Paul Jackson on the birth of FIFA, launching The Sims and the rise of hobby gaming

Paul Jackson set up EA’s UK office and played a pivotal role in the birth of two of the industry’s biggest series – FIFA and The Sims. Though at the time he had doubts over the latter’s potential, Jackson was the man responsible for pitching the idea of an EA-developed football game to his US counterparts. After lobbying them for months (and using a little internal know-how) the game that would become FIFA was greenlit, and went onto become one of the entertainment industry’s biggest properties.

Jackson had worked in the games business for around five years by that point, and had become UK sales manager at EA. Soon after he helped established its UK office in Langley, his team had been busily trying to convince the US office to make a football game for the European market.

“The concept of a European product was still pretty new then,” says Jackson. “They were much simpler times – we just kept poking our heads above the parapet and lobbing football requests over the pond. Normally it was me, yelling, ‘give me a soccer game, give me a soccer game, give me a soccer game!’ And normally the response was ‘you’ve got John Madden; you guys need to get on that.’

“Irritatingly for us, John Madden sold very well in the UK at the time, so it was a hard point for us to argue and we were stumped,” continues Jackson. “But our guts told us that we needed to explore the football market more and we needed to convince our US partners on it, as soccer was not as popular and heavily supported in the US back then as it is today.

“Then an email arrived asking for a forecast on a football game by a team that needed a publisher. This was it; we knew how EA worked so we forecast big. That got everyone’s attention and we thought we would be on our way. Then unfortunately EA lost the deal. Sega won it and it became Ultimate Soccer.”

The UK office’s sales forecasts had raised eyebrows in the US, though. After what Jackson terms a “an interminable wait,” the call came from the US, asking whether Jackson’s team would forecast the same kind of sales if EA made its own soccer game – the UK said yes, and the US team started development. FIFA was born.

Jackson thought The Sims “had as much potential to be huge as to be a total disaster” when he launched it at EA.

FIFA famously became the first annualised game release, an idea which fellow EA property The Sims evolved further, with a flurry of add-on packs. Though it has since become the best selling PC series of all time, behind the scenes at EA there were doubts over how The Sims would perform.

“I remember the first time Will Wright showed me The Sims,” says Jackson. “I was heading up EA UK by then, and it’s hard to describe just how groundbreaking it was. Frankly I don’t think any of us really understood it at the start. In my opinion at the time, it had as much potential to be huge as to be a total disaster.

“I had no idea that a stream of add-ons was coming to extend and develop the experience. One of the really clever concepts was that each add-on upgraded the core software, adding features and extending the gameplay. I never forgot that and have been amazed that lots more games haven’t followed this philosophy since.”

Jackson departed EA in 2006 to head up UK games industry body ELSPA, before acquiring the rights to the Train Simulator series in 2009, relaunching the business through Railsimulator.com. His latest venture is the continuation of Jackson’s interest in what he terms ‘hobby gaming.’

“Millions of us play Call Of Duty, FIFA or Need For Speed all year long and upgrade to the new version when it releases. That’s not playing the latest game – that’s a hobby,” he adds. “Once someone has bought our game, why would we want to sell it to them again? Now that the internet allows us to upgrade and develop our products all the time, why wouldn’t we?”

Jackson’s site offers free updates to anyone that has bought Train Simulator in the last four years, and a huge selection of add-on packs. It is also planning to expand into different subject matter beloved by hobbyists.