When Adrian said he managed to grab Eugene Jarvis for a quick chat I almost choked on my cuppa. The Atari legend and creator of Defender, Smash TV and more arcade games than you can shake a (joy) stick at has very kindly offered up his precious time for us to pick his brain.
How exactly did your first get into the video game industry?
I was a new grad in 1977 and somehow finagled a job at Atari programming pinball games.
You were recently voted as one of the top 100 video game creators of all time in a poll by IGN – How does it make sure you feel that so many people regard you as a true gaming legend who helped in the creation of the modern video game?
It’s very humbling and a huge honor considering the massive innovations we have seen in video games the last 40 years. Back in the classic arcade days, a big title would last maybe a year of two and then hit the dumpster! Everyone and everything was disposable on the quest to the next big thing. We had a saying that a game coder was just as good as his/her last line of code. You could say the same thing about an artist and the last pixel! It blows my mind that with the retro gaming community and tools like MAME these games and the 8 and 16 bit cultures live on.
You are probably best known as the creator of Defender – which is rightly heralded as a true gaming classic. What was it like working on this particular title and did you know at the time the game would become so important in the gaming industry?
It was my first title hence it was a huge pain in the ass. Being my first video game I struggled for an eternity doing one bad idea after another, before finally hitting the Defender formula after about 7 months. It was an incredible learning experience for me, and probably my most important discovery was that no designer is an isolated font of brilliance (we love this – Ed). In fact, some of the best ideas for Defender came from my fellow game players and developers. You need to keep your mind open and receptive! It was a super creative time in gaming since there were so many unexplored genres and wide open areas to explore. There was so little history that every game was an exploration, doing many things for the first time. Defender was one of the first color games, first game to use a 16 color memory mapped architecture, pioneered horizontal scrolling introducing a game environment greater than a single screen, first game to have true particle effects, etc, etc… It was such a thrill to blow players’ minds with things they had never seen – maybe never dreamed was possible. The team had no idea that the game would succeed much less become legendary – we were just trying not to be fired! It was not until we put the game into an arcade, and it was mobbed by 20 players who brought in chairs and couches to play and watch the game all night long. The success was shocking in light of the brutality of the game and the difficulty of the complex control scheme. The average time per play was less than 37 seconds.
Before you created video games you made a big name for yourself developing pinball machines. How easy was it transfer skills you learnt from the pinball industry to the quickly developing arcade market?
Pinball was a huge influence on video games in the early days – most players and developers played both pinball and video, and therefore strongly influenced by pinball designs and concepts. In fact the popular classic arcade format of 3 lives/game came directly from 3-ball pinball.
It was easier developing pinball because it was a physical game with steel balls, flippers, bumpers, etc… No matter how you screwed up the game design or program, at the end of the day it was a pinball game with the inherent fun of pinball. Not so with a video game. You start with a blank screen – absolute zero as far game design goes. There’s no limit to how bad a video can be, since there is no physical game to fall back on. Conversely you are not limited by a physical genre like pinball, and therefore you are free to explore an infinite cornucopia of game concepts. There is no limit to how good or original you can be. Candy Crush or Tetris anyone? (Tetris please – Ed).
Smash TV was a huge hit and a personal favourite title when growing up. What inspired you to create this game and is there room for a updated Smash TV sequel?
My buddy Mark Turmell (Mr. NBA JAM) was a huge Robotron fan and convinced me to join him in creating Smash TV, a new take on the twin stick genre. We had a riot throwing in Running Man and Robocop references. We had no idea that the insane world of Smash TV, where players kill for toasters, would decades later be mirrored by the reality TV phenomenon with shows like Survivor, etc… Smash TV to this day is maybe the most entertaining and challenging twin stick game. There definitely is a huge opening for a sequel and I challenge any and all developers to take up this gauntlet. Maybe throw some Terminator and Avatar type stuff in there!
Atari later went on to make Defender 2000 for the (unfairly in my opinion) much maligned Atari Jaguar console. Were you involved in this particular title and how do you think it compares to the original game?
I think making a sequel to a mega hit can be really tough because you are walking a fine line between not changing it enough and thereby generate just another clone – or going too far with the title to the point it bears little resemblance to the original. Sometimes a classic hit is a delicate balance of characters, AI, human interface, and game mechanics – and it is very easy it upset the balance and destroy the game. Defender additionally had the problem that the complex and customized 2 handed arcade controls were very difficult to emulate with a standard console control scheme. Defender 2000 walked this tight-rope nicely, and was a great effort and a joy to play. Regrettably the Jaguar platform never got the commercial success it deserved, dooming its titles to relative obscurity.
Which game did you most enjoy working on and can you explain why?
Robotron: 2084 was my favorite project do to its simplicity and insane intensity. The fun thing about this project is that we got the basic game running in 3 days! And it was insanely fun right off the bat. The rest of the project was just putting icing on the cake. There was no stress about whether the game would be good or not.
You have worked for many major video game developers and now run your own company – Raw Thrills. How has your life in gaming changed from the early days of video game designing to running your own company?
I think life was better when I could just create games and let all the corporate types deal with the business crap. It really allowed me to focus on the creative side. Unfortunately the arcade business has been very volatile over the years, and the companies I worked for kept going broke. So after the arcade bust of 2001, there was no place to go, and the only way to continue making arcade games was to start our own company. Being on the other side of the fence, I now realize the abuses I committed to the suits over the years blowing budgets and schedules by powers of ten! Luckily we’ve got an amazing dev team and we’ve been able surf some giant waves without wiping out!
Raw Thrills has won many awards and continues to develop many of the today’s best arcade machines. What has be your personal biggest achievement since Raw Thrills started?
No doubt we have had some megahits over the years with the Big Buck Hunter series, The Fast and the Furious SuperCars, Deal No Deal, Terminator Salvation, Alien Armageddon, SuperBikes2, and now Jurassic Arcade. But I think my greatest achievement has been to build up some great game development teams tapping into both burned out old codger wisdom, and the millennial madness of the up and comers. From this chaotic brew springs great things!
Do you feel the arcade machine still has a long shelf life, especially as home consoles keep getting more and more powerful?
There is a magic, immediacy, and presence in the arcade that can never be duplicated by a console or cell phone experience. It’s all about creating a massively sensual, over the top, novel and compelling experience, that is instantly accessible to all.
What new arcade machines are you working on at the moment?
Our new MotoGP motorcycle simulator was launched at the IAAPA show in Orlando. This is the most realistic, compelling, and outright fun motorcycle race simulators ever done. But don’t take my word for it. Try it out at an arcade near you! (woohoo! – Ed)
If you could share a few drinks with any video game character – who would you choose and why?
I would love to hang out with the MC from Smash TV, with entourage of course! Definitely a guy with the right attitude about partying!
Many thanks for your time Eugene! All the best for the future!