A Short History of Electronic Arts

A Short History of Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts is known for ruthlessly guarding its market dominance through franchise purchase and protection. Curious then, that it began life with a noble mission to foster and reward ‘art’. Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh offers the second part of his series on important companies, and offers a personal perspective…

After the Activision story, the tale of EA may sound kind of familiar – but its vastly amplified and simplified. When Trip Hawkins founded EA, he did it under the then-novel premise of an independent publisher; EA would run no internal studios, would produce no development of its own. Instead it would scout out, publish, and distribute the work of outside developers, operating under the early Activision principle of promoting programmers and designers nearly as much as the games they developed.

The name itself (based in part on United Artists) is telling; EA existed to proselytize the burgeoning art of electronic games; to act as a popular outlet for the voiced, yet scattered and unheard "software artists".

If anything, EA was positioned as – from a certain perspective – an improvement upon Activision’s founding ideals, out record-labeling the record producer even down to the packaging. Whereas Activision served to broadcast the names and statements of its own – of the disgruntled superstars of bestsellers past – Trip Hawkins wanted to dig up new talent; to act as a sort of equalizer so your future Richard Garriots would have somewhere to turn. And hey, if those future talents happened to hit it off and make EA a bundle of money – then… well!

Indeed, EA started off well enough. In 1982, Hawkins left Apple Computer (formed in part thanks to Atari; see "Five that Fell" on this site), taking along several of his coworkers to staff his new venture. The initial plan, later put fully into gear by Larry Probst, was to sell directly to retailers – again an unprecedented idea – rather than work through a third party, the idea being that, as a professional conduit of other people’s work, EA needed the best profit margins and market know-how in the business. The trade-off was that EA promoted its artists to the teeth and shared a large chunk of the profits.

Successful Donkey

Beyond promising, EA’s initial 1983 software lineup has become legendary: Archon, Pinball Construction Set, and M.U.L.E, along with the successful Donkey Kong knock-off Hard Hat Mac and a lesser-known worm-training game.

For the next few years, EA would continue much in this vein, offering its distribution services to other publishers (EA didn’t put out enough games to maintain its channels alone) and irritating figures such as Richard Garriot due to what he perceived as a focus on showy marketing over quality product. Regardless, through the mid ’80s EA would release such landmarks as Seven Cities of Gold, The Bard’s Tale, Starflight, and Wasteland. EA began to experiment with licenses, especially celebrity-based ones – especially sports-based ones. And then… something strange began to stir. Despite all its early proclamations, EA began to get the artistic itch itself.

The result, in 1987, was Skate or Die! – a sort of a cross between Summer Games and 720°, taking the Olympic format of the former and the stylization and catch phrase from the latter. And it wasn’t bad! Getting ported to the NES by Konami a full year before 720° hardly hurt, either. Speaking from my own experience, all the kids just assumed it was the NES port of their favorite arcade game from last summer. Surreptitious, though not altogether undeserved, win for EA. Since no one really complained, EA took silence as a blessing and forged ahead. Slowly, over the next few years, EA began to move more development in-house.