Eugene Jarvis needs little introduction. As the creator of Defender, Robotron (and accompanying two-joystick control system), NARC, and the Cruis'n series, his reach in gaming, especially as concerns arcades, is incredibly wide. Even if you've never been inside an arcade, his influence can be felt in the glut of indie and downloadable games using the Robotron control scheme, such as Geometry Wars and Blast Factor.
More recently, Jarvis has returned to the arcade scene with his company Raw Thrills, whose first game was the very controversial light gun shooter Target: Terror. The game was very inflammatory at the time, and while part of it was simply an eyecatch, there's something to be said for putting a game out there that makes people consider actions and ramifications, if indeed it does.
The company's newest game is The Fast and the Furious Drift, and on the occasion of its release to arcades, we spoke with the industry legend at length. Jarvis gives us a very realistic portrait of the current arcade industry, where rising costs and waning consumer interest compete. This difficult scenario encouraged a recent merger between Raw Thrills and Play Mechanix (Big Buck Hunter), which allows sharing of technology and ideas, as well as multi-team workflow.
In this interview, we discuss the changing methods of designing for arcade games, how the Wii is (or isn't) encroaching on the unique experience of the arcade, to what extent graphics still matter, why most modern arcade cabinets are basically just dedicated PCs, whether Target: Terror was a political statement, and how far the envelope can be pushed.
How different is the arcade industry now, versus its heyday?
Eugene Jarvis: In some ways, it's similar to where it was in the late '70s, before it became huge. It's half show and half garage sale. It's on a smaller scale, but the challenge is still there. Trying to create a game that players care enough to pop a buck into every two or three minutes is a high bar. In the case of something like World of Warcraft, there may be 20 million people playing it, but they're not paying a buck every minute to play that game. They're paying a buck every ten hours. It's a different animal.
How do you design arcade games so that they eat dollars now, instead of quarters?
EJ: If you could tell me, you'd have a job! You have to pack a huge amount of entertainment into a small stretch of time. It's like an iPod versus Microsoft Windows. It's got to be so easy to start the game, and be very clear as to what you're doing, and have a super elegant user interface. The action has got to hit you in the face.
A lot of people associate that kind of entertainment with casual games, but you're coming at it from a more hardcore angle. They're certainly easy to get into, but the games themselves are a bit more hardcore.
EJ: There's really two huge groups of players in the arcade market. One is the group that just really wants to have some fun and go to the arcade every six months, and then there's the dedicated group of players that pump a huge portion of money into the games. You have to have some depth to the game, and have challenges beyond what the average casual player would notice.
Most of your games are getting sold to movie theatres and bars and things like that, right?
EJ: Yeah. I guess they call it the "street" market. It includes movie theatres, bars, bowling alleys, pizza parlors, Wal-Marts, and other places. There are arcades, but they're much bigger these days, like Gameworks, Dave & Busters, and Chuck E Cheese's. They're a big place with probably several hundred games, and that's more of the classic arcade environment.
Until you guys, along with Play Mechanix and Incredible Technologies came along, there weren't actually new games coming out for a number of years with any regularity.
EJ: There were new releases, it's just that the games weren't selling that much. The reason was that it was a changing marketplace. Back in the '90s it was all about fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Back in the '80s it was all about character games like Pac-Man and shooters like Defender, Asteroids, and Space Invaders.
Those genres hit huge, then waned in popularity. You have to follow the curve and see where the players are. You have to give them today's game, which is more of an environmental thing. You have gun-based interfaces, or driving games with steering wheels, gas pedals, and gear shifters. We have a motorcycle game called Super Bikes, and you're leaning the motorcycle. It's much more physical and control-intensive. It's play that you can't get at home. People are still going to play their Xbox or PlayStation 37 hours a week, so we have to give them something that is not on their PS3 or their Wii.