Centipede Board Game Designer Interviewed at CHEGheads

Centipede-3

As some of you will remember, one of my abiding interests is the collision of the board game and video game industries starting in 1980, when Milton Bradley released Pac-Man, “the family version of the arcade game.” I’ve talked about two other MB games, Berserk and Zaxxon, and speculated that board games emulating arcade games were successful in the short-term for a couple of reasons: first, the kids who couldn’t get to the arcades and didn’t have a home console might get a quick fix from a cleverly imitative board game, and second, video games in the golden age were hard as hell, and board games gave players more for their money. Ultimately, both reasons come down to money. No kid with a plentiful supply of quarters would have chosen the dining room table over the arcade.

Shannon Symonds talked to Bruce Whitehill over at the CHEGheads blog about how he designed Milton Bradley’s Centipede (1983), and it’s pretty fascinating. Whitehill couldn’t advance far enough into the arcade game to get a feel for the overall concept, so he fed quarters to a young expert to play and explain what was happening along the way. Whitehill admits that kids would rather have played the video version at the time, and concludes that

Centipede the board game was, I think, more for people like me—those who could never do that well on the arcade game but could hold their own against another player on the dining room table.

The allure of video games in the beginning was that they were video games—the physical world was old hat; we wanted to live out our fantasies on the electronic game grid. The “family version of the arcade game” was a tag marketed to parents who, Milton Bradley hoped, wanted to share in their kids’ arcade experience or, more likely, replace that arcade experience with something less expensive and less troublesome (how many car trips did parents have to make taking kids to and from the arcade?). It’s also worth noting that many arcades were competitive and intimidating, and we often had to play with a slew of other young ruffians breathing down our necks and/or talking trash. A board game at home provided a kinder, more laid back experience.

The bottom line is that tabletop game companies knew they couldn’t overturn the new digital paradigm, and creative designers like Bruce Whitehill kept them in business for a few more years. Today, Whitehill’s version of the game is almost as iconic as Atari’s.

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