ICONS: Jeff Peters has left his mark on multiple aspects of gaming culture - Part 10 Comments
Welcome back to ICONS, the semi-regular series here on G4@Syfygames that looks at the people who have impacted the video game industry and culture.
This time we feature Jeff Peters, a man who has left an impact on virtually every aspect of the video game world for decades. A pioneer in the very early world of what we now call eSports, Peters set the bar so high in some of the earliest video game competitions that the companies began to call him for advice. He later went on to be part of the launch of Electronic Gaming Monthly and then into video game marketing and development himself, helping to bring hit titles to video game consoles for generations.
For Peters, it all started with some of the earliest Atari arcade classics.
"My first discovery of video games was getting to see an Atari Pong and Video Pinball in a small movie theater in Southern California, right next to a classic pinball machine," Peters recalled. "I had been exposed to mechanical pinballs prior to that, with Captain Fantastic being one of my favorites, and of course loved the physical nature of the gameplay. This Pong thing was odd and different. There were no mechanical parts, aside from two spinny-knob-thingys, and all the wonderful mechanical and chime-like sounds from a traditional pin table were all absent. In fact the game was mostly quiet compared to the folks playing it. This was clearly something new and innovative, and even at a young age, I was completely fascinated to experience it and learn more about this odd coin-operated device, especially when you saw it affected others in such a positive way when they played it."
The video game world would explode shortly after Peters' original discovery with a a streak of major hits such as Space Invaders, Asteroids, Defender and Pac-Man. It was then, he recalls, that the bright pixels of the video screen set him on a path far different than his planned one.
"This was the beginning of something completely crazy, and although there was an intriguing impact at that early moment, it didn’t really hit me on how deep this impact would be, on both society in general and frankly, in me more specifically, until around high school," Peters added. "When high school came around, the advent of video games actually changed my whole future. I was going to be lawyer, convinced that was the career that suited me best; my friends would tell you that I looked at arguing as a sport. I was also a speech and debate brat in high school, figuring that would also help my cause. Even started picking out law schools to review for the next stage to come. Alas, as the years progressed as a teen, and the arcade scene continued to grow in every possible way, well, they just seemed more fun than correcting corporate agreements or potential courtroom dramas. There was something here worth exploring, and once I figured out how to make some money with this new industry, the focus kind of shifted on what the future could look like."
As Peters dove further and further into the first documented case of national video game fever, Peters began to discover a competitve drive to rock the high score tables on the hottest arcade games of the era.
"I think most adolescents are constantly looking for that ‘thing’ that defines them or more simply put, that something they are good at; we all want to be good at something, right?" Peters said. "I tried sports, and a myriad of other activities of the day, looking for that thing that clicked with me. The impression left from both pinball and the early arcade games like Pong still kept me fascinated as the industry grew and arcades began to grow out of the new video game playing boom. By the end of the 70s we were surrounded on all sides by this growing video game thing, with both negative and positive perceptions from the populace at large. We eventually had an Atari 2600 in the household, just like every other family at the time, but those games were mostly weak versions of what you played in the arcades; that was the real deal."
In an era where the microwave oven was considered to be high tech, Peters stated that the man versus machine mentality is what drove him and others like him into taking arcade video game competition so seriously.
"I’ve always had a competitive streak, in pretty much every activity I ventured into, and that competitive drive also flowed over into arcade games as well," Peters continued. "Most of the games were single player contests where you had to beat whatever AI was present, so the competition was usually about you beating the machine. I liked that as it was a completely different concept from competing with people directly, and at the time, machines had this mystique of actually being smarter."
As Peters' skills increased, so did the amount of attention he received for his high scores as he was drawn into some of the earliest days of what is now called eSports competition.
"I blame JJ's Arcade for being the first arcade I frequented that rewarded high scores on these games, and posted your name in public for all to admire," Peters said. "Above every cabinet was a plaque that had the first and second highest scores in the arcade, and sometimes you’d see the same name on more than one plaque. If one of those players walked in and tried to beat a high score, there would always be a crowd around them, trying to ascertain some new technique, skill or just to see what the game was like after the levels where a normal people failed. Clearly this was also a draw, and the competitive side of me wanted to be on one of those plaques. So that really kicked my competitive streak into high gear. I ended up making it on quite a few plaques in JJ's for games like Tron, Dig Dug and Food Fight before I was done, and was quite proud of those achievements.
In a world that was far from the technology that brings online leaderboards and real-time video game stats to the gamers of today, Peters rise to the top of early competitive gaming would come through the discovery of the first true attempt at creating a central authority for record high scores.
"It became amplified when I discovered Walter Day's Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard though their connection to Starship Video in Upland, California," Peters remembered. "This was one of the most state-of-the-art arcades of the time, and they always had a large high score board for all to see, immediately when you entered the space-themed, gang plank as an entry. It filled up an entire wall, and displayed the #1 score on the world on every game they had, as well as the current standings for each local Starship Video game player. This took the concept of owning the high score in a single arcade down a few notches, as being the best in the entire world sounded far cooler. So the competitive virus that inhabited me, decided there was something more to attain as a result; a new level of game playing had just been presented to me on a silver platter. The first goal was to get on that high score board in some way, after that, to be number one in the world. Hey, step one is always focusing on a goal, right? Whether it was achievable or not never really entered into the equation."
With the larger goal of proclaiming himself as one of the best in the world, Jeff Peters would go on a streak of setting world record high scores on many of the biggest smash hits of the time.
"Each record felt amazing at the time; a massive sense of personal accomplishment," Peters said. "There is an extreme thrill, if even for just a moment before someone else beats you, of being number one at anything. Seven trillion people on this planet and I’ve done something no one else has, that concept is slightly sobering and yet produces a small amount of adrenaline at the same time, maybe even a tiny guilty smile. It doesn’t matter that most probably don’t care about those accomplishments, but that doesn’t take away the effort and skills necessary to have done it. Of course once you have attained one record, you absolutely want another. There’s that competitive thing again."
While many of Jeff's world records would come and go, some of them still stand today more than three decades later, including marks on popular titles such as Pole Position II and Time Pilot.
"High school can be an awkward, frustrating and confusing time for most, and being able to say I was the best in the world at something, did help to make up for all the other weird stuff going on," Jeff added. "For a while I had the world record on Xevious when it first came out, and felt I had to get back to the game as much as possible in order to keep getting better and to protect that achievement. I eventually lost that challenge and moved on, but other games popped up that filled that gap. Really early on I had records on Jungle King, Front Line, Sinistar and Domino Man and eventually lost out on each of those, which bummed me out, of course. Having retained my records on Pole Position II and Time Pilot to this day, still feels great that those accomplishments have stood the test of time."
Peters also recalled that he had taken shots at some of the earliest marathon high scores, including taking part in a race to see who could be the first-ever to score 1 billion points on a video game.
"I tried to get the first 1 billion point score on Nibbler before Tim McVey, but my arm kept giving out around 600 to 700 million point mark, as it’s a very physical game to play for hours on end," he continued. "I once played Q*bert for over 54 hours, and that’s one record I’d love to get, even today. I read it was recently broken by George Leutz who played for over 80 hours, but I think beating it is still possible, if you can keep from hallucinating during the process, that is. I even played Track & Field for over 55 hours to see how painful that game became as I considered it as another possible ‘marathon’ game for future contests. I guess my sense of what is ‘fun’ was a bit warped back then."
While many years removed from setting high scores on the arcade games that are now considered classics, Peters says he still receives questions about some of his scores and still considers looking to set more.
"I’ve had calls from certain players over the years asking for secrets to both those games and what they are missing in order to beat me, which is quite flattering if you think about it," Jeff said. “Time Pilot to me is very simple, it took a 15 hour game to set that world record, so just need to find another player that can survive for more than 15 hours to beat me. Pole Position II is a bit harder as that game is all about precision, timing and keeping calm. It looks like I still have eight #1 world records including games like Williams Turkey Shoot and still #2 on four others. So it looks like a few other records have held up over time, which is quite amazing to me. I’d love to get my Sinistar and Domino Man records back, as those games were just personal favorites of mine. If anyone asks, I tell them my favorite game of all time still is Robotron: 2084 and it would be a great achievement to have earned that record as well. I’ve always felt competitive with the best of them at Robotron but haven’t made it to the top yet. I own both a Robotron and Sinistar as part of my personal collection, so I guess the only thing getting in my way these days is time."
Check back with us here at G4@Syfygames as the ICONS feature on Jeff Peters continues into how he became part of the first professional video game team, purchasing the Twin Galaxies scoreboard, and how that series of events led to him entering the world of video game journalism and eventually, development.