Loading screen logo for video game company Electronic Arts

EA logo, C64 loading screen

Electronic Arts - Seeing Farther

(Page 1 of 2)
Electronic Arts - 1982 to Present

Tripping

Image of a young Trip Hawkins, founder of EA, undated photo

Trip Hawkins, undated photo

Obsessed with board games, the interaction of people in competition is a compelling one for William “Trip” Hawkins. Predictions, for better or worse, are a recurring theme in Hawkins’ life, and he starts off with two direct hits. Graduating with honours from Harvard University with a major in Applied Game Theory, he creates a computer simulation of the 1974 Super Bowl, with the program predicting a Miami win of 23-6. By the time the game was played out in Houston, the end result had Miami winning 24-7.

In 1975, using information such as Intel’s invention of the first microprocessor, and the action forming around Dick Heiser’s The Computer Store, founded that year as the first computer retail store in the US, Hawkings creates another computer model. It informs him that he could feasibly start a company making home computer games by 1982.

Changing the Game

After getting an MBA from Stanford, Hawkins becomes Apple Employee #68 in 1978, after seeing the debut of the Apple II at the first West Coast Computer Faire. As Manager of Market Planning, his job is to convince the business community of the virtues of the Apple II and subsequent GUI-driven LISA computer as business tools. When he sees demonstrations of new spreadsheet program VisiCalc designed by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston for Personal Software, he knows he is seeing the future of business software. Apple brass are not so enthusiastic, however, and president A. C. “Mike” Markkula Jr. balks at Personal Software president Dan Fylstra’s demand of $1 million in Apple stock for exclusive rights to the program. Apple therefore loses the chance for exclusive rights to the first spreadsheet program, which goes on to drive the sales of every home computer of the first wave.

Hawkins leaves Apple in 1982, another fresh millionaire minted from the skyrocketing company, and with an initial outlay of $120,000 starts a new company called Amazin’ Software. Rich Melmon is the first staff-member hired, followed later by Tim Mott, Bing Gordon, David Maynard and Joe Ybarra. Late in the year they get together for a meeting to change the name of the company, after the first choice of “SoftArt” is nixed by Software Arts head Dan Bricklin. Down to the finalists “Electronic Artists” and “Electronic Arts”, the rules are that everyone must agree, and if you go to bed you forfeit your vote. Hawkins is Chairman, CEO and President, as well as the man in charge of talent. Looking for some venture capital, he sets up office in Don Valentine’s VC company Sequoia Capital. There Hawkins draws up the business plan for a new software company, one that would make a radical departure from the prevalent attitudes at the big game makers like Atari and Mattel, where the people actually designing and programming the games are considered little more than anonymous serfs. Trip headhunts staff from Apple, as well as Atari and Xerox PARC. Sequoia ponies up $1 million, along with additional investors John Doerr, Ben Rosen and Jerry Moss (The “M” to Herb Alpert’s “A” at A&M records).

 

Sports Score

With $2 million in total capital, a 28-year old Hawkins sets up shop in San Mateo, CA in 1982. The first platforms for the new company’s games are the Atari 400/800 and Apple II, the games found by Hawkins through trade magazines like SoftTalk. His mantra for the product he wants the company to release is “simple, hot and deep”. Simple, as in gameplay that’s easy to pick up without having to memorize a 100-page manual. Hot, meaning a lot of action.  And deep, so that players continue to discover more and more of the game’s intricacies as they play. Initial releases include Music Construction Set by Will Harvey, and high school students Mike Abbott and Matt Alexander’s Hard Hat Mack. Based on his recollections of televised One-On-One basketball exhibitions in the 60′s sponsored by hair tonic Vitalis, Hawkins comes up with the idea for one of EA’s first big hits. Programmed by Eric Hammond, basketball game Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One features show-stopping sprites for the player graphics, along with lovingly crafted details like a foul-mouthed janitor who comes onto court to sweep up the mess when one of the guys smashes the backboard.

 

Free Falling

A key team to sign the revolutionary EA talent contract in the company’s early days are Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall, who leave Epyx in 1981 to create game development company FreeFall Associates along with Paul Reiche III. They see the 8-bit Atari computers as the best, easiest platform on which to create games, and their first product is Tax Dodge in 1982, published by Island Graphics. In this clever Pac-Man riff, the player must run around a scrolling maze collecting money while avoiding the dreaded IRS agents, spawned from an IRS office in the middle of the maze. Inflation, deductions, tax shelters and lawyers all figure into the game. Unfortunately, not enough future chartered accountants buy into the premise, and without the kid vote the game has no chance for a big payday. However, though an ad placed in SoftTalk, the fledgling development company is hooked up with EA. On the same day that his company is incorporated, Hawkins contacts FreeFall. Attracted by both the new attitude of the company and some handy development cash, Freeman and Westfall sign the first two EA developer contracts.

 

So Mote It Be

For their first EA game, the team is inspired by that greatest of all strategic games: Chess. Taking cues from sword and sorcery chess sets and live outdoor chess matches, along with the holographic chess set featured in Star Wars, they start work on Archon. It offers 18 fantasy creature pieces to a side, with different attacks and spells available to rain down upon your opponent. Archon is originally conceived as a two-player game only, but near the end of its development EA requests a one-player mode, extending its production time. Upon release the game is a big hit, and Hawkings wants a sequel. But instead of producing a quickie knock-off by simply adding a few new creatures, Freeman works out a entirely different concept with an altered gamefield, more and varied creatures, and new spells and skills. Archon II: Adept is released in 1984 for EA, receiving even more acclaim than the original.

Produced concurrently with Archon is Murder on the Zinderneuf, designed by Freeman and Reiche, with Robert Leyland programming. Players take the role of one of eight thinly-disguised famous fictional sleuths, with names like Miss Agatha Marbles, Emile Klutzeau and Achille Merlot, and attempt to solve a murder case aboard a giant blimp. They have 12 hours (about 35 real-time minutes) to solve the mystery before the zeppelin lands and the killer revealed by the game. It’s a revolutionary game in that the plot and the sixteen characters you encounter on the blimp are shuffled around every time you play, making for a totally new gaming experience with every reload. After the rather disappointing Archon Ultra for EA in 1994, FreeFall moves into playing card games, with a game system titled Thrall. With both solitaire and online multiplayer modes, the games are featured prominently on Prodigy’s GameTV service. In 1985, eight years before Pokemon is unleashed onto the world, Paul Reiche III along with Evan and Nicky Robinson make Mail Order Monsters, where players grow creatures with a wide variety of available skills and physical attributes inside genetic vats, who then battle against each other in different arena environments. Reiche then goes on to found game company Toys for Bob along with Fred Ford, developing the first two hit games in the Star Control series for Accolade.

"We See Farther" magazine ad for Electronic Arts

One of the famous “We See Farther” ads

 

Going Farther

EA starts shipping their first games in May of 1983. The entire 20-member staff including Hawkins go down to the warehouse and hand-package the software. When a retailer comes by to pick up his order, it is personally handed to him by Hawkins. Along with the Atari 8-bit computer systems and the Apple II, the software company creates some of the most popular and ingenious programs for the C64 during its astronomic rise, by some of the most talented designers and programmers around. The new vision of Electronic Arts is heralded by the famous We See Farther magazine ads, with headlines like “Can a computer make you cry?”. These and later magazine ads are lavishly produced, featuring photos of the game designers taken by an rock album cover photographer over the course of all day photo shoots. Under the guidance of art director Nancy L. Fong, Electronic Arts revolutionizes the way computer games are packaged, presented in 9″ x 9″ square folded “record albums”, constructed from heavy cardboard with colourful covers and fanciful instruction manuals and liner notes inside. They promote the game developers as superstars and software “composers”, with extensive author images and bios prominently displayed. The music industry analogy is further continued in  EA’s talent contract, an amalgam of computer and music industry legal boiler plate.

Pages - 1 2