It seems like EA is sort of in a position to take big risks, but then again the bigger company you are, the harder it is to take a big risk. Although Spore is obviously a big risk.
WG: I think the limitation on taking big risks is not on the company side. To some degree, it's the financial stability. EA's biggest risk in its history was building games for the Sega Genesis when we didn't have a license. We reverse engineered it, but at the time we convinced ourselves that if we didn't do that, we were going to be out of business. When you're facing death, you can take risks.
Retailers are getting somewhat less important over the years, though.
WG: Well, if not retailers, think about it as business people. [It happened] even when talking to customers about what they want. All the normal business practices of trying to predict missed the big surprises.
You keep mentioning the Sega Genesis, and I felt it was a shame that EA ended up not supporting the Dreamcast.
WG: We lost confidence in Sega. With the Dreamcast, we told them two things: you should be an in-the-box online system, and you should use a 3D chip that we understand. They said, "We can't afford to be online, and we'll get back to you on the 3D chip." They ended up using an unusual, non-industry standard, not well-supported chip. It was something that nobody in EA had ever touched.
They knew we had no experience with it and no belief in it. Then with online, they said "no," then they said "maybe," then they said "no." They wobbled all over the place, and we lost confidence in them. At the same time, we knew that the PS2 was coming. I loved the Genesis. The Genesis was EA's first video game system that we supported, and you always remember your first.
What made EA move away from the rockstar image that was fostered in the early days?
WG: Games in the early days were made by one to three people. Everybody who worked on our first eight games was in the picture. Three or four years later, we had the Genesis games developed by twenty people, and we kind of lost interest in promoting just a single person.
So it was a matter of size?
WG: At the time, we hated giving it up, but the teams kind of rebelled against it. We didn't really want one outsized ego to deal with. The users also got to the point where they were less interested in who one creative person was, and wanted to know more about the game.
It seems now that there are sort of spokespersons for games. People are getting interested in names again, like "This is Will Wright's game."
WG: In the business press, what you see is that CEOs become spokesmodels for their companies. It's really convenient to try and talk about a 5,000-person company as if it's one person. Then you get egos and practices that lead to bad press about CEO pay and ethics lately. In sports, there's some teams that seem like "Shaquille O'Neal's team," where it's all about one player. In hockey, a well-organized team can beat a team with a couple of superstars again and again. We just thought that we want to promote the work, rather than a star, because there's too many negative things about stars.
But the press likes stars. It's easier to talk about. One of the things that happens in traditional media is that they're all marketed on stars. It's actually a weakness of games. If you talk about the star, the star doesn't scale to the user experience of the game as much as they do to performance media. If you like Mick Jagger, even if he has a hoarse voice one night, you still see him dance and gyrate and [you're satisfied with the experience]. But if you've got Sid Meier making a buggy game, you're like, "Screw this!"