Monday, July 7, 2008

Huge Euge

"The only legitimate use of a computer is to play games."
- Eugene Jarvis (creator of Defender)

In videogame companies in the early 1980s, a single programmer would often create an entire game - the graphic design, the sound, the game concept and of course the program code to make it all work together. Not only that, but companies often rose or fell on the strength (or weakness) of a single game. In spite of all this, programmers almost always got a raw deal from the companies. There were only a few star programmers, but even they got small salaries and little to no royalties from their games - simply because it was a new industry and nothing had been negotiated yet.

One such star programmer is Eugene Jarvis, known to arcade geeks as the genius behind a holy trinity of arcade games, Defender, Stargate, and Robotron: 2084. Jarvis' three-day (!) career at boring, gameless Hewlett Packard was probably the impetus for the quote above. A chess expert from a young age and an avid mainframe "Space War" player in college, he saw games as the logical killer app for computers, and when Atari finally called him back after three months of waiting, he jumped at the chance.

Starting out in the industry, Jarvis designed pinball games, but when Atari's pinball section went under, he moved to Chicago to work on pinballs at Williams Electronics. Williams had released a video arcade game years before (Paddle Ball, a clone of "Pong") but pinball was their bread and butter. All that changed when Jarvis came up with Defender, the first smash hit sideways-scrolling video game. Defender used a unique thrust/reverse propulsion mechanic, impressive visuals for the time, and truly groundbreaking sound effects. Not to mention the smart bomb, a new addition that allowed the player to maximize points (or get out of a tough spot) by eliminating all the enemies on the screen at once. Another innovation was the scanner, a sort of radar display at the top of the screen that allowed the player to track what was going on in the area of the "Game world" that was currently off-screen. Many of these concepts are still commonly used today. After Williams' offer of a bonus is rejected, Jarvis leaves the company and starts his own game development concern, which quickly concocts an updated, even more complex sequel to Defender, "Stargate", and licenses it to Williams.

In 1995, someone at the sitcom "NewsRadio" was clearly a Jarvis fan, because he was featured on the show. He played "Delivery Guy #3," dropping off a Stargate machine (which, sadly, has its side art and marquee obscured, apparently for legal reasons having to do with the name), and humor ensues as the main character of the show faces the game to which he gave so much of his young adulthood.

You can watch the NewsRadio episode "Arcade" here for free, with limited commercial interruption.

You can also read about the epsode or download a WAV file with an audio clip.

And, here's a story from about the Macintosh development team and Defender (I recall a magazine article from the early 80s about Wozniak - with a picture of him playing Stargate at home.)

At left is a screen shot of Mr. Jarvis on the show, and below is a 1980 promo shot of Defender and "demo dolly." Hand on the joystick, of course.

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