The young guy in the trucker cap, skinny jeans and Air Jordans squeezed the trigger on the toy shotgun and his umpteenth round of "Big Buck Hunter" blasted to life. The guy was maybe 25 and so focused on bagging digital deer, the butt of the gun pressed hard into his shoulder, that he never noticed the tall, smiling man behind him, watching.
The man was Eugene Jarvis, president of Raw Thrills, a Skokie video game company. In 2006, Raw Thrills bought Glen Ellyn-based Play Mechanix, the company that created "Big Buck Hunter." Initially Jarvis wasn't convinced "Big Buck Hunter" was relevant; the arcade-game business, once ubiquitous, had contracted back to a novelty, and "Big Buck Hunter" seemed like old news.
Since then, Jarvis has overseen a number of successful iterations -- each louder, brighter and more aggressively grabby than the last. In fact, you might argue "Big Buck Hunter" has become the last great arcade game.
You could argue this. But Jarvis would argue you're wrong.
Jarvis still believes in the future of the old-school coin-operated arcade game.
He's never not believed.
The young guy's girlfriend held two beers and nodded to the boyish Jarvis, who smiled, turned and walked through a throng of other gamers. This was a year ago, when I first met Jarvis, at the Big Buck Hunter World Championship Tournament at the Cubby Bear bar near Wrigley Field. He went unrecognized, as he would most places. Still, I was surprised that even here, surrounded by the culture he had a big hand in creating, no one stopped him. For a time in the '80s, he was something of a famous game designer, the subject of several magazine pieces and media attention. Indeed, he was, and is, one of the few famous game designers. As a kid I knew about him. I knew who he was before I knew who Bob Dylan was.
When I told him this, he said: "Many of us then had an illusion that designers would become like rock stars, that people would recognize the signature of a designer the way they saw the signature of a film director. But that was frustrating, to be honest. Much to my disappointment, people relate to games, not creators."
George Petro, president of Play Mechanix, stood beside Jarvis and listened. He is 47 and was mentored by Jarvis, who is 57. Both of these guys, however, look about 40. Petro waited for Jarvis to finish, then said:
"When I came to Chicago I had heard of Eugene. I had just gotten out of high school and worked in an arcade in Indiana, and Eugene was the man -- he was profiled in Playboy magazine! How many game designers were being written about by real journalists? I loved 'Defender'! I loved 'Stargate'! I loved 'Robotron'! His games, they played differently than other games. They were faster, harder, edgier. Everything blew up in Eugene's games. I remember wondering who the guy was who made 'Defender' before I knew who he was. For a while I thought video games came from game heaven, not from geniuses named Eugene."
Jarvis giggled. He giggles a lot.
Jarvis was born and raised in Silicon Valley. Which is a bit like writing: "Oprah Winfrey was born and raised in a Chicago TV studio." The person matches the birthplace with eerie perfection. Then again, Jarvis, who is responsible for a remarkable number of gaming innovations and an absurdly long list of successful titles stretching four decades, is something of a video game Zelig, a game developer with a Forrest Gump-like ability to have witnessed (or had a hand in) a number of pivotal moments in the history of the medium.
Scrolling games, for instance. Jarvis pioneered scrolling. (Which is like being the first guy to say, "Hey, what would happen if we added pages to this stone tablet?") Also, dual joysticks -- he created dual joysticks.
As a teenager he attended the meetings of the legendary Homebrew Computer Club, which included Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. After college, he was hired by Atari, where founder Nolan Bushnell was pushing innovations (and Jobs was designing a new "Pong" game named "Breakout"). During the pinball era, Jarvis' successes included Atari's "Superman" and Williams Electronics' "Firepower" and "High Speed." During the early '80s he designed "Defender," "Stargate," and "Robotron"; during the late '80s and '90s, he made "Narc," "Smash TV," and the "Cruis'n USA" franchise. More recently, he's the guy behind the "Fast and Furious" driving games, the publisher of "Big Buck Hunter" and the developer who recognized, as Hollywood did decades earlier when faced with the threat of television, the physical size of the medium would be key to its survival: Raw Thrills' machines, the industry standard, are loud and gigantic.
"This business is so technology-driven you're lucky to have one big game in one era," said Larry DeMar, Jarvis' former designing partner. "But Eugene? Hits era after era, genre after genre. Only he has done that."
Oh, Jarvis also mentored Ed Boon, co-creator of "Mortal Kombat," and game developer Mark Trammell of Zynga. A decade earlier, he mentored the programmers who went on to create Commodore's Amiga computer. He also created the graphics-rendering hardware that Nintendo bought and used to develop the Nintendo 64.
"Gene is more important to popular culture than you probably have space to talk about in a newspaper story," said George Gomez, vice president of game development for Melrose Park-based Stern Pinball, the last major pinball machine maker. Gomez, a contemporary of Jarvis' who designed "Tron" and "Spy Hunter" for Bally Midway, added: "Lightning strikes once and people go, 'Oh. Lightning.' When it strikes as often as it does for Eugene, it's no accident. We laugh in this business about him because there's gold under every rock he turns over. Everyone gets out of the business, he jumps back in and sets new industry standards."
In his Skokie office recently, when I asked Jarvis why, considering all the success, he never left the business for the less risky shores of home gaming, he said: "You know, 30 years ago, that's what designers talked about: 'Seriously, dude, when you getting a real job?'"
He thought of something. He went to a framed picture on his office wall and pulled it down: It was a picture of a video-game stamp issued as part of a series of stamps commemorating the 1980s. The good news is, the stamp designer chose "Defender" as the game to put on it; the bad news is that the designer chose the Atari 2600 console version.
In the Atari version, the graceful design of Jarvis' arcade "Defender" -- minimalist landscapes of neon incandescence, fluid spaceships, explosions of bright colors -- was replaced by a blobby 8-bit blockiness. "I know games look better now, but I never warmed to (home gaming) afterward," he said. "It's like, movies are for the big screen and books are meant for print, and to me the natural state of the video game is the arcade machine. Arcade games became my unique mission."
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?"