The Evolution of Electronic Arts

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, November 1999

If it was a TV movie of the week, no one would believe it. It?s 1982 and a couple of Burnaby 17 year old best friends get a bright idea: ?Let?s write a computer game?. Don Mattrick and Jeff Sember start out working in Jeff?s living room. It?s the age of PacMan, and their game, Evolution sells enough copies to pay their way through SFU. They call the company Distinctive Software, and move it to early-employee Stan Chow?s rec room?Stan is still with them.

By 1986, the company had grown to 25 employees and Don has bought out Jeff?s share, and in 1991, he sells the company to California-based Electronic Arts for $13 million. Fast forward to 1999 and Don Mattrick is President of EA Studios, in charge of the eleven production centers where game software is actually produced for EA?s $1.8 billion empire.

That little Burnaby company is now the core of EA Canada. With 550 employees, it has recently moved into fancy new digs?still in Burnaby, where it produces many of EA?s sports and racing titles, including NBA Live, Triple Play Baseball, NHL Hockey, FIFA Soccer?the best-selling sports game in the world, and the new WCW Wrestling.

Having only been with EA Canada for about two years, it might be easy to think of president Glen Wong as the new guy. But, he points out, two years with EA is about like spending ten years anywhere else. Even in those couple of years, he?s watched the technology base of game playing evolve, with PCs in particular becoming dramatically faster, better, and cheaper.

The game console market, Wong suggests, has seemed pretty quiet over those years?the PC versions of EA?s games have moved to 3D as graphics accelerators have become commonplace, while the console versions have lagged somewhat behind. But watch out, he suggests. It?ll take about a year, but a whole new generation of consoles are arriving?first in Japan, but eventually in Europe and North America. Units like the just-released Sega DreamCast and next year?s promised PlayStation 2 and Nintendo 128 will push the graphics envelope at least comparable to what we?ve seen on a PC. EA currently produces games for the Playstation and N64 platforms, along with PC computer games (along with a few titles for Macintosh). Wong wouldn?t say anything definite, but suggested that the company is watching the changes in the console platforms very closely.

And console games aren?t just computer games you play on your TV, he points out. Consoles are more of a social activity. They?re so much better for multiplayer games, and there?s a real difference between playing at a computer monitor, and getting a bunch of kids comfortable in the living room with a game system.

With PC games today and with the next generation of console games, EA is also expecting to see the Internet dramatically change gaming. Many of the company?s current PC lineup allows for players to get compete across a network or through the Internet?and the company helps match up players world wide. But Wong is more excited by the company?s Austin unit?they?ve signed up over 150,000 monthly subscribers, paying to play Ultima on-line, live over the Net. He expects that we?ll be seeing more and more initiatives like this.

For Wong, who prior to Electronic Arts worked for BC Hothouse and was president of Rogers Cable?s BC division, working at EA is a ?tremendous amount of fun?. He said that ?the great thing about EA is the people. They?re unbelievable, technically gifted. There are hundreds of people at the top of their field. Even when they ship a game, the production teams can be mad?they?re never satisfied, because there are always things they want to add?ways to make it better?.

He adds that working in the computer game industry means having one foot on each of two horses, pulling in different directions. On the one hand, you?re part of the entertainment business, but on the other hand, as a computer software company, you?re involved in technology. It?s ?wonderful, weird, but challenging?, he suggests, with the challenge coming because it?s so hard to satisfy everyone, from the hard core gamers while still keeping a game easy and fun for the first time players.

Wong points out that within EA-Canada?s studio, there?s a ?strong culture of winning?. Not just getting out a product, but making that product the best game ever.

Based on the series of head-to-head comparisons we?ve done between EA sport and racing titles and their competitors, I?d say they?re doing a pretty good job of succeeding.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan