20 Questions with Q*Bert Creator Warren Davis
with Q*Bert World Record Holder George Leutz
and Richie Knucklez
George Leutz: Alright, so here we go. So I got twenty questions.
Warren Davis: Twenty questions, alright. Count 'em down.
Richie Knucklez: Speak as loud as possible.
GL: Right. Ok, question number one... So a bunch of them are more 'techy' questions, I guess. Not necessarily techy, but for me and my gamer friends, like specific questions about the game.
WD: I hope I know the answers!
GL: Yeah well see, the twenty questions format, you may just say "no" and it'll be a quick thing.
WD: (laughs) "Pass," is that a proper answer?
RK: Pass is an acceptable answer.
GL: Ok so, the first question. Me and my friends were all wondering, how many lives can you get in Q*Bert, does the life counter roll?
WD: Well, I gotta think about that one. I think you can accumulate up to nine.
GL: Well that's what's displayed.
GL: But it seems that you can accumulate hundreds.
RK: How many in the memory.
GL: Yeah, how many in the memory. Certain games can go... at 256, it flips back to 1 life. But it seems that the game, well I've felt like I've had over 500 men. I was wondering if maybe you'd...
WD: Yeah that's... I would have to look at the code to remember, I really don't know. I do not remember that at all.
RK: We wanted to know that question so much, we were going to have all the best Q*Bert players play in sucession, like one guy play one day, then the next guy play, and see how far it can go, and see the answers to these questions. If you could find out that could save us. (laughs)
WD: I could actually just look at the code.. it would take me awhile to figure it out, because I have not looked at this code, other than to leaf through the printout I have, I've not really looked at the code for, you know, 35 years. Or well, 30 years.
GL: And see, I like that answer, that's even informative, you know? That's good.
RK: Very good answer.
GL: Ok, so question number 2...
GL: well, you may not know the answer to this one, too: There is no killscreen as far as we know.
GL: Is that something that was deliberate? I mean, most of the games that have a killscreen, it's a bug that happens.
WD: mm hmm.
GL: Was it just good programming, there's just no bugs, that..
WD:Yes, it was good programming.
GL: See, that was a good answer.
WD: (laughs) No, Seriously though, you know...
GL: I mean I played for 85 hours and it didn't freeze up at any point. We're figuring it's just going to go, forever.
RK: That was also good maintenance of the game.
DW: I think we also have to credit the hardware design, and certain things like that, you know, the hardware made it easier to make a solid program.
GL: So, maybe it's because it was an American game, all these Japanese games freeze up after like 128 boards.
WD: (laughs) Well I think it's just something they didn't think about. Just something they didn't foresee. And one of the advantages of Q*Bert is it came out after some of those, so we were aware of it.
GL: Alright, question 3: So now, in the game, the Ugg and the Wrong-way come up from the bottom...
WD: mm hmm
GL: It's relatively easy to hop over them, and I was wondering if that was something that was, that you made it that way... I mean, in Pac-Man, you can go through a ghost by accident, it's a flaw, a glitch, but it seems that you can hop over Ugg and Wrong-way on purpose.
WD: Well, I really resisted the idea of Ugg and Wrong-way coming in from the other sides, because it was a challenge to program the collision detection. So I really worked hard to figure out how to make that work, and I really tried to create an honest collision detection. So that when they're coming down, they're going this way and you're going this way... I don't even remember what the collision detection algorithm was for Ugg and Wrong-way, but what you're seeing, it's just whatever I, whatever collision detection algorithm I worked out, that was the result. I mean I know that they will, if you do collide with them, they will kill you.
WD: Because you're working in a sort of a pseudo-third dimension that doesn't really exist on the screen, it was tricky.
GL: It's interesting. I mean there are some guys who play that have a very conservative style and they always avoid the Ugg and Wrong-way, but I have a, my style I like to..
WD: Take that chance.
GL: Yeah, jump over them.
WD: Right, right.
GL: Let' s see... ok, question number four:
WD: uh huh
GL: Ok so this is a two part question. The one is: Is the behavior of the enemies totally random, in the sense that, you can play Pac-Man and do the same pattern and you're fine. Is there a point in Q*Bert where, there's a coin flip and a guy, a ball is going to fall from the left or right, and you have to avoid it, and it's going to throw off your pattern, and so there's no way to repeat the pattern?
WD: No... Yes and no. The path of every ball is determined before it falls.
WD: There are seven rows in the pyramid, and I basically create a random byte, and I look at seven of those bits. So once that byte is generated, that path of that ball is pre-determined.
GL: That's wonderful.
WD: That stays that way throughout the game. The thing is, because there is a number of things that require randomness, that are all going through the same random number generator, depending on what you do, the balls may have different random numbers.
WD: So at the very start of the game, if you play the same way every time, you're going to see the same thing every time and it feels like a pattern.
WD: But it really isn't, I mean you would have to play the entire... level after level after level exactly the same, to see the exact same results. Once you vary in any way, the random numbers get sort of shifted..
GL: Right. That's interesting, 'cause yeah, it usually feels like around the eighth board, you know, 2-4, that something happens where I'll have a slick, and he does something different..
WD: mm hmm, right. It really isn't pattern based. Again, because so many things are pulling random numbers, if something changes just slightly, the order... you know random numbers, pseudo-random numbers, they start with a seed, and then the pattern of numbers you get are the same from that seed.
GL: Right. hm.
WD: I can't remember if every level starts with it's own seed. I don't think so.. I think when you start a game, you start with a seed, but from that point on..
GL: And that ties into the second part of the question, which was, does player input effect the enemies, in the sense that in Donkey Kong, you can control the barrels depending on which way you are going...
WD: Yeah I don't think that, other than Coily, I don't think any of the enemies take that into account. I mean including the ball, including Slick and Sam, I don't think anybody senses where Q*Bert is and tries to go a different way. I don't think so.
GL: Right it's that pre-determined path from the pseudo-random number.
GL: Great. Ok, so now, we're on to...
RK: Doing good so far.
GL: You like 'em?
WD: What number we on?
RK: (laughs)You're very very important to us.
GL: Yes! Ok, question five: Level 9 repeats.
WD: mm hmm
GL: Is that because, the idea was that no one was gonna be very good at the game so there was no sense in going beyond nine, or was there some other reason why?
WD: No I mean... can I be totally honest with you?
RK: That's all we want.
WD: I don't think the tuning changes after level 5.
GL: I agree. Absolutely 5.
WD: The number changes, but I don't think the tuning changes.
GL: That's right. That's what I..
WD: And the numbers, because we only had room for a single digit number in there, we only go to level 9. But yeah, we never envisioned people getting beyond level 9. And it was very hard to tune, because people at Gottlieb were terrible at playing it, and kept saying 'it's too hard it's too hard.'
WD: You know, we'd put it in the arcades, and some people at the very beginning... So I was being pressured to make it easier, I wanted people to be able to play it, so I made it easier, and it went out, I felt, too easy. Because within about a month, you know, the reports started coming in of people just playing it for hours and hours and hours, and I was like, damn, you know? This was my first game, so I was new to tuning. But it was almost instantly that I was like, alright, I'm making a harder version, and I started making what became Faster Harder More Challenging Q*Bert almost immediately.
GL: Ah. So, that leads right into the next question. Question 6 was: The things that are different in Faster Harder More Challenging, are those things that you were planning on putting into Q*Bert, or are those things that you came up with after and said: ah this was too hard, I'm going to make the discs move, and I'm gonna make it, you have to make the snake chase you, and that stuff?
WD: Again, it's hard to remember exactly, but I think it's a combination. I think there were some things we kind of wanted to do in the original and just didn't have time to do, or things we thought of afterwards... I mean like, making the discs move was sort of a logical progression of, well how could we make it harder. How could we make it more challenging. You know Q*Bertha, which I think might have been Jeff Lee's idea.. it's really hard to remember who had what idea. That was again just an art change, I don't think her behavior was any different than Coily...
GL: Well she has a thing where she also changes the colors that she hops on..
RK: There's a game called Q*Bertha? Is it out?
GL: No, Q*Bertha is in the Faster Harder More Challenging Q*Bert.
WD: She became sort of a repacement for Coily.
GL: She's kind of a combination of the Coily and the Green guys. She also messes up your pattern.
WD: Right. But her movement I think is also exactly the same as Coily's.
GL: Right, right.
RK: You should've came out with a game Q*Bertha. Like Ms. Pac-Man. I bet the name change would've been more popular than Faster Harder More Challenging Q*Bert.
WD: (laughs) You know in retrospect.. they wanted me to continue to make Q*Bert games, or another Q*Bert game and I really didn't have an interest. I felt like I did this, I did Faster Harder More Challenging, they didn't release that, and I thought, you know, I'm kind of done with it. I had other things that I wanted to do. I didn't want to be locked into this franchise. But in retrospect I probably should've kept it alive, in the way Mortal Kombat, you know, Ed Boon continues to keep Mortal Kombat alive. But at the time it seemed like, I just wanted to branch out to other things.
RK: Like when a band has a hit song, they get tired of playing it.
WD: mm hmm. yeah.
GL: Ok, question 7: What games did you like playing before you made Q*Bert?
WD: I liked... Pac-Man, I did like Pac-Man. I liked Time Pilot.
GL: That's a good game.
WD: I liked Scramble.
GL: I like that too. How about pinball. did you play pinball?
WD: You know, I was never a pinball player. I mean I played games once in a while, but I was never really a hardcore pinball player before I started working in video games, because at that point the games were all there on freeplay. So I started playing pinball a lot once I started working at Gottlieb and into Williams. And then I would enjoy playing those games a lot more when I sort of had the opportunity to develop a skill without having to put quarters in the machine! But I do appreciate pinball quite a bit, I do like pinball games a lot. I love the Twilight Zone pinball game...
RK: Oh yeah
WD: Addams Family
WD: Pinbot. I really liked the Williams pinball games when I was there. There were some Gottlieb games I liked too, but I can't remember their names... I know there were other video games that I liked, I just can't think of them right now.
RK: What about Pole Position, did you like Pole Position?
WD: Pole Position was ok. It was ok for a driving game. I mean really, I started getting interested in driving games when the graphics became good enough that they really felt real. When they were very cartoony and the response wasn't very good.. you know, I mean I drive a real car. Why would I want to do that..
RK: What made Pole Position good for me though was that the response was good, the wheel felt good.
WD: Right, it was probably the first driving game that had that level of control, but again, you know, when you can drive a real car, there's not a real allure...
GL: Richie asks because he's one of the top Pole Position players in the world.
RK: Right now I have the top score in the last thirty years.
WD: That is very impressive.
GL: (laughs) Ok, question 8: Is there any connection between Q*Bert and the projects you did in the future, in the sense of is there any Q*Bert DNA in it, in your mind did any of the process that went into making Q*Bert carry over at all?
WD: Not really, I don't think so. You know, certainly my mind works a certain way, so to a certain extent I think it must have, but I don't think it was conscious.
WD: You know, again, one of the design things I loved about Q*Bert was the idea you could play it with one hand, and yet I don't know that I ever made another game like that. So I don't think so. I think I did what I did, and then it was time to move on to other things.
GL: That's great. Question 9: Are there any games that you never finished and put on the shelf but still think about, think about going back and making. I mean from back then, until now?
WD: Yeah, there are a few... actually when i was at CGE last year, I brought some photos, for my talk I brought some photos and images of games that I started, but never finished. And there were a couple that were really interesting, for their time. I thought they were perfect for their time. Obviously now they'd be very dated, but graphically they were sort of pushing the envelope, and gameplay-wise, they weren't like anything else that was out there. And I kind of wish that I'd finished. There was one game I actually got so close to finishing and I kind of got bored with and then I moved on to something else. But I wish I had finished that game.
RK: What was it called?
WD: It didn't have a name. I never named my games. When I worked with a team, or somebody else came up with an idea, like Us vs. Them was Dennis Nordman and Rich Tracy, they sort of came up with the concept and then I came onboard as the programmer. So they had the story and the title and all that, but when I was working on a game I usually had, the title was the last thing I was thinking about.
RK: That was a laser disc game, right? Us vs. Them?
WD: Yeah. mm hmm
RK: I think I have one of them.
WD: Really? You know I found one up at Funspot in New Hampshire...
RK: That was one I worked on, that was actually an emulator, they don't have all the guts inside, they use a computer to run that.
WD: Well it looked like a real cabinet.
RK: Oh, the cabinet was real.
WD: Oh, ok.
RK: I was one of the guys who helped work on it.
WD: uh huh. Well that was a game I was very proud of. It was ahead of its time for sure. But it came out at the wrong time, when people were realizing laser disc games were buggy.. you could kick the cabinet, the game would end, people would want their money back, it's not good for business.
RK: Yeah, laser discs are definitely sketchy.
GL: But I feel the same way, I always had trouble naming my band. I'd have a band and we'd have songs and everything, but then we couldn't pick a name for it.
WD: Right. You put a hundred names on pieces of paper in a bin, and spin it and pick it out and there it goes, there's the name.
GL: Right. Ok question 10: Is it true you're actually from the Illuminati, and you were sent to mess with my head?
WD: hmm, interesting.
GL: See, I'm on to you, I can tell.
WD: See, clearly, the answer is 'No,' But see, that's what I would say if the answer was 'Yes.'
WD: So there's your answer.
GL: See it's good... You know. I think I understand now.
GL: Ok, question 11: Now, I know you've discussed about how the sounds are generated in Q*Bert, but I just wanted to ask again, because I was wondering if you thought it's possible if David Thiel ever maybe stuck a couple words in there as a joke or an easter egg, something like that..
GL: No, so it really is just the mind seeing patterns where there aren't any.
GL: That's pretty amazing.
WD: It's random phonemes.. you know I don't know how many bytes had to code that chip, but it's random bytes..
RK: See, I don't believe it, because there's this one part it sounds like he says "Oh Shit."
WD: Well, again, with random phonemes, you're gonna hear things all throughout no matter what. Now if he was saying that at the same time in every game, then I would have to wonder about it, but it really is random. And it is possible for him to say "Oh shit!" It's possible for him to say a lot of things.
RK: (laughs) But he does tell you at the beginning of the game that he's turned on.
WD: Right. So the only things that he says, He says "Hello, I'm turned on" when you power the game, and he says "Bye bye" at some point..
RK: Yep. Right after you enter your initials he says that.
WD: But I think that's it.. is there one other? I'm wondering if there's anything else.. I think that's all, that he's actually programmed to say..
WD: And you know Dave hated that chip. Becuase it just sounded terrible, if you tried to make somebody say something using that chip it sounded generally terrible.
GL: Well it worked out the best the way it came out, since you really do hear things that aren't there then, too, the mind is making patterns..
WD: Maybe it's the Illuminati.
WD: You gotta ask Dave if he's part of the Illuminati.
GL: That's a good point. All you guys are in the Illuminati. I knew it.
GL: Alright, so where were we, question 12: If you were interviewing the creator of Q*Bert, is there any question that you would want to ask?
WD: Why were you born so handsome?
GL: (laughs) There you go, I love it.
WD: No, I have no idea.
GL: No, that was good. (laughs) That's even better.
RK; Good answer.
GL: question 13: I know you didn't pick the name Q*Bert that was a group thing, but is there any meaning to any of the names, Slick and Sam, was that anything that you came up with or that's all..
WD: No I think Jeff pretty much came up with all that. I mean I kind of deferred, I didn't have a real sense.. and Jeff created the characters, and I honestly don't know where those names came from. But I'm pretty sure Jeff came up with all of the names.
GL: He was the art guy on the game.
WD: Yeah. Oh yeah.
GL: Ok: Were you aware of all of the marathon Q*Bert playing in the Eighties?
WD: Not really, no. No I just, I don't know why, but no I don't think I was.
GL: So when you saw that everybody was starting to marathon these past couple years, like when Scott contacted you and said, "hey these guys are marathoning"...
WD: Yeah it was surprising because it was so many years later..
WD: I was aware that there were video game records, and I was aware that there were people playing them, but nobody ever really contacted me, and asked me what I thought, so yeah it was kind of off my radar.
GL: hm. Another one of these 'techier' type questions: Do you know if the score rolls, at 99 million 999 or anything like that.
WD: I don't think it rolls. I think it just sort of stays where it is. Or it might, it's possible that it...
RK: Or does it add another digit?
WD: Honestly I don't remember how many digits it goes up to.
GL: Well I got 37 million, so it definitely has that 10 million digit.
RK: Not many games even go that far.
WD: Ya, I really don't remember how many digits..
RK: Again we're gonna have to do the..
WD: It might just keep adding digits until it goes off the screen, I just don't remember how I programmed that.
GL: Well, me and a couple guys are planning on marathoning Richie's game for a hundred hours [sic: meant to say "to a hundred million" - Ed.] to see..
WD: Ok that's another one I could look at the code and sort of figure it out.
RK: Yeah. That would save us.
GL: Yeah instead of destroying Richie's Q*Bert machine.
RK: Yeah my Q*Bert machine is the only one that's gone close to a hundred hours, without falling. The Q*Bert machine I have is one of the first twenty.
RK: Serial number 18.
RK; And it has all of the old.. you know the wiring, it doesn't have the RF board, and it's a lot less wiring, and believe it or not I've never replaced the knocker. The knocker is still going.
WD: Interesting! So, put a little piece of foam in there, I'm telling you it sounds a lot better.
RK: I will. I just heard about this yesterday. Actually explain that, for the interview, that's a great question.
GL: Ah, he's done that one before.
WD: (laughs) He's only asking me questions I've never heard before.
RK: Alright, if we have time, ask that question, the foam thing is great.
GL: Alright: I know you've said Q*Bert is one handed, so you can hold a beer in your other hand...
WD: uh huh.
GL: And I really appreciate that.
WD: Not a beer. I don't drink beer. It was rum and coke.
WD: I mean it could be a beer. I wouldn't be holding a beer.
GL: So I was wondering though, have you ever been to Barcade, or a bar/arcade, like the way they are nowadays.
WD: No, I haven't actually.
GL: Well you should come down then to Barcade, and we'll have a drink.
RK: Thanks, George.
WD: Where is it?
RK: Have you ever been to the east coast?
WD: Yeah, I'm from the east coast.
GL: Yeah he was telling..
RK: Why didn't you invite him to my place?
GL: I'm gonna!
GL: He always does this. He's like why didn't you mention my arcade!
WD: That's question twenty: When are you coming down to Richie Knucklez' Arcade?
GL: (laughs) That's it.
GL: You should! He's close by, it sounds like, if you're in Jersey. I mean...
WD: Well you're on the west side of Jersey, or closer to the city?
RK: West side of Jersey. From New York City, an hour.
GL: But the new arcade's gonna be in Bridgewater.
RK: Oh yeah, the new arcade's gonna be only a half an hour.
WD: Oh you got a new arcade?
RK: I got a second one now.
WD: Sweet! Congratulations.
RK: Thank you.
GL: Yeah, you should come down to Bridgewater. Ok, see? Got the plug, alright? (laughs)
RK: Alright. I was just bustin' your balls, you know that.
WD: Listen, I was just in New York City for 24 hours on Monday.
RK: Why didn't you call us?
WD: 'Cuz I was in New York City for 24 hours. It wasn't very long. And I had just biked 400 miles, so..
GL: That's understandable. (laughs)
GL: Are you still in contact with Jeff and David?
WD: To some extent, yeah. Jeff I haven't seen Jeff in a long time, but we are in contact on Facebook, and through email. And Dave I actually got to see at the last Classic Gaming Expo. In Las Vegas, it was in 2012. And it was great to see him; we told old war stories, and I did a Q*Bert talk and I had him come up afterwards to talk a little bit about the sound, and yeah, it was a lot of fun.
GL: Very cool. Next question: Do you ever... I mean there have been these sequels to Q*Bert on the consoles, Q*bert 3 and whatever, but have you ever thought of making a remake, like maybe a Q*Bert RPG, or a Snots n' Boogers kind of shooter, or something?
WD: (laughs) I would be happy to re-visit Q*Bert if anyone asked me. If anyone who has the resources, and a budget and is interested I'd be happy to talk about that.
RK: We may be the ones to do it.
WD: Well other people certainly could do it...
RK: No I mean we might..
GL: Yeah we'd be the ones to suggest it to you.
WD: Oh! There you go.
RK: We have a whole plan for the next two years...
WD: Let's talk!
GL: Alright! Good, good. Ok, a couple more. I think we're running out, I mean this might be seventeen or something.
WD: Wow, we're zipping along here!
WD: Pass. No, I'm kidding. (laughs)
GL: I had a strange dream when I was a kid, about climbing this endless pyramid. And I always thought it was some sort of premonition to the Q*Bert marathon. I was wondering if you had ever had any dreams about Q*Bert, maybe while you were programming it and had it on your mind for those couple months.
WD: You know, if I did, and it's certainly possible, I don't remember them. But one thing that is interesting is that, years after Q*Bert was made I went back and I watched this movie "Excalibur," from 1981. And one of the knights, on his shield has a pyramid of cubes. I'm pretty sure it's a pyramid of cubes. And again it was certainly not conscious at the time, but that would've come out right before Q*Bert. I must have had that in my mind, so it's very possible that the inspiration for that came from Excalibur!
WD: In a way, yeah. I'd seen that movie, but it didn't register with me.
RK: Have you ever told that in an interview before?
WD: I don't know, I don't.. maybe not.
GL: I've never seen that. See?
WD: New questions, new answers.
GL: Next question: Have you ever thought about combining your acting and directing skills with Q*Bert, maybe making a Q*bert horror movie or something. You know, something dark like a 50's monster movie Q*Bert type thing?
WD: I have not, but boy, you've certainly planted a seed.
GL: heh heh heh, I thought it would.
WD: An evil Q*Bert-like creature...
GL: Exactly. And it doesn't have to be a Q*bert looking thing, it could be a guy named 'Hubert' but the Ugg and Wrong-way monsters and the snake are chasing him, or something.
GL: But something dark, you know, with a little bit of blood and gore, and monster movie type of action.
WD: I have not, but if somebody writes a decent script, I would consider directing it.
RK: Get started, George.
GL: Yeah. I think that was it.
RK: No, get started on the script.
GL: Yeah exactly, I gotta do it, yeah!
GL: No I think that was it. I think that might've been twenty questions.
RK: I have a question..
GL: Bonus question.
RK: We have a.. with the movie coming out, and everything like that... There's a guy named Wiley Wiggams, that does a whole convention of guys that are still doing 8-bit games, and old classic games. And I create my own custom cabinets and artwork and stuff, and I'm going to start putting out a new game every year. And put it out on the floor, and sell it to all the Barcades across the country that are part of the Twin Galaxies network. We want to put out a new game every year, and I'm looking for programmers to get started and get this off the ground, we're gonna do a kickstarter and the whole nine.
GL: So we will be approaching you! (laughs)
RK: yeah we will be approaching you to be part of our team..
RK: I have a whole concept in my head that involves the character Q*Bert, in the game. Would that be something that we'd want to talk to you about, maybe come on our team of programmers, start these new 8-bit games that get released once a year, one game a year, as a real cabinet that gets put out onto like 40 different locations across the US?
WD: I'd say let's talk about it.
GL: See? We'll be sending you the email with the concept! (laughs)
RK: Alright! 'Cuz we have a whole concept of this company doing these games again. Because the resurgence with 'Fix-it Felix,' how many people are playing Fix-it Felix, jarred my creative ideas, and he and I came up with a concept for a game that is gonna blow your mind. (laughs)
WD: (laughs) Ok.
GL: So there you have it: Twenty questions with Warren Davis. Thank you so much for doing this.
WD: George it was a pleasure. Great to talk to you.
RK: Yeah. Thank you, Mr. Davis.
WD: And Richie, nice to talk to you too.
GL: I needed this to put my mind at rest, after all that Q*bert playing, actually. This was really good for me. (laughs)
WD: Well I have to say, you've done an amazing job of keeping, fanning the flame of Q*Bert, and helping to keep him alive.
WD: Which is something I'm very pleased about.
RK; We have to give him the T-shirt.
GL: That's right. When we get back..
RK: We need your address. We have a T-shirt that is made up, instead of 'Q*Bert,' it says 'G*Leutz,' and it has the Q*Bert, and it tells you...
WD: Oh, I saw that! Somebody was wearing one yesterday.
GL: yeah John ['Exidy' Jamshid]
RK: Yeah, we'll get you one, when we get your address we'll mail you out one.
WD: You got it. Great! Alright guys.
GL: Yeah, thanks.
RK: Thank you. Alright, we out.