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David D Thiel

If the character string,"@!#?@!" means something to you,
then you know David Thiel's audio work. David gave a voice to Q*bert,
and worked on many high-profile arcade coin-op and pinball machines.

MT> You came up with the idea of using the random phonemes of a speech chip to make Q*bert speak gibberish. How and why did you arrive at the idea and decision?
DT> Out of frustration. Reactor was my first audio task for Gottlieb. Management insisted that I use the Votrax. For development there wasn't anything more than a list of Votrax phonemes, a dictionary and assembly code. I spend two days trying to get the Votrax to say "10000 Bonus Points". I would try it out on people as they walked through the lab. After hearing it they would say "What are Bogus Points"? Chris Brewer who was providing tech support for me made the offhand remark about feeding the Votrax random phonemes. I programmed a test and I loved the results. Within that week I saw the Q*Bert character hopping around and I told Warren, "Boy, have I got something for you".

MT> Many players still swear that they occasionally hear Q*Bert say naughty things. Can you finally put to rest the rumor that Q*Bert states nothing specific other than "Hello, I'm turned on" when the coin-op is powered up and "Bye-bye" at the end of a game?
DT> Hello and Bye-bye are the only deterministic phonemes fed to the Votrax in Q*Bert,other than the "ahhhhhhhhh" when Q*Bert goes off the pyramid. There was a Q*Bert in the cafeteria which talked during the attract mode. One day I am sure that I heard it say "Radio Shack". For the record: no profanity is programmed into phoneme stream in the Q*Bert sound program.

MT> You have worked on several projects such as Guardian and Insector that never made it to market. How did you feel at the time when they were cancelled and how do you feel now decades later?
DT> For the majority of my time at Gottlieb I was the only sound programmer. Gottlieb moved their game programming to PCs early on which was inexpensive enough so that many teams could be developing games at the same time. At some point given how long it takes to make good audio with programs I knew that there was no way that all the projects could get the full treatment. So, I gave more attention to the projects that I felt had a chance. Guardian (Protector) was my second project and I worked very hard on it and it was disappointing for it not to get past the testing phase. Insector got the full treatment and I was disappointed in the decision not to make it. I saw the handwriting on the wall with Insector's failure and I started thinking about a life in interactive audio after Gottlieb.

MT> Reactor and Mad Planets have held up well over the years, still generating a cult like following despite never really reaching mass exposure. Why do you think these games have withstood the tests of time, and perhaps garnered more praise over the years? It was the audio, right?
DT> Game audio is like an amplifier: it makes the good stuff better and heightens the bad stuff. There is terrific interaction programmed into Reactor and Mad Planets and the audio makes it better. But without good interaction audio is just so much fluff.

MT> I have to walk on eggs so as not to offend you with the next question… In rock music, the drummer is often the “forgotten” player in the band. To those of us in the know, his contributions are easily as important as the lead guitarist or singer dancing around on stage making a fool of himself. In the video game arena, graphics always seem to lead discussions about a game. How do you feel about creating audio in such a video intensive environment?
DT> It is always a challenge. Literally it is out of sight, out of mind. Since the 80's both interaction and interactive audio have not moved forward anywhere near as much as game graphics. They just don't get the same investment in time or money. The good game audio guy has to be a salesman and promoter as well as a programmer, musician and audio engineer. He always has to justify his resources: time, disk space, CPU etc...

MT> Do you want to punch me now?
DT> nope.

MT> When you were working on the laserdisc game Mach 3, did you feel that laserdisc gaming was the future of the industry, as many at the time?
DT> No, it was nifty but it was a classic example of trading off game play for eye candy. They sped up the footage 2xs to make it more exciting. The problem was that this reduced the amount of interaction time with the background by 50%. This tradeoff is classic behavior in this industry. I left Mylstar before Mach 3 was put out on test as the coin-op downturn was looming.

MT> Were you a Three Stooges fan? Nyuk, Nyuk Nyuk!
DT> Yup, as a kid in Chicago region WGN played them every afteroon.

MT> How was working with coin-op videogames and pinball different?
DT> In pinball audio is a primary channel to the player. The pinball player looks at the bottom 3rd of the playfield to keep the ball in play. If you want to tell the player that multiball is enabled, changing the background music is more reliable than lighting an insert. So pinball audio is more essential to the project. For videogames, music needs to be used more judiciously than pinball. Videogames are more about making the graphic interactions tangible which is about FX.

MT> Did you have a preference between the two?
DT> I like doing both. They are very different. The pinball project is the right scale so that I can do it all and that is fun.

MT> Q*Bert is certainly one of the more popular projects that you have had the opportunity to work on over the years. Were you excited to hear about the revival of Q*Bert when the third game, Q*Bert 3, was announced?
DT> I was gone well before Q*Bert 3 was announced. Nobody has ever contacted me to consult with any of the many Q*Bert conversions.

MT> What restrictions have been placed on you when working with another company’s intellectual property or license such as Krull, Duck Tales, Family Guy, Spider-Man et cetera?
DT> I have come to call asset constraints "The Rules Of Engagement". Every project is different. For example: Spider-Man was a very liberal license. We had the rights to use dialog and sound FX from all three movies and we were provided discreet audio assets. However, we had no rights to any of the music. On the other hand, with Pirates of the Caribbean we could not use anything from the movies, no music, no FX or no dialog. These are two extremes and each project based on a license has an arbitrary set of constraints. With Family Guy we hit the jackpot. Seth MacFarlane did a custom speech recording session and recorded six Family Guy characters doing custom lines for the pinball game. This augmented all the lines of dialog that we were allowed to pull from all the episodes.

MT> Time Killers was a very graphic and gory game for the time. It was done intentionally to be over-the-top. Did the intense visual violence effect how you approached the audio aspects of the game?
DT> Time Killers was the first Incredible Technologies game to be based on audio sample synthesis rather than FM synthesis. I spent months recording foley for fights of all kinds. It was interesting but after 4 months of mayhem I was ready to do something else.

MT> You have worked on several platforms over the years. Is there are particular piece of hardware that you prefer to work on, think of as genius, or otherwise wish to comment about?
DT> My work spans 6502 software synthesis, FM synthesis, Rompler sample synthesis all the way to pre-rendered audio playback (Stern).

I have mixed feelings about the current state of game audio. The only interactive transform that I have these days is volume so my interactive efforts are limited compared to what I did in 1981 where every instance of every sound had the potential to respond to the nature of game interaction. Granted, when audio production is done with all the resources of my studio it sounds great, but it is harder to make pre-rendered about as bound to game interaction. So I look at it as a new opportunity to combine great sounding audio modified by interaction in modern games. Even though interactive games are 30 years old we still have a lot to invent.

MT> When working on Wheel of Fortune, did Vanna pick you a letter?
DT> When I did the audio for the Gametek version of Wheel of Fortune we had a babe who revealed letters but she was not Vanna due to license restrictions. Vanna was on the backglass of Stern's Wheel of Fortune but Vanna had no voice in the game.

You probably did not know it until now,
but you have heard David's work and have been moved by it!
David, we thank you for making some great games even greater.
In the ever popular wisdom of Q*Bert, we leave you with these parting words,

Want to thank David? E-mail David
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