One night, I was sitting at my desk playing with what I had so far, which was Qbert 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 color when he lands on them?” This struck me as a particulary brilliant idea, and that is the moment when Qbert actually became a game.
Q*bert was written in 8088 assembly language and was started with a framework supplied by Tim Skelly for the game Reactor. When we started the game, we were working in Bensenville, Illinois, in a “think-tank” kind of environment. The offices accounted for only a small part of the building we worked in. It was mainly a manufacturing facility, but it wasn’t yet being used. Howie Rubin, our VP of marketing, used to come through the offices yelling, “OK, stop working everybody! Time for football!” and we’d go into the plant and toss a football around. This had to be the coolest job ever, largely thanks to Howie and Ron.
We actually started on an Intel development system called THE BLUE BOX. (I think that was our name for them, not Intel’s.) It used, if you can believe this, 9 inch floppy disks. They looked exactly like the flimsy 5 1/4 inch disks which are all but history now, only bigger. The BLUE BOX itself was big, about the size of 5 modern PCs stacked on top of each other, and blue. Kind of pretty actually.
For a while I had a monitor sitting on a table with some wires connecting it to the game hardware. The joystick was mounted to the bottom of a plastic bucket. (The bucket sat upside down). I’ve got some pictures and videotape of this somewhere. This may have been why people had trouble with the joystick being at a diagonal. Because the joystick was attached to a bucket, they kept trying to straighten it out! Eventually, as production increased, game developers got actual game cabinets to develop with, but when Q*bert was started, Reactor (Gottlieb’s first in-house video game) wasn’t rolling off the production lines yet.
I’m still amazed at how great all the characters in the game look. This is considering that Jeff had to plop down each pixel in each image one at a time. There were no drawing tools like the ones we have today. Each character was a 16 by 16 pixel grid, (Coily was actually made up of two 16 by 16 blocks) One of the little things Jeff did was make an image of Q*bert with his knees bent so he actually absorbs the shock as he jumps from cube to cube. This kind of thing, though small, helped the characters come alive.
The same can be said of the game’s sounds which contributed enormously to its appeal. Dave’s work was just brilliant. From the pitiful sound of Q*bert plunging off the pyramid, to the clinking sound the game makes when you drop a coin in the coin slot, Dave was a master at using sound to enhance the game experience.
One other thing should be credited and that is the knocker which would bang the cabinet after Q*bert disappeared from the bottom of the screen after a plunge. This was the idea of Rick Tighe, one of our technicians. He put a standard pinball coil in a test cabinet so that I could trigger it at the appropriate time. I didn’t actually like the knocking quality of the sound. I wanted more of a thud, so it would sound like a sack of potatos being dropped. With a little experimentation, we found that a small piece of foam glued to the right spot produced what I thought was the perfect thud. Unfortunately, the gluing of the small piece of foam was deemed too labor intensive for production and wasn’t done. But the effect was still fantastic. The knocker was controlled by a dip switch, so an arcade operator could turn it on and off.