Trip Hawkins gets Hall of Fame nod

D.I.C.E Summit to fete EA founder and Digital Chocolate CEO with top award; Trip joins the house that Miyamoto, Sakaguchi, and Carmack built. We speak to Hawkins on the eve of the event.

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Today, the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences announced that Trip Hawkins would join previous inductees Peter Molyneux, Yu Suzuki, Will Wright, John Carmack, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Sid Meier, and Shigeru Miyamoto in its Hall of Fame.

Criteria for such honor goes to those, according to the AIAS, who have made "a significant impact or contribution to the industry, such as pioneering a new game genre; changing the face of the art form through new technology; influencing other designers and products; demonstrating the highest level of creativity and innovation; and consistent product success at a level that helps expand the industry."

A ceremony marking the award will take place this Tuesday evening in Las Vegas during the 8th Annual Interactive Achievements Awards. The awards ceremony and Hall of Fame induction are an annual event. Previously, awards were handed out during ceremonies taking place during E3 week, but for the past three years, the Hall of Fame award has been announced at the D.I.C.E Summit in Las Vegas.

Hawkins' career was summarized by the scribes at the AIAS, who in a statement today said: "[Hawkins] began programming his first games while at Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in strategy and applied game theory. His first game was a 1973 football simulation, which foreshadowed the video game empire that would become known to the world as 'Madden' and 'EA Sports.' Hawkins earned his MBA at Stanford, and in 1978 went to work for Apple. Hawkins helped grow the company from $2 million in revenues and 50 employees to $1 billion and over 4,000 employees, in just 4 years."

Most game industry pros know Hawkins as the founder of Electronic Arts, and later, founder of The 3DO Company.

Calling Hawkins a "true pioneer," Joseph Olin, president of The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences (AIAS) commented that "from the earliest hardware platforms to today's mobile technology, Trip continues to create and innovate with all of us the benefactors of his efforts."

After closing down the ill-fated 3DO Company in 2003, Hawkins reemerged later that same year with a company focused on mobile entertainment, Digital Chocolate.

Trip Hawkins called in to chat before heading down to Las Vegas.

GameSpot: Are you excited about this event, the big award in Las Vegas?

Trip Hawkins: I feel a real sense of gratitude about it. I've spent 30 years doing what I do. I've had my ups and downs, and it's just an incredible pleasure to have any appreciation of the fact that it meant something to some other people.

GS: You're sitting with a pretty good crowd of current Hall of Famers.

TH: In some respects I feel like I'm not worthy. How can you compare anybody to Miyamoto? At the same time, it's an incredible honor to be recognized as the first person who's not a full-time game designer. And that actually means a lot to me. I take pride in the work that I've done as a designer and as a creative person. It's great to be associated with other creative people that you yourself are a fan of.

GS: You said that you're not a full-time designer. So how do you describe what you do in the industry?

TH: Well, it's kind of a joke, but I've said for a long time that I do whatever it is I can't get somebody else to do. So I'm usually the guy that's the big thinker, trying to do something that's ambitious and complicated. There certainly have been cases where, with a product like Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One on One, I kind of had to do the out-of-the-box thinking and invent the thing myself, and design it, and put the people together to get it built. Even during Madden, for quite a long time, Madden within EA was referred to as "Trip's folly." So there was a tremendous amount of passion and determination on my part to make some of these things happen. But then, after a while you appreciate how it's taken on its own momentum and other people have gotten involved and obviously they've been able to grow and do something that's had a much bigger impact on society. And again, it's an honor and a privilege to have been in the right place at the right time to help bring that about.

GS: If Madden hadn't agreed to partner with you, do you think the company would be where it is today?

TH: I would have done it with somebody else. Initially, I thought about doing it with Joe Kapp. I designed Madden, but I knew that I needed help from a real football coach. Kapp was the first guy that I talked to. But he basically wanted more money than I thought it was worth and he wanted to have his name on the game. I thought, well, hey, if he wants that, then I might as well go to the top of the pile. And somebody like John Madden…obviously he's a great coach, and he's a smart guy who had done a lot to expand the audience of the football literate through his work on television. It was important to the business that he was going to be continuing to be a television personality for the foreseeable future.

GS: Important to the business…

TH: Yeah. I knew he would keep the mindshare going. But if he had chosen not to do it, then we would have just moved on…I would have moved on to the next guy on the list.

GS:. I once spoke to someone in the industry who told me that he gets a chuckle out of the fact that he passed on Grand Theft Auto when DMA was first showing it around. What's the dumbest thing you ever did in the industry?

TH: Well, starting 3DO was definitely the dumbest thing, because clearly I bit off way more than any reasonable person could have expected to chew. But the closest parallel to the story you just told is that at EA in the early days. A guy came in and said he had this idea for what eventually turned out to be Print Shop. He said he had already pitched it to Broderbund and they were interested, but he wanted to see what EA had to offer. We reviewed the product and said, "We think this has a lot of potential, but here are six things that you would need to do differently." And he said, "Well, look, Broderbund is willing to take it as is, and I really don't want to change it, so I'm going to go with Broderbund."

And of course when it came out he had changed all six of the things we told him to change. [laugh]

GS: Swinging back to mobile, who of the majors do you think really gets the mobile beat? And is there going to be a major player or a smaller outfit who really gives the medium legs?

TH: Mobile is the same deal where there's going to be activity by traditional game publishers, but it just wouldn't surprise me if a lot of the real out-of-the-box thinking comes from innovators. And if you were in Japan--which is a more mature market--the company that I have the most respect for is Index Corp. They've definitely been the most innovative content company that I know about in Japan.

It's way too early here in the US market to try to draw any conclusions. It's still kind of a cottage industry. It's a lot like the market was when I started EA. I counted 135 competitors when I started EA, and EA was going to be a brand-new company having to compete with all those people, but in four years we were number one, and only a handful of those companies are still around.

GS: Your current company, Digital Chocolate, seems to be surfacing in Europe more than it is in this market.

TH: With Digital Chocolate being a relative latecomer to the sector--I mean, you have companies like Jamdat that are four years old--we certainly felt strategically that this is a market that's going global more quickly, and where it made sense to try to do some things to catch up.

For me, the reference points when I started EA were the music business for distribution and promotion, and Hollywood for product development. Mobile is very different. A lot of companies are purely using the game--the console game--business as their reference point. But I use the Internet social community businesses as the product reference point. And I think of cable TV as the distribution reference point. So, of course, in some ways we're trying to become like an MTV for mobile.

When I started Digital Chocolate I brought in Bob Pitman, who was the founder of MTV. And Sequoia and Kliner. Those two [firms], they've pioneered a lot of new media companies. In particular, they were involved in Amazon, Yahoo, Google, Friendster. They've got a lot of this experience with the kind of Internet companies. So that's really the approach we're taking. And I don't really see a lot of the other companies thinking about it that way…they're taking a more conventional approach to the content.

GS: Where do you hope to see Digital Chocolate move toward in the next three to five years.

TH: I think the big theme that we want to push for is social gaming. If you look at the Internet, in terms of social entertainment, it's not terribly demanding from a technology standpoint. If you have somebody who's playing on Neopets, or playing fantasy sports, they don't need to have a thick client like you have with EverQuest. It's the social connection that the mobile device really gives people. And if the popularity of these Internet social communities has to do with this desire people have to be socially connected through these casual forms of play, not only can we do that today, with mobile networks, we can steadily improve it as the networks get better and the handsets get better.

But it's better than the Internet because it's always with you.

GS: After 3DO closed down, was there a Plan B, or C…before settling on Digital Chocolate?

TH: I kind of tuned into mobile relatively quickly, so I didn't actually consider a lot of other alternatives. But I definitely looked at some opportunities in the Internet space. But there wasn't really anything there that I just felt incredibly passionate about. Of course I got calls from recruiters and went and talked to some companies about executive positions. For example, there was a big consumer electronics company trying to take advantage of the whole digital generation of home electronics. Personally, I find that fascinating because of my interest in usability of computer technology for consumers. It kind of took me back to the time that I spent at Apple and how much fun it is to just try to figure out how to break down a complex technology and make it into something that more people will use. There's definitely fascinating things going on at the home--the whole trend line where you're going to have a big server in the home that's going to house a lot of your digital assets. I mean, there's a lot of really fascinating stuff there. But at the end of the day I'm not really a hardware guy. I think I've found that out.

GS: In your book, who are the great achievers in the gamespace?

TH: Well, actually, I've always--once upon a time there was a consultant that worked for Disney…I forget his name. He had a phrase that has become one of my mantras. "Creativity is the rearranging of the old in a new way."

GS: So he's on that list.

TH: I've always had this appreciation for trying to study the history of other media, and use that for inspiration and ideas. And so I've been a student of that kind of history, like Walt Disney--there's a big hero. And pretty much anybody that was a central figure, like Thomas Edison, somebody who was an essential figure in establishing new media and thinking outside the box. Now, if you were the video game industry, I would probably put Nintendo at the top of that list, because they're the ones that invented the whole razor blade model. They did a lot of really imaginative and risky things that everybody else either didn't think would work or they didn't like. So Nintendo invented the modern business models of the console game business. You don't see that with other entertainment media in the last 100 years. That was really clever.

GS: Anyone else sort of bringing it to a more modern time…?

TH: From a career-standpoint guy, I mentioned Miyamoto. He's in such a class by himself. Not just because of how inventive and original his work has always been, but also how many times he's reinvented himself.

These other guys I have a lot of respect for--some are more from a technology standpoint. Mark Cerny comes to mind. These guys that were always able to create something incredibly impressive and therefore new by just squeezing more out of the technology, and getting more power out of it.

I have that same feeling about Bill Atkinson. He basically drove the innovation of the whole WYSIWYG approach to the PC. In fact, a guy that was working for me at Apple brought the first mouse into the company and we gave it to Bill Atkinson, and he immediately started getting graphics to show up on the screen. Those [kind of skills are] not so important anymore. Now, it's really much more like Hollywood where there's lots of horsepower and storage capacity and everything else. It's a more audiovisual, theatrical storytelling medium. You can do so much more with it. It's definitely more like Hollywood property creation and less dependent on that kind of technical art. But I just always respected the guys that not only could do the technical part, but understood how to express it in a form that a consumer could relate to.

GS: You don't feel constrained by working on such a small device?

TH: Well, you know it's back to the future, right? We just published this game...in fact, it will probably be out today, from Cingular. It's called NCAA Hoops. And it looks a lot like Doctor J and Larry Bird Go One on One, except it's better--and it fits in the palm of your hand. There's [some] really amazing features about it. But fundamentally, in terms of the gameplay engine, it's a lot like the 8-bit home computer.

GS: What's the best mobile game you didn't make?

TH: I think the one that's really not worthy so far is Jamdat Bowling. They did the same thing I'm talking about, in that on a platform where a lot of people were making a lot of mediocre games, they made a good-looking game that was easy to learn and easy to play. It's a lot of fun. Somewhat more casual in nature. I definitely think the mobile market in the long run is more of a casual social form of gaming. And so from that standpoint, Jamdat Bowling is the first legitimate killer app for mobile.

GS: Are there lessons from your years at Apple and EA, and even 3DO, that you put to use today?

TH: Oh, tons of them. Tons. One thing about me that I think has always helped me rebound from mistakes and do something good, is that I'm a very introspective guy and I'm very analytical. If I screw up, I don't slit my wrists. I go to work and I study what happened and I try to figure out what there is to learn from it. And what a lot of people don't know about me is that my first game company was a board game company I started when I was a teenager. And, of course it ran out of money within a year. So, I had already gone broke when I was a teenager!

GS: But you're not a teenager anymore, so the question would be: Does the possibility of making mistakes or screwing up today frighten you?

TH: Yeah, well, it does. This is what's funny about growing up. When you're young, you're fearless because you don't know any better. Then you're older and you've got maturity and wisdom on your side, but you know exactly how terrifying everything is.

GS: How does that change your perspective?

TH: Well, it creates a balance, because I have the same amount of passion and drive that I've always had. It's a lot of fun to have the opportunity to create in these media and to work with talented people. There's a lot of excitement and fun about it. And again, I think those things kind of balance out. When you're young, you can work 90 to 100 hours a week and you can be totally driven and run full speed ahead. You're able to make up for your mistakes because you're working so hard and you're moving so quickly. And then you can also accomplish things because you're fearless.

So I think now, actually, particularly in this economy, I actually think I'm better off knowing all the things that can go wrong. There's more pressure the way the world is today--you know, you want to be practical, and you want to be careful, and not try to go too fast. And at the same time you've got to be able to keep it in perspective.

If you've already experienced all the things that can go wrong, then you can't let that knowledge make you blink.

GS: Do you still play any of Miyamoto's games?

TH: Oh, sure, I've got kids that are always...there's always a machine on at my house.

GS: The lessons from Miyamoto are what?

TH: The one thing that really stands out is that he does a really good job of remembering what he felt as a child, and imagining how to take those feelings and those fantasies and embody them in his work. That's something I can personally relate to because I definitely think you never want to lose touch with your child.

For example, I like to play board games. I don't know if you've ever heard of this company, it's called Days of Wonder, the board game company. I love their product line. I play those products with my kids all the time. And I love their philosophy. It's very consistent with how I've always thought. I have a sense of wonder about this stuff. Guys like Miyamoto…it's the same thing. And it is magic to us, and we are trying to stay in touch with that inner child. And when we share it with other people, that's how we sincerely feel about it. Some things work better than others, and some things people embrace, and some things they don't. But I think he probably feels that way about all the work that he's ever done, and I feel that way about all the work I've ever done.

GS: OK, thanks so much, Trip.

TH: My pleasure.

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