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Eugene Jarvis Interview: The Secrets of Defender, Blood-Vessel-Shattering Joysticks, and Flappy Bird

Plus: Early digitized graphics, how bugs richen the Defender experience, and the DNA of the shooter.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

Eugene Jarvis is a name I've known for longer than I care to mention. He's the creator of my all-time favorite game, Robotron 2084, and author of several other greats. So it feels strange sitting down to talk to him for the first time, some 35 years after being blown away by his seminal, inaugural arcade game, Defender.

I ask him about that game – a coin-op that was revolutionary for its time, featuring AI that seemed almost lifelike, a full-color scrolling environment, and a variety of distinct aliens to fight. Where his inspiration to innovate came from?

"I never thought of myself as a pioneer, but I feel like a pioneer," says Eugene, talking quickly. "I got this pioneer award the other month, and I’m like, yeah, you know, I’m a f**king pioneer. In those early days you had to do everything. You were the artist, the sound guy, the programmer, and the game designer. You had to do it all, because really, there were no specialties developed for that, because nobody had done any of this stuff. Any time you’re the pioneers, the budgets are very miniscule, and one guy has to do a ton of things."

He pauses. "You think about the early days of film, like Charlie Chaplin. He wouldn’t even have scripts. He would go out on the lot and mess around with some gags and do some stuff, and change things. In the course of the day the movie would change themes five times. He was just winging it. He was the director and the actor and the producer. He was everything. But he was in touch with some kind of pulse of moviegoers and made some of the greatest stuff ever. In the formative days of an industry, pioneers just do everything because there are no specialties. That’s how I think it developed in the late 70s and early 80s."

I wonder whom he was making the game for, since at that point he had no audience.

"In that era, I was making the game for myself. That’s the easiest thing to do. That’s the natural thing to do, really. You have your dream. What’s your ultimate game, in your head? You play games. You go, oh, I really like this game, but they kill you off too quick, wave three’s impossible. In this game, the player is too weak. How am I going to make this game better?."

"It’s almost like you’re a modder, even though there was nothing to mod. You were modding it in your head. And then, if you got a chance to make a game, you’d correct all these mistakes. You were designing for yourself. You were designing the ultimate game for yourself. That was so easy to do, because I was the market. I wasn’t exactly a kid. I was in my early 20s. I loved playing… I was this big arcade player, Space Invaders, I played a lot of pinball. Asteroids. Everything. It’s easiest thing, when you are the market. As you get older, it becomes harder, because you’re like… All of a sudden you’re 40 years old, and maybe you aren’t the market anymore."

How does Eugene view corporate products? Those are the antithesis of creating something for yourself. When there’s tens of millions in marketing, hundreds of millions of development dollars, and maybe a billion dollars of revenue at stake, the product isn't trusted to somebody's gut. Now it's all about the market research

"Game design is also intertwined with business models" observes Eugene. "What’s your monetization strategy? We always think that’s so crass and commercial. Monetization, this is bullshit! Why don’t we just design games? I guess we could design games, and you’d think more people would do it, just as a fine art, not even worried about getting paid. But it gets kind of expensive, and it’s a hell of a lot of work. Being a commercial art form, we’re almost in bed with our monetization. The monetization strategy becomes the game. How do you separate Candy Crush from the monetization strategy? How do you separate Robotron from the two-minute arcade game, trying to get a quarter from people as fast as you can? The game was made to get quarters. It was vicious and it was mean. Then you come with these triple-A titles, which are very long, involved, deeply nuanced, plot, graphics, a huge arc of experience."

"Those games… You’re paying your 60 bucks up front and just enjoying this huge experience. The arc of action is… I guess maybe the arcade is just a microcosm, then. Kind of like in the human brain, we have this thing called the reptilian complex. Somewhere deep down in our brain is a guy that says, I want to eat. I want to have sex. I want to kill. And then we have all these layers and layers of brain on top of that. The arcade game is maybe deeply enmeshed in that thing, but almost indistinguishable within this huge arc of game, with nuances and story and character and amazing graphics and adventure and exploration. Still, deep in there somewhere, is that DNA of conflict, challenge, that sort of thing."

Robotron has a certain purity about it, I note. It’s a no-bullshit, stripped down shooter: the essence of an action game, encapsulated into a single-screen experience. I ask Eugene whether he feels that deep within GTA V there’s a Robotron somewhere, with layers of evolution on top of it.

Eugene laughs. "Robotron, in the classic arcade sense, is very directed. You better be doing this or you’re going to die. It’s this incredible tension, pressure, based on that old arcade genre. Whereas GTA V, you have all these different arcs. You can play the game in any number of different ways. There’s not just one way. You’re not forced into one time-pressured way to play the game. There’s much more exploration, improvisation. It is a different way of playing. But I guess within each of those arcs, somewhere in there is the DNA of the action game."

Moving on to Defender, it was notorious for having some of the most complex controls of any arcade game ever. I wonder how Eugene devised the ergonomics for the machine.

"That was a big thing," says Eugene. "Again, I was designing them for myself. I guess… I had kind of the benefit of being an Average Joe – average height, average dimensions. It wasn’t just pure ego. So yeah, I would lay out the buttons, put my hands on them, try to play and see. We were just drilling holes in wood. You lay it out and like, oh man, I’m getting too much tension here. Move this one a little bit, move that one. They were adjusted to fit me, which luckily I think was pretty close to the average player."

He continues. "The weird thing was, the whole reverse, two-way joystick thing. I wanted to put a four-way or eight-way joystick. I guess it was an eight-way joystick. And we just couldn’t find one that was reliable and available at the time. I think you could find four-way joysticks. But somehow we couldn’t source one. So that was why we ended up with a two-way joystick and the reverse button. But really, it turned out, that control was actually more powerful than a joystick. That’s why a lot of the console renditions of Defender really don’t work. Having that up and down… You can do this coasting, and then kind of reverse and coast. It gave you this much richer control scheme. It turned out to be a better control, which unfortunately has never been duplicated, really, on a console controller."

"It’s funny. Robotron, which had very simple controls, just two joysticks… I spent a lot of time getting the length of the steel rod that the joystick was on. I specified it a little bit longer. I think it was half an inch or an inch longer than the standard of the time, so you wouldn’t drag your hands on the control panel. I played so much Robotron that I basically destroyed a blood vessel that was in my left hand. The left hand is the move joystick, which for some reason you really want to push hard. You want to go faster! You push it harder and harder. And it has no effect, but I would push it super hard. It shattered this blood vessel in my hand. I had to have my hand operated on. I was getting this huge callus within the blood vessel that was growing. They had to remove that. It was crazy. It’s crazy how people have gotten injuries. I guess this guy Billy Joe Cain, who had this record run on Defender recently, he had to quit after a couple of days with some kind of carpal tunnel thing, where his hands froze up on him. I guess he was semi-disabled for weeks after that. But the ergonomics were very important. That was the cool thing about the arcade. You could make that controller… It wasn’t a universal control. It was exactly for that game, to be the best that game could be, and give the player the optimal control. That’s why some of these universal arcade cabinets really haven’t been as successful as they could be. It’s a compromise. You’re trying to crowd all these different controls – Joust, Robotron, Defender, Pac-Man – and you end up with this compromise control panel that doesn’t work that well for any game."

One thing I've always wondered about Defender is that it does some crazy things between 990,000 and 999,975 where you get an extra life for everything you hit. I ask whether that was a deliberate part of the programming?

"Yeah, yeah, the score overflow bug," says Eugene, before pausing. "Let me think again now... I guess, somehow… There’s some artifact there where every score you make generates a replay, and you basically end up stealing those from your next wave. I think it’s an arithmetic overflow. It’s kind of like you’re getting an advance on your ships. For everything you earn… Say you earn 57 extra ships during that last 10,000 before the game clocks. Then you don't earn any more ships until you score 580,000 – assuming the machine is set to an extra life every 10,000 points."

Eugene continues. "It was one of the more bizarre bugs. To this day I'm amazed at the richness of the bugs. Some of the richest elements of Defender and Robotron were bugs, things that I never coded, that I never even in my wildest imagination could have coded. But they added such a richness to the game. In Defender you have two invisible lines, where some enemies use signed math, some enemies use unsigned math, and you can have a crazy effect, because it’s a wraparound universe and you have this line where positive and negative infinity are adjacent. It creates this discontinuity in the universe. You can exploit that. I don’t know, maybe you were such a good player you never had to exploit this, but you can go on one side of the line and they’ll run away from you. The other side of the line, they come toward you. You can lure them toward you and shoot a bunch until there’s too many, then run to the other side of the line and they run away."

I’ve observed that behavior, but I never knew what it was.

"The mutants have one line and the swarmers have a different line" says Eugene. "Really good players, they don’t need a lot of these crutches, but for bad players, they’re very interesting features. There was an interesting bug where if you caught nine or ten men, you could bug out the game."

You could put them through the floor, I say with a smile – having done that quite a number of times in the past.

"The video in those games always had high priority over the AI. Because I felt that the cardinal sin was ever to show a bad frame of video. I always had to have perfect 60Hz video out there. As you went faster and faster in Defender, the terrain generation started eating up a lot of real time. Basically, you would start starving the AI of cycles, and starving the collision routine of cycles. And so the really good players played at a very breakneck, fast pace. They were getting another 30 or 40 percent advantage because they were starving the AI. Robotron, it was hard to exploit that, because you were moving so slowly. Yes, things could get bugged out, but I don’t know that the player could control that as well as in Defender."

I ask about situations where you could drop a smart bomb in a huge, crowded screen, and suddenly stuff would disappear, and reappear in another part of the landscape. Was that a deliberate part of the programming to prevent the game from being overloaded?

Eugene nods. "Yeah, that was a very cheap fix there, where actually… The screen would get bugged out. There would be too many objects on the screen, and so it was like, well… I wanted to be true, to keep objects in the universe, and so when it got bugged out, when you had these huge explosions, it would just basically take objects and hyperspace them halfway around the universe. Just throw ‘em out there. It’s amazing how people didn’t really give a s**t."

"Also, there was a problem… This was an interesting strategy. If you had a very slow rate of scroll when you detonated the smart bomb, there was a high probability of blowing them all up right away. There was a strategy you could use to just… And it would actually blow them up. A lot of times, it would blow them up, but it would hyper them all back into the universe, and you still had to fight them. There was a certain strategy where you could try to get them and blow them all up, I think if you were moving very slowly. You’d have a much better kill rate with the swarmers inside the pods."

There’s a commonality between Robotron and Defender in terms of the rescuing people. I ask whether that theme was deliberately leveraged across both games.

"I did feel strongly that the player should be the good guy. Of course, I guess Grand Theft Auto has shown that maybe that’s not always necessary. What I felt, though, when you were a good guy… I think you kind of feel better about stuff. It gives more meaning to the game. You’re fighting enemies. They’re bad guys. Also, you’re serving something else, not yourself. You’re not just in a digital vandalism melee. You’re working for something, some higher cause. You’re rescuing mankind. Having the humans gave you a way to have a cause other than yourself in the game. I felt that was important for the player’s motivations, to not just be killing everything that moves."

I point out that there's a similar theme in NARC, too, where you’re kind of playing the hero in a similar way, only arresting people rather than rescuing them.

"Exactly. That was interesting, there, where you’d bust guys. You did get a huge bonus for busting guys. It was this risk-reward ratio. They weren’t exactly your friends, but we tried to encourage that. There’s a certain morality play there – aw, f**k these guys, kill ‘em, or okay, I’m taking ‘em to jail."

"There are two different ways of playing of that game. Perhaps it’s an embryonic Grand Theft Auto there. What I love about it, it adds another dynamic to the gameplay. Here’s something where, rather than shooting it, you want to go and intersect it. You have this tension where you have multiple options, multiple strategies. It creates a tension, searching for the optimal strategy. I loved trying to get more complexity, more interest in the game. After a few waves, some games just become trivial. Okay, this is the way I play this game. It becomes trivial and repetitive, and it ends up being boring, which means players are going to lose interest. You want to develop rich strategies, with nuances where there’s not one single right way to do it. There are certain circumstances where a different strategy works. The player has to learn different strategies in different circumstances. It adds to the richness of the game."

NARC features very early digitized graphics. Where did that idea come from?

"I think it was the first game to do that in color. Bally had done a game, I think it was called Journey, back in the early 80's. Where they had the band. They had little pictures of the band members in black and white. They had the first digitized characters. But the motivation with NARC was, at the time, we had big competition with the big Japanese game design houses. Capcom, Namco, Sega, others. They had just amazing animation teams that were putting out… I guess it came out of the whole anime, manga culture they had there. They had a tremendous amount of amazingly gifted artists that would create hand-drawn animation that was just mind-blowing. It was very humbling."

"I remember thinking, I don’t know if we can compete with these guys! These guys are just killing it! How do we get rid of this animation advantage and create games that don’t need all this stuff so we don’t have to compete with these guys? And I was thinking, you know, if you look at movies, most movies are live action. The animated movies are really a subset of movies, a small subset. And so it was like… Shouldn’t games have live action? Isn’t this what would be really cool? Have real actors, real characters, digitize them in the game? And so that was the inspiration for NARC."

"It was kinda tough. We had to get color cameras and buy these experimental digitization boards. Designing your own hardware, trying to digitize color imagery. It was a huge pain in the ass. Very flaky stuff. But finally we dialed in the process. Some better cameras came out. And I just loved the amazing nuance you could get with capturing a digital performance from an artist, from an actor. You get all the facial expression. You get the body language and the motion. You can get it all in like five minutes. You do a take and you have all this stuff. It was crazy, because in a couple of days’ shooting, you could get animation that would take artists a year to do, you know? I loved it. I loved the real-life feel, the great acting nuance. And then it was just this vastly productive thing."

"I was always kind of disappointed when the industry went to this 3D thing. It went back on its head, to where, instead of getting all these great acting performances, you were just capturing the motion of actors. Then you’d map that on this bogus plastic Kewpie doll that was posing with these animations. You lost all of the facial expression. It created these very stilted characters… You didn’t really get the full artistic performance of a live human actor. You lost that subtle nuance, humor, all that physical humor, all that stuff. It just became almost robotic. And also, it took months to do a couple of animations. I really loved that 2D thing. Obviously we had a lot of fun with it in NARC. It probably reached its highest success in Mortal Kombat, or Mortal Kombat II I guess, where they really developed these characters and combined… For the more fantastical moves, they combined computer-generated animation with the live-action animation. Really cool stuff."

Smash TV seemed to be a logical step on from Robotron. I ask whether Eugene made that because he felt that there were more legs in the Robotron concept? Or was the decision something else?

"I was always skeptical," laughs Eugene. "It’s funny. That project was driven by Mark Turmell. It was his first arcade effort. He had come to Williams and wanted to do an arcade game. He loved Robotron. That was like… You know, Robotron was very hardcore. I didn’t know if it still had legs. But Mark was really the prime mover on that project. I said, okay, let’s do it. I think the key thing there, obviously, was two-player simultaneous play, which was really cool. Now it was cooperative. You had two players on the screen at the same time, which also doubled your monetization capability in the game. The other thing that drove it home from an economic perspective was the buy-in, where rather than having a player play forever on a quarter, now you got killed ever three-four-five minutes – a really good player might last 10 or 20 – but the average guy, you’re getting quarters from him every few minutes. He could progress through… You had this huge gauntlet of a game. It’s like an hour or something? It was just this amazing arc, a huge, crazy gauntlet of a game to torture the player and take his money."

And there were boss characters as well. Those were really difficult to beat.

"Yeah, you had the boss characters. It was really fun from a programming perspective. I concentrated on a lot of the enemies. Kind of like what I did in Robotron. I love working on that heart of the game, the enemy dynamics. I remember doing some of the bosses, like Flat Face… Scarface, I mean. The snakes, the cobras. A lot of those smaller characters. It was really cool. We were lucky to work with John Tobias, who was the artist who went on to do Mortal Kombat with Ed Boon. John had come to video games from a comic book background. He did amazing work. A lot of the animation… Like, Mutoid Man has some of the coolest animation ever. Completely hand-drawn, with no tools other than just a… I think it was a system where you just drew pixels with joysticks. He drew those graphics, pixel by pixel, and he’d have to do all the rotations, all the animations, pixel by pixel. But he just did an amazing job. It’s amazing, the labor of love that took place in those games. The art was phenomenal. I remember the grunts, the basic grunts who would murder you with baseball bats, the way we started out with those…"

"The other cool innovation was taking it into this pseudo-3D perspective, which was really nice. Even though it was a 2D game on 2D hardware, by creating this 2.5-D perspective, it really opened up the game as far as the graphical look. Everything at the time was so flat, and now all of sudden there was this real, live world. The way we got that, the initial basis of the animation, is we got up on a ladder with a movie camera and had a guy with a baseball bat doing those things – walking around and doing those things – to get the basics of it. Then John cleaned it up and further enhanced it and created the grunt character. The essence was a kind of digital motion capture there."

With the interview clock running down, I turn the subject back to Defender for a personal question. I used to be able to play the game for hours and hours on end. I'd get into this strange zone where I’d just know exactly what the game was going to do in any given moment. However, very occasionally, I'd be nailed by something completely out of the blue. Was that a bug or a deliberate programming ploy to stop the player from playing indefinitely?

"Like a hardball, a fastball?" says Eugene.

I nod.

"There were quite a lot of devious trajectory algorithms that were used by the enemies in Defender. They would have a wide variety of shots. Some shots would just be shot directly at you. Some shots would be shot kind of in a spread around you, so if you moved… Other shots would take your current velocity and add it to the projectile’s velocity upon creation, so it would go where you were predicted to go. But I think probably the most dangerous things… The most dangerous situation is when you were heading straight for something. That is when you’re really exposed, because it’s hard to avoid something like that. Your velocity… You have this closing velocity, and you really can’t move… You’re moving almost within this random cone. It’s very tough to escape that, whereas if an enemy is quite a ways off you horizontally, you can move vertically very rapidly and avoid that shot. Those are the most dangerous things, are those that are within this random cone. You can’t escape the random cone, due to your velocity. It seems like I share your feelings, that sometimes there’s just these fastballs that come out of the blue. Like, what the hell is that? That’s bullshit! There may well have been discontinuities in the arithmetic, or zero bugs, where a zero is dumped into a velocity, or infinity or something, and it just throws a really nasty fastball. These algorithms were… There were some boundary value conditions that were perhaps undefined."

I admit that sort of thing is at the heart of why I love the game so much, because it makes it feel almost alive.

Eugene agrees, "That’s part of the richness. Certainly Defender was very much a mathematical game. It had a lot of physics, gravity, acceleration, and deceleration. You think about Angry Birds today, it’s another physics game. Just that richness of pulling back on the catapult and launching at the trajectory. You control the velocity, the direction. In a physics game you have this huge richness of outcomes. That’s one of the biggies in Defender. It’s not a digital, you’re dead or your alive game. It’s this huge spectrum of outcomes that create this real richness and… Maybe there are these outlier shots have a very low probability, that you don’t encounter that often, but it comes out of the algorithm. That’s why I kind of saw the enemies in those games as little organisms. They had their very rudimentary brains, making decisions, computing trajectories. In some ways they were alive, and very interactive. In relation to what you were doing, they would do something."

Speaking of Angry Birds, of the games of the modern era, are there any games Eugene sees that makes him think, I’d like to have made that game?

"Anything that’s selling," says Eugene with a grin. "Oh my God, there are just so many awesome games out there. I would stake my claim on any of those things. You talk about a new golden age of gaming, we really are in this new golden age, where the titles are… There are so many titles out there. They’re so awesome. From the triple-A titles all the way down the cell phone games and the casual games. It’s just mind-blowing, what we see out there. I would gladly claim any of them.

Even Flappy Bird?

"Even Flappy Bird," laughs Eugene. "I wish I did that one. Who doesn’t wish they did Flappy Bird?"

I observe that it's the quintessential, "why didn’t I think of that?" game.

"And the cool thing about that, you look at that and think, dammit, I could have done that in 15 minutes. That’s the cool thing about it. Okay, they spend $300 million and they did the next GTA. Yeah, that’s really cool. But what’s cooler? Taking $300 million and turning it into GTA or spending a week and turning it into Flappy Bird? It’s like, everyone wants to do the next Tetris. You want to do the next 2D project that blows away everybody. I guess that’s the ultimate goal of the designer. I guess it really would be Flappy Bird. That would be my game."

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