EUGENE JARVIS – Video Game Pioneer

June 24, 2006 — Leave a comment

David Perry Comments: Eugene Jarvis is certainly one of the pioneers of our industry, he developed the Arcade Machine Defender with Steve Ritchie, he also made Robotron (one of cult historical games of all time), he even worked on Smash TV (a game I converted to the Sinclair Spectrum in the United Kingdom, and annoyingly never got to meet Eugene!) He now has his own Arcade Company called Raw Thrills.
How well has he done? Well, he managed to win the Life Time Achievement Award in 2005 at the Game Developers Conference. The winner is picked from the ENTIRE HISTORY of the Video Game Business!
I feel honored to be a friend of his, and yet still every time I meet him, his eyes light up and he rushes over to say “Hello”, he’s an extremely friendly, passionate guy that seems to make time for everybody. He also loves to joke around (as you will see in his interview.) He lives and breathes games and he’s still designing Arcade machines to this day.
So we bring you an exclusive interview, from a TRUE Video Game Pioneer…

What did your mother want you to do as a career? Surely, it couldn’t have been to make professional video games!?

Pretty much anything as long as I stayed out of jail.

What would you say to my mother, to get her off my back and let me make professional video games as a career?

Lets face it, people spend their lives doing lots of useless stuff — like writing articles like this! Now when I spend 40 hours a week playing games online, it’s career development!

Tell us about your start in the industry. What was your life like when you were younger and hungrier?

The younger and hungrier you are the more you can take crazy chances on something really revolutionary because you have nothing to lose. Don’t think you can’t start on your dream until there is some “management / publisher / producer / grand puba buy-in”. Game design is making stuff happen with whatever resources are available.

It’s pretty tough (almost damn impossible) to get hired without industry experience on a resume. Should I lie? It’s the standard Catch-22, need a job to get experience, need experience to get a job. Imagine you are me, caught in the 22–what the heck would you do?

Persistence, not deceit, is the key. Refuse to give up or take no for an answer. Work for free. Start your own project, collaborate over the web. Whatever it takes.

People that never went to college in the video games business swear blind that colleges aren’t needed to get a job. Are they for real? Should I burn my books now?

The more you know the more valuable you are. But its not about books, itâ??s about mastering the craft. Do it, don’t just read about it. If you want to be a rock star, do you read books about rock stars, or do you go out and play?

How did you get your big break? Did you claw your way out of the testers’ pit? Did you sleep your way to the top? Did you sleep at all?

When I started in the business it was so new that they hired anybody of the street. Now you need relentless hustle.

Tell us about the first time you felt star-struck when meeting a leading game developer (and no, we won’t tell Mr. Miyamoto your real name). Do you even realize that some people will get butterflies in their stomach when first meeting you?

Next time Will Wright gives a talk, be there. The guy is the most amazing innovative genius in the business today. When he is done, your head will be spinning with inspiration.

Without using terms like “indentured servant” or “voluntary servitude,” please describe your ideal protege.

Hard working, brilliant, and gets stuff done. But without the know-it-all attitude and ego that is a total deal killer in this business. You got to be smart enough to know you don’t have all the answers, and be able to listen. It’s not about you, it’s about the player. Don’t learn from your mistakes–because then it’s too late and too expensive. Learn from others’ mistakes! The great train wrecks in this business are caused by overblown egos that don’t listen to their players, and don’t execute.

Let’s say I was interviewing with you tomorrow. Short of showing up drunk and naked, what could I say or do to completely ruin my shot? And what could I do to totally win your heart?

To kill the deal, ask lots of questions about benefits, vacations, salary, etc. Tell me about the impossibility of working nights or weekends ever. Tell me blatant lies and reveal your massive egotism and laziness. Tell me how every employer you ever had was a complete asshole. Show no portfolio or demo games. Insult people and products at our company. Ask about your career path. Tell me where you want to be five years from now.

To win my heart, impress me with your attitude, your demos, your enthusiasm. Show me that you are about the game, not about yourself.

Let’s look several years into the future for a moment. Should I even bother learning today’s skills? Surely they’ll have completely changed by the time I get out of college? What kinds of jobs are absolutely ‘rock-solid’, and will undoubtedly still be around 5-10 years from now? And what new jobs do you think might exist that nobody has quite pinned down just yet?

That’s the crazy part of this business. None of us know if we’ll have a job in six months much less five or 10 years. The past means nothing. We are only as good as our last pixel or our last line of code, or our last level design, sound effect, animation, or whatever. The only job security is if you work hard, master your craft,are amazingly productive, and keep your ego under check. Do all this and you will be among the last to go when the shit hits the fan.

Only then will you have to make the dreaded transistion to a REAL JOB.

How much stock do you put in the emerging game design programs at universities? Does it matter more to you that an interviewee knows the history of and theory behind The Third-Person Action MMO/Puzzle Platformer Hybrid, or is all about the demo he/she shows up with?

The demo is the money shot. Anyone can talk a good game, but making a good game is the key. Ideas are cheap (we could write up 100 game concepts in an hour)…it’s execution that counts.

OK, just imagine three companies make me an offer (a guy has gotta dream!). They’re all kinda low-end jobs, and I need to move 3,000 miles to take any of them. How do I pick the right team? What would you look for?

First off, are you excited by the project? Cause that is what you could spend the next two years working on. Next how is the team. Do you get along? Are there people there you can learn from? How is management? A poorly managed chaotic team can be frustrating — but there could be more opportunity for advancement if you are the beacon of hope amidst total ruin. A very well run team can be a pleasure, but it may fully pigeonhole you in your specialty of shoelace shaders in the hot new arena football game. Small teams give you greater range of experiences, while a large team can be prestigious but stifling creatively.

Finally, there are a TON of game development colleges around the world now. Imagine you had to start again, and have all the choices I have — how would you pick? And how would you convince your mother to get out her checkbook?

To break into the business, you need to learn a craft. Coding, art, level design, producing, sound design, etc. Look at the craft you want to develop and see if it plays into the strengths of prospective colleges. And don’t forget there are a lot of traditional four year colleges, and art colleges which are great places to learn. It doesn’t have to be a game development college per se. Realize that when you get out, 90% of the grads will not make the grade and end up in some other career than games. So if you don’t think you are in the top 10%, don’t even bother. You can have a lot more fun and party a lot more in a traditional college.

Thanks Eugene!
Note: This series of interviews was conducted by one of our contributors – Evan Shamoon.

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