"In the summer of 1975 I learned about the invention of the microprocessor and about the first retail store where a consumer could rent a timesharing terminal to use from home," he remembered. "That very day I committed to found EA in 1982. I figured that it would take seven years for enough computing hardware to get into homes to create an audience for the computer games that I wanted to make."
After graduating from Harvard, Hawkins moved across the country to pursue an MBA at Stanford, a decision that placed him at ground zero of the personal computer revolution. "I might not have discovered Silicon Valley if I had not chosen Stanford for graduate school. Ironically, the major institutions at that time—including Stanford, Berkeley, National Semiconductor, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Intel—did not grasp the concept of home computing and video games. A close colleague of mine that had gone to Berkeley tried to get the computer science professors interested in Apple, and they thought the Apple II was basically a pointless tinker toy."
"When I finished my education in 1978 I got a job at Apple. When I started there, we had only fifty employees and had sold only 1,000 computers in the history of the company, most of them in the prior year. Four years later we were a Fortune 500 company with 4,000 employees and nearing $1 billion in annual revenue." Machines that had once filled entire rooms at universities could now be had for less than $500 dollars and fit nicely on a corner desk in the family recreation room. Affordable microcomputers like the Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 400/800 brought real number-crunching power to the average person, allowing them to figure their income taxes, write school reports, and of course, play games.
Flush with cash from Apple’s IPO, Hawkins knew that it was time for him to make his move. "Right on schedule, I resigned from Apple and incorporated EA on May 28, 1982. I personally funded it for the next six months, working by myself out of my home, and then in August began using an office at Sequoia Capital, where I also began hiring the early employees." San Mateo, California would become their permanent headquarters for many years until a 1998 move to nearby Redwood City. The only thing left to do was come up with a name. "The original name had been Amazin' Software. But I wanted to recognize software as an art form and wanted to change it to SoftArt. But Dan Bricklin of Software Arts asked us not to use that name. So we brainstormed and decided to change it to Electronic Arts."
From the beginning, Hawkins had an ambitious view of what games could be. "We learn by doing," he said, "and computer simulation was the most efficient way to do this. I wanted to help the world transition from brain-deadening media like broadcast television to interactive media that would connect people and help them grow." Hawkins also wanted to properly credit and compensate the talent that produced games, giving them the same respect that artists in other media enjoyed. He envisioned Electronic Arts as a publishing company that would be known for its quality and professionalism, working with the best independent talent to make the computer game industry equivalent with film, books, or music.
Electronic Arts shipped its first titles, Hard Hat Mack, Pinball Construction Set, Archon, M.U.L.E., Worms?, and Murder on the Zinderneuf in the spring of 1983. The games were packaged in unique gatefold sleeves, with the designer’s names on the front and a sophisticated graphic design that gave them the hip appearance of rock albums. "It was a pleasant surprise that the media quickly embraced my vision and lifted the profile of the company," Hawkins remembered. "In hindsight, my choices of the first round of products turned out amazingly well. Of the first six games, three of them ultimately made the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, and a fourth one charted on the bestseller lists."
Building the Business
Another early hit for EA was Doctor J and Larry Bird Go One on One. Released in 1983, the basketball game enjoyed healthy sales, boosted by the involvement of sports stars Julius Erving and Larry Bird. "EA Sports really originated with One on One," Hawkins explained, "which I designed, and where I introduced the business practice of involving celebrities in the design and promotion of video games."
To build its business, Electronic Arts aggressively upset the traditional rules of software publishing. Determined to set his own terms, Hawkins reduced the discount that EA would give software distributors, keeping more of the profits for itself. In the fall of 1984, Larry Probst joined the company as vice president of sales. Probst brought a new level of organization to EA's strategy of bypassing distributors and dealing directly with retailers, causing its already successful market presence to grow even further. With its increased sales potential, EA began to distribute games from other companies, including Lucasfilm Games, SSI, and Interplay.
Meanwhile trouble was brewing in the world of console video games that would soon undermine the entire industry. Since its introduction in 1977, the Atari VCS/2600 home console had dominated American living rooms. In the console’s halcyon years, Atari poured millions of cartridges into retailers, feeding a customer base that was hungry for anything new to plug in. Third-party publishers, eager to cash in on Atari’s success, blossomed in a market that seemed limitless.
However, by 1983 the machine was aging. Consumers were losing interest and there was no coherent plan for what would follow. As the market softened, the small, undercapitalized publishers were the first to die off, leaving retailers little choice but to drastically discount unsold cartridges that they had previously been able to return for credit. This brought about an accelerating chain reaction of price cuts across the board and vast warehouses of unsold merchandise soon piled up.
By the end of 1984 the implosion was complete. Retailers were burned out, publishers were decimated, and customers walked away, leading many to believe that video games were just a fad whose time had passed. The stink lingering over the video game industry was so bad that it spread to personal computers as well. "Atari's meltdown created a tsunami that wiped out public interest in games, retail support, media interest, and gave gaming a stigma that lasted a decade," Hawkins remembered.
Electronic Arts was forced to revise their business plan in order to weather the lean years following the crash. "I made a conscious decision to ignore Atari and to focus on the next generation of technology," Hawkins said. "We had to operate like the Fremen of Dune, recycling our own saliva to live in the desert, to survive. We had to rebuild the industry brick by brick over a period of years."
Although EA’s original marketing had focused on promoting individual game designers, the company quickly realized that consumers were more attuned to the games themselves. Designers were still credited, but EA’s marketing focus shifted in favor of game genres and building brand recognition. The success of One on One taught EA the power of tying popular sports figures to game properties and a series of licensed sports games followed, including Jordan vs. Bird: One on One, Ferrari Formula One, Richard Petty’s Talladega, and Earl Weaver Baseball.
As it grew, Electronic Arts built a diverse catalog of games over the 1980’s. Titles were produced across multiple computer platforms, from the Apple II and Macintosh, to the Amiga, Commodore 64, IBM PC, Atari 800, and Atari ST. Some of the highlights included The Bard’s Tale, Wasteland, Starflight, and Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer. EA even branched out into productivity software, publishing Deluxe Paint, one of the key applications for the Amiga computer.
Initially, Hawkins had little regard for the wounded console market, and felt that the personal computer would be the dominant entertainment platform of the future. However, as the Nintendo Entertainment System brought some stability back to the business, EA began its first in-house development with Skate or Die, which was published by Konami in 1988. Electronic Arts itself would not truly begin publishing console games until the era of the Sega Genesis. "Once we were publishing for Genesis, we did go back and publish a few titles for NES, like Skate or Die 2," said Hawkins. "But it was a token effort. We did a lot more titles for SNES later on when it came out, but the Genesis was the real focal point, because I negotiated such a favorable deal."
Hawkins was cautious in dealing with Nintendo, seeing their strict licensing terms as an impediment to EA’s profits. He also felt that Nintendo's 8-bit hardware was underpowered. "Because we had been 100 percent on floppy-disc based computers with more RAM and full keyboards, our technology base was well above the consoles," he explained.
John Madden Football and the Birth of EA Sports
"With my lifelong interest in football simulation, my oldest friends would tell you that I founded EA to give myself an excuse to make another football game," Hawkins said. "I designed the precursor to Madden Football in 1970 as a board game called Accu-Stat Pro Football," a game that would be his very first entrepreneurial effort, funded by a loan from his father. "After that I programmed another precursor to Madden as a school project in 1973, that was written in BASIC and ran on a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. It simulated the January, 1974 Super Bowl and predicted the Dolphins would beat Minnesota 23-6, which was pretty good considering the real game was 24-7."
EA had published an early football title called Touchdown Football, but it was the success of One on One and its sequel that encouraged Hawkins to make another attempt at an in-depth football simulation. To enhance the game’s authenticity, Hawkins sought out Oakland Raiders coach John Madden to help bring the complexity of pro football to life on the computer screen.
"I picked John because I wanted a design partner that could help us make the game authentic but also have selling-power from his name on the cover," Hawkins said. "After signing him, I flew to Denver with my programmer and producer and went over my game design. We spent two whole days on the train with him going over an incredibly long list of details about football and it helped me finish the design properly. We'd get together periodically after that initial session to review our progress, and John would yell and scream about details we had wrong, and it was a lot of fun!" Their hard work paid off when the game was released in 1988, establishing EA’s longest running franchise.
While EA was focusing most of its efforts on personal computer publishing, the flat-lined console business was being systematically revived by the determined efforts of Nintendo. By 1989, Nintendo’s sales had grown to almost $2 billion, and EA could no longer afford to treat consoles as a sideline. Other companies were also eyeing the market and later that year Sega brought the 16-bit Genesis to America.
Like many third party publishers, EA was leery of the console business. "Nobody liked paying high royalties under restrictive licenses, and what made it even worse was having to build ROM cartridges at great cost and inventory risk," Hawkins explained. However, with the arrival of the Genesis, he saw an opportunity to once again rewrite the rules of publishing.
"The Genesis appealed to me for many reasons, but a big one was that it had an MC 68000 processor," he said. This chip was key because EA had years of experience with the processor, which was also used in the Macintosh, Amiga, and Atari ST computers. Electronic Arts was able to quickly reverse engineer the Genesis and develop software that would run on it without Sega’s help.
Using this knowledge as leverage in his negotiations with Sega, Hawkins threatened to release games for the Genesis without a license unless Sega agreed to more favorable terms for EA. It was a very risky move that could have had expensive legal consequences. Fortunately, Sega recognized the benefits of working out a deal with Hawkins. EA had an extensive back catalog of quality games that could be quickly ported to the Genesis, and a strong sports line that would be essential for the console’s success in America. It was going to be a hard fight against Nintendo and Sega needed all the help it could get.
Now that Hawkins had committed to consoles, he had to sell his company on the decision. "It was very contentious because many employees and developers did not like consoles, or did not like action games," he said. "The goal was to stop making esoteric products for an elite customer base, and go make it in the big-time with mainstream gamers. Several employees were outraged and quit, but I convinced the team that if the public chose to buy consoles like the Genesis, then to satisfy our customers we had to make the best games possible on the platforms chosen by the public, not the ones our engineers wished they could afford."
Electronic Arts had its Initial Public Offering in the fall of ‘89 and used the influx of capital to push hard into console publishing. "I was flogging my development organization to put three new games into production every month for a year, plus we added twenty three games through affiliates. Sega was blown away at how fast we built a dominant product line," Hawkins said.
As EA aligned itself with the Genesis, a rush of games commenced in 1990 with a port from the Amiga of Peter Molyneux’s Populous, Budokan: The Martial Spirit, and John Madden Football. Over the six-year life span of the Genesis, EA would establish several long running franchises, including the Strike series, NHL Hockey, NBA Live, FIFA Soccer, and Road Rash. Electronic Arts also brought complex strategy and RPG titles over from personal computers. Titles such as Power Monger, Syndicate, Starflight, The Immortal, Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World, Centurion: Defender of Rome, and King’s Bounty appealed to older players, helping to widen the console game audience beyond its kid orientation.
Things move quickly in the publishing business, and Hawkins was already looking ahead. "After scoring a massively favorable license with Sega, I knew I had a big bull's-eye drawn on my chest, because the console guys would make sure I could never repeat what I had done with the Genesis. And on the PC side, nothing was going on that would advance the cause of the gamers and the game industry," he recalled.
Hawkins always had a keen awareness of technology cycles. "I knew the Genesis would give EA a great ride at least until 1994, but was afraid for what would happen after that," he said. Even as his company was diving into cartridge-based games, Hawkins sensed that a future of fast processors, low-priced memory, and easy to print CDs was just around the corner. "I thought the industry needed a console to push forward with 3D graphics and optical disc media and networking capability. Nobody was doing anything, so it seemed like the window was open," he said. Wanting to pursue development on the next generation of console hardware, Hawkins appointed Larry Probst as EA's new CEO in 1991, and started a new company called the San Mateo Software Group, which soon evolved into The 3DO Company. Hawkins remained as Electronic Art’s chairman of the board until his resignation in July of 1994.
When the 3DO came to market in 1993, EA’s Need for Speed game was an early demonstration of the machine’s next generation graphics technology. Electronic Arts was also a partner in Trip Hawkins’ new console venture, and they published a variety of titles for the 3DO including John Madden Football, Road Rash, and Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger. EA contributed both proven franchises as well as new IPs such as Psychic Detective, Escape from Monster Manor and Immercenary to the 3DO library. “3DO was able to raise some money and recruit some big partners. But by 1993 Sony had made a $2 billion commitment to the PlayStation, and even with all our partners we could not match what Sony was willing to do. But the 3DO ended up being a catalyst for many constructive changes. Even Sony executives admitted to me that they copied many aspects of the 3DO licensing program,” Hawkins said.
After the failure of the 3DO console, Hawkins shifted the business into game development for the PlayStation and PC but a succession of lackluster titles ultimately sank the company. 3DO shut its doors in 2003 and Hawkins quickly started a new venture called Digital Chocolate that focused on publishing and developing games for the newly emerging mobile market.
Art and commerce have always been uneasy bedfellows, and nowhere is that tension more evident than in the world of video games. Perhaps after looking at the history of Electronic Arts under Trip Hawkins we may have some insight into that hot point of ignition where business and inspiration combine to create cutting edge games. As Hawkins explained, "Entrepreneurship is a creative art form. Like other creative people, we do it because we have to do it. We have no choice but to express ourselves in this way. But of course like all artists we are optimists, so we believe good things will come. It is not about making money, it is about making a difference."
- Jeffrey Fleming
When this article was originally published on Gamasutra in February of 2007 it included comments from Frank Gibeau, then Electronic Arts' executive vice president and general manager of North American publishing, discussing the history of post-Hawkins EA. I’ve left it out of this revised version because as nice as he was to talk with me, he was careful to maintain the corporate line and as a result was far less interesting than Hawkins. Still, Gamasutra did a nice job on the layout and there are lots of interesting photos and screen shots accompanying the original article. You can read it at:
Additionally, outtakes from my interview with Hawkins (some of which have been incorporated into this revised version) were published on GameSetWatch. You can read them at: