Video game creator Eugene Jarvis is Player One

Jarvis lives on a modest block in Glenview. His is the largest house on the street, three stories stacked in square modernist tiers that, if Glenview were an 8-bit game, would likely render nicely on an Atari 2600. He led me into his basement; “I bought this house for the basement,” he said as he flicked a light switch. The flat light revealed three dozen arcade games, most of which he designed. Several others had personal resonance: In the corner, an original “Computer Space” arcade machine, the first commercially-sold video game, a flop deemed too complicated for the general public. In the early 1970s when he was at the University of California at Berkeley, Jarvis often played its predecessor, a game that circulated among university computer science labs called “Spacewar!”

“I would go into the basement of the lab and get on about 2 a.m. I remember losing track of the time and playing all night, which was the first place a lot of people experienced that feeling gamers live for now, of being so immersed that everything's blocked out.”

At the other end of his basement was an original “Space Invaders.” “The one that really got me thinking about games as a job,” he said, diving into a game, then contorting his body violently as his first player died.

Alongside it was an original “Robotron,” one of his signature games. As with many Jarvis games, it's about being assaulted by a relentless onrush of bad news and managing to stay a step ahead, but never for long.

“It came from a reaction to ‘Space Invaders,'” he said. “Instead of bad guys coming down at you in neat rows, what if they were coming from every direction? What if every possible escape was being choked?” The game, which is paranoid and, frankly, impossible, was so intense, two joysticks were required: one to move, one to fire. No human being would have been able to hit a fire button fast enough, so to fire you pointed a joystick in the direction of the onslaught. Which was a radical idea in 1982, “but, remember, nobody knew the rules then,” said Scott Roberts, an associate professor in the game development program at DePaul University (which in 2008 named Jarvis its first designer-in-residence). “Nobody was familiar with the tropes yet because the tropes were being invented by guys like Eugene who didn't know they were inventing them.”

When I told Jarvis that “Robotron” was abusively tough, he slid over to “Defender.”

“You thought that was hard,” he said.

“Defender” was the first video game by Chicago-based Williams, which, in 1979, when Jarvis arrived, was a nearly bankrupt pinball business. Jarvis came to Williams on the heels of legendary pinball designer Steve Ritchie. “He was seen as a prodigy,” Ritchie said. “He was gutsy, and certainly known for trying anything.” Mike Stroll, then president of Williams, said: “(Jarvis) was the prototype of the modern game designer. He would roll in late in the morning and work until the wee hours. People in the company would come up to me and complain about him, and I remember I even said to his manager: ‘Don't cause me to make a decision between you and Eugene. You don't know want to know the answer to that.'”

“Defender,” released in 1980, was not an obvious first game for a struggling company. It had a slew of buttons at a time when most games just required a joystick and one button. You pilot a spaceship along a horizon, firing at aliens, rescuing humans. That's about it. And yet: It was the first time the action in a game moved beyond its initial screen, or scrolled. The coordination required to play predicted the hand-eye coordination that gamers now consider second nature. It was intimidating, and still is.

“Eugene was understandably insecure about the game,” said Sam Dicker, then part of Jarvis' design team (now an engineer at Audience Inc., which makes chips for iPhones). “Before we took it to a trade show, he packed up a box of his stuff. He was just convinced that he would be fired when everyone hated ‘Defender.'”

He was wrong.

Decades later, in his home's basement arcade, Jarvis stared at “Defender” and zoomed his ship in and out of confettilike explosions erupting all around. “You know I really think the explosions (in this game) were the start of the glorification of gamers,” he said. “It's a subtle thing, but you don't just die in a standard way here. Your explosion gets to be bigger than any other of the explosions.” He started a new game and let his ship just sit and take a direct hit. A supernova of white pixels filled the screen. An unnecessarily big explosion, I joked. “No one wants to play a game where they slip and hit their head in their driveway and die,” he said.

Jarvis' office, by the way, was horrible. The squat building holding Raw Thrills is a gray lump in a gray suburban office park, his office itself a landfill of disheveled stacks of paper and ancient magazines and cardboard boxes and old posters curled at the edges. But from there, you could see the past, present and future of the arcade game business, tucked between cheap-looking walls. There are about three dozen employees, yet the place was unnervingly still. Programmers, scattered about in cubicle farms outside of Jarvis' office, toiled in silence and near darkness, the glow of their monitors flickering on their faces, their heads down, their headphones on — a much less social depiction of the programming scene Jarvis pioneered decades ago.

Before the arcade business crashed in 1983, Williams shipped more than 100,000 units of “Defender” and its sequel, “Stargate.” Jarvis and his design partner DeMar, both of whom never received royalties on “Defender,” left to start their own company: “From an economic standpoint we certainly weren't rewarded,” DeMar said, “and from an ego vantage, we probably weren't being treated like celebrities.” After the crash Jarvis went back to school, convinced arcade games were finished. He received an MBA at Stanford University; unsure of what to do next and still in love with games, however, he just kept designing, for both Williams and Midway through the early '90s.

When he had first come to Chicago in 1979, the city was the hub of the arcade business, home to Williams, Midway and also companies like Gottlieb (“Q*Bert”). Today, among states, Illinois is the sixth-largest employer in the video game industry. Midway, for which Jarvis designed the first “Cruis'n” driving game, filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

Game designers and executives gravitated to developing games for casinos. The rush to break into the more reliable casino-machine business “pulled too many people out of the (video game) industry forever,” said Frank Cosentino, vice president of product strategy for Namco America (“Pac-Man,” “Galaga”), headquartered in Elk Grove Village. Indeed, Williams, now WMS Inc., is exclusively devoted to casino games. Even Raw Thrills, which Jarvis co-founded in 2001, at first established itself by designing games for casinos. Jarvis was a success here, too: “Super Times Pay Poker,” one of the company's first machines, became a casino staple. But he said he only made casino games so that Raw Thrills would have seed money to develop video games.

Jarvis and I walked through a conference room in the Raw Thrills offices with a long table that looked as though it hadn't been sat behind in years. Dust clung to seats. We walked down some stairs and into a cavernous space that resembled a warehouse. Game machines were lined up, being modified, tinkered with. Raw Thrills makes three or four new games a year and ships roughly 10,000 machines total. It's a new world. “In 1981, when ‘Ms. Pac Man' was shipping, you could sell 250,000 machines,” Cosentino said. “Today, sell a fraction of that, it's a home run.” Decades ago these machines would have appeared in arcades, pizza parlors, convenience stores. Now they go into airports, movie theaters and family amusement centers.

“The industry mission,” Petro of Play Mechanix said, “has become really very simple: Get people to notice.” To that end, Jarvis, forever the survivor, wastes no time. In the Raw Thrills warehouse, I counted a half-dozen glowing dials on one snow mobile game alone. Other machines spit redemption tickets, and still others had towering high-definition screens that were impossible to miss. There seemed to be more eye-catching distractions on any one of these games than there were in an entire arcade back in 1981.

Licensing has helped, Jarvis said. To that end, there was a robot skull from a “Terminator” game nearby, scores of “Fast and Furious” machines, a number of “Cars” games.

“The game experience is physical to me, it's personal,” he said. “But the truth is I'm in the Amish horse and buggy business. I am three generations obsolete. And yet I am still here. Want to buy a horse and buggy?”

cborrelli@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli

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