The History Behind One of the Greatest Games of All Time
The creation of Defender was one of the single greatest feats in the history of coin-operated amusement. When Defender was released in late 1980, it was so different and exciting, it became an instant hit. Six months after its release, Defender took in more quarters per week than any other game in the United States. Williams went from the number two pinball manufacturer to the major new force in video amusements. A year after it was released, Defender machines were still rolling off the production line to satisfy the demand. Eventually, Defender went on to ship more than 60,000 units and reportedly spawned almost as many bootlegs at the time, when pirating was still rampant in the industry. Defender remains one of the top ten arcade games of all time.
At the time Defender was released, Stan Jarocki, director of marketing at Williams' arch-rival Midway, was quoted as saying, "For a first effort, and particularly for a game designed in house, Defender is amazing." How amazing? Williams purchased Midway a few years later. Defender was the first in a long line of Williams games that were built on a solid bedrock of exciting gameplay. The game burst on the scene seemingly out of nowhere. In fact, it was the culmination of eight months of hard work. What most people don't know is that the Defender project teetered back and forth on the brink of oblivion, right until the day it was first tested in an arcade. The innovative game finally came together through the sheer willpower of its young, talented design team, led by Eugene Jarvis. Jarvis, a computer science graduate of UC Berkeley, entered the amusement trade working for Nolan Bushnell, the godfather of the American video game industry and then owner of Atari. In the late '70s, Jarvis went to work for Williams as a pinball programmer when the company was making the transition from mechanical to electronically operated pinball machines. By 1980, a couple hundred thousand Space Invader machines made it quite clear that the future of coin-operated amusements was in video games.
Williams had to make their move and the project fell into Jarvis' lap. "I didn't know jack about video games," says Jarvis. It was time to learn fast. The video hysteria was coming and everyone in the industry could smell it. Initially, Jarvis was mostly alone on the project. The company decided to make the game in color, a big step at the time. Williams' hardware system could support an amazing 16 colors. Jarvis went to town and spent three to four months coming up with color variations on Space Invaders and Asteroids, which he now admits were "just stupid." At that point all he had was a good title, Defender. Jarvis tried to create the game from the title backwards, figuring that the game's objective should be to defend fellow humans -- something that would justify the wanton destruction he hoped to later program into the game. He created a ship, its basic controls, and then spent a month programming little human astronauts that would walk around on a lunar surface. By this time, the Amusement Machine Operators of America (AMOA) show at which the game was supposed to debut was fast approaching and management was not amused . Redoubling his efforts, Jarvis came up with the landers and bombers, but the game still did not elicit that sweaty-palms feeling, Jarvis' personal barometer for a successful video game. A good video game should keep a player in panic for his life every millisecond. At this stage, according to Jarvis, the game "felt like flying around in an aquarium." Then inspiration hit. While watching an old Star Trek episode, Jarvis came up with idea of mutants. Now humans and landers could fuse into a vicious enemy the player could really hate. Swarmers and baiters were added and Defender had finally started to reach critical mass in the panic department. Ironically, so had Williams. A week before Defender's scheduled trade show debut, there still was not a finished game. It was crunch time. Sam Dicker, who was responsible for many of the sounds and explosions on the game, Larry DeMar and almost every other programmer at Williams came together to trouble shoot and problem solve on Defender. Larry DeMar had never seen anything like it . Of course the crew was handicapped by the technology of the day. The difference between the game development machines of today and those used on Defender is something like the difference between trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together and having a gas-powered blow torch at your disposal.
The night before the AMOA show, brand new wood cabinets emblazoned with yellow and red graphics were delivered to the show floor and placed prominently at the Williams booth. They contained Williams' breakthrough electronic hardware system, the most complex controls ever seen on a video game and bold backlit marquee signs with the Defender logo. They were just missing one small thing -- the ROM chip that actually contained the game. Across town at Williams, the game still didn't have an attract mode. Larry DeMar hacked one together in five hours. Today it's not uncommon for a crew to spend 3 months doing the same thing. At dawn the ROMs were burned. With hardly an hour to spare, the games were up and running and ready to display Williams' biggest gamble ever. They had completed the game in time. Unfortunately, no one would play it. Exhausted, tired and high from lack of sleep, Jarvis was still undaunted. He was actually sort of proud that people found it confusing. The buzz at the end of the show was that Pac-man and Defender were going to bomb and that a game called Rally X was the next big thing. The next week was spent adding more waves to the game, which initially only went to wave five. Nobody in the company had ever got past wave three. Jarvis, who sentimentally refers to this time as the-one-week-he-was-the-world's-greatest-Defender-player, had scored 60,000 points. The general feeling was that this score was impossible and might never be achieved again. On the outside chance that it could, they decided to add more levels. So when Defender was brought out for an arcade test, it had repeating waves that continued until the game turned over at one million points. Surely, there was no danger of anyone playing this thing for more than three or four minutes.
The arcade test was the first hint anyone had that Defender wasn't the 300 lb. paper weight everybody thought it was. There are few things more humbling than playing Defender for the first time. The average game time that first week was 33 seconds. Players not realizing they could thrust or reverse would die absolutely pathetic deaths. It pissed players off -- in a good way. They came back for more and more, determined to beat this crazy new game. Defender fever took hold. Jarvis was profiled in a June 1982 issue of Playboy in a piece called "What Sort of Man Invents Defender?" Joystick Magazine reported with a straight face that, "It's even been rumored that the Air Force trains its recruits on Defender machines." The fever inspired other versions of Defender. In 1982, Joe Kaminkow, Barry Ousler, and Cary Kolker created a moderately successful Defender pinball machine. There was also a cocktail version of Defender. Presently Atari is developing an update to the game called Defender 2000 for their Jaguar home system. In a video game cover story for the January 18th, 1982 issue of Time magazine, a Mount Prospect Illinois high school student named Steve Juraszek was profiled as the "Defender champion of the world." Juraszek played 16 straight hours on a single quarter racking up 16 million points. While Juraszek's feat was amazing, his status as "champion" is a bit misleading. Around the same time, there were expert players who were literally playing the game for days. Jarvis knew of one guy who quit his job at Boeing to play Defender full time. A scoring bug that occurs at 990,000 points allowed players to rack up enough ships to take a break and go to the bathroom (important for long games). Once you reach 990,000 everything you shoot earns you a free ship. If you try to shoot as many low scoring targets as possible you can turn the game over with dozens of free ships. The only catch is that you don't earn another ship until you accumulate enough points to "pay" for the ships earned between 990,000 and 000,000 (one million). It's an advance, not a gift. For the general public, Defender may not conjure up as much name recognition as Space Invaders or Pac-Man, but for many arcade addicts it was the only game that mattered. Its creation will always be remembered as an amazing feat. Defender catapulted Williams into an industry leadership position in video games and the company has remained there ever since.
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