Setting the Stage

In 1982, computer games were still sold in plastic bags.

Trip Hawkins, a newly-minted millionaire after his time at Apple, wanted to change that. He wanted to give developers more credit for their work, and at the time, any credit at all would be more than most. Just as United Artists was designed with a mission to revolutionize the film industry, Electronic Arts had equally grand ambitions. EA derived not only its name, but it’s own mission of revolution, this time in games, from United Artists.

Today, most gamers don’t remember a time when Electronic Arts (or as they prefer it now, EA) wasn’t an industry leader.

Trip’s mission caught the attention of the greatest game designers of the era, and with a phenomenal stable of games for the Atari 800 and Apple II, they took the gaming public by storm. Early EA releases included M.U.L.E., Archon, Hard Hat Mack, Pinball Construction Set and Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One.

In terms of commercial success, Hard Hat Mack was a bestseller, Archon was a classic bestseller, and Pinball Construction Set was a classic bestseller. It was a really remarkable debut set of products. – Trip Hawkins

We See Farther
The initial lineup was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few years, EA would attract the best talent in the industry, dominating the marketplace. Attracted by the promise of more respect and more credit for their work, Bill Budge, David Maynard, Jon Freeman and Dan Bunten were among the first to sign on.

This was a rather significant change in the industry. Until this point, game designers were barely credited for their work, if they were even mentioned at all. Atari was particularly notorious in its day, leading to the creation of the first “easter egg”: a developer credit in Adventure.

More than just credit, developers for early EA products had their names featured prominently on the packaging, and a number of early advertisements and games even featured photographs and interviews with the development team. As a company, early EA was entirely focused on external developers, to the point where they had no internal development teams at all.

That was a very conscious decision on Trip’s part to keep a clear separation. EA modeled itself after a record label. The artists were external and on contract, and the internal employees were there to support the artists. Trip never wanted to create a situation where the external artists felt like they were competing for resources with the internal development. – Jeff Johannigman

Expert Involvement
Even in 1982, the trend toward licensing had already begun, with games based on Tron and Star Wars, among others, already in existence. But the first time individual sports stars became involved with a video game was EA’s Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One, and it proved to be a landmark development for the company. Not only was it an incredible commercial success at a time when computer games weren’t doing exceedingly well, but it paved the way for future titles.

Interestingly enough, and unlike most modern games, the namesakes of these titles were actually heavily involved in the game development process. In the process of developing One-on-One, both Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Larry Bird gave pointers to designer Eric Hammond on how to better capture the feel of basketball. Future EA games would expand on this model, with Chuck Yeager‘s Advanced Flight Trainer, Earl Weaver Baseball and the now-perennial John Madden Football.

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These types of titles were another way that EA could reward developers of the day. As a successful company, EA could negotiate deals like these for their contractors that a purely independent studio couldn’t. It was collective bargaining at its finest. For the individual developers, meeting with the expert could be a greater reward than the financial ones.

Yeah, especially in the early days, we had those kind of figures involved in the design process. Back when we did Yeager’s advance flight simulator, Ned Lerner was meeting with Chuck Yeager on a fairly regular basis. Ned would sit down with General Yeager, show him the program in development, and let him handle the joystick. General Yeager would tell Ned, “Yeah, this doesn’t quite feel right, I think you ought to be doing it this way.” And on Earl Weaver Baseball, much of the thrill for producer Don Daglow, was in collaborating with Earl Weaver on the design. – Jeff Johannigman

Revolutionizing Sales
EA games weren’t released in plastic bags. Taking another cue from the music industry, Trip commissioned “album cover” packaging for their products, with custom artwork for each title. The results ended up as unique flat boxes, with detailed, high quality art, developer credits and game descriptions. This helped the early EA titles stand out among the rest, at least until the rest of the industry followed suit.

I kept track and counted 22 competitors that went to the same printer and used the same album format that we pioneered. However we later had to drop it because with increasingly crowded shelf space the albums got turned sideways (‘spined out’) and were too thin to see the brands. At that point we began thickening the albums into boxes. – Trip Hawkins

At the same time, EA began to revolutionize the sales and distribution system for games. Up to this point, any company selling software would have their product placed into retail by a general software distributor, who would take a rather significant cut of the sales amount. When Larry Probst arrived at EA in 1984, as VP of Sales, he rapidly grew the sales force and cut out nearly all the distributors, giving EA much higher margins than its contemporaries.

This sales force would have an incredible impact on the industry. Maintaining a distribution channel of this size required more titles than EA was capable of publishing at the time. Their solution was to partner with other developers and publishers to fill in the gaps, as a games-focused distributor themselves. Distribution would be the foundation of EA’s initial relationships with Origin Systems, Westwood and Maxis, among others.

If one were to say that early EA was idealistic, they wouldn’t be far from the mark. Certainly, it was a business first and foremost, but like many startups, EA was founded on idealism and with a mission to change the industry. But with such incredible success, the rapid expansion that comes along with going public, company culture changes. Only as EA’s culture changed, it pulled the rest of the industry along in its wake.

The first thing that began to change, even in the early ’80s, was the developer promotion. Though it never quite regressed back to the early days of Atari – to this day developers still have credits in the game manuals – the active promotion of individual developers has generally faded away. Certain developers, the Sid Meiers and Will Wrights of the world, are still promoted individually, but franchises and brands have long since become the primary focus.

In 1987, EA also began shifting their publishing focus to include internal development. The first such title was Skate or Die, but when contracted developers didn’t rebel, more projects were begun. Later, projects that were once contract work would be done internally instead, the most notable being John Madden Football. This trend was exacerbated in the ’90s as EA purchased a number of its former partners, converting them into internal development studios. Today, most EA releases are from these internal studios, and the number of publishers that are not also developers has dropped to nearly none.

In 1991, Trip Hawkins stepped down from his position as CEO, and Larry Probst took the reins of the company. This change of command subtly adjusted the focus of the company: While Hawkins was a developer with a talent for business and marketing, Probst was a salesman with a history at product-oriented companies. The renewed expansionism EA showed in the ’90s is just once indicator of the change.

Look at what happened with Steve Jobs and Apple, look at what happened to a dozen other similar successful start-up companies. The person who has the real founding vision and the drive and the ambition to get a small little company off the ground, from zero to several hundred employees, has a particular mindset, a particular drive, particular ambition, a particular ego, and a particular desire to be in control of certain aspects of the business. Once a company gets to a certain size and goes public, those traits make it difficult to grow to the next level. A larger company needs somebody who is more operationally effective, and less of an entrepreneurial revolutionary. I think Larry Probst is one hundred percent business and sales.
Jeff Johannigman

The Human Story
Will EA change, shifting back towards the ideals at which it started? Probably not without a very strong push in the right direction. But the industry is different now, as is the focus on it, and things may change despite them. In late 2004, working conditions at EA were graphically described in an essay EA: The Human Story by an anonymous blogger under the handle ea_spouse. These sentiments, and their possible outcome, have been echoed by other developers in the industry, including ones once working with EA.

EA will consist of an “officer corp” of project managers and executives and a whole bunch of cannon fodder, young kids who are eager to make their break into the game industry. They bring ’em in, they work ’em to death and then they bring in someone else. Turnover rate is not important. The organizational structure allows them to function very well with a very high turnover rate. – Chris Crawford

Spurned by the ea_spouse’s words, or perhaps the similarly inspired (and recently settled) class-action lawsuit, or even the focus of industry groups like the IGDA, a leaked internal memo promised changes. Could EA lead the industry back to greener pastures? I suppose it depends on whether any of that old idealism still survives.

I’d certainly like to see it though.

Jason Smith functions as chief techno-whatsit for The Escapist, and still remembers his introduction to EA games back on his Commodore 64. He would like to thank Jeff Johannigman, Stephanie Barrett, and Chris Crawford for their time in the writing of this article.

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