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The Electronic Slam Dunk

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Beginning this fall, Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics is going to meet Julius Erving of the Philadelphia 76ers in a nonstop game of one-on-one. Not on a basketball court, mind you, but on a computer screen. Electronic Arts of San Mateo, Calif., is coming out with a new video game for home computers matching up the two superstars -- and we don't mean George Plimpton's version of electronic roundball, either. This is going to be the Bird and Dr. J with all their real-life, fiddle-and-diddle, fake-and-shake, in-your-face moves. In fact, Electronic Arts has consulted with both players, just to make sure it gets their moves as accurately as today's technology will allow.

"Julius is really fascinated by computers," says the company's 29-year-old co-founder and president, William M. "Trip" Hawkins -- a basketball buff who got the idea after spending "a lot of Sundays just waiting to see Dr. J make a neat move." Now Erving is reviewing the program for the video game. "I would have expected them to say, 'Gimme the money and leave me alone,' but . . . Erving's concern was to make sure the way he moves on the screen -- and the way we tell him how to move -- is not only faithful to the way he moves, but in fact is faithful to the way he thinks he moves."

The Bird-Erving match-up is an exam ple of a new type of computer game being developed by Electronic Arts and other innovative game-and-educational-software companies. Together, they are at the frontier of player-computer interchange -- a fanciful, lavish, highly graphic, user-involving, no-alien-zapping edge promises to carve ever larger slices from the multibillion-dollar home computer and arcade markets. In the process, they are also likely to alter traditional game-playing and learning concepts dramatically, in ways that are just now looming on the horizon.

As you might expect, most of these companies are still quite young. Electronic Arts, for example, was started in December 1982, with a liberal sprinkling of venture capital -- $2 million -- put up by Capital Management Services Inc., Sevin Rosen Management Co., and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. "And we had lots of investors that would love to have given us more," says Hawkins. By May 1983, Electronic Arts still had no product and, of course, no positive cash flow, but nobody seemed worried. Software is a hot industry. Long gone are the days when a company like Apple Computer Inc. could get venture capital only after showing a profit (and, even then, received a first round of a mere $250,000).

Hawkins himself happens to be an Apple alumnus, having spent four years there working on the development and marketing of the Lisa computer. And he has good corapany on what must be one of the country's most formidable game-company boards: Richard W. Melmon, co-founder and executive vice-president, who was formerly VisiCorp's director of marketing; Steve Wozniak, the company's technical adviser, renowned computer freak, co-founder of Apple Computer and inventor of the Apple II: and Don Valentine the tough, well-connected Wall Street-wise general partner of Capital Management Services, and an early investor in Apple Computer.

Indeed, Electronic Arts is slow out of the gate not because it is ill-prepared for the current market, but because it is waiting for execution to catch up with inspiration. "We're not going to become a $100 million company overnight, like Activision," says Hawkins. But he predicts that, within two years, powerful and fast 16-bit hardware selling for less than $1,000 will reach the home market, where it will unleash a revolution. In 10 or 20 more years, computers will be so human-interactive, says Hawkins, "that you'll be able to have an experience with them that feels as vivid as your dreams."

To achieve what essentially will be a new and dynamic art medium, Electronic Arts acts as a kind of production company with teams of draftspeople, writers, and musicians, who are signed up in much the same way as a record or movie company signs up talent. (The company already has cartoonist Gahan Wilson under contract.) "That's the founding phiosophy of our business," Hawkins explains. "Most other companies in this business have employees. We put these guys on a pedestal and ask, 'What can we do to support you?' There hasn't been this kind of collaboration before."

Hawkins sees games of the future being created by artists rather than engineers. They will not have scores or winners, he says; rather, they will simply be an engaging interaction with a computerized environment.

Indeed, there are already new-age games around that involve a player's imagination far more than the mindless thrashing of, say, Space Invaders. Bill Budge -- a well-known game inventor under contract with Electronic Arts -- has created a self-constructing pinball game in which the computer operator can place electronic accoutrements anywhere in the playing field. Thumper-bumpers, flippers, even the effect of gravity can be changed by design. "It's incredibly dynamic," says Hawkins, with the excitement of a 10-year-old. "The environment is governed by a set of laws. There's a lot of physics going on. You could take the same paradigm and teach planetary motion. Or music. Or damn near anything."

The day of "damn near anything" has not yet arrived, but it may not be all that far off. "There'll come a time," says Hawkins, "when we'll be willing to invest in a piece of software the kind of money that now goes into making a movie."

Last updated: Jul 1, 1983




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