Friday, April 27, 2018
Publication Date: 10/1/2009
Archive >  October 2009 Issue >  Tech-Op-Ed > 

Evading Microsoft's Clutches
Walter Salm, Editor
A news headline caught my eye the other day about a deal that fell through; the non-deal: Microsoft had been trying to buy Electronic Arts. It didn't work, and Electronic Arts is still free to live another day.

My introduction to Electronic Arts came during a New York computer show back in 1982. I was writing for several computer publications at the time, and was trying to keep track of all the different formats. My home office looked something like a computer testing lab; we had an Apple IIe, an Atari 600, Commodore 64, a Kaypro, an Eagle, an Adam, and an IBM. We were constantly checking out software on the various formats; some worked better than others. Oh and we had an Atari game console, which turned out to be lots of fun. The invitation to the software demo did little to prepare me for what was to be a one-on-one meeting in a hotel room with Trip Hawkins, the president of newly-minted Electronic Arts. He had obtained licenses that enabled him to write game programs for the Atari and several other computers.

I was surprised to discover that this highly excited CEO was 20 years my junior. I was beginning to realize that the youngsters were taking over high technology. Hawkins demonstrated a not-quite-finished program called "M.U.L.E." by clutching four joysticks simultaneously. He hadn't gotten around to writing the part of the software that let the computer take over for missing humans in this game for up to four players. He rectified this shortcoming within weeks, but his main objective at the time was to have something to demonstrate during this all-important computer show in New York. Ultimately, M.U.L.E. became one of our all-time favorite games at home. It was all about colonizing an alien planet in competition with three other miners/colonists, and my wife and I would squeeze in a M.U.L.E. session almost every night, no matter what else might be on the schedule.

Hawkins was a personable young guy with a great vision and an inner fire that was absolutely contagious. He had left Apple with a bundle of cash and was eager to build his own little empire, which he ultimately did with one of the most original and long-lasting computer game software companies ever. Probably one of the greatest successes posted by Electronic Arts started with "SIMCity" which then spawned all the other SIMs, an ongoing success for the company. EA started acquiring other small software companies, mainly to get their programmers on the payroll. Good game designers were in very short supply in those days, and like every other aspect of the electronics industry, game companies had to produce new stuff virtually every month.

Hawkins left Electronic Arts in 1991 to design and market a new game console. Ultimately, his new company was done in by too high a retail price tag on the console and very aggressive marketing by other game machine companies that were better capitalized. In 2003, he started up another video game company called Digital Chocolate, mainly to make games for handheld platforms. In 2005, Hawkins was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame, an honor that had been far too long in coming.

Although Hawkins is no longer involved with EA, I was rather glad to see that the company evaded the clutches of Microsoft. EA is far from being a little upstart startup, but it still has a special place in my memory bank. I'll never forget that excited young guy in shirtsleeves clutching four joysticks as he demonstrated the features of M.U.L.E. on the hotel room's TV set.  

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