CHICAGO (TNS) — I ran into the Q*bert Guy in suburban Brookfield, Illinois the other day.
That’s what my editor called him – the Q*bert Guy. That’s what I called him – the Q*bert Guy. That’s a rude way to introduce you to Warren Davis. But that’s who he is: Warren Davis, the Q*bert Guy. He knows it. I had planned to meet him for so long that as we walked along Ogden Avenue to Galloping Ghost Arcade, I half expected drivers to shout from passing cars, “Hey , Q*bert Guy!” If they were Gen X, they could. If they spent too much time in dark, seedy 80s arcades, they might. Assuming anyone knows what classic video game designers looked like. Forty years ago, when Davis co-created the once ubiquitous Q*bert, like many of the early architects of gaming culture, he was just an anonymous video game designer in Chicago.
Forty years later, he is still anonymous.
He does not carry darkness as a burden. Despite the creation of IP once splashed on t-shirts, socks, lunchboxes, Saturday morning cartoons and, more recently, Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” and Adam Sandler’s “Pixels” , Davis knows you don’t care that the guy who invented Q*bert isn’t recognized by suburban Chicago motorists. He knows that, as original as the game once seemed, it is now widely known for its titular character, who was orange and stocky and of an undetermined species. He had a nose like a ship’s horn and swore unintelligibly every time he died.
Warren Davis doesn’t give a fuck about @[email protected]!
What he really wanted to do was act.
Even as he worked on Q*bert with graphic designer Jeff Lee (who created the character himself) and sound designer David Thiel (who generated those scrambled swearwords), acting was his plan B. He was additionally increasingly fascinated by the improvisation and scope of Chicago Theater. He went through the (now defunct) Second City-affiliated Players Workshop school, and indeed he would leave Chicago and follow a theater company to Los Angeles; he still lives there, still plays in the occasional Southern California stage production. Google “Warren Davis” and you get “actor” before any mention of games.
Yet his contribution to culture is cemented otherwise, and at least in retro-gaming circles, Warren Davis is something of an unsung pioneer, one of many who forged an 8-bit path to PlayStation, Wordle, and a industry that now pulls in $180 billion a year. In fact, back when Davis was still designing, the coin-operated video game industry (an offspring of the pinball industry) was centered in suburban Chicago, splashed on the covers of glossy magazines, already giving serious competition in Hollywood, and other than one with rare exceptions, none of its designers have been announced.
He told me he was invited to classic gaming conventions and often the story he heard was wrong. So he recently wrote a new memoir, “Creating Q*bert and Other Classic Video Arcade Games”.
“As the history of this stuff became more interesting, as video games became part of everyday life, I realized that my own story had meaning,” he said. “I mean, I see some of the guys I worked with back then and we shake our heads. Everything then seemed ephemeral. None of us thought we would remember all of this.
Davis, a Los Angeleno now, hasn’t been to Chicago in years.
So when I heard he would be in town, I asked him to show me his heritage.
“OK,” he said, “let’s look for these games.”
We waded into Galloping Ghost, which bills itself as the world’s largest arcade, with over 850 old-school coin-operated video game machines. On a Friday afternoon in February, the arcade was practically empty, but the place was also noisy, a constant wind of primitive digital screams. Gunshots, roars, crackles, booms and beeps and bleats.
After the guy who’s been camping on the cabinet all morning came out to smoke, Davis slipped into his slot, entered his initials into the game’s interface and a moment later there was an easter egg. – the smiling face of a certain Warren Davis, around 1993, when he developed a system for digitizing photographs and videos that was ubiquitous in the arcades of the 90s. He got into the game, alongside real NBA players. “I would do this trick with my initials in arcades back then and scare people,” he laughed. Alongside NBA Jam, a few Mortal Kombat machines also used its scanning technology.
“I was a programmer on that one when the original programmer was fired,” he said, scanning the room for more. “Oh, and there’s Narc, our first 256-color system. I wrote the display system, Eugene (Jarvis, who made Defender) wrote the OS. Between bursts of digital and bloody gunfire, a screen reminded you: “Say no to drugs”.
We moved between the rows of games and stopped.
“Terminator 2, T2 — huge success! At one point I quit video games and wanted to be into improv, but then I came back as a replacement and programmed enemies and a bunch of other stuff, helped with scanning algorithms and compression, those video clips that you see. He grabbed the machine gun attached to the cabinet, and rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat-tat-tat – then abruptly stopped. “It’s not working well. The problem with these games is that they are hard to maintain, and like any story, you do what you can, but it never lasts.
He spotted a game called Argus. He studied the cabinet and stepped back, admiring. This game was never officially released, but the folks at Galloping Ghost are collectors, curators. They found one.
“I started learning how to make video games on it – I did some extra work.”
“Do you see this rubble? I made this rubble.
He’s 65 now, but 40 years ago he was a Brooklyn native and electrical engineer who moved to Chicago to work at Bell Labs. He developed systems for telephone operators. He was also young and restless. “I was going to be an improviser! I didn’t want to do engineering,” he said.
But curious about the games, he responded to an advertisement for help in the Tribune. Gottlieb, a longtime Chicago pinball machine maker, was hiring designers. “They were really late in the industry, and they hadn’t even made a single video game. And I didn’t know anything about game design. So I was amazed to get an interview. Turns out most of the guys I met there were all self-made. There were west coast companies like Atari, but a lot of the others – Bally, Midway, Williams, Stern – were from the area of Chicago and had been pinball surfing boom and crash, boom and crash. The arcade video game industry would do the same. When home game consoles began to overtake arcade games, I saw the writing on the wall, which is part of why I left, but for a while there was freedom and imagination all around.
Q*bert – Gottlieb’s solitary arcade industry blockbuster – was Davis’ first hit. We found three Q*berts along a back wall of Galloping Ghost, sitting under framed fan art of the game. The landscape is a floating tiled pyramid, and the goal is to jump over each square before coming across snakes cascading pogos and balls. That’s all the game Yet at the dawn of video games, it was enough. After its debut in 1982, more than 25,000 Q*bert machines were sold to arcades, pizza restaurants and convenience stores.
But it started off casually, more as a learning exercise than a game.
“I wanted to explore randomness in arcade games,” Davis said. “And I wanted real-world physics, so I programmed balls bouncing off this pyramid. I also wanted fantasy. Jeff Lee had created a sad orange bag of a monster but didn’t yet have a game in which one to insert it in. Lee, who wrote his own 2019 memoir (“Q*bert and We”), later told me that the character was somehow influenced by R. Crumb’s underground comix; de Q*bert was there to shoot slime, “but Warren didn’t implement that idea.”
In the end, despite being successful, they got bonuses from Gottlieb (who folded in 1996), but no royalties, or any part of the game’s profits – or even clear credit for doing so.
Which was pretty standard.
“Really the appeal then,” Davis said, “was the lack of rules. You could come up with any concept.
Indeed, as we were leaving Q*bert and moving on, we found another Davis experience, Exterminator. His office looked like a decrepit house with a pointed roof.
I pressed the player a button.
A pair of disembodied hands reached out toward a digital kitchen teeming with insects. “Alright now, catch those flies,” Davis said. “Beat the ground! Catch the flies! Don’t catch that wasp! Shake hands! Oh no. I think you got bitten.
What a strange game, I say.
“Yeah. People would say, what did you guys smoke?
Deep in the arcade, after Death Race and Tempest and Jungle King and Battlezone, we found one of the last hits Davis was involved with, a 1994 shooter titled Revolution X. It featured cameos digitized by Aerosmith .
“My contribution here was the display system. I was at Williams. We brought Aerosmith to our studio in California for three days. This is a dystopian takeover. Music is prohibited. The guards take Aerosmith away, and you have to fight your way through everything and find them. Really, you shoot all the time. I don’t think there’s any strategy there.
“No, wait, but don’t shoot Steven Tyler,” Davis sighed.
“Look, I know what we have here,” he said. “Modern games have stories. A beginning, a middle, an end. But there will always be the need for that too. Endless games. Like Wordle now. You put in some time, then you’re out. It’s more realistic for some. And that’s the beauty of technology. It gives us the state of the art, and it gives us Q*bert.
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