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Asteroids Designer Ed Logg Honored With Pioneer Award

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Asteroids Designer Ed Logg Honored With Pioneer Award

Atari game designer Ed Logg, shown here in 1999, will be honored with a Pioneer Award by the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences next year.
Image: Aaron Hightower/Wikipedia

If at some point in the 1980s you ever hastily jammed your hand into your pocket for another quarter only to find yourself fresh out, Ed Logg was probably to blame.

It’s impossible to know precisely which arcade game designer was responsible for making the most money off coin-operated machines, 25 cents at a time. But Logg would be on anyone’s short list. As a designer of Asteroids, Centipede and Gauntlet he kept Atari at the forefront of the arcade business for many years. In February, the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences will honor Logg’s early accomplishments with its Pioneer Award, the group has revealed exclusively to Wired.com.

Logg readily admits that he didn’t come up with the original concepts for his biggest games. Asteroids was suggested by an Atari executive; Gauntlet was based on an older Atari computer game called Dandy. But Logg had a gift for taking raw brainstormed ideas and coming up with the perfect mix of gameplay elements that turned them into quarter-munching hits.

“It wasn’t virtuoso coding that made [Logg's] games a success as much as putting all the proper
features in the game in the right order,” said former Atari arcade game designer Mark Cerny (Marble Madness) in a statement provided by AIAS. “Of course, you needed an amazing intuition as to which were the proper features.”

Now in its third year, the AIAS Pioneer Award is given to the gamemakers whose groundbreaking early work laid the foundations of the multi-billion dollar videogame industry. Previous award recipients include Pitfall! creator David Crane and Pinball Construction Set designer Bill Budge.

Space Cadets

George Edward Logg was born in 1948 in Seattle. He studied mathematics and computer science at Berkeley and then Stanford, where he’d played the original computer game Spacewar! in the school’s Artifical Intelligence Lab.

After school he interviewed at Xerox PARC, which was doing groundbreaking work in graphical user interfaces (“When I saw the Mac, I knew where it had came from, no doubt about it”) but instead took a job at Control Data Corporation. It happened to be across the street from a startup called Atari, to which one of his coworkers soon jumped ship. Having been very impressed with the company’s new Video Computer System home gaming machine, Logg decided to take a job opening in coin-op games.

In the coin-op division, field testing was of paramount importance. It cost thousands of dollars to buy an arcade cabinet, and owners wouldn’t take the plunge unless they knew they could recoup that cost. That meant players couldn’t get tired of the games after a week or a month, and the only way to know was to place a prototype game in a local watering hole and carefully watch the quarter intake. Dirt Bike, which would have been Logg’s first game, failed the field test and was shelved.

Another game passed with flying colors. “I’d played Breakout at the pizza parlors in San Jose,” Logg recalls of the hit block-breaking game produced by his division. He heard that company founder Nolan Bushnell wanted the game updated; 1978?s Super Breakout was the first game that Logg worked on that went into production.

Soon afterwards, Logg found himself in a meeting with Atari executive Lyle Rains brainstorming new ideas. Rains wanted him to work on an unfinished game that Logg had remembered seeing before at Atari. “There was this large asteroid, and you were chasing the other player around,” Logg recalls. “Of course, everybody tried to shoot the asteroid, like I did, and nothing would happen.”

In that meeting, Rains and Logg came up with almost the entire game design: At Logg’s suggestion, they would use a high-resolution vector display to create a game with pinpoint-precise aiming. Players would shoot the big asteroid, which would break up into smaller asteroids, and so on until they destroyed them all. Logg saw the genius of the idea, but he also saw the problem.

“You’re going to have to do something to keep the player occupied,” he told Rains, “because otherwise once he gets down to one rock he’s just going to fly around and do nothing.”

Logg’s solution was the final piece of the puzzle: Two different types of UFOs, nicknamed “Mr. Bill” and “Sluggo” after the Saturday Night Live recurring sketch, would appear on screen and shoot at the player to prevent him from just sitting around keeping other players from dropping in their quarters.

Asteroids Designer Ed Logg Honored With Pioneer Award

With buttons that rotated the ship left and right, a thruster, a fire button and a “Hyperspace” panic button that warped your ship around the screen in case of emergencies, Asteroids was a complex game. The conventional wisdom was that Atari’s first arcade game Computer Space, which used similar controls, had been too difficult for players to figure out, hence the success of the much simpler Pong.

Logg didn’t buy that theory. “I didn’t find it hard, I just didn’t find it as much fun,” he said. “It seemed like a very one-dimensional game… Computer Space has a pattern, you just go through it and you keep running through it. … Pong, on the other hand, there’s lots of variability.”

Asteroids was popular among Atari employees, who would frequently ask Logg when he was going to leave work at the end of the day so they could stay and play it. And it sailed through its field test. “I saw somebody walk up, put a quarter in and die three times instantly,” Logg said. “But he turned around and put another quarter in.”

As one of the most popular arcade games of its day, Asteroids was one of the games celebrated on the 1982 concept album Pac-Man Fever, in a song called “Hyperspace:”

Asteroids around me, don’t know where to run
I’m somewhere between the moon and the sun
I’m in command of three ships and there’s more on the way
I’m a space cadet, I can really play
Push on the button then I’m back in the race

In fact, Logg is the only game designer to have two games represented on that album — the other was “Ode to a Centipede,” based on a game that he co-designed with Dona Bailey, one of the first female game designers. It was another monster hit, and Logg soon found himself nicknamed “Golden Boy” by his fellow Atari programmers.

Elf Needs Quarters Badly

By the mid-eighties, Atari had changed dramatically. The home gaming market had crashed although arcades still thrived. Parent company Warner Communications had sold off the home division, and now there were two Ataris: Atari Corp., making computers, and Atari Games making coin-op.

Home gaming may have stalled out, but arcade machines were growing much more powerful, so much so that Logg could try out an idea that his son kept “pestering” him with: Make a game based on Dungeons & Dragons.

Logg found his inspiration in a computer game called Dandy, which had been published by Atari in 1983. The game, itself inspired by the pen-and-paper RPG, let four players explore a deep dungeon, shooting monsters with arrows and restoring their health with food.

Asteroids Designer Ed Logg Honored With Pioneer AwardDandy was certainly one of the influences” on his game, Logg says. “Cooperative play is required often to get through some of the puzzles; that’s the aspect I really liked.”

From D&D Logg took the concept of character classes, four different heroes with varying strengths and weaknesses — Warrior, Valkyrie, Elf and Wizard. But what RPGs needed most was a dungeon master to guide the characters along. In Logg’s game, that part was played by a Texas Instruments speech synthesis chip. Its comments were alternately helpful and impudent: “Wizard is about to die!” “Elf shot the food!”

Atari’s marketing department wasn’t sure that four strangers would all gather at an arcade and play a cooperative game together, but as usual, the field test was the final arbiter. At a tiny arcade outside of Saratoga, players dumped quarters into the game, called Gauntlet. They were encouraged to spend more up front because extra quarters gave their adventurers more health. Soon, arcade games for four players became the new normal.

Having been severed from the console division, Atari Games couldn’t produce home entertainment under the Atari name. So it established a new division called Tengen. Before Nintendo released its Nintendo Entertainment System in the United States in 1985, Logg set about reverse-engineering the Japanese version, called the Family Computer. He wanted to create a version of a game he’d played on personal computers.

“There was an Atari ST version of Tetris that I’d played, and I was amazed,” he said. “I went to our legal counsel and said, you have got to get the rights to this game.” Once Atari had sewn up the home console rights, Logg produced an excellent version of Tetris, using a more attractive color scheme and taking “great pains” to add a two-player mode.

Asteroids Designer Ed Logg Honored With Pioneer AwardTengen released its Tetris for the NES in 1989. The company had broken its ties with Nintendo and was the only U.S. company producing NES games without authorization from the hardware maker.

What ensued was one of the strangest legal battles in gaming history. Nintendo ended up negotiating directly with the Russian government and getting the rights to Tetris, and a U.S. judge ordered that Tengen recall and destroy all unsold inventory of Logg’s version.

“We went through… somebody in the U.K. who’d gotten [the Tetris license] from a Hungarian who’d gotten it from the Russians,” Logg says. “Nintendo went straight to the Russians and they said, sure, we’ll take your money. We’ll give you anything you want.”

“Mine is the better game,” he says, comparing his version to Nintendo’s. “People would go to Blockbuster Video and rent it, say they lost it, and pay the $40 [and keep it].”

“I was livid,” he says of the court battle. “I wouldn’t have anything to do with Nintendo after that for a long time.”

Eventually, Logg would work on some Nintendo 64 games like Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey and San Francisco Rush. Atari Games was sold to Midway in the 1990?s, and Logg kept making games for Midway until the division was shuttered in 2003.

Today, Logg still designs games as a contract employee for ActiveVideo Networks, creating titles for its CloudTV set-top boxes.

Logg will be honored with the Pioneer Award at the 15th annual Interactive Achievement Awards in Las Vegas on February 9, 2012.

Photo of Ed Logg released under GNU Free Documentation License.
Asteroids game screenshot from Wikipedia.
Gauntlet screenshot courtesy VG Museum.
Tetris photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired.com


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