Since 1961, Strat-O-Matic Baseball, a tabletop role-playing game, has been a staple of the strategy game world. For Trip Hawkins, it inspired the first step in his long career. In it, he found a love of real-life simulation and playing the hero. He could crunch numbers and play out scenarios that, to him, felt based in reality.
Now in his sixties, Hawkins is best known for founding Electronic Arts, helping reverse engineer the Sega Genesis, co-designing John Madden Football and helping create the 3DO. But he became a staple in the game industry after creating his own games with action figures, discovering a love for sports and simulation, self-publishing his first financial failure and carving his way through his own collegiate career.
We caught up with Hawkins earlier this year to talk about how he got started in games, what he learned from failure and why he's still playing Strat-O-Matic all these years later.
Hawkins grew up in the time many consider the golden age of television, not that that interested him much. From an early age, he says, he was attracted to playing board games and imaginary games with his brother instead.
"[When] I was playing a game, I was in a dynamic situation where I had to make choices and the outcome depended on those choices and it was interacting with the strategy of the other players," Hawkins says. "That was all quite fascinating to me, and I just realized I was more awake, my mind was buzzing and ... it was getting me to think more — and that was a real turn on."
Calling himself artistic from an early age, Hawkins says he was heavily into role playing, and it wasn't long before he and his brother began creating their own games around the age of five. One of the first was a semi-complex game involving his action figures called "The Birdmen." In it, they would combine toys from three or four different genres, crafting a story about English soldiers holding out against the Roman Empire. They wrote episodes for the game and made their own accessories for the characters.
"We didn't accept the standard toys to be used in the standard fashion; we invented new ways to use them. And there [were] game design principles involved in that," he says.
It was around the age of 10 that Hawkins discovered two new passions: football and baseball. As someone enjoying creating parameters for stories and narratives, Hawkins says he appreciated that there were "resources to be managed and there were strategic frameworks and interesting decisions and opportunities for leadership and heroism" in each.
"I'm very much a strategic thinker. And I'm very much drawn to being a hero in a narrative. So by the time I'm 12 [or] 13, I'm already thinking consciously about that kind of fantasy and thinking about it from a game design standpoint," he says.
Throwing around a football or baseball with friends, pretending to be their heroes, proved insufficient for Hawkins, who craved strategy and, as he learned, realistic simulation. "It was like, 'No, no, no. I want to play a strategy game with dice and cards and charts where I really do get to be the hero, and I get to hit the homerun or catch the touchdown pass,'" he says. "'But I want it to be authentic. I want it to be a legitimate solution. I don't want it to just be [flipping] the coin or spinning a dial.'"
That game, though, proved hard to find. Hawkins says he tried numerous times to find a sports simulation game that scratched his itch, but came up short every time. That is, until he discovered Strat-O-Matic Baseball in 1967.
Strat-O-Matic is an annual tabletop — and now online — simulation game created by Hal Richman. In it, an athlete is represented by one game card, each printed with ratings and result tables for die roll amounts. A player will make strategic and personal decisions for their players and a roll of die determines how a batter or pitcher will perform. Compared to similar games, Strat-O-Matic has a much more thorough and detailed design. It also includes features such as bunting, stealing bases and fairly distributed outcomes across the pitchers, fielders and hitters. The game's been noted as an influence for major league baseball players, announcers and game designers since its first publication in 1961.
For Hawkins, someone obsessed with creating realistic scenarios and strategies, Strat-O-Matic was the cream of the crop. He was obsessed.
"It was pretty much a work of genius, frankly. I have so much respect for this game that I still play it," Hawkins says. "And I have now been pretty much continuously playing this game every year of my life for 50 years."
Yet despite loving Strat-O-Matic Baseball, Hawkins himself was a bigger fan of football at the time. So, naturally when he found out the company also had a simulation football game, he had to play it, but was disappointed with what he found. "[Because] I knew a lot about football, I didn't like it. Because I realized, 'Wow. This thing is not really a simulation of football. It's an abstraction where the game designer made a bunch of decisions that in fact are not authentic to real football,'" Hawkins says. "I played the football game and basically pretty quickly realized, 'Heck, I can make a better football game than this.'
"That's when my career really started."
Hawkins began deeply studying the Strat-O-Matic games, pouring over player cards, learning about probability and statistics. Over the next couple years, he says, he began designing his own game, building a prototype on index cards and playing it with his friends. When he felt he had something worth shipping, he borrowed $5,000 from his father for funding, assembled his game in his family's living room and shipped out the final product.
This was Accu-Stat Football, similar in vein to Strat-O-Matic, and it was Hawkins' first commercial release. It was a career choice that didn't exactly thrill his family. "One day while [I was] assembling the Acc-Stat games in the family room, [my mother was] sitting on the sofa, and she [looked] at me and she sighed and then she said, 'I had always hoped you would do something more socially redeeming,'" he says.
Accu-Stat was a financial failure. That's not to say, though, it didn't give Hawkins invaluable experience. "[When the game failed] there were two things that I realized: one was I loved being an entrepreneur and doing my own thing; believing in, and betting on, my own ideas," he says. "I realized I enjoyed the innovation as well as the independance of being an entrepreneur. And it was completely miserable feeling like a failure and feeling like my great idea, my creative thing, had failed and been rejected. And I realized, 'OK. Before I do it again, I'm going to learn a lot more about how to do it correctly.'"
It was around this time that Hawkins started to notice a shift in technology. Mainly, the rise of computers. As he tells it, he felt that the people who thought games like Accu-Stat or Strat-O-Matic — which required their players to do their own number crunching — were "super geeky," and players would be far more apt to play if a machine did it for them. If anything, a personal computer might combine two worlds, that of games and that of television. This realization, he says, basically forth set the path for what he wanted to do with his career: make computer games.
But Hawkins had one obstacle standing in the way of realizing this dream. While the college he was attending, Harvard University, had various computer courses offered as electives, it didn't have a computer science department at the time. Hawkins was forced to choose between what he felt were the two closest replacements: applied math and economics. A choice he wasn't thrilled about.
Wanting to get into making computer games, this seemed like the end of the road, he says, until he heard of something called a "special concentration." Harvard, like many colleges, allows for students to create individualized majors. This piqued Hawkins' interest. If Harvard wouldn't offer a major in the field he wanted, he would create his own. But that decision came with jumping through more than a few hoops.
"Here's what they basically said," Hawkins recounts. "'Alright. You don't like our 40 departments? Fine. If you're willing to do twice as much work, if you're willing to jump through a ton of hoops, if you're willing to attempt to see if you can recruit graduate students and faculty members who are going to get no credit and no funding to help you and get them to volunteer their time to be your tutors and mentors and thesis readers and advisers — and you can also get a letter from the department that you're going to settle for if we say no and that letter from that department head says they don't want you in their department and [don't] think you fit in their department — yeah, then we'll consider letting you have your special thing. Go for it.'"
He went for it.
Hawkins graduated Harvard in 1976 Magna Cum Laude with a degree in strategy and applied game theory. He calls it the the world's very first degree in games. Which is kind of a misnomer, because by no means was he in class working on games.
Game theory has little do with games as most think of them. It's a mathematical study of the conflicts and cooperations that come up between decision makers. It has applications in biology, economics and psychology, as well as, more in-tune with Hawkins' interests, computer science.
"Basically there were enough computer courses that I was always taking one, and I was kind of blending the types of courses I thought [would be beneficial]," he says. "I took a course in ethics. I took a course in statistics. I took a course in sociology. I was basically saying, 'Yeah. There's a bunch of stuff I want to learn about that's going to help me make the kind of simulations that I want to make.'"
During his time studying, Hawkins often worked on creating simulation programs predicting certain outcomes involving, for example, World War III scenarios or nuclear arms control. His studies proved to be successful. "I won a couple of grant awards for those. I was actually mentioned by Herb York at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute that year," he says.
All of this work was to familiarize Hawkins with computers, to prepare him for the company he planned on founding. Even though Harvard wouldn't allow him to create games in an academic sense, he was able to become aware of how computers worked, drafting in his head how he could turn this into a business, how he could get it all back to games, to what he really wanted to do: make sports games.
And that's what he did.
Hawkins founded Electronic Arts in 1982. In 1988, he helped design the very first John Madden Football game, the first in the long-running series still being published today. In a way, it's as if his life came full circle, starting with Strat-O-Matic and ending with Madden.
Despite trials and tribulations, Hawkins was able to found the company he dreamed of and make the game he was passionate about. He kept looking to the future, and ended up becoming a pioneer in a media he was once scoffed at for believing in.
"I think in the end I proved to my mother it was socially redeeming," he says.