During the 1970s and 1980s, Atari programmers and designers crafted hundreds of new video game play experiences for millions of people. This summer The Strong will open Atari by Design, a temporary exhibit (June 22 – September 8, 2013) that features one-of-a kind concept art and design documents and explores the designs behind some of Atari’s most significant arcade video games and video game consoles. There are few better examples of Atari’s cutting-edge game and industrial design work during the 1980s than the 1985 sword and sorcery game Gauntlet. The making of Atari’s four-player dungeon adventure game illustrates some of the challenges and rewards of bringing a truly innovative arcade game from concept to creation.
In late 1983, Atari programmer and Asteroids (1979) creator Ed Logg began work on Gauntlet (originally titled “Dungeons”), an arcade video game Inspired by his son’s love of the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and Dandy (1983), a D&D-style game for the Atari 800 computer. Following the infamous crash of the video game industry in 1983, the market for coin-operated video games began to shrink dramatically. At the same time, route operators who purchased increasingly expensive games and split their profits with location owners found it more and more difficult to get a return on their investments. In an environment in which consumers resisted spending more than one quarter on a game, Atari needed to, as Logg told ICHEG, figure out “how to get more money for the same amount of time.” Gauntlet’s unique design provided the answer: four simultaneous players each spending a quarter for the same amount of time.
Yet getting four players around the same game proved just as challenging. Early on, Atari’s marketing department questioned whether people would play a game with a group of strangers. According to Logg, a field test “proved without a doubt that [Gauntlet] would work.”
The game gave players the opportunity to control one of four fantasy characters—Thor the Warrior, Thyra the Valkyrie, Merlin the Wizard, and Questor the Elf—on a sprawling, top-down trek through endless dungeon mazes. As if fighting off monsters wasn’t hard enough, an avatar’s health points constantly ticked down, encouraging players to cooperate with each other to beat back evil hordes; to compete with each other for keys, potions, and food; and to spend extra quarters in order to replenish their character’s health.
But before players emptied their pockets to play Gauntlet, Logg and Atari designers needed to create a cabinet that could accommodate four players at once. As Logg explained, “One real problem was the players had to stand a little off the side,” which meant the game “required more floor space in an arcade or street location than a normal game. This reduced the places the game could go and it was one issue we could not solve.” Nevertheless, the final version of Gauntlet was a marvelous combination of function and aesthetics. It included a cheaper, but more reliable 19” monitor instead of its original 25” monitor with no plexiglass between the screen and the player to reduce glare. The front of the game also had four coin mechanisms—one per player—to eliminate confusion over whose money added health to whose avatar. The massive cabinet featured enchanting fantasy side art of the warrior, valkyrie, wizard, and elf battling a host of monstrous creatures.
Like other popular arcade games before it, Gauntlet’s four-player design proved so innovative that other industry leaders quickly copied it. In fact, soon after Sega management and engineers saw Gauntlet at an Atari field test site the company developed and released their aptly titled, but largely forgotten, four-player, side-scrolling platformer, Quartet (1986). Other popular arcade games, such as Konami’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989) and The Simpsons (1991) successfully emulated the four-player-at-once formula. It’s a formula that helped change an industry dominated by one-player standard game cabinets and proved that an arcade game could encourage people who’d never met before to play together.