Stopping al-Qaida, a quarter at a time

Eugene Jarvis, legendary creator of "Defender" and "Robotron," is still making computer games for arcades. But his new bad guys aren't aliens -- they're terrorists who want to crash a plane into the White House.

By Mitch Borgeson
Published March 2, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

Guided by their infallible logic, the Robotrons conclude: The human race is inefficient, and must therefore be eliminated.

The 1982 arcade game "Robotron" offered a hyperactive, paranoid vision of a future gone awry. With two joysticks and a steady supply of quarters, you could save the world, but only for so long. Today Eugene Jarvis, designer of "Robotron," is still worried about a future gone mad. But it's no longer machines that are the enemies, but terrorists.

Sure to be among the first class of inductees at the Pong-shaped Video Game Hall of Fame when and if it is built, Eugene Jarvis is a legend in gaming circles -- not for making cute or simple games, but for games that are unbelievably, knuckle-bashingly difficult. Jarvis' C.V. reads like a litany of squandered allowances and sleepless nights for anyone who has stepped into an arcade in the last 25 years: "Defender," "Robotron," "Stargate," "Blaster," "NARC" and "Smash T.V."

Arcade games have become something of an afterthought in the era of the PC game and the home console, but Jarvis hasn't given up on the genre. He's founded a new company, Raw Thrills, and is planning to reinvigorate the industry. Raw Thrills' first volley is the upcoming counterterrorism two-player shooter "Target: Terror." "Target: Terror" asks players to save the Golden Gate Bridge, defend the Los Alamos Laboratory, and, somewhat controversially, prevent a hijacked airliner from crashing into the White House.

Jarvis spoke with Salon by phone from his Chicago office. He talked about the history and evolution of the video-gaming industry, the challenges of portraying terrorists, why he is a fan of video-game emulation but a critic of "Grand Theft Auto," and the pros and cons of green blood.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Next year will be the 25th anniversary of "Defender." Did you think you would still be making games 25 years after that game?

You know, I didn't know if I would be making games six months later.

Are you still as enthusiastic about it as you were then?

I guess at the time it was just kind of a brand new thing. We went from a blank screen to something, so it was extremely exciting, kind of like being the guys who showed up at Sutter's Mill in 1849 and started picking gold up off the ground, you know? It was just the start of everything and very exciting and new. There were no rules. It's like that was the Summer of Love of video games and now it's largely a huge corporate business based on branded titles, pre-sold movies, and, you know, "Madden 4008."

So, in some ways, I guess, to a purist -- to a gamer -- it's a little disillusioning in that it turned into just another corporation trying to sell another box of crap to the hapless consumer. There's that famous quote -- I guess some marketing guy was bragging and said, "Our marketing is so good, that we could put shit in a box and sell it." And the gamer's response was: "Well, you do."

There is a certain disillusionment whenever anything becomes a real business -- then all the rules, marketing, and stratagems that make up real businesses come into play and it's real money now. It's not like a couple of guys in a garage doing a game, you've got to actually have a plan about what you're doing; you have to not just shoot from the hip. We were jazz musicians in those days, just riffing on whatever cool new beat came along, and now it's carefully crafted, orchestrated; you play your cymbal -- your full-time job is to play your cymbal on the 3,084th beat of this measure and you better be damn happy doing it. If not, there's four guys waiting to take your place [laughs]. You're animating the shoelaces on the Q.B. [quarterback] and that's your job. You're a shoelace specialist. You're not really saving the world anymore, you know? Just making a better shoelace shader.

Have games been eclipsed by all the effects?

Yeah, sometimes I come to work and I feel like I'm an interior decorator, you know? It's like: "Man, that green looks like shit!" "Don't you know this year it's purple, man! Green is out!" You're worried about all these shadows and reflections and eye candy and you're right, sometimes it's more about that than the game. "Madden 2004" is a hell of a lot like "Madden 1004." I think partly it's a limitation of the human being. You make things too complicated and too wild and people just can't deal with it. As much as there's all this marketing bullshit about how real everything is and how great the A.I. [artificial intelligence] is and all this stuff, you know, the guys really aren't a hell of a lot smarter than the guys that were running around on "Defender," and for good reason. Because you don't want a guy that's so smart that he kills you. You want somebody stupid that you can destroy.

You started out at Atari. When was that?

That was back in '77. I was working with Nolan Bushnell [the creator of "Pong"]. Actually I was doing pinball games at the time. Atari was kind of on an ill-fated mission to get into the pinball business. It was an exciting time in that the pinball business was turning into electronics and there were all these neat things you could do with computer controls, lighting and sound effects, and mechanical devices, throwing balls hither and thither. So it was kind of exciting, but there was a lot of real engineering involved in the mechanics and electronics, and, unfortunately, Atari pinball was more of an inspiration -- I guess it was more inspiration than perspiration -- and so the thing just basically kind of caught on fire [laughs]. It wasn't cool, you know, doing heat tests ...

So it literally caught on fire?

Yeah, you know? It's not sexy to do life testing on mechanical devices and put your circuitry in the oven and see if it burns up. That wasn't really what Atari was about. Unfortunately, it didn't go well, but we had some fun and put out some cool games.

How would you sum up the current state of the arcade? You've been through booms and busts and booms again ...

The arcade is kind of on life support these days. It's been beaten down. I guess the first wave was really the console games. There was a war there. The arcades were able to maintain a technical superiority for many, many years, which gave them a little better graphics and better controls and so forth. [Now] you look at the PlayStation 2 or Xbox controller and there's, like, 27 buttons on the thing and three or four joysticks. Contrast that with the original Atari controller, which was a single joystick and a single button.

I remember when we came out with "Defender," which had a joystick and six or seven buttons, it was like, holy shit! Nobody knew what to do with it -- it was just too weird. Now that looks simplistic [compared] to today's controllers. So the gamer today really has an amazing quality of gaming experience in the home. Then you add to that the Internet and you can play almost any kind of simple, arcade-style game. There's any number of Internet sites where you just go for free and you can play games forever for free. That's going to give competition to both the arcade and the console people, who are trying to make you pay to play.

It's amazing the quality of entertainment people have for almost no cost. It's phenomenal. I was thinking about "Everquest" and those online games and a buddy of mine said, "Yeah, they raised that to 15 bucks a month! It's outrageous!" If the average guy plays a hundred hours a month on those games, he's paying 15 bucks for 100 hours of entertainment, which is like 15 cents an hour. You pay more than that just to turn the light bulb on on your desk! The electricity costs you more than that.

Try to replicate that with quarters in an arcade ...

Right! You consume more than that in just cookies and milk. It is amazing, the absolute cost effectiveness and ubiquitousness of the whole gaming thing. I think Windows is part of that, too. DOS was boring and you had to kind of type and shit. Is there really anything in Windows that you couldn't do any better on your old computer? Just now it takes 30 seconds to boot up your word processor. [But] it makes work fun because you're playing a video game at work, clicking on boxes and stuff. All of life has almost become a video game. So the arcade has tough competition and really, what does it provide? It provides you head-to-head, face-to-face [competition], which I guess reached its peak in the "Street Fighter," "Mortal Kombat" fighting-game era where you go down to the arcade and kick your buddy's ass. That was really a cool, cool thing. Now, the Internet has subsumed that with the head-to-head death-match play on any number of games.

[The arcade] is cool because you get out of the house. You still have the ability to have cool driving cockpits and you can use guns to shoot people. There's a certain advantage in the controls you can have -- snowmobile sleds you sit down on and turn the handlebars and stuff. So, you've got your skateboard or your ski games and so forth. You've got some physical element there -- you have the old prop cycle game where you get on your bicycle-powered hang glider and pump the pedals. You have the fact that it's just kind of there if you're in a movie theater, if you're somewhere and you're bored and have nothing to do and the game is there. It's an out-of-the-home experience. It's sadly a small echo of where it was, but it's still out there and there are still some glimmers of excitement now and then.

What I love about the arcade market is you're so directly [connected] to the people and you basically find out within five minutes if anybody likes your game. You stick it out on a street corner and see if anyone plays it [laughs]. You don't need legions of market research people and all these so-called experts to tell you if your game sucks or not. You just put it out there and see if it makes any money and within three hours you've saved yourself $300,000 worth of market research. That's the immediacy of the business. It's actually fairly easy to get your title out there. Sony doesn't have to sign off on your stuff; you don't have to have some huge corporate committee with their $20 million budget give you the blessing. There's a certain down-on-the-street feeling to the arcade that's fun.

You've had a, to put it mildly, pretty good run of success in the arcade and you're working on a new game right now called "Target: Terror." Is that right?

That's correct. When you're doing a title, I think you want to do something that people care about, that creates some controversy, that has an impact on the marketplace. The biggest problem today is everybody is just so deluged with crap. There's 3,000 channels of everything out there and there's just a million games where you're running around in tights with a sword and you're playing in 1542. After awhile, people are like: "Who gives a shit what happened in 1542?" Or some fantasy of what should have happened in 1542. You want to do something that people can relate to more, and I think the whole terrorism thing is really, really scary stuff. We are probably more gravely threatened as a world today than in many, many years -- certainly since the darkest hours of the Cold War -- with the whole nuclear genie coming out of the bottle. It's funny, we're all just sitting around waiting for the bomb to go off [laughs]. It's so scary and so horrible, we don't even want to contemplate it. I think we're almost in denial about this whole thing.

It's interesting that no one really has made a game -- particularly an arcade-based game -- like this before. You'd think it'd be a natural topic for a lot of games. There are many games that do deal with terrorism, but they're sort of veiled in a military perspective like "Rainbow Six" or "Splinter Cell" or those types of games. From what perspective does "Target: Terror" unfold?

It's inspired, of course, by the whole Sept. 11 thing. And it's like: "OK, what's the next attack?" There's a mission where terrorists are sabotaging the Golden Gate Bridge so you've got to get out there and retake the Golden Gate Bridge. When the initial Sept. 11 thing came out there was a lot of "Oh my God! They're going to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge!" And then there were mayors of suburban towns who were going, "I need security! They're going to come after Mayor Franks of Goodville!"

It is, in some ways, a paranoid vision, but there are such vulnerabilities. It's interesting, we were out doing some video for the game in San Francisco, filming parts of the bridge and so forth, and I guess a citizen actually reported our license plate number to the FBI. We got a call from the FBI wondering what we were doing there and we told them what we were doing and I said, you know, it probably is pretty vulnerable. You look at this bundle of cables 3 or 4 feet thick and if somebody got a big enough bomb, you could take down the whole bridge pretty easily.

Our whole society is based on a peaceful world. We have such a fragile system and we are very, very vulnerable. We were worried about people poisoning the water and doing this and that. There's any number of things that could happen if you had a foe who was completely merciless and would stop at nothing -- there's just any number of heinous acts that could be done.

The whole "Target: Terror" thing is: "Oh my God, they're striking the Golden Gate Bridge!" There's another mission where they're taking over the Los Alamos Nuclear Test Facility and there's a third mission where they're invading an airport. The final mission is inspired by the Sept. 11 hijacking where there was a flight that went down in Pennsylvania and we really don't know what happened. There was obviously some heroic action and it never made its target. There's always the speculation: Where was that going? Was it going to the White House or to the Capitol? The final mission is a hijacking very similar to that where the plane is headed for the White House and you've got to stop it. That's the game in a nutshell.

Were you worried about getting so close to reality?

I think the team was all for it. Some of the marketing guys and stuff [laughs] were like: "Well, should we do this? Is this kind of too much out there?" But I think it's something people care about and something that is the real deal. Somehow we just live in denial of the whole thing. Sept. 11 almost reminds me of a bad software programmer. You're working with this guy and he's doing the software for your game and the thing crashes and the guy goes: "It didn't crash." "Yeah, it did. I was just playing the game and it crashed." He's like: "No, no it didn't." You're like: "Yes, it did!" And he goes: "No, you hit the wrong button. It was your fault! Try it again. It's working fine now. Look at that ..." and starts it up again.

It's almost like Sept. 11 is a software glitch where you go: "Yeah, you know, that never happened! Ah, nah, forget it." Some of the thoughts are just so unspeakable and so scary that you don't want to spend your life worried about all this stuff.

I think a lot of people have probably been secretly wanting a game like this, but would be too afraid to say so.

Yeah, and it's kind of a Rambo-esque way of striking back at the terrorists. The sad thing is we still haven't caught Osama bin Laden. I don't know if we're any closer to addressing the problem than we were before because the threat is so dispersed and so amorphous. All the terrorists aren't just lining up and saying, "Here I am, come get me." It's the type of threat that is going to be there forever ... for a long time. It's sad. It brings up almost the inherent -- I don't want to get religious on you -- the inherent evil part of man. Computer viruses are a very similar thing. Why would anybody create a virus whose only aim is to make people suffer? It just shows the existence of evil and that it's a part of mankind. I think if you get enough people in the world, a certain percentage of them are going to be evil. It's almost a numbers game. To me, the scariest thing about this whole terrorist thing is as technology advances it gives one person the ability to do greater and greater damage.

Are you worried about a backlash or a controversy of some sort surrounding the game? It is such a sensitive issue ...

We certainly tried to avoid any kind -- we probably should have done this to create more publicity -- but we avoided any kind of ethnic stereotype and anything like that and decided to take a little bit of the high road there. I don't know if it's really going to be all that controversial. Who knows? It's just dealing with the evil nature of terrorism, but not putting it specifically in the context of nationalities or causes or things like that.

How realistic is the game?

We took the latest 3-D rendering techniques -- shading, lighting and all that good stuff -- and then we added to that a photo-realistic motion-capture technology so that people appear photo-realistically in the game. They're not polygons. It is pretty amazing. It's scary when you see the reality of the whole thing. We felt that it's just an insult to the players to have these polygon puppets that everybody knows are fake [laughs]. We wanted to do something that was more interesting and more real. I'm tired of -- and everybody is -- tired of these polygon rag-doll people that just don't seem to have any reality.

You've been market-testing "Target: Terror." How's that been going? Are people into the game?

I think people are intrigued by the game. Obviously, the eye candy is an attraction. You have all these fantasies about how people are going to play your game and all the depth you put in there and your great moral story and everything and it seems like actually what people really do is they just enjoy shooting guys in the nuts [laughs]. It's certainly a great frustration to me, but people will play the game in the way they want to play the game. As a game designer, you have to be willing to step back. It is an interactive medium and the players take it over. It's not like a movie where you can call all of the shots ahead of time. It's an interactive medium and the player is the other half of the equation.

Out of your body of work, "Target: Terror" reminds me the most of "NARC" in its topicality.

Exactly. It's similar to that concept, where "NARC" was you're going after the drug dealers in a very Reagan-esque way. The motto was: "Say no, or die!" That was a lot of fun. Here, you're defending America. It's funny, the marketing guys were saying, "Well, you know, we can't put the White House in there. That's just not going to work." And I go: "You know what? Do you have a problem defending your country? Maybe you need a new country." It's almost like we don't realize how lucky we are and what an easy life we have here in America and all the great things we have. Yet, it seems like we're not even willing to defend our country.

We're all a bunch of spoiled brats, if you get right down to it. You just want to buy the meat in the store, you don't want to see Bambi getting cut up [laughs]. You want to protest fur walking around in your leather shoes. You want to talk the environment as you drive around in your Hummer 2. We're a study in contradictions, I think. The ultimate spoiled brats of the world.

Did you catch any flak for "NARC" when it came out?

We got some publicity. It was the first game, I guess, where you exploded people into their parts. It was some extreme prejudice in the prosecution of the drug dealers. Another tag line was: "Protect the innocent and punish the guilty." That was controversial. I think people were a little put aback by some of the visual violence and so forth. It's amazing, when you look at today with games like "House of the Dead" and any number of titles. The "NARC" logo had this splash of red across it and Nintendo wouldn't do that, so they made it yellow. It looked like somebody urinated on the box. Couldn't do that, you know? Look at Nintendo [now]. A few years back they released "Conker's Bad Fur Day" -- adult-themed pornography.

Is there a family-friendly option on "Target: Terror"? I've been told there is an option to turn on green blood?

Yeah, there is an option to make it into paintball, so it's a kind of nonviolent version. There is that option for those areas where you have young kids and so forth.

Really, what it's about is the five people that actually send the 3 million letters to their congressman. There's five people and Senator Lieberman that are all upset about this stuff. It amazes me because you go on the Internet and anybody can access just horrendous, horrible shit. It's the most disgusting stuff you would ever see in the world and totally without censorship in your home. You look at cable TV. There's just an open sewer going into people's living rooms. It amazes me that video games are the whipping boy of society when there's I don't know how many other things out there, but they always come back to [video games].

You think of Columbine. Why did those guys kill their fellow students? Was it that they played video games? It had nothing to do with the fact that the guy had seven shotguns under his bed, he made bombs in his basement, and they were practicing with guns all the time. No, it was the fact that they played video games, which is the same as the other 20 million kids or 50 million kids playing video games. Video games aren't what were different about those guys. What was different was that the guy had seven shotguns under his bed. But we can't talk about guns. We can't talk about gun control -- we can't deal with that. Nobody ever got killed by a joystick.

Although more and more adults are starting to play, it's something that only kids do, so it's safe to ban it. If it's something an adult wanted to do, like pornography, then: "No, we can't ban that!" But if it's something that only kids do, then OK, let's regulate that. I remember there was a time when they were saying, "People are buying drugs in arcades! Let's shut 'em down because young people are there and sometimes they buy drugs!" If that was the criterion for shutting places down, we'd shut down every high school in the country [laughs]. There's always this cry like: "We've gotta do something!" So, you look for some whipping boy, something that you don't care about and the people that care about it don't vote and you go after that. And it continues onward.

You want to look at something that's screwing up kids' lives, drugs are a horrendously horrible, horrible problem. They're a very real problem that we haven't been able to deal with. You can go to a store and stop selling video games, so it's: "We did something! These kids aren't playing video games!" But now they're spending their money on drugs or something. We have these horrible, horrible problems in society that we just don't seem to be able to get traction on and so we look for other scapegoats.

What did you think of "State of Emergency"? One gamer told me it reminded him of your game "Smash T.V." with the sort of swarm gameplay of it.

I think that was kind of an exploitation number. It was like, OK, let's go out and cause hell and machine-gun people. That lasted about 10 minutes. It was fun for about 10 minutes. It was: I'm going out and slaughtering people by the millions and why? There was no motivation for the player. It was just wanton killing. I strongly believe in putting the player into a scenario where there's a reason you're doing things. You have a cause and you're not just out there creating mayhem. That's, I guess, my objection to "Grand Theft Auto." I really don't like the amoralistic games where you're out there doing bad stuff just for fun. It's kind of like video vandalism, you know? Maybe you could argue that it's better to have the guy break windows on the video screen than down the street [laughs]. I really don't know. To me, it is a little troubling -- maybe I'm just kind of old-fashioned -- to have the player take on an amoral role in a game. I feel strongly that the player should have a cause and be acting for the just.

You liked the malleability of arcades. If you wanted another button, you just drilled another hole and stuck another button in. But now that there are so many options with the consoles -- the Xbox with its 50 buttons and 12 joysticks -- have you thought about working in the console arena or are you sticking with arcades for the foreseeable future?

You know, it always seems like whatever they got is still not good enough [laughs]. It seems like the ultimate thing and then in a couple of years it's, "Yeah, this Xbox is kind of limited." So, I don't know if I'll ever make the transition. With arcades you can throw in your own hardware, whatever the latest, state-of-the-art thing is. It gives you a little more freedom. You don't have to cram it into a particular box.

[But] who knows? I guess it's sad that interaction is so hardware-dependent. You take a movie and you can play it on a TV set that's 40 years old, but video games are so dependent on [a particular] generation of hardware. It makes the art form more difficult and more fragile because there's so many games that were written for platforms that no longer exist, for hardware that no longer exists. It's problematic -- you don't have a universal medium.

"Defender" and "Pac-Man" share the title for highest-grossing video games of all time. I've read that there over a billion dollars in gross receipts for "Defender." Does that make you feel pretty proud?

It's a good little notch on your belt buckle, but the funny thing is in the video game business, like a lot of other businesses, it's "What have you done for me lately?" It's not satisfying to latch on to something that happened a quarter-century ago. You want to be contributing today and pushing forward and trying to do something new and something that might get people's attention. It's satisfying now and then, but you feel like you have to go out and do something more -- kind of like the rock group that had their big hit 30 years ago and they're playing Vegas. After a while, just playing the same old tune 300 nights a year, it gets a little old. You want to move on and do something new and cool. I think that's an exciting thing about this industry. It's amazing what new and interesting things that technology has allowed us to do in the last quarter-century. We went from little guys made of 27 pixels to photo-realistic 3-D animation. It's a hell of a quarter century.

What do you think it's going to look like in another quarter-century?

If the world's still here, which I hope it is ... That's a very good question. I guess you have to say the trend toward more photo-realism would just continue and obviously things would look better and better and better. You always say that at some point they're good enough. Like maybe we can stop worrying about making things look better when they're good enough, but it seems like they're never good enough [laughs].

The Madden games are a perfect example. The fundamental gameplay doesn't really change all that much year in and year out, it's just increasing the photo-realism and they'll probably be indistinguishable from a real game pretty soon, I would think.

We always say that; we were saying that in 1990. It was like, "Man, those guys look so good! There's no point in making them look any better than that." It's 12 years later and it's, "Man! They look so good!" It's hard to pooh-pooh that, but obviously it's more and more a process of refinement. You're right that at some point, we may reach diminishing returns and that'll be a real challenge for the industry because we won't be able to just sell on technological upgrades. We won't be able to say, "Well, it's the same old driving game, but everything looks cooler!" And we'll have to make something actually more interesting. Probably we'll just be branding things with the brand of the moment. We'll have "Justin Timberlake Driving" and that kind of stuff. You look at TV and movies and the stuff looks great, but you're continually telling the same old boy-meets-girl story in a way that relates to people of that era. Video games are moving into that -- where it will be more about the story and more about the star and things like that rather than technology. But I don't think we're there yet.

What are your thoughts on MAME? Does it bother you that you can surf the Net and get pretty much any one of your old arcade games up and running for free on your home PC?

It's interesting. It's similar and different from the Napsterization of music. I guess it's similar in the sense that you have this huge body of material that is now available essentially free to run on your PC. They have software that emulates virtually any system ever made from Atari 2600 to arcade games to even some of the later Nintendo systems. You have all these games being provided free to people. Game designers are obviously not getting any royalties, although they probably never got royalties anyway.

The one thing that makes that different is that all these platforms are pretty much dead -- they weren't really economically viable, and, in fact, a lot of these games were in danger of becoming extinct. In some ways, this amazing underground community that has, through all kinds of volunteer efforts -- if you had to pay people to do all of this stuff it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to do this -- people have done it just for the love of the old games, so, in a sense, they've done a tremendous public service in preserving the old games to be played and enjoyed today. You also look at the number of Internet games pretty much just ripping off the old games and calling it something different, you know, changing a few things around and pretending it's an all-new, original game and they're not paying for the rights to those games either. Nobody really lost any revenue due to the whole thing, so there really isn't a victim.

In my mind, I see it as a wonderful thing that these games are out there being enjoyed. As a creative person, and I think even musicians would agree with this, your No. 1 objective is not to make money, your No. 1 objective is to get people to enjoy your creative product. To listen to your song, to play your game, whatever. That's why you're in it. If you wanted to make money, you'd be out selling real estate or something. It's a wonderful, wonderful thing to have this way for people to enjoy works of art and have great access to it. To have things that have been forgotten and out of print and in the dumpster revived and enjoyed by people. I'm amazed that people cared enough to do it.

It is great. Like you said, there are games you would never get to play otherwise, unless you can track down a Vectrex ...

Exactly. Every day, there's less of those around. I think it [emulation] is fabulous.

Anything else in the pipeline from Raw Thrills?

We're doing this one and we have a driving game that we're working on that's coming up in the fall. That's kind of our next thing and now we're looking at some other ideas, some other concepts that we're playing around with. The fun part of being a game designer is that you've always got your next project. You always can dream about making the ultimate game, even though you never really do it. You still have your dreams [laughs]. There's always the next game.

"Target: Terror" is set to make its public debut at the Amusement Showcase International Show in March and will be released by Betson Distributingto your local arcade this spring.

Mitch Borgeson

Mitch Borgeson is a three dimensional writer living in Los Angeles.

MORE FROM Mitch Borgeson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Gaming Video Games