Zaps: Retro Arcade Bar
Retro Arcade Bar | Coming to Bournemouth in 2018

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Dona Bailey - Centipede Programmer

Part of the joy with curating these retro arcade games for Zaps is learning the history that goes behind the creation of each title. This is particularly true with the older games such as Pac-Man and Breakout where ideas were born from unique places and programmers were essentially breaking new ground as they created games by the seat of their pants, figuratively speaking of course. Centipede is another game with an interesting story behind it.

Dona Bailey was an assembly language programmer at General Motors. She was inspired to join Atari following an introduction to Space Invaders which she realised used the same processor as the work that she performed at GM. At the time the ratio of male to female engineers at Atari was 30 to 1 and upon joining the team she was expected to have an idea in mind that she could start work on. Having lacked previous experience in game design Dona consulted an Atari notebook of previous game concepts and was drawn to an idea: “a multi-segmented bug crawls out on the screen and gets shot, piece by piece”. 

In a Reddit AMA in 2017 Dona stated, when talking about her lack of game-programming experience, "My primary goal was to make a game that would be visually appealing to me. I wanted to make a game that was beautiful. My male colleagues were much more capable of programming good games, but I was more able to create something visually and topically different."

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"My primary goal was to make a game that would be visually appealing to me."

Amongst her many contributions Dona is particularly proud of two 'happy accidents' that went on to define the game. The development version of Centipede was set up with a 'button-only' control configuration. In practice Dona found this frustrating to use as it hindered the gameplay. Because of this, a joystick was implemented but it failed to provide the smooth responsiveness that was required. It was at this point that a manager remembered a mini-trackball controller that Atari had recently developed. It was an instant hit for Dona who instantly loved the gliding motion which complemented the gameplay perfectly. 

The second happy accident centered around the unique look of the game. The game was undergoing an adjustment by a technician who needed access to the development model. Dona was patiently waiting to get the game back in order to continue her work. In an interview with Forbes Dona recalls what happened next "Our technician was behind the back of the game cabinet, and I was in front of the cabinet, watching the changes that were cycling through on the screen as he worked. Suddenly, the regular primary colors on the screen changed to hot and vivid pastel colors I had never seen before, and I made a yip of approval and asked our technician to keep those colors. I could hardly wait to work with the new colors that day, and I felt lucky that I was in the right place to notice an improvement that added no extra costs and used no extra space."

Over thirty years later Dona's contribution to gaming culture is still hugely enjoyed by gamers the world over. The online magazine 'Motherboard' posted this excellent interview with Dona on Youtube which is worth five minutes of your time. 

Paul Carr