How a game about nuclear war stuck in the head of its lead developer.
Dedication to creating one of history's most popular video games caused horrific and graphic visions for its creator.
Dreams such as this haunted Dave Theurer for years, both during and after production of Missile Command, a game he worked on at Atari in the early 1980s; a game that tasks players with defending six unnamed cities from incoming nuclear missiles fired by an unnamed enemy.
Without Theurer, the game industry wouldn't have one of its iconic games. A game that shaped the perception of games in the 1980s, allowing them to become a staple of pop culture.
But at what cost to its creator?
Reactive days at Atari
Dave Theurer didn't come up with the idea for Missile Command. It came from a magazine story about satellites showcasing a radar screen that caught the eye of then-president of coin-op and VP of sales at Atari, Gene Lipkin. Lipkin passed the magazine clippings to Theurer's boss, Steve Calfee, who put Theurer in charge of the project.
"Make me a game that looks like this," said Calfee, as Theurer recalls. "Here's the idea: you've got these missile trails coming in from the top and you've got these bases at the bottom. The trails are missiles coming in and you shoot missiles from your bases to intercept them. You try to save your bases."
"That's about the depth of description given for the game," recalls Rich Adam, Theurer's junior programmer on Missile Command, who was in Calfee's office during the pitch.
When Atari commissioned the game, it was simple: a game where there are nuclear missiles fired from the USSR attacking the California coast and the player has to defend the coast. But as Theurer finished working on his previous project, a game called Four Player Soccer, and got to thinking about what Missile Command could become, his excitement grew exponentially.
"I walked out of [Calfee's] office and my spine was tingling because I just had this feeling that this was going to be fun and it was going to be hot," says Theurer.
Theurer made it clear when agreeing to the concept that Missile Command would only be a defensive game, never offensive. "Realizing that the bombs would kill all of the people in the targeted city, I did not want to put the player in the position of being a genocidal maniac," says Theurer.
He refused to do anything that had players firing missiles at other countries, especially the USSR, which was a hot issue at the time, landing right in the midst of the Cold War. To him, this made it moral. You're defending your country against attack, and "defending against such an attack would be a noble effort." The idea of defense was one that players could take pride in, while slowly realizing what the game was forcing them to do: choose between the death of the few or survival of the many.
This was one of the earliest instances of presenting a player-created narrative almost entirely through gameplay. It was up to the player to decide how they wanted to go about things and whether they would save one city in order to ensure the temporary survival of another.
Missile Command was never supposed to be a complicated game, but under Theurer's original design, it turned out to be. Partway into development, Adam and Theurer realized that some of the game's features took away from the game's impact, so they removed them to make the experience a tighter series of choices and decisions.
During initial development, for instance, the cities were listed as Eureka, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego. Six major cities in California, where the Atari offices were located.
"We were so egocentric that we had the missiles coming across the Pacific aimed at us," says Adam.
Once he realized that changes needed to be made, one of the first things Theurer did was to drop the identification of the geographical location and leave it up to the player to internalize it, to subconsciously think of the cities as local to them.
Instantly, with just this one small change, Thuerer believes game became more universally applicable and real to players. The cities changed from player to player.
In the original design document, Theurer had also implemented railroads that players had to protect, which carried missiles from factories to the military bases. This was the original design for ammunition control, which later just became a matter of timing — one that Theurer used to curb rampant abuse of endless missiles. If a railroad was destroyed, the base could no longer receive missiles, essentially putting it out of commission.
In the end, Theurer says, "it was too complicated."
Theurer and Adam got rid of all the unnecessary components — including a radar idea, which had an arm sweeping across the screen, only revealing a portion of it at a time — and started putting that manpower and time into polishing the other areas of the game.
"To make it simple, we got rid of everything except for the cities and the bases," Theurer says. "Turns out, that was the right way to do it." Missile Command went on to become one of the most successful arcade machines of all time, cementing its place in pop culture for decades to come.
Dreams and nightmares
Dreams and nightmares are often cited as inspiration for creative works, but aren't often shared as a consequence of them.
For Theurer, nightmares were both an inspiration for and a direct consequence of the creation of Missile Command.
"In the dream, I'd see the missile streaks coming in and know that the blast would hit me."
"Missile Command embodied the Cold War nightmare the world lived in," says Theurer.
Working on the game for six months, he had done exactly what the team had hoped players would do: he had internalized the events. "I had nightmares about nuclear attacks," he says. "During that time, I lived near Moffett Field, where the Air Force would randomly launch spy planes, which made a tremendous roar when taking off. I'd wake up, and while half asleep, hear the launch sounds and for a moment wonder if it was an atomic blast.
"I would dream that I was hiking in the mountains above the Bay Area, with the fabulous views of the San Francisco Bay. In the dream, I'd see the missile streaks coming in and know that the blast would hit me while hiking there on the mountain.
"These nightmares were common occurrences during the development of Missile Command and continued after development was finished. "It tapered off after the game, but still, I had them for a couple years afterward, maybe one every two or three months.
"It was a sobering experience."
Obsession and internalization of Missile Command
Theurer's internalization throughout all this stemmed from spending every waking minute of his life on Missile Command for nearly six months, he says. "When I make a game, that game is what I think about almost exclusively for the entire development period of that game."
"For each section of the game, I imagine it in many different scenarios; I design and program the more promising scenarios and in the end, choose the one that feels the best," he says. "I imagined missiles streaking in, imagined the explosions, both with the sounds and the visuals, over and over, day after day until it felt just right."
For him, this wasn't just obsessing over every line of code, but doing so for days at a time without sleeping. "It's hard to get into that state of mind and once you get there, I hate to leave," he says.
To combat the need of constantly starting and stopping his workflow, Theurer chose to forgo the typical eight-hour workday to work on Missile Command until he couldn't stay awake any longer.
When he finally reached the point of exhaustion and sleep deprivation, he would go home and sleep for a while before returning to Atari to do it all over again.
This was only amplified during field test periods.
During this time at Atari, each game had to be field tested before it was greenlit for general arcade audiences. This meant that a build had to be up and running so that a machine could quietly be placed in an unsuspecting bar or arcade.
At the time, this was a great deal for arcade owners. They were able to keep all quarters from the machine — which, at the time, were normally split between the owner and cabinet operator — and, in return, all the arcade owner had to do was keep a tally of the players that used the machine during a certain period of time, and do so quietly. As soon as word got around that a machine was being field tested, competitors would attempt to come in and research the machine to create and distribute a clone prior to full release.
This field test allowed the team to silently track how players were reacting to not only the base game, but also changes made to the gameplay in between field tests conducted over the course of development.
One of the biggest changes made because of reactions gathered during a standard field test was the removal of a light-filled panel on the Missile Command cabinet above the player's head. This panel displayed flashing lights that served as status indicators for each of the in-game bases, but during the field test, Theurer found that it distracted players too much. "They kept looking up to check the status lights and stuff, so we just chopped off the whole top of the cabinet and saved ourselves a whole lot of money and it didn't hurt the gameplay any," says Theurer.
As evidenced by this major cabinet redesign, this was a vital phase in testing how the game would be received by the average arcade player, but often left Theurer working for days on end without any sleep, almost ceasing to function at one point. "I remember one time where I had a field test and I had been up for four days in a row. I actually got the game ready to go, I was tired and I couldn't work the machine that burned the ROMs anymore, because I couldn't remember how to punch the buttons on the keyboard."
Instead of sleeping and coming back another day, Theurer continued to work at it, opting to call in a favor to finish the job on time. "I had to invite one of my buddies in to work the keys. I explained and he worked the buttons for me," he says.
Theurer's constant strides for perfection left him working his body to the point that Missile Command's premise started to manifest itself in his subconscious, sneaking into his dreams and turning them to nightmares.
Theurer's penchant for taking creative influence from nightmares continued in his 1981 release of arcade classic Tempest. In fact, the game was ultimately saved from the cutting-room floor by a redesign that spawned from a recurring nightmare of his.
Tempest started as a completely different game than the game we know today; it was first-person Space Invaders. It was something that Theurer had always wanted to do, so he started on it after the completion of Missile Command.
Theurer met with marketing and engineering teams at Atari multiple times throughout development to show them a working prototype build of the game. Everyone played it and thought it was OK, but it didn't stand out.
At the time, if it wasn't going to be the hottest game in the arcade, they weren't going to make it, says Theurer. Theurer's team and the marketing team had a serious discussion about scrapping the idea completely halfway through the development cycle.
Theurer stepped in. "Well, I've got this other idea that's sort of related," he recalls saying.
Theurer grew up in a home where he was not allowed to watch movies. However, one summer in the fifth grade while away at patrol camp, he saw a movie about monsters coming out of a hole from the center of the Earth and attacking humans. This imagery stuck with him.
"That movie haunted me over the years," says Theurer. "When I was pondering what to do with my first-person Space Invaders prototype, the thought struck me that I could simply take the 3D plane with its vanishing point, wrap it into a cylinder (the hole in the ground) and have the monsters come up and out of the cylinder, much like the monsters in that old movie."
It didn't take long for him to convert the initial prototype to this new idea and for it to become a hit internally.
He kept his initial design philosophy in the back of his head and made some core changes to the fundamental nature of it to construct what players know today as Tempest.
"I basically just took Space Invaders and wrapped the surface into a circle," Theurer says. "Monsters come down the tunnel at you, out of the hole, and you [try] to kill them before they [get] out."
The mental toll
Barry Krakow, M.D., a sleep disorder specialist and authority on nightmares, says that Theurer's reoccurring nightmares of a nuclear war likely have to do with his constant dedication to working on the game for days on end during this six-month period. "Things attended to with great intensity during the day frequently appear in our dreams," Krakow says.
With Theurer's days no longer confined to 24-hour periods, the mixture of horrific imagery and constant internalization caused Theurer's nightmares to surface. "I think the haunting nightmares were a byproduct of working on the subject matter," says Theurer.
These nightmares weren't all bad though, as Theurer eventually used their influence to shape the direction and tone of the game's ending.
Forgoing the traditional "game over" taunt after a loss, Missile Command opted for something much more ominous, simply "THE END" as your cities lay destroyed in an endless nuclear war. "[These nightmares] probably motivated me to create the final 'THE END' explosion," says Theurer.
The message of Missile Command — straight from Theurer — was simple: In the end, all is lost. There is no winner.
Missile Command wasn't originally supposed to be called Missile Command, but rather, Armageddon.
As Calfee pointed out, no one knew what armageddon meant at the time. "The management, themselves, didn't know what the word meant and they thought none of the kids would."
The team loved the name, but eventually, the decision was no longer its to make. "From the very top came the message, 'We can't use that name, nobody'll know what it means, and nobody can spell it,'" said Calfee, Theurer recalls.
The name didn't just sound cool. It was meant to drive home just what nuclear war meant.
Fun within dread
Theurer always meant for Missile Command to be a fun experience for players while also conveying the serious nature of the events found within.
Placing players in a purely defensive role changes the mindset that players often associate with their role in games. Instead of putting them in the role of the oppressor, they're placed into a situation where they can do nothing but react.
There's no firing back on their oppressor, only destroying the shots fired upon the player's cities in an attempt to save them. It instantly creates a different feel of immense responsibility rather than heroism.
It's a mechanic that is used to assign sole responsibility of handling an extremely important situation to one player. All hope relies on them defending their cities and bases from oncoming attack, but in the end, they can't do it.
Despite the large responsibility provided to the player, there's a limited scope of what they can actually do to protect their country from the attack. The missiles won't stop and the player is operating on limited ammunition, giving them no real alternative to just keep defending themselves for as long as they can until they can't hold out anymore.
These invisible boundaries force the player to think of humans in terms of raw numbers. At a certain point, each player realizes that they can't go on protecting each city and that they'll need to sacrifice one in order to continue to protect and serve the needs of others.
This sense of endless, impactful and sacrificial dread was both purposeful and intended to affect the player as deeply as possible, especially for a game meant to be consumed by the mass public. "That was the whole point of the game," Theurer says, "to show that if there was ever a nuclear war, you'd never win."
Missile Command was a social commentary ahead of its time. One that resulted in the haunting of its creator through constant nightmares, punishing him with a reminder of the value of human life and just how quickly that can be taken from us.
Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan