All Your History: EA Sports Part 2 – Maddening
As a 14-year-old kid in 1967, Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins caught a glimpse of the future in an unlikely place: a deck of Strat-O-Matic cards. Originally launched in 1961, Strat-O-Matic was a popular brand of table top games that simulated big league sports like baseball and football, and the future entrepreneur was a big fan. In 1971, Hawkins saw his first computer, a DEC PDP‑8 kit, and realized he could get the machine to do the work for the player, while putting television-style images on the screen. To hear him tell it, Hawkins had sports on the brain from EA’s start in 1982, as he told Machinima in an exclusive e-mail interview:
“My oldest friends like to joke that I started a company just to make a football game because I was a football nut.”
But the task of actually making his dream of video game football a reality was hardly an easy touchdown…
By 1983, Electronic Arts was on the rise in the computer game business. Its first sports game, Julius Erving & Larry Bird: One on One, was a big success for the company, and the industry as a whole. In addition to featuring great gameplay, it marked the first instance of celebrities licensing their likenesses to appear in a video game. Hawkins was eager to replicate One on One’s success, and began looking to bring football to computer screens.
At first, Hawkins approached the head coach of the University of California’s football team, Joe Kapp, but ultimately EA went with John Madden instead:
“Originally I went to Joe Kapp at Cal, thinking I just need some expert help, not a brand, and wanted to save money. But when Joe asked for royalties, I decided that if I had to pay a lot, I should get Madden, who had much more public visibility and was, in my opinion, the best possible choice at the top of the food chain. I knew Madden was the perfect, durable brand because he was authentic, he had become a nationally branded entertainer on TV, and he knew how to explain football to the masses.”
In 1984, Electronic Arts signed Madden—an NFL commentator and head coach of the 1976 champion Raiders—to a contract to endorse its new football game. But beyond just having Madden’s face on the box, Hawkins needed the coach’s football expertise. To get it, Hawkins and EA producer Joe Ybarra joined Madden on a two-day train ride to pick his brain and find the best way to put pro-football in the hands of everyday gamers.
Hawkins explains that he’d played football in high school and Harvard college, and had even created his own Strat-O-Matic-like tabletop game while still a teenager. But despite his long years playing and thinking about the game, working with Madden brought the project to the next level:
“I had things to fill in that I needed to ask John about, so the famous first meeting on the train was mostly me asking John questions for about 20 hours over a two-day period while the train wound its way from Denver to Oakland. After that first meeting, there were periodic update meetings. For one of those, we went out to his home in Pleasanton. I remember that one well because he gave me a copy of his 1980 Raiders playbook and made it my problem to learn to design the plays from it!”
But EA wasn’t putting Madden’s name on the box just for his knowledge and experience—they were getting his personality, too. And that, says Hawkins, the coach had in abundance:
“John is a very smart guy and also very big and dominating, so you can see how he could command and control 60 large football players, which cannot be easy. John is also a great performer who stays in character when on TV. I found this remarkable because, in person, when he talks, every third word is the f-word. But apparently he knows how to throw a switch and shut that off when it’s ‘show time.’”
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Hawkins pitched the game as featuring fourteen on-field players, because of the limitations of the era’s 8-bit computer technology. But Madden wouldn’t have it. One of the coach’s conditions for endorsing the game was that there be 22 players on the field—no exceptions.
As it turned out, this caused major headaches for Hawkins, Ybarra, and programmer Robin Antonick:
“Every pixel of collision detection of all 22 players could cause a sensible play to be useless, or a senseless play to be unstoppable. It was like a water bucket full of holes: the water just escaped and all it took was one key flaw to ruin it.
“I remember a flaw in punt blocking that allowed every punt to get blocked. But another wrinkle was that if the punter ran a certain way instead of kicking, he could score every time. These flaws need to be solved at a systemic level, but Antonick had trouble building one, and we had to keep putting band-aids on specific plays.”
When the deal was struck with Madden, development was projected to take one year. One year became four. Inside the EA studio, John Madden Football became known as “Trip’s Folly.”
“It took forever and I wouldn’t let it die, so the reaction was entirely understandable,” Hawkins concedes.
As the project marched on, Madden introduced Hawkins to a football writer for the San Francisco Examiner, Frank Cooney. Like Hawkins, Cooney had made his own stat-based tabletop football game. With Cooney on board, Hawkins had found yet another piece of the puzzle.
Finally, John Madden Football was released for the Apple II in 1988. While it wasn’t a hit, it found moderate success in the market, and Hawkins wanted to bring the franchise back for more. After porting it to the PC and Commodore 64 in 1989, EA started on an upgraded Madden sequel for the upstart home console, the 16-bit Sega Genesis.
Hawkins sought out the Genesis for its upgrade in power and its user base. Once again, the inspiration for annual iterations came from the Strat-O-Matic’s yearly updates that kept the tabletop game relevant for each season’s crop of players. The original Madden could be updated with separately sold floppy disks, a strategy very reminiscent of the reliance publishers have on downloadable content today. Hawkins says that selling separate disks increased the company’s revenue and reduced royalty costs.
The transition to Genesis, though, would do away with floppy disk sales, meaning making and selling a new Madden cartridge every year. To bring the game from 8-bits to 16, EA brought help from outside. At first, they tried to make a deal with Bethesda Softworks to get a 16-bit code base for the game …but according to Hawkins, trying to work with the developer caused more problems than it solved. When the Bethesda deal didn’t work out, EA gave the project to Park Place Productions instead.
As it turned out, Park Place had just the right touch. One of the streamlining innovations—mapping each receiver to a different button on the controller—remains a genre standard to this day. But while this new game, slated for release in 1990, was poised for even greater success than the original, a brand new problem appeared.
Sega had signed Joe Montana to an endorsement deal for a new game, but the project was going to miss its deadline:
“…their project stalled and was going to miss Christmas. The CEO of Sega [Hayao Nakayama] called and asked me to, ‘sacrifice Madden in the interest of the Sega platform.’ He wanted me to take our code base and turn it into Montana Football for a flat fee, and have us cancel the release of Madden. I recall that [marketing director] Bing Gordon heard about this, and thought it was a good idea to kill Madden and do Montana. I thought that was completely crazy because I knew Madden was going to be a flagship brand for us.”
So Hawkins devised a way to turn Sega’s problem into EA’s solution—do both games, and make Madden the stand-out winner:
“… I quickly struck a deal with Sega. Both games were in the top five that Christmas. We made sure Madden was better—for example we had over 100 plays in Madden, but only allowed 13 plays in Montana. Sega, however, could afford much more marketing and they’d paid us $2 million for work that took a few guys a few weeks. It was a win-win.”
John Madden Football launched Electronic Arts into the stratosphere, and helped the company transition from computer game publisher to console game juggernaut. But as fans would soon discover, football was only the beginning…
Tune in next time to see EA get networked…
Click here for Part 1…