The creation of the Centipede arcade game

Dona Bailey, who recently left Atari and joined Video Inc.., is apparently the only woman designing coin-operated games in the United States today, although a few other women design home games. Centipede was his first attempt, and it was a resounding success. She attributes it to beginner’s luck, a series of accidents, and intuition.

“When I came to Atari, everybody was doing a space game or a war game,” she said. “I didn’t want to do either. I thought the games could be more appealing, but I didn’t know what to do, so I said nothing. I was supposed to do a laser tag, and I didn’t want to.

“Atari was holding a notebook of game ideas, and there was a phrase – a cross-segment worm comes out, gets shot, and shatters into pieces – that I kept coming back to. It wasn’t that a worm was attractive, but it was the only different idea in the whole book. So when a few people said maybe we shouldn’t do another laser tag, I said, “Have you seen that worm?”

This article was first published under the title “Centipede: the worm that turned the tide”. It appeared in the December 1982 issue of IEEE Spectrum as part of a special dossier, “Video games: the electronic big bang”. A PDF version is available on IEEE Xplore.

“Design Centipede– it was always called Centipede– was a logical progression; nothing was removed once it was put in place, which is rare. For example, I wanted to make sure I was turning the centipede to the right places as it moved across the screen, so I put in visual markers to help me program – just little dots. People came up and said the dots were really stupid and I should flip them. I never intended to leave them in, but it made the screen a maze, and that was better. I didn’t like the idea of ​​the rocks, so I started messing around with some graph paper and found the mushrooms.

“Then I wanted something more threatening to the player, something that was closer to the bottom of the screen. I thought of a spider, because I’ve always been afraid of spiders – when I see a spider , I think she’s coming for me. I did the spider over the Thanksgiving holiday. And had fun trying out a bunch of different moves for a week.

“They were all pathetic. Then I had the idea to bounce the spider up and down – it was like bouncing on a thread from a web. I was so happy.”

With the exception of the spider, the sounds of Centipede were made by Ed Logg, designer at Atari. “All the sounds were deep,” Ms Bailey said. “I wanted something sharper, so I made it.”

“Because Centipede was so successful that Atari started looking for designers who were interested in something other than space and war.

Game Reviews Centipede focus on “incredible colors” that stand out; they were unlike anything in the arcades. “First of all Centipede was black and white,” Ms. Bailey recalls, “but Missile Commanderd came out eight months earlier, and there were colors, so I wanted colors. I argued for a long time and finally got the eight standard primary colors. I said that was not enough. I wanted more colors, like purple, because there was a purple craze at the time, and I always wore purple and brightly colored clothes. They had never had a programmer before, and they teased me like I was from another planet.

“I kept asking for different colors, and only my tech was listening. He came up with a different set of very bright colors, but I wanted pastels. One day he was standing behind the cabinet, tweaking the resistors, and by accident he came across an amazing color scheme. I said stop!’ He hated the colors and wanted to change them, but I wouldn’t let him. For days I sat around playing with new color combinations. People would come and see and say, ‘Blah!’ Even after it worked well, the other designers kept saying “Blah!” but the women tell me they like the colors.

Another thing reviewers like is the simple trackball control used to play. Centipede. “They didn’t want me to use a trackball,” Ms. Bailey explained. “Ed was really big on buttons. He thought if you gave people enough buttons to occupy their hands, they’d be happy. I thought with all those buttons, I wasn’t going to be able to play it – I could never play Missile Command or Defender – and I had to play it to program it. On top of that, people who watched the game thought that maybe I was designing a game for little kids – and little ones kids can’t handle a lot of buttons.

“For a while there was a joystick, but it was awkward, and I think the controls should feel natural. I finally convinced them to try a trackball, just so I could use it while I was working – the game was produced with a trackball.

“Because Centipede was so successful that Atari started looking for designers who were interested in something other than space and war.

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