Q&A: How Centipede Co-Creator Bailey Got The Bug

Ahead of her keynote appearance at the Women In Games International conference in Austin next month, Gamasutra has tracked down Centipede co-creator Dona Bailey for a rare chat on how she came up with the iconic Atari bug-centric shooter.
As the co-creator and coder of the classic 1980 arcade game Centipede, Dona Bailey is responsible for an important early Atari title that played a huge part in depleting allowances week after week, quarter by quarter, in record time. Beyond the effects of her game, though, Bailey was one of the earliest female game creators, and led the way for a great many women who followed in her footsteps and saw her as the consummate role model. On September 8, 2007, Bailey will share that experience when she delivers the keynote speech at the “She Got Game” Women In Games International (WIGI) Conference in Austin. Starting At Atari Now an instructor of writing at The University of Little Rock in Arkansas, Bailey said Centipede came about in a rather unusual way. “I didn’t start at Atari with an idea for a game burning inside me,” she recalls, “but I was supposed to envision a game and program it from my first day there.” According to Bailey, Atari used the “sink or swim” method of new employee acclimation back then. Bailey turned to a notebook of game concepts collected during Atari brainstorming sessions. “I was freaked out by the magnitude of this and pretty much everything else about the atmosphere at Atari. Atari was a definite case of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ and I wanted something good from the brainstorming notebook in order to get started.” The Inspiration For Centipede She flipped through its pages looking for an idea or inspiration. “Most of the other games in the notebook were based on lasers, wars in space, and shoot down this and that aircraft.” The inspiration for Centipede, on the other hand, was described as “a multi-segmented bug crawls out on the screen and gets shot, piece by piece.” Thinking it sounded different from everything else in the book and on the market, Bailey warmed to the idea. “It sounded the most different from the other game descriptions and was the most appealing to me,” she said. Her recollection of Centipede’s beginning is a window into the earliest days of the industry. “I began by making Centipede’s drawings at my desk, by hand, on graph paper. I would draw a box the size of the motion objects, now more commonly called ‘sprites’, color in ‘pixels’, graph paper squares, flip the drawing on its side, convert it to hexadecimal, and then hand-code the hex pattern into a PROM. That was the method of the day, and that was the place to start.” Conclusion Whether Bailey or anyone working with her knew that those humble beginnings would lead to a one of the most iconic games of a generation and an industry is unlikely. But as one of the earliest women in the industry, Bailey has a unique perspective of what it means, has meant and may well mean to be a “woman in games”. Bailey will be the keynote speaker at WIGI-Austin, which takes place immediately following the CMP Game Group-run Austin Game Developers Conference on Saturday, September 8th. More information on the event is available at the official WIGI website. AGDC pass holders will be admitted for no charge, but must pre-register. [Interviewer Brenda Brathwaite, who also serves on the Steering Committee of WIGI, is a 25-year veteran of the video game industry (Wizardry series), and current Professor of game design at the Savannah College of Art & Design.]

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