Last month I attended the 2012 Northwest Pinball and Arcade Show in Seattle. There were two huge spaces with hundreds and hundreds of pinball machines and video games all set to free play (admission was $20 at the door). Speaking as someone who grew up during the height of the arcade era in the U.S., it was a sight for sore eyes to see an "arcade" -- bigger than any arcade I'd ever seen back in the day -- packed with people enjoying games dating back as early as the 1920s, all the way to a few of the newest releases. The lion's share of the machines present, though, were from the 80s.
One of the highlights was getting to see a presentation by Eugene Jarvis, designer of many classics like Defender, Robotron 2084, NARC, and Smash TV. He seemed quite jovial and humble, even a bit self-deprecating about having started off with Atari's short-lived pinball division and their attitude that they were gonna show the Chicago pinball manufacturers how to really make pinball machines. He then rattled off many of the ill-conceived design 'innovations' they came up with for Atari pinball machines, explaining how they actually ended up making the machines quite scarce for a variety of reasons (catching on fire being one of them). He was dubbed "Dr. J" by an Atari manager for being able to make lights blink -- a previous programmer, who apparently didn't feel like doing it, had told the manager that it would be impossible. (Since hearing that story, I've noticed Dr. J in the default high score tables of many of his games.)
Speaking about the origins of Defender, he said that when he came to work at Williams (following in the footsteps of a fellow Atarian who moved to Williams, the legendary pinball designer Steve Ritchie -- who also happened to be sitting there in the front row bantering with Eugene during the presentation), he was somewhat arbitrarily assigned to lead the project that would become Defender due to his previously having worked at Atari... in spite of the fact that he'd only done programming for pinball machines there. It was to be Williams's first foray into the exploding video game business. According to Eugene, a higher up at Williams publicly announced at a trade show that since Williams had had the number one pinball machine the prior year, they intended to have the number one video game the next year. He said they worked on it for about nine months, but, realizing that the game was no fun, he turned to Steve Ritchie for advice. One of Ritchie's suggestions was to make the screen scroll rather than have a static playing field. Regarding Williams games' iconic and altogether awesome sound, he said they had a very simple synthesizer and would solicit random strings of numbers from various people at Williams to plug into the sythesizer. These numbers would control various envelopes and shape the sounds, and he said most of the best ones were the ones that were "designed" in this way.
Regarding Robotron 2084, he mentioned that he'd originally intended to call it something like "Robot Wars," but Ritchie suggested the name Robotron. After this, Ritchie said to Eugene that "Robotron is one of the greatest games of all time, and you designed it." The two of them obviously have a long friendship and rib each other a lot, but also really respect and admire each other. Jarvis broke down the design elements of Robotron, noting that after the free scrolling of Defender, he brought everything back to a single-screen design. He said he was partially inspired by Berzerk, and said he noticed that, whereas usually in Berzerk you have to move the direction you want to fire, if you hold down the fire button in Berzerk and then move the joystick, the player will stand still and fire in whatever direction you want. He thought for a while about how to design a way to move in one direction and fire in any other direction at the same time. Finally the second joystick idea occurred to him, and he made a mockup using Atari 2600 sticks. He also explained the thinking behind the various simultaneous goals of surviving, shooting aliens and rescuing humans as providing an enjoyable tension. At the same time, he acknowledged that Robotron is a severely punishing game. He asked Steve Ritchie why players like to be punished, and Steve said he didn't know but he liked it too.
He also reminisced about being present at the famous Homebrew club where Woz and Jobs debuted their Apple computer, and the general atmosphere of excitement about computers at that time, but at the same time the uncertainty of what to do with them.
I wasn't previously aware that Jarvis had worked at Atari, or that he had been involved in the Cruis'n arcade games, or that he was designing the contemporary Big Buck Hunter games -- games I had no interest in previously, but now I'll check them out just by virtue of their pedigree, so to speak. It was great fun for me to hear stories of the atmosphere at companies like Atari and Williams back in the day. A lot of what happened seemed to come down to pure luck, people being in the right place at the right time. Of course they are highly skilled and talented people, but at many times it seems they were just finding their way as best they could, plunged into these remarkable situations of opportunity.
Unfortunately, at an hour and a half the presentation was all too brief, but for me it was absolutely worth the price of admission.