In honour of Atari’s recent 40th anniversary, the Associated Press caught up with programming pioneer Dona Bailey, the mind behind Centipede and one of only the barest tiny handful of women making video games more than 30 years ago.
The first game Bailey ever played was Space Invaders, and when a friend showed it to her she got hooked the way so many of us do: “He gave me a quarter and I lost all my lives before I could even figure out what I was supposed to do on the screen. But I got really intrigued.”
A few months later she ended up working for Atari, where she was the only woman programmer in the arcade division — and she remained the only woman in the division until she left the company two years later. She may not have been at Atari long, but in the two years she was there she got to make her mark on one big project: Centipede.
She recalls a notebook that Atari had at that point, filled with ideas for about 30 game projects. The only idea that she didn’t find violent was a short, two-sentence description about a multi-segmented insect that walks out on the screen and winds its way down toward the player.
“The shooting part was left kind of implied because if the multi-segmented insect is the bad thing and the player is at the bottom, you kind of have to shoot,” she recalls. “But it didn’t seem that bad to shoot a bug.”
The idea of the game appealed to Bailey, so she began work on the “Centipede” project. She was the software engineer on the four-person team. There were no books, no tutorials, “no place to go when you needed help,” she says.
Of the finished product, Bailey says, “I always thought it was really beautiful, like a shimmering jewel when you walked into the arcade.”
For gamers who miss their arcade action, or who were simply born a decade or two too late, Atari has Centipede playable on their website. By which I mean, “I got sucked into playing Centipede for an hour when I only meant to get a quick screenshot.” Bailey and the rest of her team knew what they were doing.
Woman Behind ‘Centipede’ Recalls Game Icon’s Birth [New York Times, via The Mary Sue]