Review: EA: Celebrating 25 Years of Interactive Entertainment

Like it or loathe it, Electronic Arts is one of the giants of the video gaming industry. For their 25th anniversary in 2008, they commissioned a book on the history and progression of the company to celebrate the occasion. Joe Funk, co-founder of Official PlayStation Magazine and Videogames.com (now part of GameSpot), and his company Mojo Media were commissioned to handle the project and EA: Celebrating 25 Years of Interactive Entertainment (ISBN: 978-0761558392) is the fruit of their labour.

Presented as a full colour coffee table-style book, EA: Celebrating 25 Years of Interactive Entertainment charts the history of the company in five stages, from its foundation by a young, fresh-out-of-Apple Trip Hawkins, through its rise to a major force in the 16-bit era, and right through to the era where the company held the position as the number one third party publisher. These segments are split up with pieces detailing EA’s relationships with the movie and music industries and their forays into casual game development. A DVD accompanying the book provides some supplmentary information including video interviews with key EA personnel, visits to the EA studios and some making-of featurettes.

The book makes an immediate impression with its lush presentation – a minimalist hard cover, pages of (generally) high quality rich with images of EA bigwigs, box arts, magazine advertisements, screenshots from key games and more. The layout of the book is expertly executed. Each major section of the book is flows well, covering the major factors that transformed the small-time “Amazin’ Studios” – Hawkins’ dream to have game designers treated like recording artists – through to the multi-national behemoth that is Electronic Arts. An air of authenticity is added through interviews with Trip Hawkins, Bing Gordon, Larry Probst, John Riccitiello, Don Mattrick and other people who shaped the company. Along the way, you’ll be treated to information behind key EA products like John Madden Football, M.U.L.E., The Sims and more.

High quality production values can only take a publication so far – the success of a reference book depends entirely on the quality of its information. If one were to approach the book expecting an unbiased, error free account of the history of Electronic Arts, one would be sorely disappointed. The book is written like a propoganda piece, painting Electronic Arts as the bringer of all things great in interactive entertainment, ignoring the scandals that have rocked the company, software development disasters (like the 32-bit version of Madden NFL 96) or its poor post-acquisition handling of once successful studios like Origin and Bullfrog. Readers are only getting half of the story, and will have to look elsewhere to discover the real history of the company. The book feels light on detail – it provides the briefest details of what happened, but rarely why it happened or what effect it had. Later sections of the book are not as well-written and could be summarised as “EA released this game, then they released this game, and this game [ad infinitum].”

Perhaps more damning is the ludicrous number of factual errors present in the book. One would expect that, given the author considers himself an authority on video games, said author could have done some basic fact checking. One rather amusing example features in the The “Years XVI-XX” section, where the author claims that Electronic Arts developed and published Max Payne (which was actually developed by Remedy and published by Rockstar Games).

There are numerous errors with regard to year of release and the formats certain games were released on. Anything that Electronic Arts did outside of North America gets glossed over or reported incorrectly – the author claims that AFL ’99 prompted the company to do research for a later Rugby title, in spite of the fact that EA Sports published Rugby World Cup 95 long before it started developing AFL games. Other statements made in the book range from common mistakes such as the claim that Ultima Online created the MMO genre (Meridian 59 was the first Internet based MMO, but MUDs and closed network games like Neverwinter Nights were around before that), to outright delusions like the claim that Ultima IX “would be noted for its appealing visuals and great storyline, and provided a fitting closure to the series.” Quality of images used in the book is not entirely consistent either – some box art scans are notably low res, or bear watermarks from online websites(!).

EA: Celebrating 25 Years of Interactive Entertainment is an aesthetically pleasing propoganda piece; it verges on masturbatory when it comes to anything the company did well, but completely eliminates any contentious issues or unpleasantries from the company’s history. The book’s frankly-astonishing number of factual mistakes and omissions and the overall lack of detail is more than enough to consider it to be useless as a reference.