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.
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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. Lets put this guy in some deep file." And then all this stuff happens.
GS: Which you translated into the game?
EJ: Its 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--theyre taking over the Golden Gate Bridge and you have to retake that.
EJ: Youre the ultimate special ops guy. You have your standard issue automatic pistol, but youve 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. Theres 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. Its a cooperative game. You each have your own score, so in some ways youre 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 its 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 its headed for the White House so youve got to stop them. Youve got to work your way through the cabin and get to the cockpit. Theres a hostage situation that you have to resolve--there are three or four different endings. Most of them arent too pretty. That has been controversial. Maybe it's too close to home.
GS: Is there a lesson that youre 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, lets go. Lets roll baby!" Lets 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, its banned from Wal-Mart, so theres some backlash there, but I think the players have really enjoyed it--its 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 its 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 dont want to have a situation where all of a sudden something happened and then youd 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 players attention. Youve got 3,000 channels, theres so much media out there, theres so much crazy stuff going on that you need to involve the player. I really think were whipping a bunch of dead horses with the 43rd iteration of EverQuest. Do you do the 400th iteration of Halo? I feel like were beating certain genres to death.
GS: Why is it youve 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 Ive been disappointed with them. Its 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, theres not that issue anymore as far as having to compromise the game. But I guess Im into the arcade--into the three-minute instant gratification thing. I just dont have the attention span to play a game for 40 hours. Its 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 Daytona...no qualifying necessary.
GS: There must be some fairly significant obstacles to remaining in the arcade sector, because it hasnt been the strongest game sector.
EJ: Its 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, Im curious--whats 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 dont have to dedicate your life to it. And you have the joy of all the cool controls; youre shooting a real gun--not like its a mouse and youre pretending its a rocket launcher. Youre holding a gun, youve got a real steering wheel, youve got a real gas pedal, youre sitting in a car where you have a gear shift. Thats what I love about it, but obviously its one of those niche markets these days. I think there's a joy and a rush to that style of play that doesnt ever get old.
GS: Do you think the arcade industry is doing all that it can to remain viable?
EJ: I think if youre 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 its back to the guys in the garages--like the Steve Jobs and the Nolan Bushnell's in their basements.
GS: Thats how you feel?
EJ: Exactly. Its like being back in the basement, back with kind of a small team. You dont 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? Were splitting hairs.
GS: Something tells me that Raw Thrills is self-funded.
EJ: Yes. Were bootstrapping and using creative VISA card financing, but were having a lot of fun.
GS: Did the arcade business ever fade away for you?
EJ: I think its like wearing your leisure suit at the disco your disco leisure suit and your white tie and all that, and you kind of didnt want anybody to see you. You went into the arcade and hoped nobody was looking. But now it's to the point where its like, Hey man, Im wearing my 70s disco shirt and like, hey thats pretty cool.
GS: Thanks Eugene.
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