Odds are high that any person who has put a coin into anything in an arcade over the past three decades has played something attached to the name Eugene Jarvis.
Whether someone is a classic gamer still hooked on Defender or Robotron: 2084, a more modern arcade patron who enjoys Big Buck Safari or Cruis’n World or even a pinball wizard who grew up on Firepower and Space Shuttle, the impact of the Raw Thrills founder and former Williams Electronics employee has been felt.
The arcade success story began with Jarvis’ very first attempt at a video game with 1980’s Defender, a game not well received by trade show critics nor the creator himself. Despite the low expectations, Defender became one of the biggest hits in arcade history.
“I was shocked as anyone,” Jarvis said. “It was the first video by me and the first real video by Williams. We were completely new to the field and just tried to make it the best I could.”
Before launching, Defender was tested in the famed Mother’s Pinball in Mount Prospect, IL. According to Jarvis, he tried to avoid this first night until learning of large crowds that stuffed the coin box and even placed couches around the machine. The success of Defender lead to a Jarvis and his team continuing to develop games for Williams Electronics, including 1982‘s Robotron: 2084, a title that continues to have a strong cult folowing today.
“Robotron seems to be the most popular now,” Jarvis said. “The cool thing about Robotron was how we implemented the concept in three days. Then it became ‘Let’s fight ten robots… That’s great!’ It then became ‘Let’s fight 20! Even better! Let’s fight 90! Awesome! This is intense!'”
While noted for their roles in gaming history, Defender andRobotron are considered by gaming experts and historians as some of the most challenging games in history. According to Jarvis, this challenge was a part of their charm.
“In that era there was this sort of macho hardcore thing,” he said. “You were almost daring the player to beat you. The average play time during Defender‘s test run was 33 seconds, yet players kept putting another quarter into the machine to try again. Maybe it’s time for another game like that.”
While the video game industry has undergone several changes since Defender and Robotron ruled the arcade, Jarvis states that creating a compelling new video game today is not much different than it was 30 years ago.
“The basic challenge is always there,” he said. “In video you are starting with nothing but a black screen. There’s no game there. With pinball you at least start with that basic concept, but not with video. The challenge of going from no game to something today is only different because you have to create something so damn fun people will pay $1.00 every two minutes to play it.”
In an industry that grosses billions of dollars a year today, more opportunities exist in the industry now than ever before, according to Jarvis.
“It’s probably the best time in history to get into the industry,” he stated. “There are so many more opportunities today as opposed to in the past. Video games are ubiquitous now. From arcade to console to PC to smartphones to Facebook… they are just everywhere. You got all these shareware and iPhone games, and now anyone can make their own damn game and put it out there. It’s a massive avalanche of opportunities. Wide open.”
With the development of the extra layers and platforms for video gaming entertainment, Eugene says the problem has shifted to the same problems that face small-budget films versus major studio movies.
“The problem changed with the industry,” he explained. “Now anyone can put out whatever but so can a million other people. How do you get noticed?”
Jarvis stated that indie game developers face many of the same challenges that he’s faced in game design throughout the past three decades.
“You start out with all these dreams and hopes,” he said. “Then reality sets in. You can’t do this because the technology isn’t there or you can’t do that because the budget or time isn’t there. Then something doesn’t work how you wanted it to. It feels like being on one of those old wagon trains going across the desert and one of your horses dies. Then you sometimes have your best moments, too, when you stumble across something cool and unexpected to add to the game.”
As Jarvis’ Raw Thrills continues as one of the strongest American coin-op arcade companies of the modern day, he says his favorite moments have always been the same they have always been.
“The great times are when you put a game on location and see others play it for the first time,” he said. “After all, we are really kind of an entertainer. You perform for the joy of the audience.”