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Jeff Lee

Jeff Lee was a graphic artist for Gottlieb, and is known by and large
as the creator of Q*Bert. He also contributed to Krull and other coin-ops.

MT> You are known by and large as the creator of Q*Bert. Is there another project that you would like the readers to know about that perhaps you are not usually associated with - something that didn't make it so big that you are proud of?
JL> A project which was a lot of fun was a redemption game called "Double Cheese". This was another one of Howie Rubin's games which we did around 1993 for his small company H.A.R. Howie had been the video division VP at Gottlieb during the Q*Bert days. The hardware and software was designed contractually by the staff of a Chicago video distributor. Howie conceived the gameplay, basically a roulette game. But, he allowed me pretty much free rein with the theme and graphics. I tried initially to convince him to call the game "Slick Wheelie" and make it a Clinton theme, but he didn't want to tread there.

So, we settled on a laboratory of a deranged scientist tormenting a bunch of lab rats wearing boxer shorts and dago-tees. It was a very simple game, but the graphics were very cartoonish, with enough oomph to allow good animation sequences and wide color range.

MT> Your first job for Gottlieb was a variation of pinball and a videogame. Please tell us about the game Caveman.
JL> A standard pinball machine was equipped with a small color monitor mounted into the upper playfield. "Caveman" commences and finishes with standard pinball play, however when the ball was snared by one or two capture holes, the video game started on the monitor. At this point the player switched to a joystick to control the Caveman who raced around a maze. I'm a little hazy on the gameplay, but it was essentially Pac-Man style. (I don't remember if Pac-Man was released in the U.S. at the time or note.) The Caveman alternately chased or was chased by dinosaurs and a mammoth. The player racked up points and when a life was lost, the video turned off, the pinball was ejected from the capture hole and the pin game continued.

The available memory for sprites and colors (4) was very limited. The graphics were created on an Apple II. I think one of programmers wrote a little utility for sprite creation, but I had no tool to check out the 2 or 3 step animation, other than flipping paper. I had to burn the set onto EPROMs and then we could check it out on the wirerap hardware once the code was in place.

MT> You have created artwork for numerous videogames. How did you approach the creative process? Did you have a particular system for creating characters and artwork?
JL> It depended on the development stage of the video game operation of the company, the source of the game concept/theme, whether it was original to the programmer/designer or tied in to some cross-marketing concept. Fortunately most of the projects were original in concept. These were always more fun. The biggest consideration was the limited number of available foreground and background haracters/sprites. Once the hardware system was complete and more staff brought on board, our guys wrote graphic utility programs for me. FOGUS (foreground object graphic utility system) , BOGUS (background object, etc.) and GAS (Gottlieb animation system) all improved my ease and speed of working.

Since typically a game was designed by its programmer I would consult with them regarding the theme, make sketches and run it by them... often creating several choices of characters. I think we were all pretty accommodating of each other, they were often glad to get any art since I was the only artist initially, or they just liked what I came up with. Often Howie and Ron, our VPs, would throw in a suggestion, a request or a veto, which might or might not be acted upon. But in general they gave us a wide latitude and seemed pleased with the art.

MT> How did the works of M.C. Escher influence the creation of Q*Bert?
JL> I love his work. Of course he had used the motif of the cubes in some of pieces...I don't imagine he originated it...he had studied the ancient Moorish tiles of Islamic Spain, but collections of his work certainly brought it to my attention in the early '70s. His stunning pieces such as "Relativity" absolutely inspired the notion of Ugg and Wrongway traveling in their unique orientations. In my original game description I proposed that Q*Bert be able to switch orientations and only be subject to enemies of that plane. This was not implemented because it was either not a good idea or we lacked the memory for the additional sprites needed.

MT> The original name for Q*Bert was 'Snots & Boogers' - This was obviously changed. Why?
JL> It was probably considered too vulgar for a business in an industry which had always struggled against the taint of disrepute.

MT> The Q*Bert character was originally to shoot projectiles from his nose. Do you feel that gameplay could have been improved with this design element intact?
JL> We'll never know unless some hacker implements it. In retrospect, considered how many video games evolved into unwholesomely violent and gruesome presentations, it's part of the innocent charm of the game that Q*Bert is "unarmed". Plus, it makes him seem like more a sympathetic plucky noser, surviving by his wits and dexterity.

MT> The chosen name of Q*Bert evolved from the combination of 'Q' (short for 'Cube') and the name Hubert. Cube + Hubert = Cubbert. Shortened for pronunciation to 'Q-Bert.' The obvious question: What's with 'Hubert', and why was that name chosen?
JL> My recollection is a meeting with Howie and my boss, Richard Tracy, Gottlieb's art director. Richard and I had lists of names. We just threw them out in a brain-storming process. I've always credited Richard with the Hubert/Cube hybrid. Cubert, which sounds right, however doesn't look as cool as Q*Bert, in which we were able to include an asterisk, which was reminiscent of the @!#?@!. Why was it chosen given the alternatives? I don't know. We needed something. Howie liked it.

MT> You created the expletive '@!#?@!' Did this have a particular meaning, or simply meant to imply some random cussing?
JL> It implies random cussing.

MT> What type of tools did you use to create your images and artwork - pen and pencil, computer, or another medium?
JL> Pens, pencils, stat and Polaroid cameras and computers. For M.A.C.H.3 I made a model of the plane for reference. Some later games which were never completed also involved building models or human models taking Polaroids and using them as guides. I would trace over them with tracing paper and from the tracing paper then on to grid paper over a light table. I might color the grid paper drawings and then fire up FOGUS to recreate my grid drawing, all with key commands. No mouses, no digitizing. Pretty primitive by today's standards, eh?

MT> The character of 'Sam' was named in reference to your fellow co-worker Sam Russo. How were the other character names developed?
JL> Coily is a pun. Ugg and Wrong-way were just picked from lists of suggestions. Slick and Sam is a variant on the phrase Spick and Span, Slick because of the shades and Sam because of Sam Russo.

MT> Please tell us about the special Mello-Yellow version of Mylstar's Q*Bert Qubes.
JL> You know, I had completely forgotten about that until a fan emailed me one day. All I remember is having the opportunity to created some huge foreground sprite animations (made up of little sprites ) by virtue of an extra ROM chip or something. I think a big Q*Bert, in a shameless commercial plug, flies along on the spinning disk. He comes across a huge can of Mello-Yello and his nose grows out and serves him as a straw to empty the can.

MT> Krull is one of my personal favorite classic games. What was your contribution to Krull?
JL> Just the artwork. Matt Householder and Chris Krubel were given the assignment and they designed the gameplay, the racks and wrote the code. As always we were constrained by memory limitations. I believe I had a different background set available for each scene, but only one foreground set, so the hero and some bad guys get reused, but some sprites, like the boulders and the Beast, only appear in certain racks.

MT> Q*Bert has become a popular icon for videogames, and is still very familiar after all these years. At the time, you certainly knew that Gottlieb had a hit on their hands, but did you ever think that you would be responsible for creating such a famous character and that it's popularity would be so long lasting?
JL> No, I never imagined in the beginning that 17 years later that people, and not just aficionados, would still remember. It's been rather an anomaly in my career, but I am pleased to have made a minor contribution to popular culture. My kids and I really get a kick out of Q*Bert references which have appeared on our favorites TV shows, like "The Simpsons" and "Futurama".

And as always, I want people to know that Q*Bert the Game was truly a product of teamwork. Without talented people like David Thiel (who created the wonderful sounds), Ron Waxman, Kan Yabumoto and the other engineers (who created the hardware, utilities and made valuable suggestions), Howie and Richard, and above all Warren Davis ( who took the artwork of characters and a pile of Escher cubes and the germ of an idea and turned it into a classic video with his code and creativity) Q*Bert would never have come to pass.


Jeff Lee was kind enough to pass along this interview to other parties that were involved within the production of Q*Bert,
and they in turn chose to contribute, as well. Below are their comments.


Comments from Ron Waxman:
The name Q'bert was derived from Cubbert but I felt that this would be mispronounced as cub as in (cub scout) bert. So I suggested that cub become Q. Then the name would not suffer from pronunciation ambiguities.

Comments from Howie Rubin:
A couple of comments from my point of view:

1. I wanted to kill Caveman which was a product that we inherited from the pinball guys, but I lost the battle at corporate. I do not remember who did the video programming but I apologize to that team for making them finish the job. Maybe the team got even with me by setting me up in an interview with the Village Voice -- where I was labeled the Pinnochio Esc. Howie Rubin.

2. I have been involved with at least 50 games that have been brought to the market and at least that many that haven't. Q*Bert and Double Cheese were the smoothest developments that I have been associated with.

3. I credit Q*Bert's success to the fact that Ron and I went to California for a week. As I remember the chain of events Kan was playing with Escher drawings. He showed me some images including the cube. We talked about the ability to build 3 dimensional playfields with out a lot of memory. I asked you to play around with the concept and by the time Ron and I got back from our trip the basic concepts were demonstrable on a screen. Ron and I made the no brainer decision to continue the project and turning it over to Warren.

4. I take full credit for changing the name to anything but "Snots and Buggers." I just knew that I wouldn't be able to explain that to Columbia Pictures and Coke.

5. Krull was great. To bad the movie sucked.

6. I can not understand why Superman or whatever we called the game wasn't a smash hit.

7. Little known fact, I released 6,000 Mach 3 games months before we ever put the game out for test. We needed something to build. We were faced with huge lead times. I knew that the software and game play were right. Ron assured me that if I bought the parts Jun, Jim, Bill Jacobs and whoever else worked on the hardware would make it work and so it did. The first 6,000 game were a tremendous success. I left the company as they were coming off the line and because I love to blame Ron for everything including the voting mess we are in - he should have never released the next 4,000 units.

Q*Bert has impacted many people in many ways, and we all remember Q*Bert fondly!
From the creators such as Jeff, to the players such as yourself, it can not be denied that Q*Bert has stood the test of time and is a part of pop culture even today, almost two decades later. Thanks Jeff!

Want to thank Jeff Lee? E-mail Jeff
Visit Jeff's website



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