The Firm

The Firm
The Conquest of Origin

Allen Varney | 11 Oct 2005 12:00
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Denis Loubet, artist: "Before [the purchase], the desire to keep Origin afloat did much to keep politics on the back burner. But afterwards, survival transformed into a competition at the feeding trough. As production groups became more insular, Origin fractured. That was the death of any 'Origin Culture.' It didn't help that each production head was a dictator over his team, yet each had to brown-nose EA for funding."

Steve Powers, artist and programmer: "When EA assumed control, much of the joy began to fade from the Origin company culture. It was a running joke through the company that we went from working for the Rebellion to working for the Empire. Our company had a culture that made work an incredible joy, day in and day out, even though we worked tremendously long hours. And the culture *had* to be appealing, because Origin paid a pittance. I started there at wages that were just above poverty level. EA began to bring salaries up to a competitive level for the region, and people who were equivalent to hobbyists were suddenly in a career. It was no longer a nerdy fraternity; it was business."

Garriott: "There are people at EA to this day who I respect either as brilliant or at least well-intentioned. [CEO] Larry Probst was often not supportive of the things I was doing, but I respect Larry because he was always clear, rational and consistent in his lack of support. I felt [Chief Creative Officer] Bing Gordon understood sometimes; I always felt Bing's intent was to help me do my best. Nancy Smith [Executive VP, North American Publishing] empathized and desired success for all at Origin. [But] there were others who got into politics, who very clearly would get into the mode of 'Your success will work against my success. EA caring about you will mean they care less about me.' The politicians began to look at us as the enemy, and would actively work against us."

The Hatchet
After EA bought Origin, authority for the new division fell to the president of EA Worldwide Studios, Don Mattrick.

A Canadian from the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby, Mattrick wasn't just a suit; he could claim seniority over many Origin coders, having programmed (with Jeff Sember) his first published game, Evolution for the Apple II, in 1982 at age 17. Mattrick joined EA in 1991 when EA paid him $13 million for his company, Distinctive Software, maker of edutainment and sports games such as the Test Drive and HardBall series. Distinctive became EA Canada, and as its Executive VP and General Manager, Mattrick led it brilliantly from strength to strength until 1997, when EA CEO Lawrence Probst III promoted him to Worldwide.

Once EA started exerting a tighter grip on Origin, Mattrick pushed teams to stay on schedule (an insistence that badly damaged Ultima VIII, according to Garriott). Mattrick killed many projects because they had spun out of control, and cancelled other projects for reasons staffers still consider mysterious. Some staffers believe (though not for attribution) Mattrick undermined Origin because it competed for resources with Distinctive's new incarnation, EA Canada. This view arose particularly because of the way Mattrick managed Origin's late-'90s move into online games.

This move was not his idea. Originally there was no money in the Origin budget for Ultima Online. Garriott went directly to Probst to ask for $150K in seed money to kick off the project. Without Probst's approval, UO would have been delayed, maybe never started at all. Garriott said in a 2004 GameSpy interview, "Ultima Online was kind of a red-headed stepchild during development. Everyone at EA was focused on Ultima IX, which was seen as more of a sure thing. Nobody at EA really understood what Ultima Online was all about." But after the beta test drew 50,000 volunteers, EA made a sharp reversal. They insisted Garriott shelve Ultima IX and work only on UO.

Launched in 1997, UO's unheralded success (it peaked at about 250,000 subscribers) kicked off the MMORPG industry and roused EA's interest in online games. Origin presented EA a suite of ideas for followups: a Flash Gordon-style space opera, a martial arts game using collectible electronic cards, online soccer and more. None of the proposals were sequels, spinoffs or licenses.

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