April 6, 2007
Electronic Arts is a lumbering corporate megalith today, pumping out yearly game franchise after yearly game franchise. It's easy to forget that EA was present at the very beginning of the computer game industry, innovating and blazing a trail for everyone to follow. Gamasutra's article We See Farther: A History of Electronic Arts reminded me how instrumental EA was to the early history of computer gaming.
EA's infamous "We See Farther" ad promoted computer game programmers as artists if not rock stars. I distinctly remember seeing these ads as a dorky, computer-loving teenager. I wondered, could being a computer programmer be.. cool?
Okay, maybe not so much with the leather glove, but still. It was a glimmer of hope. According to Electronic Arts, computer programmers weren't just programmers; they could be software artists. And the earliest EA games even looked like rock album covers:
EA also created the very concept of a sports game franchise, primarily with Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One. This game was huge. The squeaking sneakers, the smashing backboard, the licensed marquee players. It was arguably the breakthrough sports game.
It's impressive that Electronic Arts is still around after all these years. But I wonder what happened to the grandiose sentiments expressed in the We See Farther ad:
These are wondrous machines we have created, and in them can be seen a bit of their makers. It is as if we had invested them with the image of our minds. And through them, we are learning more and more about ourselves. We learn, for instance, that we are more entertained by involvement of our imaginations than by passive viewing and listening. We learn that we are better taught by experience than by memorization. And we learn that the traditional distinctions-- the ones that are made between art and entertainment and education-- don't always apply.
We're providing a special environment for talented, independent software artists. It's a supportive environment, in which big ideas are given room to grow. And some of America's most respected software artists are beginning to take notice. We think our current work reflects this very special commitment. And though we are few in number today and apart from the mainstream of the mass software marketplace, we are confident that both time and vision are on our side.
I sure wanted to believe in software artistry at the time. EA's history proves that this is an unusually difficult vision statement to realize.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
I fondly remember those old EA games - Archon (one of my favorite games of all time), MULE, Bard's Tale. I'm disappointed that the article failed to chart the point at which EA sadly became evil. I'm guessing it's when they shifted to consoles and focused on multi-platform yearly franchise releases. Or perhaps it was when they "flogged the developers to release 3 games a month for a year".
EA were masters at building an additive, intelligent and visually appealing game in the 80's using a meager 16 - 64kb of memory (in most cases). This is both a talent and work of art. Humm, lean and clean code is something that is extremely rare these days.
Great post. It sure is funny how EA has gone from the hip, cool edgy independent game studio to the monstrosity it is today. EA helped invent the game industry as we know it today; both the good and the bad.
There is place for people with romantic view on things: teh scene. Demoscene, Art scene etcetera.
They doing it all for fun, not for money.
EA now producing a lot of games, but I cant sense a touch of art there. But sell millions of titles. Cash generation company.
Now, there's something in between: Will Wright, Peter Moulinex titles, lots of Japanese stuff. It has a touch of imagination, and it sells.
Sometimes games with a huge artistic base just fail.
Business and art - two different things. Art is not for everyone.
When it comes to code - dunno. Should we call Carmac's Doom code - code poetry? Dunno.
Archon - man, I loved that game. Almost as much as nethack.
The last game I bought was an EA game. And it's the last EA game I'll ever buy. EVER EVER EVER.
A genre hasn't hit "A New Low" until EA makes a game for it. I think they release patches with such frequency for Command Conquer 3, that it boggles the mind.
I pity EA programmers and the "paint by numbers" approach to creativity.
"We're providing a special environment..."
Just walking into their offices a few years back would take you past huge statues of characters from their games, formula one cars from the previous season, etc. Now I have to dodge forklift trucks on my way into the offices of an automotive client...a world apart - but I don't have to put in as many hours as they do!
Artistry: "a superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation."
Art: "the making of objects, images, music, etc. that are beautiful or that express feelings or ideas."
From these definitions I think artistry is alive in the games industry, but new examples of unique art are not as abundant. The technical skills are obviously there, but being employed on the next generation of "safe" franchise titles, rather than new innovative ideas. Just too many copies of "greats" by "old masters".
Yeah, thanks for reminding me of Archon. I used to love that game on the Apple IIe. Very good stuff indeed.
I wasted more hours on One-on-One than I care to discuss... that and Olympic Decathalon were the ruination of a couple AppleIIe keyboards.
I don't know what happened to EA. They just seem to have forgotten who they were once upon a time. I remember when there were certain companies who, if their logo appeared on the game box, assured you of a fantastic game.
These days diverse and interesting game play comes from the indie scene, where people are deploying across proven business models. A lot of folks that later go on to be cogs in the corporate machine first start off as indie developers who had vision.
One of the most interesting things to see was homebrewing on the console. One of the first consoles to really support this -though it was never intended to be that way- was the SEGA Dreamcast. The first one to really go out of its way to support homebrewing is the X-Box 360, which uses Microsoft's XNA framework, built right on top of .NET. You can even use most of your X-Box 360 controllers with your PC to help test it, and deploy a game across both Windows and X-Box platforms with very little effort. A major bonus, but still inhibited by the cost of the X-Box 360.
Ultimately, when it comes down to it... big software corporations are not the heart and soul of the industry anymore. They're just the ones that we can rely on when we really need that next iteration of NFL games.
i think the artwork in "need for speed most wanted" is pretty darn cool.
EA changed from a developer to a distributor. That's what went wrong...
Having just purchased CC 3 - Tibirium Wars, I can definately add to the testament that there is no art involved longer. The whole online purchase experience was buggy, cumbersome and apart from the updated graphics there is nothing new in the gameplay. In fact, count yourself lucky if you get to play 5min before being rushed/tank-spammed by your opponent.
I hope the upcoming Unreal Tournament 2007 will be a better experience.
Man, where can I get my hands on Archon! I absolutely loved that game and Dr J vs Larry Bird. Especially when you broke the backboard and the janitor complains about having to clean it up.
But I wonder what happened to the grandiose sentiments
The biggest thing that happened is that the team sizes got bigger. When one or two people worked on a game, it's easy to justify putting their names on the front cover. When that number is 10 (or 150 like it is today) it's not so easy. Sid Meier is really the only game designer that gets on the cover now.
Very ironic, actually, given their whole sweatshop reputation today. There were some other things promoting that idea during the 80s too, actually, like "Wargames," that movie.
EA bought Origin and not capable to produce games comparable quality
EA bought Westwood Studios and had to shoutdown Earth and Beyond, also CC Generals quality not nearly there.IMHO they just missmanaged a few companies.
After Earth and Beyound discontinued I decided to stop buying from them.
You can use all of your XBox 360 controllers on your PC if you buy the wireless dongle.
I am suddenly painfully nostalgic for M.U.L.E. I wasted way too many afternoons one summer trying to crush my friends during marathon M.U.L.E. sessions on my Atari 800.
And it never occurred to me how much these game covers so resembled rock album covers. I think I got a contact high just looking at them.
EA's mid-80's games were unique in so many ways.
When EA did a game in a familiar genre, they always added something extra. One-on-One was very responsive. I was shocked the first time the backboard shattered.
EA's flight simulator of the mid 80's was Chuck Yeager's Advanced Flight Trainer. How boring did Sublogic's Flight Simulator seem compared to zipping upside-down through buildings in an experimental aircraft or trying to see how high the SR-71 would fly?
EA also created some revolutionary new games during that time, too. I can't imagine how many hours I spent playing Mail Order Monsters.
Even their copy protection was innovative:
Bard's Tale III with that tri-ring decoder disk. I believe that EA also came up with "Fat Tracks" to make copying their disks difficult.
And the LP-like packaging with the instruction booklet that slid into the cover and the pocket that held the 5 1/4 in place!
EA was very innovative and artistic in the early 80s!
What happened to EA: They became a big successful company and the artistic people who used to run it were replaced with people who were better at making money. There's nothing wrong with that though. Money is good. Money can solve a lot of problems and make your life easier. It is also good for buying food and paying your rent and saving for your retirement.
However, you need art to feed your soul and to remind you that you are human, and not a machine. So there are indie game studios startups where people make art. They might not get paid much, and they'll probably not make any money and they'll probably have to work a lot. So they are full of young idealistic recent college grads (or drop-outs). Eventually, those young people will get older and married and they'll need to pay for a mortgage and their kids' tuition. So they'll go work for a company that pays them more and is better managed and has a better health care plan and 401K.
But people still need art, so some of the indie game studios will be successful. They may get bought up by a company like EA, or they may continue to be independent and make lots of money and become a large company. At that time, the amount of money involved will necessitate new management by people who are better at managing money. And the circle of life continues.
Funny ... wherever EA is a topic, people either say that:
- EA was cool way back when ("Those were the times" syndrome)
- I'll never ever buy a game from EA (again) ("EA is a monopoly" syndrome)
I say: yes, those were the times. The games were cool back then, not only those from EA. In the meantime, I grew up. I play some of the games that are released today, i don't really care who makes them if it's good and i don't go around bashing a whole company because i didn't like or had problems with one of their games.
Second, EA is big. It's huge. They make lots of money. And for that very reason alone people dislike it. Just as they dislike Microsoft. Or Warner Brothers. Or Amazon. I know people who don't buy from Amazon because they don't trust them because they are so big. Stupid? Yes. You buy the product, or the service, or make purchase after purchase and each one deserves to be viewed seperately.
Third: read the reviews or play a demo. That really helps choosing.
Fourth: return what you don't like.
Disclaimer: i work for EA as programmer. I happen to know that one studio works this way, another works that way. Each studio has their own share of success and failure stories, their own areas of expertise and unique teams.
I know this is sometimes hard for the end-user to differentiate if there's only (or most prominently) a big EA logo on the box. But users should be able to make this one differentiation: if you didn't like Battlefield, there's no reason why you shouldn't still buy CC. Or if you don't like that either, maybe you do like Madden? EA is big but it also provides a versatility that is unbelievable and IMHO one of the biggest achievements of EA.
To say "I'll never buy from EA again" is just as limiting and thoughtless as insisting that "I'll never watch any Warner Brothers movie again". Or more to the point: "I'll never watch any stupid movie/play any buggy game anymore." - we will still be going to make bad choices or be disappointed because we didn't get what we expected (see: 300 on Wikipedia for instance *g*).
Diversity is a good thing,but Its not quantity but quality is what sells games.
You create as many mediocre games as you want but only hi quality will be picked over them.
Here is simple CC to Generals comparison:
-compare sounds tracks from original CC and CC Generals(people still listening to CC original tracks not sure if anyone listening to Generals military orchestra tracks with American, Chinese or Arabic themes)
-compare interface that is not great in CC generals.
-compare storyline that was seamlessly integrated into CC to one in CC Generals.
-compare AI that is bogus in Generals
- fun element is gone from Generals.
I guess all I am saying is, even box has similar picture to CC and priced the same etc. its not the same game after EA become owner of it.
Check ipetitions.com to see reasons why people dislike EA to me just degrade
of quality in CC, RedAlert and shoutdown Earth and beyond and Ultima was enoght to
stop buying from them.
We have an actual EA programmer.
1. He blames the users for flaming EA.
2. He blames the users for returning to EA, and buying more games.
3. He blames the users for not reading game reviews.
4. He blames the users for not returning a game to the store.
I'm glad we have a consistent argument here.
And I agree with him, anytime I buy a EA game I become a proven idiot.
"it was a simpler time, probably the height of the "one man band" where a guy who could everything - graphics, sound, game play. The end of Have Laptop will Travel. I miss those days...now everything is done in a team and everyone is a specialist."
I would argue that this is no more true now than it was then. If you have the skill to create music, art, code, and fun, you can get that into a game by yourself more easily now than in the 80's, with modern tools. I've played and bought games from quite a few who've done it over the years, like Eric Chahi, Sean O'Conner, Mike Bryant, Wendell Hicken, Chris Crawford, and David Gray. (Just from what I found in my currently installed games folder.)
Having more people just makes it easier to concentrate on what you do best, contributing in other areas as you can, instead of being forced to waste a lot of time on what you aren't particularly good at. And of course, splitting the labor around.
Most people who lament the good ol' days just aren't looking hard enough anymore. ;)
Jeff, I'd be interested in knowing where the original EA developers went after leaving EA, if you found any information on that.
I think the 80's, for videogames, served as the equivalent of an unexplored ecotone; a place between hobby and business where diversity was very high.
In a Darwinian sense it was the place where a lot of different strategies (i.e. game types) were being tried to establish their viability. This is especially true of the video games created before 1984 or so when the Video Game Crash occurred. Too many early competitors and variations may have depleted the resources of consumer dollars that were available. Essentially, this starved the industry (see G. Evelyn Hutchinson for discussions on population dynamics). Afterwards, businesses were not willing to take risks.
Prior to the Crash, as the niche became more populated with game variants it became evident that certain categories of games (i.e gaming genres - text adventure, maze, vertical scrollers aka shmups, sports, and platformers, flight simulators) held a competitive advantage over other categories. This competitive advantage was defined by revenue both in the arcades, and on personal computers (I am lumping Apple and Atari in here, as well). Even in the pre-Crash era we see that early franchises were being established, witness Pac-Man.
In the post-Crash era, these competitive advantages were exploited by companies that had learned the lessons of the diversity explosion. In other words, they had learned what sells. Perhaps, it was, and still is, believed that there exists a ‘winning formula’ for video games. This winning formula is epitomized by the video game franchises like Pac-Man, Madden, Street Fighter, Resident Evil.
However, as video game genres became further refined and more heavily exploited they invariably became more alike. More titles with less variation, do little to increase interest and thus sales. The ‘formula’ begins to break down.
New genres arise as thoughtful evolutions of already existing genres. For example, we can imagine that the Double Dragon, a side-scrolling fighting platformer, may have helped to pave the way for the ungainly mess that was Street Fighter, which (in my opinion, unbelievably) met enough success that it was further refined as Street Fighter II. One might also argue that fighting genre in video games always existed, but was not exploited. There is clear precedence in some pre-Crash video games.
Have all the stories already been written?
Just curious, has anyone written the definitive book on the history of the computer game industry yet? It is a truly fascinating story of joy and tragedy with complex interwoven storylines; worthy of no less than 500 pages.
Anyhow, EA's journey is just one of many similar evolutions the great game companies of the 80's underwent in an attempt to survive the cut on store shelves.
My favorite story is that of Sierra On-Line. Their 3D Adventure games (King's Quest, Space Quest, Quest for Glory, etc) with text command interfaces were the holy grail of computer game interactivity and technological innovation. It is the story of how a family-owned mom and pop startup went from a happy little game development company to a megalithic game publisher and in the process lost its original spirit, line of games, fanbase, and special breed of storyteller-developers.
I find it interesting how many of the observations made here could parallel the movie industry. Large studios with many crew and no risk taking vs. small independant productions that have to money and a handful of cast and crew (often the same people) that can make something very original.
And if you think back to the beginning of the movie industry, there were many small studios that eventually got squeezed out by the bigger fish.
Sorry, "productions that have no money"
By the way, One on One on the Amiga was amazing with actual sampled sounds of the basketball bouncing and shoes squeeking.
wow, did get my point across, didn't i? :)
I'm just saying, there's things in this world that happen to be great but are not anymore either from today's perspective or because someone tried to redo the same experience and failed. Or maybe that someone actually succeeded, but people were expecting the same thing from years ago while others enjoy the new experience (hey, after all, it's a different one).
We have the same thing with everything in this world. Consider amusement parks. Disney world rocked as a kid. As an adult, you see commercialism and plastic all over. Consider bands. They put out a great album, you like it. They put out another, and you think they've gone popular, just going for the money, and you hate it. Maybe so, maybe not. Be disappointed, you have the right to be, but then move on. Don't limit yourself by blaming it on, say, the record company and refusing to buy from them anymore. If you want to go all indie, go for it. Make a stand. I'm the first to be happy with that.
I'm saying, if you don't like what you get, don't bother. If you do happen to like it, or something else, be happy with that. If you happen to like the "good old times" like i do, please put them in perspective. The industry has grown, there's no escaping that, and it can be disappointing in many ways because what you used to is no more. We all need to look for those things we happen to like NOW and there's no guarantee that it's to be found in the same places as before. Companies change, teams change, people change, production values change, target audience changes, ... there's just too many variables and only one thing is for sure: change.
EA has gone through the same process. Personally, i don't blindly like all EA games and i'm not happy with some releases either, be it quality or fun or just not being the same old game i loved. But there are also EA games that rock my world, and I'm glad they exist and am really happy that i can try out so many games and pretty sad that less than 10% of all games seem actually worth spending my time with. But that's just how it is. I probably like less than 10% of all albums out there, 10% of all cars seem reasonable, 10% of all magazines are worth taking a peek, and so on ... but by looking, i do find pearls here and there i would have never found if i didn't keep looking or would have limited my field of view.
Ok, no more on this topic. ;)
FYI: ipetition.com "sorry, no results"
all i could find was "EA please make an NHL street game" and "boycott Madden 06" ...
Never really forgiven EA for closing down Earth Beyond. Maybe the reverse engineering way of creating an Emulator for it will bring back the game we so like so so much.
[See forum link]
Very interesting.I really appreciate it. thanks
Wow that collage of game covers sent my mind reeling through of rush of Broderick-esque nostalgia! I spent hours with Murder on the Zinderneuf, Archon, Adventure Construction Set, etc... The amount of creativity that went into lighting up the imagination with nothing more than 64k and a 5.25" floppy drive! I wasn't aware they had a 'sweatshop' rep(?)
Hey whatever happened to Infocom? The Zork series was amazing! It'd be great to see those revamped for xbox360.
Funny how some literature in the mid 80's shaped my career and inspired me to get into the business. I remember reading Programmers At Work by Susan Lammers and then I remember seeing this ad and thinking those are everyday people. It inspired me to move from playing games to writing games...
it was a simpler time, probably the height of the "one man band" where a guy who could everything - graphics, sound, game play. The end of Have Laptop will Travel. I miss those days...now everything is done in a team and everyone is a specialist. Sound team, level team, rendering team...The sadness is that will all these contributors the joy of the craft never comes through like in the old games. Maybe its why for all the great visuals and sound the modern platforms provide, the "soul" of most modern games is pretty vacant.