In the Making: Q*bert
Remember Q*Bert on our 10 Most Influential Video Games from the ’80s list? We sure do! Along with Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, Q*Bert is one of the most merchandised arcade games. It is considered one of the most memorable games of its time, and it has landed itself in a lot of pop-cultural references to this date. With such a legacy, we’re sure you’re curious to find out how Q*Bert came about. Wait no further — here’s Q*Bert In the Making!
The concept for Q*Bert started with artist Jeff Lee. Inspired by M.C. Escher, he drew a pyramid that was made of cubes. As he took a closer look, he had a feeling that a game could be designed from it. (And what’s a game without a good guy and some baddies?) Lee crafted a main character who was orange, armless and had a tubular nose that could shoot projectiles at enemies. Two enemies were created afterward — Wrong Way, a purple creature that was initially blue, and Sam, a green creature that was originally orange.
Although Jeff Lee originally designed Q*Bert artistically, Warren Davis played a key role as well. Davis was hired by Gottlieb to work on programming the game Protector. He was still new to the aspect of game mechanics, and when he noticed Lee’s design on day, he came up with an idea. He asked the artist if he could practice programming the mechanics using his idea. Lee gave him the approval, and Davis set off to work.
Most importantly, Davis wanted to use the idea to create a simple design for the program. Simplicity for him meant using just one hand to play. To aid this prospect, he got rid of the main character’s projectiles. Instead, the player would have rescue the main character from any imminent danger. During this process, the VP of Engineering saw the work and suggested that whenever he landed on a cube it should change the cube’s color.
Every game needs a name. Unfortunately for this one, naming it was a struggle at first. Although the project name was “Cubes”, it didn’t have a set title during the majority of development. Jeff Lee thought the name “Snots and Boogers” would be good, but it was turned down. Everyone was in disagreement except for one thing: it should be named after the main character. The name Q*Bert came about when “Hubert” came up in a meeting. That name was combined with “Cubes” to make “Cubert”. Art director Richard Tracy changed the name to “Q-Bert,” and the asterisk replaced the dash later on.
The sound effects for Q*Bert comes from a MOS Technology 6502 chip and a Voltrax speech synthesizer. They were designed by audio engineer David Thiel. Since the testing for the sound system was very in-depth, he felt that wasn’t enough time to be creative with it. He was responsible to make the synthesizer spew out English phrases, but they came up incoherent. Instead of struggling with this, he decided to put phonemes together at random. The result seemed like a good match for Q*Bert, especially for his speech bubble.
With everything finished in the development process, it was time to test it out. Models were shipped out to local arcades where focus groups were put in place. The designers would use a two way mirror to observe the performance and response from the players. They saw that there a mixture of results. Some players got the hang of it immediately while others had to play a few times before getting the gist of it. Nonetheless, the game drove in the crowds and became one of the biggest hits in video game history.
Q*Bert was Gottlieb’s fourth video game, but it was was the only one that had such a phenomenal success. Q*Bert was really collecting those quarters with 25,000 arcade cabinets being sold! The lovable, orange and armless character went on to become a legacy for the industry, popping up everywhere in board games, stuffed animals, toys, clothes, and cartoons. Recently, Q*Bert characters were seen in the the animated film Wreck-It Ralph, becoming close friends with the film’s main character. Q*bert may have a strange name, but it’s one that will continue to be hopping around the video game scene for years to come.