Rec Room Amusements

Interview with Eugene Jarvis (designer of Defender)

From Joystick Magazine, September 1982

Eugene Jarvis shook the world and shook it hard. At only 27 years old, he's able to claim creative credit for such giant video game successes as Defender, Stargate and Robotron. He's part of a new breed, no doubt: the video game designer. And if Eugene Jarvis continues to match his past accomplishments, he will soon lead the video game breed.

Jarvis is known throughout the video game community for his double-edged talents. He is both a creative game designer and a creative computer programmer. Seldom are both talents combined in one frame. Jarvis is also, as he himself says, a "rebel." Although his rebellious attitude has caused problems in the past, he continues to "toy with it." In other words, he says what he thinks.

Joystick editor Wayne Robert Williams talked with Jarvis at Vid Kidz - Jarvis' newly founded independent company in Chicago. The discussion was a stream-of-consciousness triumph. After three hours of cerebral battle, Williams had what we wanted: a critical insight into the worlings of Jarvis' mind.

Jarvis graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. He's worked on pin-games at Atari in San Jose and on video games at Williams Electronics in Chicago.

Robotron - although manufactured and distributed through Williams - is actually a Vid Kidz product.

Jarvis has always worked in idyllic environments. Both Atari and Williams let the game designers do what they wanted - as long as they produced. "I think managers have realized that most software people are slightly brain damaged," said Jarvis, "that they're off on their own planets."

Vid Kidz gives Jarvis the opportunity to successfully implement his ideas - without interference. Three qualities appear to dominate a Jarvis game. Those qualities are 1) ambitiousness of design, 2) aggressiveness of game play, and 3) satisfying interaction of all game elements.

The games have always been ambitious. When asked what ideas led to the birth of Defender, Jarvis said: "Steve Richie and myself were sitting in a room toying with concepts and game ideas. Steve said: 'Wouldn't it be neat if you were flying over a planet on a screen.' And we tried to figure out what do with it. You could be flying over the planet, you could go up and down in any direction you want…I eventually said: 'We can't do that yet, but what we can do is fly left and right and so on."

Defender was Williams' and Jarvis' first video-game. And it was the biggest success of 1981. Robotron - Vid Kidz first game - was even more ambitious in concept. "Robotron as originally conceived," said Jarvis, "put you in a futuristic underground civilization where there were corridors and a central controlling station - a whole elaborate scenario. One day, I realize that I'd spend ten years of my life. I'd never finish it. At some point I had to say: ' How can I distill from this the essence of the idea of Robotron.' You have to reach into your designer's bag of tricks to produce the essential affect."

Aggression has been a constant theme of Jarvis' work. "I'm an action player. I like to be aggressive. I don't like to be on the run. I like to feel like I have the fates in my hands and that through my skill or lack thereof I control my fate." The aggressiveness is encouraged in Jarvis' games. When asked about the strange physical sensation given in Robotron's Brain Wave, Jarvis responded: "I think it's, yes, Pavlovian. It's the dog salivating, you know. You hear the bell and your starting to sweat."

The most admirable aspects of Jarvis' games are their interrelation. Every part of the game - no matter how complicated - is intrinsically related to the theme. "I personally object to episodic games," said Jarvis, "where you play one screen of Space Invaders and one screen of Breakout and one screen of Galaxian and one screen of this and one of that. To me that's not a game. It's just taking five bad games, putting them together, and calling them one good game. I'm philosophically against that." Robotron is Jarvis' most successful attempt at this interrelationship. "Nobody has really advanced to the point of putting a story behind it, having a scenario associated with making more that just a game - a whole reality behind why you are there. I want you to ask and answer: "Why are these robots doing these things?"

One final note concerns Jarvis' dedication to the player. He wants to keep you going - if you deserve it. "Games like Robotron, Defender and Asteroids give an extra ship every 10,000, 25,000 or what have you. You never feel like your out of the game. Even if you have the most miserable start, you can always redeem yourself."

Jarvis is in the enviable position of creating the games he wants and knowing that people will see them and play them. "I have my message to deliver and I'm communicating. I think I'll just do what I feel like doing and hope somebody likes it."

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