been a Q*Bert game without me, but by the same token, without talented people like Warren Davis, Dave Thiel, Ron Waxman, and others, Q*Bert would have been a different game and, perhaps, not nearly as successful.