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Melissa Bearns
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Master of the Game

By Melissa H. Bearns
Published: The Medill News Wire (11/17/99)


"A casual phone call leads to a troubling encounter with the phone zone. A joy ride to insanity and back. Leave your message at the tone."

So goes the outgoing message of Eugene Jarvis, 44, one of Chicago-based Midway Games' top arcade game developers.

"Most people don't realize it's a play on the Twilight Zone," Jarvis said, sitting in the pale green glow from two computer screens.

In front of him are a keyboard and a set of steering wheels. Thousands of brightly colored wires emerge from the back of his computer and fall in a ra'ts nest on the floor. On the walls he has German posters advertising his games and personal memorabilia including a thin slip of paper from a fortune cookie.

He said the best fortune he's ever gotten read, "He who waits a long time to do something big will never do anything."

"That's kind of my life," he explained with a laugh. "I get involved in these huge projects that last forever."

He's been designing successful video games since the '70s, which makes him a self-proclaimed dinosaur in an industry dominated by the twenty- and thirty-somethings. He has created some of the top moneymaking games ever put out, including Defender, Cruis'n U.S.A. and Cruis'n World.

Jarvis could have the coveted "corner office" but he prefers to stay cocooned in the bowels of the building in his cramped, windowless room.

"It's distracting to have a window," he said. "I'm of the philosophy that if you want a cool view, make something cool to look at on your screen, make your game look cool."

The shelves are packed with travel book from places such as Morocco, Spain, the Greek Isles, Las Vegas, India and Egypt to name a few. They're inspiration for the landscapes in his games and they cascade onto the floor in piles, mixing with books on cars.

"For the past six or seven years I've been doing traveling, driving simulation games," Jarvis explained.

He modestly fails to mention that those driving simulation games have been some of the most successful driving games in the entire history of the industry.

Mark Turmell, director of the sports division at Midway Games, has known and worked with Jarvis for more than 10 years. He estimated that since Cruis'n U.S.A. was first released in 1994, the first two games of the Cruis'n series have made over $4 billion. Jarvis said a more realistic number is $2 billion.

But they're arcade games so that's $2 billion, one quarter at a time. Turmell pointed out that the 1999 smash hit movie Titanic only made $1 billion.

Michael Getlan, Director of Enthusiasm and Opportunity! at Amusement Consultants Ltd., a company that operates video game arcades and family entertainment centers nationwide, said he knew who Jarvis was long before he bumped into him at a trade show.

"He's made a tremendous contribution to the industry," Getlan said. "He's made the best games and the next to best games for years."

Born in Palo Alto, Calif., Jarvis' first introduction to games was as a chess player. By the age of three he was playing chess with his father and played competitively throughout grade school and high school.

At Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, Calif., he hung out with the smart kids, or depending on your perspective, the geeks.

"His friends were all the straight "A" students, I mean, he was one of that group," said Patrick O'Shaughnessy, who was friends with Jarvis during high school. "He was the best chess player in our school, and one of the students who took advanced math classes at [nearby] Santa Clara University."

But it wasn't until he started studying computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, that Jarvis became seriously obsessed with games.

After college he worked on pinball games for Atari. In the late '70s he was hired by Chicago-based Williams Electronics, now WMS Industries, the parent company of Midway Games. His first game, Defender, was a huge hit and beat out PAC-Man as the Amusement and Music Operators Association pick for best video game of the year in 1981.

To date, Jarvis estimates that Defender has made about $3.8 billion dollars. But at the time, Williams Electronics only offered him a moderate bonus and some stock options.

"The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the game designers can get ripped off," he told a Playboy reporter in 1982.

So Jarvis quit Williams Electronics and founded his own company, Vid Kidz. Shortly afterward, the booming video game market evaporated. Business slumped and in 1984, Jarvis abandoned Vid Kidz and returned to California where he earned an MBA from Stanford University in 1986.

After two years in school he decided that "making games was a lot more fun than the business side of things."

Putting the past behind him, he went back to Midway only to quit again after five years to go work for TV Games in Chicago. Then TV Games merged with Midway Games and Jarvis once again went back to work for his former employer.

"I came back for the love of the game," Jarvis said.

Or maybe he keeps coming back because he just loves to play.

"He's the first guy to start a food fight in a restaurant," Turmell said.

When he heard that, Jarvis grinned and said, "Sometimes you go to these company things and it's like they made the pizza the night before. You know the cheese just comes off in one piece. And you think, this would make a much better Frisbee."

He tried to hide any bitterness or frustration he might have with Midway but it's clear he wouldn't mind more creative freedom.

"I heard him speak at a computer game developer's conference and he sounded like he needed more space," Getlan said. "If Midway was smart, they'd give him more leeway and let him do more."

Jarvis said the conflict is between the people creating the games and the marketing department.

"That's one of the big issues with game designers today," he said. "Trying to have more emphasis on the games as opposed to the sponsor on the box. There's just this constant battle between the suits and the geeks."

But it's the creativity that makes games successful. Thousands of games are produced ever year and only a handful become popular. But for almost 30 years, Jarvis has managed to stay in touch with what consumers want, churning out popular games one after another.

His friends say being young at heart helps him stay in touch.

Turmell described him as "a 44-year-old with the mentality of a 16-year-old."

"It's hard to pin down what makes a game successful," Getlan said. "But Jarvis was always a pioneer in the industry."

That has meant long hours at the office for Jarvis, who is married with three children.

"Making games is a labor of love," he said."The hours are insane. I end up working until eight or nine o'clock at night and sometimes I don't see my kids until the weekend. It's tough."

But Jarvis can rest at night knowing that he has touched the lives of millions of people around the world. One of his fans even made an entire website devoted to him. You can check it out at: http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Haven/5521.

Is it worth it?

"Anybody who's had some success asks themselves, why am I still working my ass off?" Jarvis said. "You think, maybe I should just be resting on my laurels. But the challenge is that you just want to be in the game. Life is precious and you want to be doing something cool with your life."

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copyright Melissa H. Bearns