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The Making Of Gauntlet -- A Classic Arcade Game That Atari Never Saw Coming

DennisScimeca
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Posted March 8, 2012 - By Dennis Scimeca

Gauntlet Postmortem: “Wizard Needs Food!”

In this Gauntlet Postmortem from GDC 2012, Ed Logg told us all about what went in to making the classic arcade adventure.

Logg joined Atari in 1978 after getting in trouble with his previous employers for working on video games on the side, and worked on a slew of games for Atari including Super Breakout, Video Pinball, Asteroids, Centipede, Millipede, Xybots, Space Lords and Steel Talons among others.

In the cop-op industry, games were entirely completed for a field test. “If you don't get enough quarters, your game is dead,” Logg said. Those field test units had no marketing whatsoever, and 50-66% of games didn't get past their field test. Logg was chiefly responsible for 12 games for Atari, but only Asteroid, Centipede and Gauntlet were hits.

Logg drew from many different sources for his ideas. Atari had brainstorming sessions a few times a year, which Logg didn't find very useful. Centipede came from a game called Bug Shooter which Logg had assigned to a new hire.

Managers also had ideas, which is where Asteroid came from, and sometimes the programmers brainstormed among themselves, which is how Gauntlet was conceived.

Specifically, Gauntlet came about because Logg's son played Dungeons and Dragons, and had been bothering Logg for a year to make a D&D game. “I played Dandy on an Atari 800 and the bells went off,” Logg said. Dandy represented players in a dungeon using the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4, had monster generators, used money for treasure and red crosses for food, and had doors and keys, all elements which formed the core of Gauntlet gameplay.

There were a lot of design issues with Gauntlet which resulted in a number of arguments between Logg and his colleague, Roger Zeigler. They didn't know whether to use vertical or horizontal monitors, or if they should attempt to use interlaced video. Medium resolution was coming into vogue and there was a large push to use it, but arcade operators were resistant as they purchased the machines from manufacturers like Atari, and medium resolution monitors added an additional $300 per unit. The choice was between 19” and 25” monitors, but the latter cost an extra $100.

Logg also got into a huge argument with his boss, who wanted Gauntlet to incorporate personal memory devices so that players could store their progress. Not every game had PMD slots, and Logg had concerns about the slots for the PMDs getting gummed up, and eventually won the fight.

Gauntlet had some of the most elaborate hardware of any Atari game at the time. It was the first time Atari coin-op engineers had a voice chip. Additional circuitry was needed to support the game. Development began in 1983, but the complexity of Gauntlet combined with layoffs at Atari delayed the release. First Logg's partner Robin Ziegler was laid off. Then the hardware engineer was pulled from the project. Logg was assigned to work on a Road Runner video disc game and didn't return to  Gauntlet until 1985 when an engineer, a second programmer to complement Logg, four artists, a technician and three audio engineers were added to the project. This was considered a large project at the time!
   
The game was originally called Dungeons, but that name became unavailable in April of 1985. The project was christened Gauntlet the following month. Some of the character class names changed as well – the Valkyrie was originally the Amazon, and the Warrior was originally a Hulk – but Logg has no idea what motivated those particular changes.
   
In the coin-op industry in 1985, players were expected to play for 90-180 seconds per quarter. There was a resistance to 50-cent games and the dollar coin had failed, so Atari had been struggling to figure out how to get extra earnings from their games. That money would actually go to the operators who bought copies of games from the distributors to whom Atari sold the units, but obviously no operator would purchase a game which didn't perform. Gauntlet was just what the doctor ordered. It could support four players simultaneously, which meant it could potentially earn a dollar every 2 minutes, four times the normal profit. Players could come and go as they pleased, meaning there was no reason that four players wouldn't always be on the machine. There was no dead time waiting for other players to start, there was no slow ramp up to the action at the game's beginning, and players could insert more than one coin at a time.   
   
Atari's marketing department still had issues with the game. They were doubtful that four players would even play Gauntlet at the same time, as all of their previous games had been one or two players maximum. Marketing was worried about being able to get four players to insert coins all at once. Coin mechanisms jammed frequently, and the prospective Gauntlet machine would have four times the number of potential jams.

Work progressed on the game and technical solutions were turned into some of the basic play mechanics. A full level in Gauntlet is a 1024x1024 pixel world, but the screen was 320x240 pixels in size. In order to prevent players from walking off the screen, the game would force players to always be visible and adjust the scrolling accordingly. This helped to force players to play as a team.
   
Logg didn't want to use what he called “Robotron controls” (what we'd call a twin-stick-shooter layout) and so characters in Gauntlet could either move, or stand and shoot. This turned out to be a strategic choice, as was the programming decision to have enemies move toward the nearest player. This would allow teams to send out one player as bait while the others picked off the monsters.
   
Atari engineers used a maze editor to create the Gauntlet levels. The editor was so efficient that Logg was able to take a six-month sabbatical during the game's programming, during which many of the 100 levels were built. The need for so many levels was clear once Atari marketing voiced another concern: Gauntlet had no ending, whereas an ending was traditional arcade design. The design team thought about using some kind of final monster but didn't want players to lose coins. Instead, the levels were flipped horizontally and vertically to recycle them and keep the going.
   
Finally, it was time for Gauntlet's field tests. The way field tests worked is the operator kept the game secret and kept all the earnings, but had to tell the developer how much the test game earned versus other games in the arcade. The tests were outstanding, with Gauntlet machines making more money than anything in the test arcades. Logg had to pull one test unit from the field when he caught engineers from Sega taking pictures of the test unit!
   
While Logg finds focus groups useless, Atari conducted them on their games before release. In Gauntlet surveys done on the first field test, “the player ratings were almost as high as possible,” Logg said. Some players admitted to putting up to $50 into Gauntlet machines in a single session, which Logg said he still cannot believe.
   
When Gauntlet was finally released, it made arcade operators insane profits. An arcade operator in San Mateo, California earned $15,000 in 16 weeks. The best earnings came from a Canadian arcade owner who made $4,500 in 9 days in October, 1985. Atari shipped 7850 copies of Gauntlet within the United States, 2250 units to Ireland (when we asked “Why Ireland?” Logg wasn't sure, but suggested it may have been a European distributor), and 1500 units to Japan. By method of comparison to other shipped games around that time, Logg said Atari had shipped 2800 units of Temple of Doom, and 2250 units of Super Sprint.

Logg said that promotional videos were produced for showing in theaters, which was really unique at the time, and radio ads had been suggested for the field test. The marketing tag for Gauntlet was “The most fun a quarter can buy!” During the question and answer session following the Gauntlet postmortem at GDC, numerous people took to the microphones to thank Logg for having produced this seminal arcade game. Gauntlet's marketing tag may have held more truth than Atari's sales departments could have ever known.
   
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. In addition to feature writing and event reporting for G4, his work has been published on Kotaku, Ars Technica and Gamasutra. His weekly column First Person runs on The Escapist, and you can follow him at GDC this week on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.

The Making Of Gauntlet -- A Classic Arcade Game That Atari Never Saw Coming
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