WonderCon 2017: @!#?@!: The Oral History of ‘Q*Bert’ - Panel Coverage

WonderCon 2017 saw quite a few panels and events celebrating milestone anniversaries and histories of various pop culture phenomenons. Fanbase Press’ own Michele Brittany moderated the panel, “Fanbase Press: Star Wars at 40” and other panels included “Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Two Decades with Feeling: A 20th Anniversary Celebration,”  “Wildstorm 25th Anniversary,” and “Street Fighter: 30th Anniversary Panel.” Apart from these juggernauts of entertainment, there was a smaller celebratory affair Friday evening to a different pop culture icon. In a small, but very packed room, Warren Davis gave a presentation on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the iconic video game he had developed: Q*bert.

In a true engineer fashion, Davis was a one-man show with a meticulously crafted presentation with bullet points and well-articulated points mixed with his own humorous musings, with much humor derived from the contrast of early 1980s technology contrasted with the present day. The focus of the presentation concentrated on 1982, with emphasis on Davis’ history at becoming employed at Gottlieb, the company culture at Gottlieb, and the genesis of Q*bert proper.

Davis began his presentation by asking the audience how they became familiar with Q*bert while he showed pictures of the different iterations, remakes, sequels, ephemera, and cameos of the character. These included the original Q*bert arcade cabinet, pinball machine, Q*bert’s Qubes, various home console ports, and a cartoon, followed by a lull in activity until releases started to appear in the '90s such as Q*bert 3 on the Super Nintendo, a Playstation remake, and then cameos in the films, Wreck-It Ralph and Pixels (which Davis expressed a little disappointment at how flaccid Q*bert’s nose appeared in these films when compared to his arcade days). Through all these incarnations of Q*Bert, Davis was only involved in the original version, though he suspects a chance encounter at a Sony booth at a trade show in the '90s facilitated the Q*bert remake on the Playstation. (Davis had informed the company they had the rights to Q*bert to which they responded with a puzzled “We do?”)

From this, Davis transitioned to how he got his job in the video game industry back in 1982; he answered a want ad in the newspaper. He had become disillusioned with being an engineer, and after Christmas in 1981 he applied to an ad asking for programmers and engineers. Shortly after New Years, he had an interview at a building in an industrial park. On the way in, he passed by another person who cautioned him about a person named Waxman who was really gruff. It turns out his meeting with the VP was Waxman and was the very same man he had met on his way in. Davis was certain he had talked his way out of the job, since he had lacked a computer at home. (This was the early 1980s after all.)

Davis was hired and was brought in to learn the art of video game making. The facility he was at was a satellite location for Gottlieb, far away from their main campus. Here, it was a think-tank environment that stressed creativity with hands-off attitude from the big bosses. There were no cubicles and not enough systems to go around, so programmers had to share. They originally used a machine dubbed “the big blue box” that look nine-inch floppies before upgrading to IBM/PCs that lacked hard drives. Gottlieb had just entered the video game market (after decades of being in the pinball market), and this was where the games were going to be crafted.

Though Davis knew how to program, the art of making a video game was new. The first project he worked on was a superhero-themed game that went through a variety of name changes: Videoman, Argus, Guardian, and Protector, none of which did well. Davis was a supplemental programmer for the game; he made the rubble that fell from buildings and the bulldozer that came and cleaned it up.

One day, Davis had been passing by a screen and saw the cube shapes on it, which gave him a flash of inspiration. He used the cube shapes, cut it into a pyramid, and proceeded to try and teach himself how to do gravity and random effects with a bouncing ball while coding in assembler. He went to Jeff Lee who had a whole bunch of characters he had created, and used those in his experiments. Davis chose the character that would become Q*bert, because he looked somewhat pathetic: “He’s the guy.” Originally, his snout was supposed to fire projectiles from it, but that idea was discarded. Mechanics started to fall into place, but the game lacked a goal. Soon, Waxman offered his advice that when the player hopped on the cubes, they would change color. And thus, Q*bert the game was born.

It was a long process for Q*bert to get his name, however. It was agreed that the name of the game should be the same as the name of the protagonist, but no one could come up with a good one. Davis had polled the workers at Gottlieb and got terrible names. At a brainstorming session, after many different names were posted on the board, someone went up and wrote “Hubert” which was then changed to “Cubert” and then “Q-Bert” and finally “Q*bert.”

The other iconic aspect of Q*bert is the way he talks, in the gibberish sounds with associated cartoon glyphs. David Thiel was the sound person that worked on Q*bert. The machine used a votrax chip that was supposed to create speech from phonemes, but sounded terrible. Instead, he strung random phonemes together to give it the gibberish swearing.

Another aspect of developing Q*bert was “the knocker” which was present on the arcade cabinets. When Q*bert falls off his cubes, the bottom of the machine goes thud, emulating him splatting on the bottom. Davis was bittersweet about the end result of this, as it originally had better execution. The thud was accomplished from a pinball knocker, but the sound wasn’t quite right. The addition of a foam rubber to it created the perfect sound; however, the management at Gottlieb vetoed this as too labor intensive, so the foam was left off.

Q*bert was tested in house, at local arcades, and at focus groups. The end result was that David had to scale back the speed and difficulty of the game. Q*bert went public in the autumn of 1982 and was received with acclaim at trade shows such as the AMOA. Management was thrilled since they got a big hit, and Davis received carte blanche on projects at Gottlieb; however, there wer some post-release problems with Q*bert, in that it became too easy. To rectify, Davis designed Faster Harder More Challenging Q*Bert which was never released (though Davis would release it on MAME year later).

There were changes going on at Gottlieb during the process of creating Q*bert, though. Eventually, the video game division was moved to the main campus, where the pinball division was located. The pinball developers eyed the programmers with mistrust initially, but eventually warmed up. Gottlieb went though a name change, becoming Mylstar. At the big reveal of the new name, Davis remarked, “You know, Mylstar backwards is ‘rat slime,’” Management was not amused.

Eventually, Davis would part ways and join Midway, where he would design the digitization process that would be used to realize the character in Mortal Kombat. Davis would be instrumental in a variety of other games and projects, but oftentimes credit would be left off. In those early days, companies often used aliases when referring to their talent in order to combat poaching from competitors. Despite this lack of recognition then, Davis is certainly recognized now. While Q*bert may not be a Mario or Master Chief, he was the progenitor of these heroes, and Davis made this happen. The packed room at WonderCon to hear his story, and the fans outside asking for him to sign their Q*bert Funkos and other paraphernalia, are testament to his and Q*bert’s continuing influence on pop culture and gaming culture.

Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Ad Victoriam! Essays on Neo-Peplum Cinema and Television. He can be found at nickdiak.com.

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