The Firm

The Firm
The Conquest of Origin

Allen Varney | 11 Oct 2005 08:00
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"Trip Hawkins is the Antichrist."
The scene: a bar at a gaming convention in the late 1980s. The speaker: an executive at the computer game company Origin who today, no doubt, would prefer to remain anonymous.

Why the holy-fire view of William M. Hawkins III, founder of Electronic Arts? Because (as this exec explained) EA meant to win in the computer game business not only by making good games, but by preventing competitors from making good games too - by actively interfering with their ability to do business. As one example, EA had filed a frivolous lawsuit against Origin. Forced into a costly out-of-court settlement, Origin execs asked Trip Hawkins why he had allowed the suit; he responded, "This is just business. This is the way we're going to win."

Furthermore, EA was all about marketing. For Hawkins the question was never, "How good is this game?" It was always, "How can we sell this?" To high-minded execs at Origin - makers of the Ultima and Wing Commander series, the high priests of the high end, who valued commitment to an artistic vision - this attitude was sacrilege.

Ultima designer and Origin co-founder Richard "Lord British" Garriott even worked an EA reference into Ultima VII (1992). Two high-profile nonplayer characters, Elizabeth and Abraham, perform seemingly helpful tasks for the player - but E. and A. turn out to be murderers in league with the player's nemesis, the Guardian. The three items that power the Guardian's evil generators are a cube, a sphere and a tetrahedron - the former EA logo.

This reference in Ultima VII proved prophetic. In 1991 Hawkins left EA to found the short-lived 3DO Company. The next year, 1992, Origin entered dire financial straits and sold out to EA. Yet Origin never sold its soul; rather, EA spent the next 12 years gradually and painfully devouring it. The sad story could be a case study for future MBA students.

Why did Origin sell? It was partly due - brace yourself - to the price of floppy disks.

Changing the World
Founded in 1983, Origin was a creature of the dawn. Garriott had already gotten rich in high school, from a game he coded in BASIC in his bedroom and sold in a ziplock bag. Founding Origin with $70,000 in family money, he and his brother Robert created a culture that prized creative vision and expansive, thoroughly developed game settings. The company later took the slogan "We create worlds."

Origin project director Stephen Beeman recalls, "Origin's cardinal virtue was its commitment to do whatever it took to ship the director's vision. We had a motto for it: 'A game's only late until it ships, but it sucks forever.' If the game's creative vision demanded a megabyte of graphics, and the only way to load that into memory was to write our own operating system - " (the dubious "voodoo memory" scheme Origin created in 1992 for Ultima VII: The Black Gate) " - well, that's what we did, and damn the risk to the schedule or the consequences to the budget, not to mention the programmers' lives."

In recent years, Electronic Arts has taken heat for its sweatshop working conditions, but marathon crunches were a fact of life at Origin long before the purchase. Project teams endorsed Beeman's doctrine: "Sleep is for the weak."

Producer Warren Spector worked at Origin from 1989 to 1996. "I always felt we were genuinely trying to change the world," he says. "There was a feeling of creating something new, of being on the cutting edge; that was incredibly exciting. That, more than anything else, drove people to do exceptional work."

Employees treated each game as a learning experience. Richard Garriott made it a point of pride to start each new Ultima entirely from scratch, with not a line of code carried over from earlier games. Even the map editors and other tools were coded anew.

Beeman says, "We started with the vision of what we wanted the game to be - a vision generally inspired by our love of film - then busted our asses to figure out a way to pull that off. By contrast, companies like LucasArts or id started with an idea of what it was possible to do, then crafted killer gameplay around that. When our creative vision turned out to be achievable in a reasonable time (as with Wing Commander I and II), we hit home runs. When the creative vision turned out not to be achievable, development dragged on until the next year (or beyond), when improvements to the hardware made it achievable."

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