I'll be happy to answer your questions about the long ago old days at Atari in the coin-op division, as well as my more recent experiences programming using Unix and then teaching an array of subjects. I always like to answer questions on reading and writing, too. I earned two master's degrees starting when I was 48 years old, so I also understand being an older, nontraditional student. Ask me anything!

PROOF: https://twitter.com/dona_c_bailey/status/830210077428690947

Just to get things started...

I did a nice little video with VICE last year that you can check out here for more info on my background: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/meet-dona-bailey-the-unsung-programmer-behind-centipede

Links illustrating some of my more recent work:

My short video titled "Navy Blue Tautology," which defines a rhetorical term: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NYptcqF-LM

My short video on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Rhetoric and Writing department: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQmZWmlntPg

Current writing projects:

I'm working on three film scripts --

1) A movie inspired by the original 1966 Beaker Street program on KAAY.
2) A movie inspired by the life and work of Dr. Andrea Lunsford, a giant in the field of composition and writing. 3) A movie inspired by the work of Dr. Lori Baker, forensic anthropologist, and Jen Reel, producer of the digital project titled "I Have a Name."

Some of my favorite fiction: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry by Leanne Shapton

Best science book I read last year: The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Favorite photography collection in a book: The Imaginary Photo Museum by Renate Gruber, L. Fritz Gruber, Michael Rollof

I'm excited to be here, and thanks for having me! Oh, and I'm always open to hearing about your video game ideas. :-)

Thursday afternoon--I'm stepping away for a bit, but I want to keep answering your great questions later this evening and into the weekend. Back soon!

Thursday night--I've had a great time talking with everyone today, and I'll come back to answer more questions running through the weekend. I see some fun ones I didn't get to yet! More soon...

Sunday afternoon--I'm still answering questions as I have time, and I intend to come back later tonight. Thanks for all your questions and interest! I've had fun and I love to hear what's on your minds.

Late Sunday night--Thank you to everyone who asked me questions and read my answers! I appreciate so much that people are still interested in Centipede after all these years. Thank you to everyone who has fun playing it, too! I love hearing from each person who has good memories of fun times playing arcade video games.

Comments: 113 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

Drunken_Economist20 karma

Welcome! Of of the cool things I love to read about with early programming, especially on the Atari, is the clever "hacks" that had to be done to get around issues of limited memory, cpu cycles, etc.

What's the hack/workaround that you're most proud of? Do you think these creative solutions are a lost art now?

dcbailey26 karma

Hi! I worked in the coin-op part of Atari from 1980 to 1982, so my experience was in arcade games. I needed a ton of help from programmers around me who had much more experience and training than I had, in order for me to be able to program Centipede and make it look different from other video games at the time. I had to be taught every hack and workaround that was used in Centipede. The problems were the ones you listed--limited memory, limited cycle time, and so on. It took determination on my part to learn to work with Atari's great custom hardware and with the 6502 microprocessor in order to realize the visual effects I wanted for Centipede.

Maybe I'm most proud of what I call "happy accidents." One of those happy accidents was needing a trackball for a control since I was terrible with buttons, which had been used in the past. A second thing that was an accident, but turned out well, was the discovery of a differently tweaked color palette, which I think gave the game an edge in the long run.

I don't know if creative solutions in video games these days are accidents! Have you heard anyone talk about accidental discoveries that make a current game better? Interesting question...

thegreedyturtle3 karma

How do you 'discover' a color palette??

dcbailey13 karma

I "discovered" Centipede's different color palette as I watched the screen while our technician was making adjustments to the prototype game. I think he was maybe setting a potentiometer for the monitor, and whatever he was doing caused the color palette to change from primary colors to hot pastel colors. I made a little yip of approval for our technician to keep those colors, and that's what I called a discovery. It was only something I noticed instead of a discovery, I suppose, but it ended up that I could use the regular primary colors plus the hot pastel colors, and I loved it.

RunningForIt10 karma

What are you most proud of?

dcbailey27 karma

Hello! Do you mean what am I most proud of in my entire life so far? If that's your meaning, I believe I am most proud of reinventing my work in my late 40s. When I was in my late 40s, I wanted a different direction after 25 years of programming and systems analysis work. I earned two master's degrees beginning when I was 48, and I worked hard to earn a position as a faculty member at a university. It's hard to take up a new profession later in life, and I'm proud of that work.

suaveitguy9 karma

Who are the most significant pioneers in gaming that aren't necessarily recorded or recognized? Any one you could shed light on?

dcbailey13 karma

In interviews, I'm asked often about Carol Shaw, who was leaving Atari in the same month I started working there, which was in June 1980. I never met Carol due to this timing, and I would like to know more about her day to day experiences at Atari, as well as the rest of her professional career, too.

I'm always interested in learning about each individual's life/work balance, and I like learning what people did in the years following their twenties, since so many of us were in our twenties when we worked in the video game industry. In this vein, I'd like to know more about Roberta Williams and Brenda Romero, too.

Oltum9 karma

What is your favorite game to play?

dcbailey15 karma

Did you mean video game? If that's your meaning, I think the video game I've played and enjoyed most over the many years is Tetris. I first played it on a PC in the 1980s, and then I've played it in many other forms over three decades now. It's simple but it never loses its appeal in my view. My current favorite games are word games on my phone. I always liked word games in the past--on paper and board games--and I love having a lot of choices of word games on my phone now. What a treat!

Rikku82217 karma

As a woman in the early video game industry, did you feel that your experience was different from your male colleagues?

dcbailey8 karma

Yes, my background was really different from that of my male colleagues and my goals were informed by my background. My primary goal was to make a game that would be visually appealing to me. I wanted to make a game that was beautiful. My male colleagues were much more capable of programming good games, but I was more able to create something visually and topically different.

bacciagalupe6 karma

How original at the time was your work with Centipede?

Both as the concept with the game, what you were doing with particular hardware and things you were doing in code.

dcbailey11 karma

Hmm, that's hard for me to sum up. Centipede looked different from any other arcade game at the time, and I suppose the concept of shooting bugs made the game different from any other game at the time.

However, the board used for Centipede had been used before, and it was great hardware--stable, efficient, effective. I tried to learn to use it well, but it had been pushed and used well before Centipede. I was taught how to do everything I used in the code I wrote for Centipede, and I didn't write big pieces of the code that were drawn from other existing games.

While I worked on Centipede, I was inspired by playing Galaga, which I found visually delightful at the time. Any Centipede inspirations that seem to be derived from Galaga are tributes to my love of Galaga back then.

So how original was Centipede overall? When you put all that together, it looked different visually, and maybe that's it. :)

suaveitguy5 karma

What do you think of the potential in VR? It has come and gone as the next big thing a few times, seems like it might be waning again.

dcbailey10 karma

As a teacher, I very much hope VR will become readily available for students who need to practice skills in an environment where they cannot easily go in real life. There's such a need for practice opportunities as a way to more evenly distribute the future.

Sheerkan5 karma

Have you read the Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett?

dcbailey8 karma

No, do you recommend it for me? Is it a favorite of yours?

SiVGiV4 karma

How was it like working in the video game industry as it was still developing? What do you think of the video game industry today?

dcbailey14 karma

It takes hard work and a lot of concentration and focus to embark on and then complete any creative project, and it was the same back then at Atari. All creative projects demand specialized knowledge and skills, too, as well as daydreaming, inspiration, accidental discoveries, and luck.

All those things were true at Atari in the early days of making video games. Perhaps the one thing that was most different at Atari in those days, that I've never encountered anywhere else in my work, was the feeling of being on a frontier where there is no road map to look to as an example.

Because the video game industry was new, we weren't repeating past successes, we were forging new ground each day. That can be unnerving and lead to feeling lost sometimes, but it is also exciting and innervating at the same time. I remember wanting to have time and energy to dream more and dream bigger. I wanted to find new ways to use games to make people happy and to teach them ideas and concepts at the same time. I think I've continued through the years to want to use digital tools in those same ways.

suaveitguy3 karma

Did you see Pirates of Silicon Valley? Did it feel accurate to the era? Any films or books that accurately capture the video game world of the time?

dcbailey5 karma

I try to watch every film and TV series with any connection to that era. I especially like a documentary titled Silicon Valley: Where the Future was Born because it seems really accurate and exciting to me. I was thrilled when the female programmer in Halt and Catch Fire played Centipede two times in the pilot for the series. And very recently, a charming novel about that era was published, titled The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak. Rekulak's book is a narrative about the kids I hoped would like Centipede, and it was fun to think about the old days as I read it.

RellenD3 karma

Are there lessons you learned in programming that have translated in an interesting way to writing?

I have so much respect for the founding mothers of computer science. Why do you think modern computer science sector has taken such a male dominated form as it's matured?

dcbailey10 karma

I think my programming experience helps me in academic writing because I am willing to precisely follow conventions such as bibliographic formatting as if they are computer code. It's as if I play a game of it's not going to "run" properly unless I adhere to details correctly.

I too have a ton of respect for women who strive in any male dominated field. I believe that the powerful will always hang on to power as hard as possible in any field. Anyone who wants to enter a male dominated field needs to be ready to fight hard for as long as it takes. I wonder how many other women are not interested in expending energy on fighting long and hard. I've always felt more comfortable and creative when I didn't need to fight--when I could just do my work, try out things, and get on with a full life.

pro-user3 karma

Hi! Thanks for the AMA!

Did you include any cheats or Easter eggs in Centipede? Would you need to discuss that and/or get permission to do so beforehand, or could you do whatever you felt was right?

Also, do you currently own / have you ever owned a Centipede arcade?

dcbailey4 karma

I didn't include any cheats or Easter eggs in Centipede. Centipede was released maybe six months or one year prior to the first Easter egg idea in a game. Centipede has only 8K of code, so there was no room for anything extra. In coin-op we worked as teams, so even if I had wanted to include a cheat or Easter egg, I would not have been allowed to.

The tradition in coin-op was to give the prototype game to the programmer on the game team after a game had been released and was completely wrapped up. I kept my prototype Centipede in my home for about three years. In those days, an arcade game cabinet was really heavy, and most of the weight was up high in the cabinet due to the monitor. First I had my Centipede in the kitchen of a house I lived in, then it was in the den of my next house, then in the kitchen of my small Palo Alto apartment, and finally for me, back in the kitchen of a house in Portola Valley where I lived. I was exhausted from moving it around! When I moved from Portola Valley to Menlo Park, I donated my Centipede to the VA hospital where the author Ken Kesey worked when he was a student in the writing workshop at Stanford.

panth3rmic3 karma

You are an inspiration! After reading what you've read, I can see you as a definite role model.

Do you feel as if you've accomplished a lot within your life- especially as a woman involved in technology since its earlier days?

dcbailey4 karma

Since I'm so used to myself, I tend to see my shortcomings more than my accomplishments. I'm so grateful to have enjoyed technology so much since my first exposure in 1973. I know I did my best at all times, but I wish I had been better at extending myself and inserting myself into situations where I thought I had something to contribute. I guess we call that networking these days, and I was terrible at it when I was young. I'm not really good at it now, but I'm better, plus I'm lucky that people are still interested in me due to my work in the old days.

My advice, looking back, is if you want to work in a field, find an angle for entry and then push as hard as you can to get in. Try to find like-minded people to work with because it will be easier than hitting a wall every day. Never be afraid to tell people what you want. Ask for what you want as many times as necessary.

suaveitguy3 karma

Did you know Roberta Williams? What did you think of her work?

dcbailey9 karma

I've only heard about Roberta Williams, and I'm always curious about her experiences. I would like to meet her and hear about how she developed her awesome games.

suaveitguy3 karma

What was the most important watershed videogame ever made?

dcbailey6 karma

Wow, hmm. What would your answer be?

Back in the old days, I especially admired Robotron: 2084. I thought it was radically different for its time in visual appeal and in gameplay.

suaveitguy3 karma

Who were the oldest people you worked with when you were first staring out? Did you come across people like Ed Roberts or others?

dcbailey4 karma

At Atari, we fit into categories pretty well in my time in the early 1980s. Programmers and hardware engineers who did not have other responsibilities were mostly in their 20s, supervisors and management people were mostly in their early 30s, and I think people who were higher up in the administrative hierarchy were in their late 30s and maybe early 40s. I spent most of my time with other people who were in their 20s, just as I was. It's funny, but I had always been the youngest person at any previous workplace. At Atari, where I was 24 to 26, I was not "old" but I was two or three years older than a lot of people. Overall, we were young and frequently immature, but doing our best.

suaveitguy2 karma

Pound for pound, what has been the best gaming platform ever created? What about the all-time best programming language?

dcbailey10 karma

Whew! I have no idea, and I'll bet you are much better able to answer those questions than I am. What do you think?

opinionatedb2 karma

What motivated you to return to school for writing?

dcbailey6 karma

I entered into my first master's program because I was teaching at a two year college that was transforming into a four year college, and everyone on the teaching staff needed a master's degree for accreditation. My first master's was an M.Ed. in instructional design, which was perfect for my teaching work at the time. That master's degree was earned because I needed it.

My second master's degree was earned out of my love for reading and writing. I have always been a big reader, and I love writing, too. I adored learning how to motivate students to write better and to write with more confidence and less anxiety. Along the way, I hope I encouraged my students to be better readers, too.

Rogeroga2 karma

Can you describe your working environment when you were doing Centipede? How did you get user feedback?

dcbailey5 karma

At Atari, I worked in the office park setting of 1272 Borregas in Sunnyvale. Coin-op had the first floor of the engineering building. I had a cubicle with a desk where I could write code, and Centipede had a portion of a lab where I could work on the game in a prototype cabinet. During development, all games got user feedback from other people in coin-op, as well as the occasional person from the cartridge department, which was on the second floor of our building. For feedback, I watched other people play, I listened to their comments, and I sometimes took notes about what they tried or if the game seemed to have a bug. Later during game development, we had a formal focus group, led by Atari marketing, where Centipede was played and tested. After using focus group comments and testing for further development, we field tested Centipede in an arcade in Mountain View.

suaveitguy2 karma

What is the most profound thing you know about language/communications?

dcbailey4 karma

Hmm, that's a deep one. Maybe my most profound opinion about language and communication is how hard we must work at using language to effectively communicate, and how easy it is to leave out details needed for effective communication. I'm always profoundly moved by how readily and how constantly we shift and adjust our language and forms of communication in order to be appropriate in all our various settings. Learning to do this shifting and adjusting effectively is a life's work in itself, and the resulting efforts are beautifully human.

samwise09122 karma

On a personal level, what are some of your favorite films?

dcbailey3 karma

One of my all-time favorite films is Reds, which was a giant project by Warren Beatty from 1981. I've watched it many times, and I never tire of its epic historical narrative. I especially like the way that Warren Beatty researched and included the "Witnesses" to give his film authenticity.

A favorite documentary is If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front from 2011. I like the way that film uses many elements of documentary to weave a complex narrative.

phoenixperry1 karma

Hello Donna! I'm so glad you did this. I met you once at the Game Innovation Lab at NYU. I'm the person who spotted you before the talk and ran over and hugged you like a fangirl. :D After hearing you speak, I wanted to follow your projects online but had a hard time finding you. What's the best way to keep up with you online?

dcbailey1 karma

Hi! I had the best time at the Game Innovation Lab, and I remember getting a hug. :)

Do you use Twitter? I'm @dona_c_bailey. What's your Twitter name? I hope we can keep up that way. Let me know, okay?

Sumidiotdude1 karma

In your opinion how important is music to the gaming experience?

dcbailey2 karma

I think music is tremendously important--essential, even--to every aspect of life. Music has been a solace to me and has made me optimistic since I was a little kid. Music as an element can make or break any creative project (film, sound installation, performance art, dance, and so on). In my opinion, music should be treated as an essential element in a game.

gusmoreno151 karma

One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite book, what is an another book by a Latin American writer that you love?

dcbailey4 karma

I never read Borges until I was in grad school, but now I so much admire and love his work, especially his fiction. Borges wrote a short story titled The Aleph, which has a description of a small sphere where all places on earth and all light can be seen in one spot, like some magical, digital orb. The Aleph is odd and trippy, and how Borges ever imagined it is wild to consider. He wrote a short story titled The Library of Babel, in which the universe is considered as some type of library database.

A more contemporary author I love is Roberto Bolano. I've read him only for fun, and I've read only a small portion of his work. His novel titled The Savage Detectives is cool, non-linear and filled with bohemians, poets and artists who are intriguing and compelling. Some day I want to tackle Bolano's massive novel titled 2666, but I've never felt I had time for its 900+ pages so far.

7ekneek1 karma


dcbailey3 karma

It's been 15 years since I taught Linux, but I loved having an open source Unix that I could share with so many students. Linux seemed like a great way to more evenly distribute the future to many more students.

I taught Red Hat Linux, and I suppose that is a really safe option, but it was good for a classroom setting because it was so stable.

I really admire Raspberry Pi, and do you call that Linux distro Raspbian? That's my favorite distro at this point.

care_session1 karma

Hi, Dona! First of all, thank you for doing this AMA!

I think it is inspiring that you changed directions in terms of career in a "nontraditional" form.

What type of advice would you give to others that are seeking to change up their current career path?

dcbailey4 karma

I think you're never too old to reinvent yourself. Try to get experience in the new field you're interested in before making a commitment to a change you're considering. For example, I taught faculty members in the Cal State system for a long time while I was working in Academic Computing at Cal State LA. I was certain I would enjoy teaching as a faculty member in a university setting due to that experience. After you commit to a change, be sure to get the proper training and education for your new field. It's never too late in life to be a good student.

can-fap-to-anything1 karma

I forgot how amazing the sounds are in Centipede! Did you all talk this stuff out and describe somehow what you were looking for? I mean, you kind of had to invent the language of talking about video games. It is so incredible to get access to you.

dcbailey1 karma

Hi, thanks for your interest. At Atari, we didn't talk very much about descriptions of what we were looking for when we programmed a video game. Most of the time, we tried things and then discussed the results of what we had programmed. We needed nouns and descriptors (such as motion objects, pokey chip, and cyan) in order to be specific about outlining work that needed to be done, but that was the majority of our discussions.

These days, the field of game studies has come a long way. I've read two books by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman that are very good regarding game design and gameplay. The two are titled Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals and The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. I recommend both of those books if you're interested in a formal (but not too formal!) discussion of game studies.

Darkmere1 karma

Through the years, UNIX has changed quite a lot.

Which of the changes to the Unix ecosystem surprised you the most through the years?

For me, it's been the migration of Unix from a large multi-user time-sharing system, to a small one-person-per-machine system.

dcbailey1 karma

Yes, it's certainly been surprising and excellent to watch the progression from large systems to small systems. Another surprise for me is the availability of terrific open source software that can match pricey options. It took me a couple of years to understand how great open source software is, but after that, I've remained a big supporter and promoter.

esplonky1 karma

I'm an Adobe Technology Partner so I must ask, How did you get into the world of Adobe?

dcbailey1 karma

I love the world of Adobe! What do you do as an Adobe Technology Partner?

I had to think for a minute about how I started using Adobe. I was lucky enough to work for universities in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and that's where I got my first exposure to digital tools such as Macromedia Director, Macromedia Flash and Video Toaster. Years later, in 2004, I loved teaching the first version of Adobe CS, especially Photoshop and Premiere. That's when I was working on my M.Ed., too, and I used Photoshop and Premiere for all my projects in classes and for my thesis. I'm not an expert in either product, but I love to play with them. I remember teaching myself back then to do the Ken Burns effect in Premiere, and I was so thrilled that I could make such a cool looking piece of video. Adobe has given me hours and hours of fun and enjoyment. Thanks!

_Boz_1 karma

What is your personal high score on Centipede?

I put so many quarters into this game but never really excelled at it. It stressed me out wayyyyy too much as a kid when those damn fleas started to drop. Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm stressing out again!

dcbailey1 karma

My high score was never very good. I played a lot while I was looking for bugs or weird quirks in the code during development, and I could consistently score around 140,000 points. That's it! That was my best.

Dr_Phag1 karma

Coincidently, I gave away an original Centipede to a friend today, I no longer had space for it. The game was originally my Dad's, who was a savant at it. Using no tricks, his games would last 2-3 hours.

As we were moving the unit, we talked about the amazingly original artwork. Any idea who the artist was that designed the cabinet?

dcbailey1 karma

Yes! I'm so glad you asked this question to give me an opportunity to write about the late, great George Opperman.

George Opperman was the creative director at Atari from the 1970s until his death in 1985. George created the original Atari logo, and he was responsible for all art and cabinet design for the coin-op arcade games in those years, including Centipede. To me, George was quiet and polite, always a gentleman with an exuberant sense of humor. He was wonderfully talented and his work added so much to our games, but he doesn't get enough recognition for his work, in my opinion. I believe his art work helped Centipede be a success.

If you're interested in reading extensively on this topic, I can recommend a great, recently published book for you. It is Art of Atari by Tim Lapetino, and it is excellent! It's filled with great photos and images, and there are several sections about George Opperman, too.

Dr_Phag1 karma

Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply; that book sounds like a great present for my dad's birthday next week. They say everyone is the best at something on the planet. My dad was the best at Centipede! Thanks for bringing him so much joy!

dcbailey1 karma

Oh, that's awesome to hear! It's an honor for me to be connected with such a good memory. Thanks for sharing.

SysTomBrady-1 karma

How much do you get paid ?

dcbailey5 karma

Are you asking about a certain time span in my career? Please expand your question and ask me again.