Adam Pratt of Arcade Heroes spoke with Raw Thrills co-founder Eugene Jarvis on his work in game development, the effect of COVID-19 on the arcade industry, and the future of coin-op during a YouTube live stream earlier today.
Jarvis recalled his first experience with video games: playing a version of Space War at Stanford University. “That was really kind of a mind-blowing experience to see Space War,” he said.
He also played Pong with his sister, who always “killed” him at the game.
Eventually, Jarvis plunged deep into pinball. “Atari was getting into pinball in the ‘70s, and that’s how I got into Atari,” he said. “My first day at Atari, I made a light bulb flash, and people thought I was some kind of magician. I was a shaman of digital effects.”
The game designer pivoted to working on video games when he found inspiration in Space Invaders.
Nowadays, as any Arcade Heroes reader is well aware, Jarvis is the head of the Raw Thrills ship, the company he started alongside Andrew Eloff and Deepak Deo after Midway left the arcade business in 2001.”
“It was probably insanity,” he said. “I remember my partner Andy Eloff—we were all unemployed at this point—partly we just needed jobs. If nobody will hire you, you just need to make your own job. We were great lovers of the arcade experience.”
The latest project from the Skokie, Illinois-based factory is King Kong of Skull Island, a motion-controlled virtual reality machine releasing in early 2021. “We’ve added interactivity to our Kong game,” he explained. “Basically, you interact with the environment with your hands.”
Raw Thrills chose to enter the VR space due to advancements in the technology increasing its feasibility. “It’s kinda like when Steve Jobs came out with the iPad,” he said. “The technology had been around for about 25 years. … When the tech’s not there, things just aren’t useful.”
When Jarvis was working on a VR game all the way back in 1981, the technology “really wasn’t there.”
The King Kong IP in particular was chosen for its gripping narrative. “It’s a really awesome adventure,” he said. “In VR, you don’t wanna just go to the 7-Eleven or something. You wanna have the adventure of a lifetime.”
As for why he enjoys the arcade experience, Jarvis cites “cool controls” as a major differentiator. “You have your steering wheels, your guns for gun games, your different controllers, custom controllers, gas pedals, gear shifters, flight sticks,” he said. “And they’re all tailored to the experience.”
Apart from some recurring themes, his game design philosophy has changed over time. “You know, I think when I started out—obviously I was a young kid—I was like 21 at the time,” he said. “I started out when I was 21. When you’re young like that, it’s like you are the player, you are the audience. You have to aim for yourself.
“Over the years, a lot of the hardcore players have gone over to the console or PC games. I think part of it is economics,” he continued. “I think the arcade has gone more to a casual audience over the years. It is quite a different audience today than it was during my Defender years.”
At that time, Jarvis was especially enamored by hardcore action games, something that has stuck with him throughout his career. “There’s a constant back and forth between empowering the player,” he said. “Then, if you make the player too powerful, it’s not a game anymore.”
Despite current market trends, Jarvis emphasized the importance of engineering a game for longevity. “You have to keep pressing yourself, even against your better wisdom, and try to find new things,” he said.
When Pratt asked if Raw Thrills would continue the “Frenzy” line of updated classics, Jarvis was uncertain. “You know, I’m sure it could work on other things,” he said. “We haven’t thought exactly right now, but that is a good idea. There’s more gold to be mind in that Frenzy situation.”
Anthologies of remastered classics, on the other hard, are unlikely to see the light of day. “We’re always kinda moving into the future,” he noted. “It seems like there’s always more opportunity in the future than in reliving the past. Our focus is on trying to do cool, new things in the future and trying to come up with those concepts that’ll be exciting for new audiences.”
Neither does he see much potential in exergaming, an area in which UNIS has been active as of late. Instead, Jarvis is most interested in augmented, mixed, and virtual reality. As such, players can expect more VR games from Raw Thrills going forward. “It’s very exciting, and the kids are loving it,” he said.
Jarvis asserts that a game needs more than cutting-edge technology to succeed. “With 4K, what are you doing with the 4K?” he said. “Just technology is never enough. You need to advance your creative vision and do something that takes that technology and advances it.”
Interestingly enough, Jarvis isn’t as focused on hiding secrets in his games today as was during his time at Midway. “There are some hidden gems in there and different shortcuts and different interesting little glitches and stuff, and I do think we’re not as crazy as we were back in the day,” he said. “I think there were much more little Easter eggs and stuff. It is really cool. Sometimes you just run out of time and have to ship the product.”
If money were no object, Jarvis would build a warehouse-sized augmented reality game. Even so, he warns that an unlimited budget would result in a “lack of focus.”
Although they have plenty of ideas for the future, Raw Thrills’ business has been stifled by the coronavirus pandemic. “Our customers are the players and the operators, and when everybody’s closed down, or everybody’s afraid to go to the arcade, or there’s social distancing causing reduced capacity, it’s really tough on all the arcades and operators out there,” he said.
“I think we’re doing 20 to 25 percent of our usual business,” he added. “It’s been very hard, and we’ve had to kind of tap into our reserves. We’re gonna be raising some more money in the next month, because we wanna keep our R&D running. … We have to keep spending as much as we were spending but unfortunately with very little revenue.”
Consequently, Raw Thrills is dedicated to their customer base. “Our primary business is arcade games for the commercial arcades other there,” he said. That’s where we’re working really hard, and we’re really gonna be emphasizing that, because that’s where we’re at here, and things are gonna be reopened.”
If there’s one thing Jarvis stressed the most, it’s this: “People are always looking for something new.”
The interview followed a “Raw Thrills Product Showcase” of trailers for (nearly) every game currently available from the manufacturer, including Big Buck Hunter Reloaded, Bust-a-Move Frenzy, Cruis’n Blast, Halo: Fireteam Raven, Injustic Arcade, Jurassic Park Arcade, Moto GP, Nerf Arcade, Nitro Trucks, Super Bikes 3, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Walking Dead, and King Kong of Skull Island.
Although the interview was ultimately cut short by recurring technical issues, I feel there was still plenty for avid viewers to eat up. If you’d like to see the full session for yourself, kindly see this link.