"With my lifelong interest in football simulation, my oldest friends would tell you that I founded EA to give myself an excuse to make another football game," Hawkins said. "I designed the precursor to Madden Football in 1970 as a board game called Accu-Stat Pro Football," a game that would be his very first entrepreneurial effort, funded by a loan from his father.
"After that I programmed another precursor to Madden as a school project in 1973, that was written in BASIC and ran on a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. It simulated the January, 1974 Super Bowl and predicted the Dolphins would beat Minnesota 23-6, which was pretty good considering the real game was 24-7."
EA had published an early football title called Touchdown Football, but it was the success of One on One and its sequel that encouraged Hawkins to make another attempt at an in-depth football simulation. To enhance the game’s authenticity, Hawkins sought out Oakland Raiders coach John Madden to help bring the complexity of pro football to life on the computer screen.
"I picked John because I wanted a design partner that could help us make the game authentic but also have selling-power from his name on the cover," Hawkins said. "After signing him, I flew to Denver with my programmer and producer and went over my game design. We spent two whole days on the train with him going over an incredibly long list of details about football and it helped me finish the design properly.
"We'd get together periodically after that initial session to review our progress, and John would yell and scream about details we had wrong, and it was a lot of fun!" Their hard work paid off when the game was released in 1988, establishing EA’s best-selling and longest running franchise.
While EA was focusing most of its efforts on personal computer publishing, the flat-lined console business was being systematically revived by the determined efforts of Nintendo. By 1989, Nintendo’s sales had grown to almost $2 billion, and EA could no longer afford to treat consoles as a sideline. Other companies were also eyeing the market and later that year Sega brought the 16-bit Genesis to America.
Like many third party publishers, EA was leery of the console business. "Nobody liked paying high royalties under restrictive licenses, and what made it even worse was having to build ROM cartridges at great cost and inventory risk," Hawkins explained. However, with the arrival of the Genesis, he saw an opportunity to once again rewrite the rules of publishing.
"The Genesis appealed to me for many reasons, but a big one was that it had an MC 68000 processor," he said. This chip was key because EA had years of experience with the processor, which was also used in the Macintosh, Amiga, and Atari ST computers. Electronic Arts was able to quickly reverse engineer the Genesis and develop software that would run on it without Sega’s help.
Using this knowledge as leverage in his negotiations with Sega, Hawkins threatened to release games for the Genesis without a license unless Sega agreed to more favorable terms for EA. It was a very risky move that could have had expensive legal consequences.
Fortunately, Sega recognized the benefits of working out a deal with Hawkins. EA had an extensive back catalog of quality games that could be quickly ported to the Genesis, and a strong sports line that would be essential for the console’s success in America. It was going to be a hard fight against Nintendo and Sega needed all the help it could get.
Now that Hawkins had committed to consoles, he had to sell his company on the decision.
"It was very contentious because many employees and developers did not like consoles, or did not like action games," he said. "The goal was to stop making esoteric products for an elite customer base, and go make it in the big-time with mainstream gamers. Several employees were outraged and quit, but I convinced the team that if the public chose to buy consoles like the Genesis, then to satisfy our customers we had to make the best games possible on the platforms chosen by the public, not the ones our engineers wished they could afford."
Electronic Arts had its Initial Public Offering in the fall of ‘89 and used the influx of capital to push hard into console publishing. "I was flogging my development organization to put three new games into production every month for a year, plus we added twenty three games through affiliates. Sega was blown away at how fast we built a dominant product line," Hawkins said.
As EA aligned itself with the Genesis, a rush of games commenced in 1990 with a port from the Amiga of Peter Molyneux’s Populous, Budokan: The Martial Spirit, and John Madden Football. Over the six year life span of the Genesis, EA would establish several long running franchises, including the Strike series, NHL Hockey, NBA Live, FIFA Soccer, and Road Rash.
Electronic Arts also brought complex strategy and RPG titles over from personal computers. Titles such as Power Monger, Syndicate, Starflight, The Immortal, Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World, Centurion: Defender of Rome, and King’s Bounty appealed to older players, helping to widen the console game audience beyond its kid orientation.