Missile Command, completed at the end of 1980, was an immensely
popular arcade game that combined great game play with a rather chilling message about the
dangers of war.
The Creation of Missile Command
The idea for Missile Command began with a magazine story about satellites that captured the attention of Atari's president, who passed the clipping to Lyle Rains. Rains asked Dave Theurer to lead the effort in creating the classic, action-packed arcade game.
Remembrances from the Video Game Masters
Recalling the birth of Missile Command, Dave Theurer said:
"The request was for a game where there are missiles attacking the California coast and the player is defending the coast. They said, take it from here and write up a game proposal. In the first proposal it was the California coast."
Part of creating a great game is knowing what to strip away. Some of the first baggage the developers dropped was geographic identifications because of the frightful scenario of the game. And then they stripped away more.
Dave Theurer: "The original suggestion was for there to be a scanning radar, but I immediately said, no way! It would be just too hard for the player because he wouldn't be able to see what was going on. We chucked that idea. And when we first developed the game, we added railroads to transport missiles from the cities to the missile bases. That got to be too complicated and people got confused. . . if you get too complicated, people won't play. We also had submarines for a while but that didn't work out so we ripped them out, too."
The smart bombs presented the most difficult challenge in writing the code for Missile Command.
Dave Theurer: "These little diamond-shape guys can evade your explosions. The only way you can kill them is if the explosion starts out right on top of them. Programming that was the hardest part. They had to be intelligent because the little guy had to look around on the screen to see what he had to avoid and he had to figure out the best path to go around what there was to avoid. Of course, if I made it too smart, then the player couldn't kill it and they'd be guaranteed instant death. So it had to be a fine line between smarter than the dumb missiles, yet not totally unkillable."
Nerves of steel is the way Rich Adam one of the Missile Command team members described his coworker:
"Dave Theurer was extremely detail oriented, very thorough, very disciplined. He had nerves of steel, would never get rattled, and worked tirelessly. You need nerves of steel because if your code doesn't work it's your fault, something inside that code is not correct. There's really nowhere to hide. The real Achilles' heel with a lot of software people, I believe, is that they spin their wheels and they go through this denial phase: 'It can't be my code! How could anything possibly be wrong with it? My code is so straightforward!' Well, it's so straightforward you might not have thought of a nuance. So, that's why it takes nerves of steel, I think. The work requires sort of a cold, methodical approach to the software."
Popular from the Start
Even before it shipped, Missile Command had intense fans.
Speaking of the play the game got just within the labs of Atari, Ed Rotberg said:
"There were guys there that would literally have to worship that game for hours at a time. Their hands were sweating, and it was a definite adrenaline rush."
Describing some of the dedicated players at Atari, Dave Theurer said:
"We were in the same building as the consumer division and there were a couple of guys from that division who would come down and spend all day playing Missile Command. I don't know what they did upstairs, but they would spend the entire day playing the game."
The Great 25-Cent Escape
The escape from reality could sometimes have frightful consequences. The horrifying subject matter of Missile Command had an impact on the developers.
Dave Theurer: "It was pretty scary. During the project and for six months after the project, I'd wake up in a cold sweat because I'd have these dreams where I'd see the missile streak coming in and I'd see the impact. I would be up on top of a mountain and I'd see the missiles coming in, and I'd know it would be about 30 seconds until the blast hit and fried me to a crisp."
Steve Calfee: "Everybody I know who really got into the game had nightmares about nuclear war."
The game was nearly shipped with a name that carried the message of the end of the world . . . Armageddon.
Steve Calfee: "We had this big thing about the name of the game. From the beginning, it was called Armageddon. The management, themselves, didn't know what the word meant and they thought none of the kids would. Then we went through this big thing of naming it. Engineering loved the name Armageddon, and we always wanted to call it that. From the very top came the message, 'We can't use that name, nobody'll know what it means, and nobody can spell it.'"
Placing the game in the context of the previous decade, Ed Rotberg said:
"The thing about Missile Command is that the world was not nearly as stable politically as it is now. There is a little bit of a spooky message in that whole game when you have that final cloud at the end."
This exerpt is from the Microsoft Arcade "History of the Game"
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