From your bird’s-eye view, you see it: a sea of ghosts and grunts, all full health, blocking your path to the exit. The rest of the party is behind you, ready to strike at a moments notice. The bravest of you, Thor, is carrying the final key. Your stamina wanes slowly, your stomach growls for food. You will need some if you are to survive. You give Thor the order, and the barbarian brandishes his axe as he unlocks the door. The monsters pour out, as you and the party do battle for what may be the last time….
The above description is likely an experience many fans have been through before. The overwhelming odds of a horde of monsters, coupled with the camaraderie of party members to help you through the ordeal without dying, is the core experience of the dungeon crawling sub-genre. Be it first-person, third-person, co-op, or single player, dungeon crawlers are a seminal favorite of many for their strategic play and crushing difficulty.
While many games are great in their own right for bringing this genre into the mainstream, one game cannot be overlooked for its contributions both in and outside the gaming industry. It is a game that was able to transcend its somewhat awkward design and pave the way for the likes of Diablo, Torchlight, and countless others that follow in their footsteps. That game is Gauntlet.
Developed by Ed Logg during the early 1980′s, Gauntlet would be a landmark first for the Atari Corporation as one of the first four player co-op arcade titles, eschewing the standard single-player or two-player competitive slant that most arcade games had at the time. It was a massive undertaking that could have failed miserably, and almost never came to pass.
“Gauntlet came into an industry that was dominated by player-versus machine experiences like Space Invaders,” states Jeremy Saucier, the assistant director of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. “There was some two-player but the standard was one person playing for 25 cents per game.” During the 1980s, Atari and other companies began to experiment on more sophisticated arcade machines, but they often resulted in failure due to the price of play. With 25 cents being the standard, games that were 50 cents or $1.00 were rarely a success.
Logg discussed this aspect of the game making process at the 2012 GDC. The coin-op industry was at the time sagging slightly because distributors were reluctant to take on new machines. Poor returns after price increases on more complex games primarily resulted in failures across the board. The average player was expected to play for 90-180 seconds, or two minutes per quarter. Because of this, Gauntlet’s design became a critical shift in the arcade industry, one that allowed four players depositing .25 cents a turn, meaning an average game of Gauntlet could net $1.00 every two minutes.
Logg first conceived of the game Gauntlet through two sources. His son, a huge Dungeons and Dragons fan, first brought the idea up make a D&D style game for Atari. The second source comes from a game called Dandy, first made for the Atari 800 (or Atari 8-bit) and later ported to the 2600 under the title of Dark Chambers. Dandy was among the first top-down dungeon crawl games ever made, and one of the few multiplayer games that followed what we now know as the classic Gauntlet design; two players traversing a maze-like dungeon, fighting monsters, destroying generators, and collecting treasure and food as they rush for the exit.
Dandy and Gauntlet shared many similar design mechanics, but Logg implemented major differences that would become hallmarks for the Gauntlet series. Food, which could be collected and used at any time in Dandy, was used immediately in Gauntlet. Gauntlet also slowly decreased your health as time went on, a mechanic designed to give a sense of urgency to arcade players while adding co-operative elements while playing. Finally, the characters were designed to have different strengths and weaknesses in Gauntlet, including speed, melee power, magic power, and defense, while in Dandy the four players were the same in terms of power, speed, and ability.
The similarities were so great, Dandy’s creator, John Palevich, took legal action to ensure that Dandy would be a protected copyright after he discovered the similarities between the two games. Among his demands, Palevich wanted to be credited as a lead game designer on Gauntlet, despite never working on the title himself. Atari declined this request back in the 1980’s, since adding his name to the credits would change the ROM’s configurations and be too expensive. The terms were settled amicably however, with Logg giving full credit to the influence of Dandy on the creation of Gauntlet.
The changes made to Gauntlet also helped with a logistical design issue that Logg was faced with: how to keep players playing. Logg implemented several firsts for Atari, from voice chip technology to include a “narrator” for the players, and extra large panels screens in medium resolution to compliment four players at a time, to fighting with Atari managers about including a personal memory device (PMD) into the machine to save progress for players. All of this made Gauntlet contain some of the most complex hardware of any arcade machine. Atari almost never released the project, believing it would be a failure as a cooperative machine. The game began development in 1983, but would be delayed for two years, partially due to layoffs incurred by the North American Video Game Crash, and partly due to the funding being delayed.
In the end, a large team of eleven, including artists, engineers designers and technicians, created the Gauntlet machine we know today, complete with the sound chips, scrolling levels, and the extra-large cabinet and monitor design to accommodate four players. Atari was still dubious the game would work. “The marketing department said that would never work,” said Saucier. “They questioned whether you would get four people, who did not know each other, to play together. But when Atari put this game out to test, it performed very well. It proved that people who did not know each other would play together.”
The games design became a major sticking point, one that Saucier believes created a logistical problem for cabinet makers at the time. Saucier recently acquired a collection of design documents from Atari that pertained to Gauntlet, documents that were recently released and reported on by Polygon on June 6th. “When you look at some of the documents, you’ll see problems like how you get four people together at a machine and actually be able to see everything,” he said. “Problems like shades and glare, angles of view. You are dealing with design issues where if you fix one thing it creates another problem. This collection illustrates how much went into these designs and how creative this process really was at that time.”
Despite the logistical “problems” from a design point of view, the field tests proved to be very successful, with Gauntlet making more money than arcade stalwarts like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man at the time. Logg even had to pull a test unit from an arcade because SEGA attempted to photograph the machine, likely interested in the design specifications for their own games. Focus groups were also conducted, with some admitting to spending upwards of $50 on a single Gauntlet machine in a single session. Overall, Gauntlet would ship 7,850 copies in the United States alone, and another 3,750 worldwide. As a comparison, one of the top selling Arcade titles by Atari in 1985, Temple of Doom, shipped only 2,800 units.
Gauntlet as a series can also be marked not only by its innovations as an arcade game, but also by its longevity as a concept. The primary design choices of Gauntlet reflected the need to cooperate as a team, which laid the foundation for imitators and disciples worldwide. I mentioned previously games like Diablo and Torchlight as primary examples that borrowed from Gauntlet, but other games from different genres also carry on Gauntlet’s core design strategy in new ways. Modern games like Left 4 Dead, Fuse, and Borderlands expand on the dungeon crawl genre in new and surprising ways, trading the fantasy-themed aesthetic for something different, but keeping the core elements of working together as a primary mechanic. In a sense, the design philosophy behind a cooperative game can be traced back to Gauntlet, as it was the first to successfully transcend co-op play into a mainstream success.
Through all of this, Gauntlet has stood the test of time as one of the true innovators for the gaming industry. Gauntlet’s legacy is one of engineering innovations, daring to try something new that was against the norm, and in turn creating one of the oldest and most memorable co-op experiences in gaming history. Over time it has morphed into one of reverence for design, with many iterations of the core tenants of what made Gauntlet amazing in 1985 still in practice today.
I hope you enjoyed Game Changers this week. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below or email me at Robert@blisteredthumbs.net. You can also contact me via twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time!