The Creation of the Arcade Game Centipede

A pioneering female engineer fought hard for her colorful creature

3 min read
Centipede coin-op arcade game

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

“When I got to Atari, everyone was doing a space game or a war game,” she said. “I didn’t want to do either. I thought games could be more attractive, but I didn’t know what to do, so I didn’t say anything. I was supposed to do a laser game, and I didn’t want to do it.”

“Atari kept a notebook of game ideas, and there was one sentence—a multisegmented worm comes out, gets shot at, and breaks 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 game, I said, ‘Did you see that worm?’”

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

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

“Then I wanted something that was more threatening to the player, something that came close to the bottom of the screen. I thought of a spider, because I’ve always been scared of spiders—when I see a spider I think it’s coming to get me. I did the spider over the Thanksgiving holidays. And I fooled around trying a bunch of different movements for a week.

“They were all crummy. Then I hit on the idea of making the spider bounce up and down—it looked like bouncing on one thread of a web. I was so happy.”

Except for the spider, the sounds of Centipede were done by Ed Logg, a designer at Atari. “All the sounds were deep,” Ms. Bailey said. “I wanted something higher-pitched so I did it.”

“Since Centipede did so well, Atari has started seeking designers who are into things other than space and war.”

Reviews of the game Centipede focus on the “incredible colors” that stand out; they were different from anything in arcades. “At first Centipede was black and white,” Ms. Bailey recalled, “but Missile Command came out eight months earlier, and it had colors, so I wanted colors. I argued for a long time and finally got the eight standard primary colors. I said that wasn’t enough. I wanted more colors, like purple, because there was a fashion craze then for purple, and I was always wearing purple and brightly colored clothes. They never had a female programmer before, and they teased me as if I were from a different planet.

“I kept asking for different colors, and only my technician would listen. He came up with a different set of really bright colors, but I wanted some pastels. One day he was standing behind the cabinet, tweaking the resistors, and by accident he hit on an astounding set of colors. I said, ‘Stop!’ He hated the colors and wanted to change them back, but I wouldn’t let him. For days I sat around playing with new color combinations. People would come look and say, ‘Blah!’ Even after it did well, the other designers kept saying ‘Blah!’ but 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 give people enough buttons to keep their hands busy, they’ll be happy. I thought that with all those buttons, I wasn’t going to be able to play it—I never could play Missile Command or Defender—and I had to play it to program it. On top of that, people who looked at the game thought I might be designing a little kids’ game—and little kids can’t handle a lot of buttons.

“For a while it had a joystick, but that was awkward, and I think controls should be 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.

“Since Centipede did so well, Atari has started seeking designers who are into things other than space and war.”

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