She created the masterpiece Centipede with Ed Logg and it’s a pleasure to be able to chat to her about her brief but landmark gaming career. Here is Atari legend Dona Bailey.
How did you get the opportunity to enter the video game industry?
I got interested in video games when I was working as an assembly language programmer for microprocessors in Cadillac engines at a GM-Delco plant in Santa Barbara, California in 1980. My best friend was very interested in new music, and he played the first Pretenders’ album constantly. That album had an instrumental song called “Space Invader” on it. I didn’t typically like instrumentals, but I heard that one so much, I started really liking it.
Finally one night, I asked another guy who was standing around what that song was about, what the title meant, and he got wildly excited and explained it was about this great arcade game called “Space Invaders.” He said there was one in a bar close to where we worked, and I should go there with him at lunch some day to check it out. We went, he put in quarters, I got killed before I could figure out what I was supposed to do (I remember how frustrated I felt at being unable to even discern what I “was” on the screen), I recognized how much the game display looked like the climate control display I programmed on the car back at work, and that’s how I fell in love with video games.
I ended up moving to Sunnyvale in 1980 without a job or much of anything else. I don’t remember how I learned Atari used the same 6502 microprocessor I had programmed at GM-Delco (that’s the kind of thing I would Google today – how did anyone ever find out anything back then?), but I believed it was destiny for me to work at Atari after I found out. I knew not many people programmed in assembly language at that time, and I thought I would prefer making video games (hooray that you did! – Ed).
Centipede is a true Atari classic. Can you briefly run through how this game was developed?
Centipede was developed from July 1980 until its release in May 1981. It began with an idea from a brainstorming notebook kept by Atari: “A multi-segmented insect crawls onto the screen and is shot, segment by segment.” We started with a hardware board that had been used before and had been proven to be stable and durable. The raster graphics were developed, game play followed, scoring was added, sounds came after that, and then there were several iterations of making game play more challenging with new characters and graphics. All the standard video game features had to be added, such as test mode, attract mode, coin mechanism functions, cocktail table version, and so on.
There was a marketing focus group with feedback, then an arcade on-site test for a few weeks, and finally Centipede went to the production line where it was built and shipped out beginning in May 1981.
Alongside battling centipedes, you also need to fight off mushrooms, fleas, spiders and scorpions. Why was the game called Centipede and which is your favourite enemy within the game?
Since the game started with the idea of the “multi-segmented insect,” the centipede was the first character drawn, and it was always called Centipede. I think I’ve always been partial to the character of the spider because it is bratty and unpredictable. I was afraid of spiders, and I liked the idea of a digital battle with one on the screen of my game.
Is it true that you aimed to develop Centipede for the female market, and if so, how did you aim to achieve this goal?
Centipede looked different from prior Atari games, and I hoped everyone–not just females–would like it, but I had no idea, really.
I wanted it to look shimmering and appealing in a darkened arcade, and I wanted the game play to be compelling, like a battle with instantly familiar characters. I hoped that everyone would like using the easy-to-control trackball. I hoped since I liked the game, others would, too.
Did you help develop any other games for Atari?
After Centipede, I worked on a game I called “Weather War,” but I didn’t complete it before I left Atari.
How does it feel to be one of the first female video game programmers of all time and were you ever treated differently because of your gender?
I feel nostalgic for that time and place, much the same as anyone else who is frequently labelled a “pioneer” in any culture, especially in one’s dotage (or impending dotage). I believe that being viewed as a female pioneer leaves me longing even more to explain at length how that lost world felt before it disappears from living memory. It takes a long time to share all the details of a person’s formative history, especially from such a distinctive time and place.
How long did you work at Atari and how would you describe your time at such a pioneering and iconic company?
I worked for Atari from June 1980 to September 1982. As I mentioned, it takes a lot of words to describe such a singular experience. Now I so much wish that I could make a documentary film about that time using archival sources such as photographs and diaries or letters. We took almost no photographs while we were at work, and I didn’t keep a diary or write many letters, so making a documentary is out. It will take a lengthier format than this, such as a narrative film or a memoir, if I ever fully describe my experiences in that time and place.
Are you still a gamer today and what is your favourite video game of all time?
Occasionally these days, I play word games on my phone to relax if I’m waiting somewhere. I’m not sure I was ever much of a gamer except while I was at work. On my own, I’m a reader and a writer. As for a favourite game of all time, I like that I can play Go or chess by myself on my phone for free. I would have loved that while growing up as an only child.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m working to write three film scripts, all for narrative films:
1) A film based on my time at Atari.
2) A film loosely inspired by the original 1966 Beaker Street program on KAAY.
3) A film very loosely inspired by the work of Dr. Lori Baker, forensic anthropologist, and Jen Reel, producer of the digital project “I Have a Name.” Recently this script has morphed to include indigenous horses of the American southwest, too. I enjoy doing research.
I still read as much as possible these days, too.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Hmm. That’s a hard one for me! Would AlphaGo, Deep Blue, or Watson drink with me? That would be cool, right? I know they’re not characters, and I know I would waste their time, but maybe they would teach me something over a gin & tonic or two. Cheers!