Monday, July 29, 2013

Defender once saved my life. What's it done for me lately?

This weekend, I'm driving with my son up to DeKalb, Illinois to visit Patrick O'Malley at Star Worlds Arcade and hopefully set some type of world record on the arcade game Defender. Matthew's going to set a record on Stargate Defender. Together, this father and son road trip should be pretty epic. (At this point Matt would tell me that an epic is a story... And I would say, you're exactly right. This is an epic story waiting to unfold.)

The gentlemen working on this event had asked me to put together some background details, so they gave me some framework to use. Here are the results.

Defender saved my life as a kid and gave me something to focus upon and stay away from any of the usual distractions in a small, blue collar town. My local “arcades” were a 7-11 with a Defender and a series of constantly rotating machines, and Girouard’s, a hardware store with 4 machines, one of them a Defender. One of the owners of the hardware store, Sagness, would challenge the kids to beat high scores he set for them. If you beat his challenge, he’d give you $10 in quarters, which we’d pump right back into his machines. Kept us all safe and sound.

Early exposure to arcade games. 
My father was an alcoholic. No shame in it; it's just a fact. He would take me to bars with him and in order to give me something to do, he'd load me up with dimes (!) and I'd play all of the old school BB games and Baseball games. You know, the ones with pinballs in them. I don't even remember a time that games were not part of my entertainment regimen. This went on to Pong, Gunfight!, and all the rest. I grew up in the golden age of arcades and I could probably write a short story on all of the things I saw and experienced.

Early exposure to Defender. 
The first day that Defender showed up at the 7-11, I saw immediately that it had "Today's Greatest" and "All Time Greatest" high scores. The machines prior to Defender had high scores that reset upon completion. The moment I saw that, I was determined to be on the top of that "All Time Greatest" high score list. And wow, it was brutal. Especially since at the time there were no other players that could show you how to play. You'd play, get roundly defeated, and then watch someone else get trounced. Then you'd have to create strategies on your own by piecing things together. It was like climbing a mountain!

Why was I drawn to arcade games and Defender specifically? 
Let's put things into perspective. There was no internet. There were three television channels. There were no cell phones. And there were no microwaves. My home town was boring. Your choices were limited to say the least. Video games literally kept me off the streets. No doubt about it.

Defender was a huge draw because it was unbelievably difficult and you could play it however you wanted. No "maze." No "patterns." Just you versus the machine. You had to react and attack and defend however you could, and you could develop playstyles that were yours and yours alone. I played with people that had drastically different methods of play. I loved that so much!

Were there any crowning glories in the First Annual Texas Video Game Championships within the Defender competition? 
The competition itself was just crazy awesome. Brought a friend with me, my cousin came up from Austin, and family members were there. It was at a huge hotel ballroom in a Dallas Hotel and they even had some Dallas Cowboys there. They brought in EVERY arcade machine from EVERY 7-11 in a 50 mile radius and put them all on free play. It was the best thing I have ever seen. We played as many games as we could, while my mom went around and got Dallas Cowboy autographs.

What happened in the years away from gaming, after the competition? 
Hah! Years away from games? When was that? I went from the Atari 2600 up to Commodore 64 and then into Apple ][ and on up. Just because arcades took a hit didn't mean that video games went away. Plus I took those arcade machines with me everywhere. My friends suddenly became "busy" when I needed to move.

What kind of educational and professional experiences might be affected by your arcade experiences? 
I have started playing Defender again in the last couple of years and I have noticed that my play style mirrors how I live my life. It's weird. I take chances but keep my mind on the big picture. There are times where I'm fast and furious and other times where I take my time through a measured response. You have to size up your enemies, and know their patterns to expose their weakness. In order to get through the chaos, sometimes you have to deal with one "knowable" and "manageable" thing at a time until you can quiet the chaos. Being able to enter a very chaotic environment and start nailing down one thing at a time has been invaluable in my life and my career.

Weird. I think I might see the nucleus of a self-help book there.

Of course getting a job in the video game industry was just unbelieveable. All of my experience in the industry has been backed by decades of game playing. I try to bring my emotional experiences from those games to my players, whether it's a new multi-stage game mechanic from Gorf, the surprise of a cut scene in Ms. Pac Man, or the feeling the excitement of getting the top score of Defender. It's all in there.

Any family or life views you share in your world as a result of arcade experiences? 
Unlike many parents I have met over the years, I love playing video games with my and other kids. I am not afraid of games of any sort as a form of escape or learning. Video games hone your critical thinking skills, and they help your hand/eye reflexes. They can train you to drive a car or experience things that you could only dream of. They can make your dreams come true. I make the kids play games that are cooperative when I can find them. When they compete I make them be good sports. Many parents think games are a complete waste of time. Not me.

What does your family think? Do they share your passion for competition? 
My son's into Defender. That's exciting. I think he's neurologically wired like me, so that makes sense. And he's pretty dang good for the amount of time he's invested in it. If you're thinking about getting in game competitions, nothing like that has come up yet. We don't really play a lot of competitive games at the moment, so that may never be on our path.

How did you meet up with the Facebook Williams Defender Players Unite page and eventually the historical epicentre, Star Worlds Arcade? 
Wow. I think the Twin Galaxies Texas Trading Card Event got me hooked up with the FB WDPU group, but I don't recall offhand. I have been fortunate enough to have the universe put me in the right place at the right time, so I don't really question it too much. I am truly blessed to have met amazing people that believe that the right people should know each other.

Man, that makes me try to remember how I got in touch with Pat O'Malley... I don't even remember. You see, once we started talking, it was like we had known each other forever. I couldn't even tell you how long we've known each other. We have so many shared experiences and things we like, it seems like a lot longer than it probably has been.

Any thoughts on the new era of global Williams communication about these gems of development? 
The availability of reaching the people that made the games is CRITICAL to the survival of the human race. We have to talk. We have to discuss our thoughts and our "aha" moments. The fact that the people that brought us these treasures are not going to be around forever are now able to share their wisdom so easily and freely is proof that we have a chance as a species. Now someone just needs to document it and get it off Facebook. Hello, archivists!!

Any musings on the influence of DeMar/Jarvis domination over the early culture? 
I don't think I have enough knowledge on all of their titles, so maybe I have some wrong, but I will say that Gorgar Pinball (it was at my local hardware shop, Girouard's, seen above) / Defender / Stargate / Robotron / Joust / Smash TV / Narc / NBA Jam / Cruisin' USA and all of the others were seminal to the arcade's success. They were all different genres, each with a new trick or two. Some of the gameplay was borrowed here and there, but I don't think many people noticed or cared.

They made games that were more difficult. It added a level of frustration to your play that once you mastered a machine gave you some serious respect points. You either put up or shut up at their challenges. Bring 'em on!

Anything you’d like to share with them (as I will be forwarding to both to see if they’ll add some comments to post in your story)? 
I think I've told them this, but if I didn't... Defender saved my life. I have no idea what would have happened to me in that toxic town. You gave me a place to become a master and gain confidence in myself in ways that didn't exist in my "regular" life. I had friends with the same interests and we all helped each other survive by playing Defender. And you also gave me a chance to have a lifetime of opportunities based upon that confidence.

What in the heck motivates a man to drive half way across the country to compete at Star Worlds arcade (the home of Williams/Chicago area)?Love.
What is your view of the legacy of the early 80s and Defender, considering our generation will be over the hill and in our 60’s within 2 decades? 
Wow. That's, like, deep. The golden age of arcades just cannot be described well enough. I was trying to describe is just the other day to my son. Everywhere you went had a machine of some sort. There were local groups that played in arcades. I would travel around my area and play on all the games. My initials were everywhere. I had to leave my mark. It was like I was "tagging" territory. The games were all significantly different for a long time. No two games felt "alike." That was the crest for me. The noise, smells, and feels of all the different game controls were tangible. The sound of tokens from a coin changer was music to my ears. Being out of quarters was devastating. I still have my token collection. I'm bringing it up there with me. No one will really care, but it's a treasure chest for me. You'll see.

Defender held its own place in the arcade. You would see people that would get killed off immediately and then some players that could go for a while, but wow, when you could play all day for a quarter... you were a master. And people knew it.

The other day, my son and I went to a classic game expo and they had a Defender there. I played it and got 999,975 (the highest score you can set without "flipping" it, and set the all time high score. 

No one at the expo noticed. Except my son, who was beaming. I think this next generation has a chance.