1983 splash screen logo on the C64, for EA, a video game company

EA splash screen logo on the C64, 1983

Electronic Arts - Seeing Farther

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


Trip Hawkins, founder of computer video maker Electronic Arts

EA founder Trip Hawkins, 1983


Obsessed with board games as a youth, 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 has two early direct hits that would outline the path of his later career. 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 in Burlington, Mass. 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

In the meantime, Hawkins gets an MBA from Stanford, and becomes Apple Employee #68 in 1978, after having seeing the debut of the Apple II at the first West Coast Computer Faire in April of 1977. 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 to monopolize the first spreadsheet program for their machine, 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, feeling constrained as staff roles explode from the 50 or so when he started to over 4,000. With an initial outlay of $120,000, he starts a new company called Amazin’ Software. Coming over from his role as VisiCorp’s director of marketing, Rich Melmon is the first staff-member hired, becoming executive VP of marketing at Hawkin’s new venture. He is 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). Valentine and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak join EA’s board of directors.


Sports Score

With $2 million in total capital, a 28-year old Hawkins sets up shop in San Mateo, CA in late 1982. The first platforms for the new company’s games are the Atari 400/800 and Apple II. Said games found by Hawkins through trade magazines like SoftTalk, as well as direct game submissions from programmers interested in having another entity handle the production and marketing of their wares. Hawkins’ 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 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.  Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One is co-authored by Eric Hammond, who’s biggest previous credit is having made Marauder for Sierra On-Line, ne: On-Line Systems. Recommended to EA via local programming legend Jim Nitchals, in late 1982 Hammond is initially offered the chance to do a football game for the company. Telling them he’s really more into basketball, this immediately sparks the interest of EA producer Joe Ybarra, who shares a passion for the sport. Hawkins then comes up with a ploy to bring in Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics for technical consultation and promotion. Hammond shares author credit with Dr. J and Bird, although it mostly Erving who supplies the majority of the unique game strategies. Said features including the ability to rotate to protect the ball, and the defensive ability to hack away the ball from the opposing player. Dr. J’s court philosophies make such an impact on Hawkins that he incorporates them into his own business behaviours.

Along with the two basketball stars’ athletic styles, One on One also sports large, show-stopping sprites of the two stars, along with lovingly crafted details like Hammond’s addition of a foul-mouthed janitor who comes onto court to sweep up the mess when one of the guys smashes the backboard. To evoke the impromptu feel of a one-on-one basketball game, the cover image for the packaging is shot at a Springfield, Mass. public school playground, causing quite a stir with the local kids.

Photo of Eric Hammond, programmer of computer video basketball game One on One

One on One co-author Eric Hammond, 1984


Free Falling

A key team to sign the revolutionary EA talent contract in the company’s early days are Jon Freeman and Anne Westfall. A co-founder of Automated Simulations/Epyx, Freeman has found himself chafing against the leadership decisions of partner Jim Connelley, feeling more and more hemmed in by marketing and publishing aspects of the company. Freeman and Westfall leave the company in October of 1980, and found Free Fall Associates in Morgan Hill, CA. in December of 1981. They are joined there from Epyx by Paul Reiche III, who is no neophyte to game design: as a resume of sorts while applying to RPG powerhouse TSR in 1980, Reiche writes AD&D module Temple of Poseidon. He works for the company for a year before leaving to join Freefall. Operating strictly as a game development house, Reiche and Freeman hash out the design principles of the games they create, with Westfall doing the coding in machine language. Freefall 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, through a profile in industry publication Softline, 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 its policy of offering upfront advances against royalties, Freeman and Westfall sign the first EA developer contract.

Map for 'Temple of Poseidon', 1980 AD&D module by Paul Reiche III

Map for ‘Temple of Poseidon’, 1980 AD&D module by Paul Reiche III

Snap of Archon: The Light and the Dark, a computer game for the C64 by EA 1983

Facing off in Archon: The Light and the Dark


So Mote It Be

For their first EA game, the team is inspired by that greatest of all strategic games: Chess. Blending in a taste of sword and sorcery chess sets and Freeman’s remembrances of participating in large outdoor chess matches with humans as pieces, along with a nod to the holographic chess set featured in Star Wars, they start work on Archon: The Light and the Dark. As part of EA’s system of assigning producers to projects, Joe Ybarra helps guide the game’s development, as well as serving as a vehement game tester. The balancing act for the designers is to create a deep strategy game, while still offering enough excitement to appease twitchy action gamers. Archon features 18 fantasy creature pieces to a side, with different real-time attacks and spells available to rain down upon your opponent. The game is originally conceived as a two-player exercise, but near the end of its development, EA requests a one-player mode which extends production time. It is released for the Atari 8-bit computers in May of 1983, with a C64 version following in October. 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, Free Fall works out a different yet similar concept with an altered game field, 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 the original Archon is Murder on the Zinderneuf, designed by Freeman and Reiche, with Robert Leyland programming. Leyland himself had come from Automated Simulations/Epyx, having made Dragon’s Eye and Alien Garden there. In Zinderneuf, players take the role of one of eight thinly-disguised famous fictional sleuths, with names like Miss Agatha Marbles, Emile Klutizeau 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. Free Fall Associates trods the checkerboard floor again with Archon Ultra for SSi in 1994, adding online play to the mix. They eventually move 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.

As for former partner Paul Reiche III, in 1985, eight years before Pokemon is unleashed onto the world, he 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 on May 20, 1983. The entire 30-odd staff members including Hawkins go down to the South San Francisco  warehouse and hand-package the software. When a retailer comes by to pick up his order, it is personally handed to him by Hawkins. The crew gets a treat for their hard work: Hawkins has rented out an entire theatre, and the gang watches a special showing of Return of the Jedi, which the general public isn’t able to see for another five days. 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 a rock album cover photographer over the course of an all day photo shoot in San Francisco. 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. The look of the packaging is not a coincidence; it’s meant to appeal to teenagers, the same demographic that buys a lot of record albums. EA promotes the game developers like rockstars 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. It also pioneers the idea of paying video game developers who have proven themselves in the field with advances against future royalties collected through sales of the products they produce. As well as financial compensation, EA also strives to facilitate easier and quicker design workflow for its artists by providing technology such as compilers, tools that allow designers to work in a higher-level language which is ultimately converted to the more difficult machine language understood by the computer. Graphic, audio and interface tools are also developed for the use of game designers. The company also has a novel stress-release program; employees are issued Nerf guns to take out their frustrations, and offices littered with Nerf balls is a common sight.

Pages - 1 2