Trip Hawkins is deep in a secure underground vault, standing in a telephone booth, talking into his shoe.
This is probably not true. But it’s how I image the man on the other end of the phone – the guy who started Electronic Arts and 3DO, launched the Madden NFL game franchise, and now runs the mobile entertainment outfit Digital Chocolate. Because Trip (yes, even the people that don’t know William Hawkins III just feel compelled to call him Trip) inspires a kind of crazy imagination in the people around him and because he really does have a secret formula so valuable, writing about its existence must make him a target for international rings of corporate spies.
So, maybe Trip’s not pulling a Maxwell Smart when he answers the phone to do this interview. Maybe he’s more a James Bond, wearing a white tux, sipping a martini and playing baccarat in Morocco as he answers my questions. And maybe that secret formula he tells me is locked safely in his computer is actually microscopically etched on a titanium plate, tucked inside a lambskin attaché, secured to his hand with molybdenum handcuffs. Really, he’s probably just sitting in his office in San Mateo talking on a speakerphone.
All I know for sure is Trip wants to explain what’s wrong with Madden, why companies shouldn’t follow EA just because it’s successful and provide a little insight into what happened to society between the time people moved out of mud huts and started telecommuting on the internet.
Most of all, Trip wants to talk about games.
First Cinematic: Trip Dreams Big
If you wanted to be one of the people who would shape the personal computer revolution, being born in 1953 would be a good start. You’d be old enough to experience things like the launch of the Apple II, and young and foolish enough to believe these clunky new hobby gadgets would change everything.
Of course, it would also help if you were a little different than the other baby boomers. In fact, it would help if you were a lot like Trip.
“Basically, I grew up in the golden age of television and didn’t really find television to be all that great.”
Sure, he’d sit down for an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E or catch a Bond flick. But his real love was games.
“I’m just such a complete and total game nut – I’m the kind of guy that likes to go to a board game store and spend hours in there looking at every single game that they have in inventory. I’ll buy three, four, five games. I’ve got huge piles of board games in my house. I play a lot of videogames and I play internet games and mobile games and games, games, games, games, games! It just really doesn’t matter what form it’s in. I just enjoy every sort of game there is.”
A card-carrying game nerd, Hawkins played D&D and enjoyed the Avalon Hill war games. He’d even crack open a business simulation game if it promised a little fun.
“And then the really big love for me was sports simulation.”
In a time when computers were thought of as code-breaking machines or science fiction information processors that ate paper punch cards and produced teletype reports, Trip’s idea of sports simulation was firmly rooted in a pencil and paper card game called Strat-O-Matic.
Although he enjoyed the tax accountant-like tabulating and ledgering required to simulate a pro sport game on paper, it wasn’t long before a piece of technology with a Star Wars-sounding name showed up with a picture of a better gaming through computing. In 1971, Trip encountered a PDP-8, the early computer hobby kit that was not much more than a box with some toggle switches. No mouse, no monitor and you programmed it by changing the wiring. If the young Hawkins had been Newton, this would have been the part of the story where the apple hit him in the head.
“So, when I first saw a computer I had this ‘ah ha!’ moment where I said, ‘Hey, this is a calculating device and we can bury all the gaming machinery inside the box and we can make real life in a box and just paint pretty pictures on a TV screen.’
“This was within an hour of seeing my first computer in 1971.”
By the time he’d reached college at Harvard, Trip had convinced the administration to let him make up his own major in strategy and applied game theory and was preparing to start a little game company. He even set a date – by 1982, the world would get the business that would become known as Electronic Arts.
“So, it was actually in 1975 that I decided that I would start the game company in 1982. I literally pegged it seven years in advance.”
In the era of dot com billionaires and equity rich programming whiz kids, it’s hard to image just how provocative this idea was. At that time, if you told people computers were going to make everything from typewriters to travel agents obsolete, they would have looked at you like you were crazy. Crazy like a game developer these days saying he’s going to build a moon ship. Some people are just ahead of the curve.
“Everyone has always looked at me like I’m crazy. They’re still looking at me like I’m crazy. And, of course, I’ve always felt like I’ve been doing things that other people think are pretty nerdy and geeky. So, I just guarantee you, back then, it seemed really nerdy and really geeky.”
Cinematic 2: Trip Makes a Football Game
“Here’s what I totally believe…”
It’s 20 minutes into the interview and Trip is getting wound up. Recalling the electric fire of certainty he felt when he launched EA puts him into the entrepreneur’s zone. He’s ready to play.
“I believe that I was much more alive and engaged as a human being because of the interactivity of gaming compared to the passivity of television. And I was absolutely convinced if we made it easier for people to understand it audio/visually, I absolutely believed that would cause it to replace television.”
An MBA at Stanford and four years at nascent Apple Computer gave Hawkins the chops and the connections he needed to squeeze out the venture capital necessary to start Electronic Arts. In 1982, right on schedule, he opened the doors to the tiny software publisher that would one day dominate the retail landscape.
It would take another seven years, but Trip would finally get his computerized football game. EA would provide the platform that would sell 50 million games over 16 years, spanning pretty much any machine that ever claimed to run a videogame. Rarely in the history of gaming has anything approached Madden in longevity, mass appeal or good old-fashioned financial success.
“Madden, without any question, was my biggest success as a creative contributor. And of course, Madden is just driven by this sort of childhood interest in football and football games that were stimulated by discovering Stat-O-Matic. You can look at Madden as Stat-O-Matic taken to that next level. The machinery is in the box and there’re TV-like visuals on the screen.”
You can only image the smug smile Hawkins earned when John Madden declared over a video link to a room full of E3 journalists several years ago that, “When we started out, we tried to make the game like the real thing. These days we try to make real thing like the videogame.”
Cinematic 3: Trip Trips on 3DO
If you wanted to write a biography about Trip, the EA and Madden stories would provide more than enough drama to fill the pages. Neil Armstrong only went to the moon once, after all, and plenty of books have been written about that.
But, by 1991, Trip got to dreaming again, and this time cooked up an idea for a new kind of gaming console company. If games were going to provide the new TV, someone was going to need to build the new TV. And as far as Trip the visionary was concerned, those interactive eyeballs would be glued to a 3DO box.
Packed with all the right ideas – 3-D graphics, CD media and lots of horsepower – it was considered too expensive and was battered by the cheaper, slicker and much better funded PlayStation. After only a few years, the man who launched one of videogaming’s biggest commercial successes also oversaw one of its biggest disappointments. 3DO got out the hardware business in ’96 and ceased to exist altogether in 2003.
“For me, and this will be the last thing I say about 3DO because it’s kind of a waste of our time, there were elements of failure from 3DO that were very humbling, that were extremely valuable lessons to learn. And without question, I’m applying that experience to what I’m doing with Digital Chocolate.”
Cinematic 4: Trip Develops a Taste for Chocolate, Wonka Style
Trip Hawkins could retire. Or, at the very least, he could certainly earn a decent living just talking about the past. But clearly, Trip’s not the retiring type. Especially not once he’s sat back, reflected on the gaming industry and figured out exactly what it’s doing wrong and what it needs to succeed in the future. If Trip has a favorite game, it must be the game of business. And he’s back at the table aiming to win again with a decisive pincer-like movement of casual mobile gaming and the best of social networks.
While Trip’s vision for EA was to bust up that full-time, live-in relationship we have with our televisions, Digital Chocolate wants a media one-night stand, just a little time to give you a little love.
“The company’s named for the concept of instant gratification. And, the slogan is ‘Seize the minute.'”
Like that other tortured genius running a chocolate outfit, Willy Wonka, Trip just wants people to be happy.
From years watching the industry develop, Trip has come to the conclusion that hardcore gamers have pretty much screwed up the industry. While trying to cater to the most vocal game buyers, game makers have missed the obvious. Most people don’t play the games that top the charts each year.
“For every hardcore gamer, that represents 5 percent of the population,” he explained, “there are another 19 consumers that don’t want to play anything that is more than casual.
“Taking football, since obviously I’ve followed football for quite a long time, there are 140 million people who watched the Super Bowl last year. Only 5 million of them bought Madden Football.”
By comparison, 15 million people play fantasy football and countless others participate in office football polls. This time, I can only imagine Trip doffing his purple top hat and pointing his cane menacingly toward the obvious: People want to play. But learning something as complicated as Madden just isn’t going to happen for most people. People want causal entertainment and they want things that let them connect with other people. If they wanted the rigor of playing pro ball, they wouldn’t sit around eating chicken wings with their pals and complaining that the half-time commercials weren’t funny enough. And they don’t want to spend the time of learning or risk the embarrassment of playing Madden.
Casual and social means only one thing. And when it comes to mobile, Trip’s creative fire goes blue flame.
“I’m looking at what’s on the internet and looking at instant messaging and looking at Neopets and looking at fantasy sports and thinking, ‘OK, what does that say about what we can do in mobile?’ And realizing that with mobile, it quickly went beyond just being a phone. And we now have a $35 billion global market for text messaging. Why the heck would people do that when it’s so much easier to just talk? Why would they do text messaging? And why did they all want to change their ring tone? And why did they want to share crummy pictures taken with a crummy camera? What’s that about?
“What it’s about is that we’re in the era of social computing, which was preceded by videogaming as a major dimension of computing and preceded by desktop computing and personal computing and mainframe computing. We’re now in the era of social computing. In which, for the first time, what’s happening with computers, and it started on the internet, is mainstream everyday consumers are using a computing platform on a network, purely for social benefit, not because it is helping them with their work. And not because they are trying to kill time with entertainment. They’re using it purely for social contact.
“You saw that with instant messaging and some of the social communities on the internet. And see it with, say, soccer moms doing free Yahoo! email. And again, none of that stuff was going on 10 years ago. So, you saw the first inklings of it on the internet. But the internet with the PC is not truly mass market. Guys like us have them. But there are 6 billion people in the world. And the number of people that use a PC, its in the 100s of millions. It’s not even in the billions. And we’ve already got 2 billion people with mobile phones.”
What’s happening, he thinks, is people are desperately trying to use technology to reweave the fabric of social life that was ripped apart as people moved from tight knit tribal communities to the sprawling disconnected life of modern dystopia. Call it Mayberry versus the The Sprawl. Ever the businessman, Trip just wants to put a little Floyd back in the barbershop, Barney in the sheriff’s office and Gomer at the pump. Trip wants to put people and personality back into gaming.
“We have all these advancements from the industrial revolutions, the transportation revolution, the media revolution. And, in fact, what has happened is that people have traded that built in intimacy for a car, a television, maybe a prescription to Prozac. So, the mobile phone has just turned into this lifeline.
“You see this, for example, with guys and their buddies. Guys that have been in a fantasy league on the internet for a while will admit, ‘Yeah, if wasn’t for that league, we’d never talk to each other. And they’ll even say, ‘Wow, we’ve gotten to be good friends because we are in this league together.’ But it’s kind of like they to have this excuse because it’s not as likely that a guy is just going to call up another guy and say, ‘Hey, I’m feeling really lonely, can we have an intimate chat?'”
When Trip talks about social computing, you get that itchy feeling that he’s just spieling the same well-worn speech he used to win venture capital.
But if you take a minute to look at, say, the personals on Yahoo!, you start to see that in fine Trip fashion, his precision of perception is so focused, it just comes off like marketing copy. Hundreds and thousands of men and women in your area can’t get dates. And they’ve resorted to posting pictures of themselves and databasing their vitals for convenient searching.
In a way, it’s sad to view the parade of lonely people who just want to reach out and touch someone. Then again, it’s heartening to see the people who file internet personals are not shut-ins with bad teeth and unfortunate taste in ’80s hair styles. Nope. They’re people just like you. And they just want someone to have dinner with them, take them skiing, check out London theater or maybe spend some time playing a game.
If things work out the way Trip wants, all those lonely people will play a game produced by Digital Chocolate. And in the hyperbole of a company named after a legally addictive substance, it looks like DC might have unlocked the formula for the Everlasting Gobstopper.
Cinematic 5: Trip Sees the Light
“I spent, as you know, 30 years on the Holy Grail of fidelity,” Trip explains, setting up his conversion to the new faith. “It was always about, ‘By God, we’re gonna make this look and feel like television!’ So, I spent 30 years doing that.
“It was only through Digital Chocolate that I realized the truth. When I was a kid, it was really the social contact of gameplay that was the most important thing to me.”
Getting game content onto the billions of mobile handsets in the world isn’t exactly business genius. Loads of companies have realized that selling videogames to even a small percentage of the horde of mobile phones users would lead to Scrooge McDuck piles of cash. What Hawkins figured out was trying to stuff the EA graphics-matter-most model onto the crummy little screen of the average cell phone was about as sensible as hoping to sell haute French cuisine through McDonald’s. What people want on their cell phones isn’t ESPN shrunk down to business card size. No, what people need is something like the Mobile League Sports Network.
Digital Chocolate’s MLSN approaches sports as a social network, like guys talking in a bar rather than as a profession, along the lines of Madden. Instead of mastering juke sticks and quarterback vision, players use their cell phones to do things like pick who will win an upcoming game and brag about the results. Instead of trying to put players in the game, Digital Chocolate just wants to skip to the part where you talk about who won.
Of course, getting guys to interact with a game about sports sounds like an easy bet, sort of like the early internet entrepreneurs figuring a global computer network would be the perfect medium for selling and distributing porn. But what about all those non-sports-loving mobile phone customers? What about all the women?
Not being the kind of guy to leave a huge market segment untapped, Trip has Digital Chocolate working another killer app – welcome to AvaFlirting.
Combining The Sims with IM, AvaFlirting hopes to provide modern men and women with a whole new way of giggling and casting a sultry glance. Players simply create a tiny avatar on their phone. This avatar can carry animated messages to other players, showing up on someone’s phone with a little jig or blowing a kiss. But enhanced buddy icons are only the beginning.
“Suppose I set up my avatar and I close the application because my plane has to leave. And I get off the plane at the other end and I open up the app and there’s my avatar and he’s in a really grumpy mood. And it turns out he’s been on a date with another avatar. And it gives me this little blow-by-blow about what happened on the date, what the other avatar looks like. And apparently, it didn’t go very well. Or, maybe my avatar is jumping up and down with glee. He has this really hot date with another avatar and the other avatar has invited him to go to Las Vegas and he’s checking in with you to find out if you think it’s OK for the avatar to go to Las Vegas. And you say yes, and you can check back later to see what happened in Vegas.”
Horny avatars and men learning to open up over online chat about box scores don’t exactly ring bells for gamers weaned on frame rates and epic storylines. But Trip, always in fine fashion and always the sports fan, points like Babe Ruth to the outfield bleachers and all but promises a home run.
“Social games for mobile will end up being a bigger industry than conventional games as we know them today. And this is about as radical a statement as if it was 1977 and I was saying that personal computing would be bigger than mainframe computing. It is going to happen, for a lot of the same reasons.”
At this point, he laughs.
Cinematic 6: The Big Finale – Trip Reveals His Secret
So what’s the big secret? What’s the unknown ingredient in Trip’s chocolate? Oompah loompahs?
We already know that people want to reach out and touch someone in bite-sized chunks. A smile from a pretty girl or a wink from a cute guy still gets your blood going more than watching King Kong tear a T-Rex in two. The way Trip pitches, you wish you had a couple of million dollars to venture in his vision.
But it turns out there’s more to it than the psych 101 theory on human loneliness and alienation. Just having the right idea or the right product at the right time isn’t enough. And Trip thinks he’s unlocked the alchemical recipe for transforming common business ingredients into market gold. Call it his golden egg, his golden goose or his golden whatever; if Trip is right, this one is priceless.
“Basically, I realized that there was a formula that needed to be followed, almost like a recipe, in order to assure long term business success. And it’s very complicated. And I’ve started codifying this formula
“And after I had it up to about a dozen critical rules, I realized, wow this is actually a really valuable trade secret. So I started documenting it, but I didn’t tell anybody. And I basically told the board of directors and I told the management team, ‘Look this is going to turn out to be a valuable trade secret. I’m gonna talk freely about some of the things we have to do as a business, but I’m not going to give anyone a copy of the rule book, the recipe. But if I get hit by a bus, you’ll just have to break into my computer, you’ll find it there.’
“That little recipe now has 58 rules in it. And, like I said, it’s the only time my career I’ve come up with something that I feel like is a relevant trade secret. So, we’ll see how it turns out!
“But if Digital Chocolate becomes a success, it will have almost everything to do with that trade secret.”
Sound familiar? Trip is finally developing his biggest game of all – the successful business simulation, the Madden of making money. And as he works on polishing the rules, all he needs is a good story to wrap around the rulebook – a secret stored on his computer, we can only imagine, down deep the in vault, next to the phone booth sitting on the banks of a swirling river of pure chocolate.
David Thomas is the founder of the International Game Journalists Association. He also provides commentary and criticism at buzzcut.com.