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Q&A: Arcade master Eugene Jarvis

Robotron 2084 designer surfaces with 9/11-inspired arcade shooter for gamers ready to take on terrorists and hijackers--and save the White House.


Game designer Eugene Jarvis (left), creator of seminal arcade titles from the eighties and nineties including Defender, Robotron, NARC, Smash T.V., Cruisin' USA, Cruisin’ World, and Cruisin’ Exotica (2000) is ready for his close-up--again.

Last month he released Target: Terror, a run-and-gun arcade shooter with a story taken directly from the headlines of September 11, 2001. This Fall, his three-year-old, self-funded company, Raw Thrills, will debut its second arcade title, The Fast and the Furious, a driving title based on the Universal Pictures film of the same name.

Jarvis' games have almost always been about providing against-all-odds gameplay that puts the player in a situation made nearly impossible to overcome. But alongside of the thrills, Jarvis' games were arcade performers. His classic games can still be found in arcades, and his current title, Target: Terror, climbed to the number two most profitable arcade game in its first month in general release, according to the Replay magazine arcade charts.

We spoke with Jarvis from his office in Chicago, Illinois.

GameSpot: Without 9/11 would Target: Terror have existed?

Eugene Jarvis: No. The whole thing is the ultimate paranoid fantasy that warned of 9/11 before it happened. Guys who were thinking about stuff like this were calling into the CIA and the FBI, and they were getting put on hold…like, "Man, how do we get rid of this nutcase…he says somebody is plotting to blow up an airplane. Let’s put this guy in some deep file." And then all this stuff happens.

GS: Which you translated into the game?

EJ: It’s like, what could be the next level? So Target: Terror is this extreme paranoia, but gosh, it could be real. We take it to the extreme--they’re taking over the Golden Gate Bridge and you have to retake that.

Double-click the video window for a full-screen view. GS: Your character is who?

EJ: You’re the ultimate special ops guy. You have your standard issue automatic pistol, but you’ve also got a shotgun, rocket-propelled grenades, you have a flamethrower, you have a super--we call it the--"Shocker"--a wicked high voltage electrocution device. There’s a liquid nitrogen freeze gun, and a lot of crazy power-ups.

GS: Is it single-player only?

EJ: You can play either single or double. It’s a cooperative game. You each have your own score, so in some ways you’re kind of competing to see who can get the longest kill streak, who can get the most kills, who can get the power-ups, who can find the most terrorists.

GS: Do you foresee any sort of backlash from the game's content?

EJ: It's a red label game, a "strong violence" game, so it’s not appropriate at certain locations. It seems like the real controversy has been over the final scene in the game.

GS: Which is what?

EJ: If you are able to get through all the levels, [you find yourself on a] plane being hijacked--inspired by Flight 93, the one that went down in Pennsylvania. Where were those guys going? Were they headed for the Capitol? The White House? At this point it’s headed for the White House so you’ve got to stop them. You’ve got to work your way through the cabin and get to the cockpit. There’s a hostage situation that you have to resolve--there are three or four different endings. Most of them aren’t too pretty. That has been controversial. Maybe it's too close to home.

GS: Is there a lesson that you’re trying to communicate, or to relay, to players? What were your goals in creating a game that held so closely to the themes and the events of 9/11?

EJ: To me, when I think about Flight 91, I wonder what happened and inevitably the question comes up in your mind: If you were sitting on that plane, what would you have done? Could you come anywhere near the heroism of those passengers? Would you have just sat there and been scared, would you crawl under your seat cushion or would you go to the two guys next to you and say, "OK, let’s go. Let’s roll baby!" Let’s put the player into that scenario. It's very involving and something that we all wonder about. I think it all boils down to this--if you got a problem defending your country, then maybe you need a new country.

GS: And the backlash?

EJ: That particular scene with the White House, it’s banned from Wal-Mart, so there’s some backlash there, but I think the players have really enjoyed it--it’s kind of one of those sweaty palms kind of scenarios.

GS: Where do you stand on games drawing more upon real events?

EJ: I think it’s more involving, but risky. As it gets closer to our time, it becomes harder because people really die. If somebody really attacks the Golden Gate Bridge and a lot of people die, the game might become very traumatic. I think designers and companies don’t want to have a situation where all of a sudden something happened and then you’d have to can the project. Like movies [that had] the twin towers in them.

GS: And yet your game flies in the face of that conservative theory.

EJ: To me, you really want to get the player’s attention. You’ve got 3,000 channels, there’s so much media out there, there’s so much crazy stuff going on that you need to involve the player. I really think we’re whipping a bunch of dead horses with the 43rd iteration of EverQuest. Do you do the 400th iteration of Halo? I feel like we’re beating certain genres to death.

GS: Why is it you’ve never chosen to move into the home game space?

EJ: There's been a lot of ports of my games, like Defender, Robotron, and actually Cruisin’ USA was a launch title in the Nintendo 64 system, but I’ve been disappointed with them. It’s just never quite as good [as the arcade version]. There are always a lot of compromises. Now that the home console technology--certainly the PC technology--is right up there, and it is state of the art, there’s not that issue anymore as far as having to compromise the game. But I guess I’m into the arcade--into the three-minute instant gratification thing. I just don’t have the attention span to play a game for 40 hours. It’s like you go out there, you start out with a bicycle and you have to earn your tires, and then you unlock the track, and all of a sudden you can race on two tracks instead of one. Screw that, man, I just want to race the pole at qualifying necessary.

GS: There must be some fairly significant obstacles to remaining in the arcade sector, because it hasn’t been the strongest game sector.

EJ: It’s obviously huge competition when you can sit there playing your PS2 for free. You buy a few games and you can play them forever. How many people would play their PS2 if every two minutes you had to put a buck into it.

GS: So, I’m curious--what’s the lure of staying in the arcade industry?

EJ: What I like about it is the game style where you just go up and have some fun for three minutes or ten minutes and then get on with your life. You don’t have to dedicate your life to it. And you have the joy of all the cool controls; you’re shooting a real gun--not like it’s a mouse and you’re pretending it’s a rocket launcher. You’re holding a gun, you’ve got a real steering wheel, you’ve got a real gas pedal, you’re sitting in a car where you have a gear shift. That’s what I love about it, but obviously it’s one of those niche markets these days. I think there's a joy and a rush to that style of play that doesn’t ever get old.

GS: Do you think the arcade industry is doing all that it can to remain viable?

EJ: I think if you’re trying to raise money from Wall Street, and say you're making an arcade game, they all laugh. You can empty the room in about five seconds. It is an uphill battle, but now it’s back to the guys in the garages--like the Steve Jobs and the Nolan Bushnell's in their basements.

GS: That’s how you feel?

EJ: Exactly. It’s like being back in the basement, back with kind of a small team. You don’t have to worry about a 40-man development team, where half the guys are designing shaders for shoelaces on Tiger Woods, and trying to get the gloss on his golf shoes to be realistic. If the whole reason to buy Tiger Woods 2008 is that his golf shoes shine a little better or something, who cares? We’re splitting hairs.

GS: Something tells me that Raw Thrills is self-funded.

EJ: Yes. We’re bootstrapping and using creative VISA card financing, but we’re having a lot of fun.

GS: Did the arcade business ever fade away for you?

EJ: I think it’s like wearing your leisure suit at the disco…your disco leisure suit and your white tie and all that, and you kind of didn’t want anybody to see you. You went into the arcade and hoped nobody was looking. But now it's to the point where it’s like, “Hey man, I’m wearing my 70s disco shirt and like, hey that’s pretty cool.”

GS: Thanks Eugene.

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