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

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Electronic Arts - 1982 to Present

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 boilerplate. 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.

 

A Software Artist

In 1974 Dan Bunten is an industrial engineer graduate living in Little Rock, Arkansas, working as a management systems engineer designing mathematical system models under a grant from the National Science Foundation. Having been an avid board game player with his many siblings in his youth, in his off time he designs text-based computer games, the first of which is an Apple II business management game made in 1978 called Wheeler Dealers, with one of the aspects of the game being a real-time auction. Canada’s Speakeasy Software, based in Kemptville, Ontario,  publishes the game as a 16K cassette at $54 dollars apiece. It is one of the first software titles that comes packed in a dedicated box, in order to house the included adapter, designed by Bunten, to allow up to 4 players to play on one computer. This at a time when computer games are a solitary affair, come in zip-lock bags and sell for around $15. Only 150 copies of Wheeler Dealers eventually sell, but it manages to attract the attention of Trip Hawkins, a founding board member of SSI. EA buys a minority stake in SSi in 1979, with Hawkins’ company gaining the rights to distribute SSi software in the U.S. and Canada. The same year, Bunten makes Computer Quarterback, a text-based football simulation designed for his friends to play and sold to SSI, becoming one of their best-selling games up to that point. Bunten then makes Cartels & Cutthroats for the company, allowing up to 6 players on an Apple II. Cytron Masters is the final game Bunten does for SSi, released under their RapidFire game line, an attempt to pivot to more action-oriented fare a la Automated Simulations and their Epyx label . Cytron represents nearly eight months of development time on the Apple II, and is Bunten’s attempt at creating a graphical real-time strategy game that also offers a two-player mode. Released in 1982 for the Apple II and later converted to the Atari 800, Cytron is Bunten’s first game with graphics, and by this time he has gathered a core team of three – brother Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, and Alan Watson – collectively known as Ozark Softscape. Hawkins, now running EA, tries to get the rights to sell Cartels & Cutthroats, but SSI won’t let it go. Bunten convinces Hawkins that he can do a better version of the game for EA, and under the auspices of producer Joe Ybarra, nine months later M.U.L.E. is born for the Atari 8-bit computer line.

Liner notes for M.U.L.E.. L. to R.: Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, Alan Watson and Dan Bunten

Liner notes for M.U.L.E.. L. to R.: Bill Bunten, Jim Rushing, Alan Watson and Dan Bunten.  Buntens’ sister Theresa far left

 

44 Acres and a M.U.L.E.

Along with economics of Cartels & Cutthroats, the new game is also heavily influenced by Parker Brothers’ timeless board game Monopoly. So much so, in fact, that the computer game features a “Species Selection” screen, where players can pick their favourite character to play with, akin to choosing a favourite metal token at the start of the famous board game. Bunten and his team have also pinpointed that the real joy in playing Monopoly is the dealing and collusion that goes on with players outside of the game board, and so do their best to program this kind of flexibility into the game. To further the Monopoly analogy: players engage in acquiring land plots (real estate) and are subject to the vagaries of random events (Chance cards). M.U.L.E. gameplay also circles around the real-time auctions that had featured so prominently in Wheeler Dealers. The inspiration for the plot and setting comes from the Robert A. Heinlein novel Time Enough For Love, read by both Bunten brothers, where colonists on another world use bio-engineered mules to settle the landscape and build a functioning economy. In the game these mules become the Multiple Use Labor Elements of the title, their shape is taken from a foot high AT-AT Walker model from The Empire Strikes Back that Alan Watson’s son possesses. Referred to as Planet Pioneers at the start of the project by the developers, EA wants to label the game with the unfortunate Moguls from Mars. The ultimate title thankfully wins out after Ozark shows management the impressive M.U.L.E. title screen, with the title character ambling across.

Bunten’s history as a systems engineer really comes through in the design of M.U.L.E., especially in what’s happening under the hood. As players acquire plots of land on the colony planet of Irata (read that backward) and start producing commodities to buy and sell, a remarkable economic simulation begins to take effect. Complex economic theories, such as Scarcity, Supply and Demand, Economies of Scale, Production Learning Curves and even Market Collusion all come into play, depending on player actions. Up to four people can crowd around the computer to play; this is easily facilitated by the four joystick ports on the Atari 800, but more cumbersome when attempted with only two joysticks on a system like the later C64 version. There, two people have to bunch up at the keyboard and use a group of keys on either side. Of course, this close proximity makes it easier for full-contact responses to any egregious actions by fellow colonists as gameplay unfolds. Players must be careful to avoid cornering the market too much, and not just due to the risk of getting punched by an aggravated co-colonist: following the plotline from Heinlein’s book, a minimum production capacity of the settlement as a whole must be met, or else be considered a failure and refused inclusion in the planetary Federation of the game. For those lacking enough willing human participants, the CPU can take up the slack for any empty player slots.

All the economic chicanery and colonist backbiting is coated by a breezy and accessible art style from Bill Bunten. Accompanying this is a jaunty rock theme commissioned from Roy Glover, and which later gives Dan Bunten a slight pause as it becomes the most memorable part of the game for most people. It certainly becomes an ear worm for Wil Wright, a fellow game-god who slips the theme into the soundtrack of his 2008 epic Spore, where one can hear it in, apropos, the game’s space-faring section as players seek out new worlds to colonize.

Released in 1983, only 30,000 copies of M.U.L.E. are sold, however. This relative lack of sales is not a true symbol of the game’s success, as its market is initially limited to Atari’s 8-bit computers. It also has to be in the top three of the most pirated games in computer history, especially on the C64 platform where it becomes a classic piece of gaming software.

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