Electronic Arts UK : 1992 - 1993

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
John Betjeman, 1937

After the closure of Eldritch The Cat and after surviving the development of Under Pressure, I interviewed at Electronic Arts UK in Langley (near Slough), where I ultimately started in January 1992 as "Senior Programmer,” reporting to Director of Development Joss Ellis.

I was to be responsible for all internal software development; the appropriate title would follow, but for now, EA had a vacancy for a senior programmer, so a senior programmer I was.

The internal development team was small, just myself, Stefan Walker (we meet again!), who was working on LHX Amiga, and Gary Roberts, who was working on the Amiga Port of John Madden Football. 

Since I was a senior programmer, I had to do some senior-programmering, and it was determined that the bestest senior-programmering I could do would be a Sega Genesis port of the Amiga game, "Risky Woods." I was offered the opportunity to work on the FLOPS game, but I could not find the motivation to pick that up again, so I declined the offer. At this stage, I wanted to leave Eldritch behind me.

So, I was to undertake the Risky Woods port to the Genesis and oversee the development of LHX Amiga and John Madden Football Amiga.

John Madden Football Amiga

When I started at EA, work on John Madden for the Amiga was well underway in Gary Roberts' capable hands. This was Gary’s first job in games; I think he had worked professionally on business software prior to EA, but he had done a great job porting the code from the Sega Genesis. My primary role was support and logistics, coordinating the final development effort leading up to the quality sign-off and mastering. 

I came into the process too late to receive a game credit for Madden, which shipped in the first part of 1992. Critical feedback was positive, and while I am far from a fan of American Football (‘Football’), it was clear that the Amiga port was a polished game and, overall, a job well done. This was certainly sufficient to justify the next Sega Genesis to Amiga port we'd tackle at EAUK: Desert Strike.

Desert Strike Amiga

Desert Strike on the Amiga

This was again a port from the Sega Genesis original and tackled primarily by Gary. Unlike the Madden port, this time, I had more input on the game's development, though I was pretty hands-off with the code, ending up with a producer credit with Matt Webster as assistant producer. During the development of DS, I was also tackling the port of Risky Woods in the inverse direction (Amiga to Sega Genesis), but this was really the start of my shift into more technical and team management roles. That was to continue in the years after EA, but I didn't know that yet.

Gary was very independent and wanted to own all programming on Desert Strike, which, to his credit, he mostly did. Toward the end of development, it was acknowledged that more help was needed to reach the finish line in an acceptable timeframe, and with that goal in mind, the team greatly benefited from the addition of Big Dave Colclough, with whom I had previously worked at Denton Designs and Eldritch. Dave joined the team, along with pixel artists Damon Redmond and Jon Law, and the team wrapped up development around March or April 1993. The Amiga artwork was high quality, easily matching or surpassing the Sega Genesis original.

While I wrote very little code for Desert Strike (I think I may have contributed a data compression/decompression tool and library - one of the only things to make it out alive from Eldritch), I did provide guidance early on about how to handle horizontal hardware scrolling on the Amiga by stepping through a linear buffer, where you'd only need a single scanline of buffer space to accomplish a full-screen width of pixel scrolling, in conjunction with the hardware scroll feature. Gary extended this thinking to add a vertical scroll, which was the basis of the scrolling approach on the Amiga version.

Max Count appears as a co-pilot option

One memory that sticks in my mind was when we realized we should test the game on higher-end Amiga machines with 680X0 CPUs, which were, for some reason (EA did not see an Amiga future), distinctly lacking at EA at the time. I picked up the phone and randomly called a computer store on Tottenham Court Road and asked if I could borrow an A3000 because, y'know, we're EA and don't have one of those. To my surprise and delight, they said, "Sure," and so Gary and I set out for London the next day in his speedy Vauxhall Cavalier, returning with the borrowed A3000; IIRC, the game ran fine on the A3000. Thanks, Tottenham Court Road computer store! Sadly, I don't recall the name of the store.

McDonnell Douglas

As development of Desert Strike progressed, we had discussions about adding some special touches to the Amiga version. We prototyped a 3D rendered ‘intro’ movie for the game, but it never reached the quality bar we were aiming for, so we scrapped that idea. Then somebody suggested, jokingly at first, that we should call up the McDonnell Douglas Corp and ask them for promotional material for their AH64 Apache helicopter on which Desert Strike is based. After more discussion, we came to the conclusion that there was nothing to lose by calling them, which is how I came to be on the phone with McDonnell Douglas after looking up a phone number (we may have had help from an accomplice at EAHQ for that). Somewhat inspired by the approach I had seen Paul McKenna at Odin use when calling intimidating American corporations — just knock on the front door and be polite — the phone call went something like this:

MD: “Hello, McDonnell Douglas Corporation; how may I direct your call?”

Steve: “Hello. I work at Electronic Arts in the UK, and we are making a video game called Desert Strike, featuring an attack helicopter modeled on the Apache AH64. I was wondering if I could speak to someone who could provide reference materials we could use to add some audiovisual assets to our game.”

MD: “Certainly, I’ll put you through to our public relations department. Please hold.”

After reaching a person in the PR department and repeating my request, the phone call continued after a little small talk:

MD: “OK, I got it. Great. Why don't you give me your shipping address? I’ll see what we can do.”

Since this was such a long shot, I was happy that I had been able to reach McDonnell Douglas and talk to someone. “I gave it my best shot,” I thought to myself, but I didn't get my hopes up that they would be able to send us anything. 

Theatrical Deaths

As Desert Strike was about to clear its final hurdle before launch, sitting in Quality Control (QC)—essentially the last checkpoint before EA gave the green light to production and marketing—everyone thought it was a done deal. And then, out of nowhere, a cheat code for ‘friendly fire’ was ‘uncovered.’ In addition, a second cheat code for ‘theatrical deaths’ was discovered, adding unnecessary flair to character demises.

Given the sensitivity around friendly fire incidents during the Gulf War, studio leadership had been clear: strip the game of this feature, an option in the Sega Genesis version for added difficulty. It turns out that Gary had just hidden the options behind cheat codes instead of deleting them.

The timing couldn't have been worse. Recent friendly fire incidents in the Gulf were making headlines, and we didn't want our game to draw parallels to real-world tragedies.

The discovery of this cheat mode by QC, in turn, led to one of the worst bollockings I've experienced in my career, a super shouty, red-faced bollocking at the hands of a certain Director of Marketing. "We'll miss our street date," we were told. "This is a catastrophe," we were told. The TLDR is that we quickly fixed the issue (by removing the cheat), QC signed off in record time, and we made all our dates. But I am so glad I received the bollocking; it definitely helped me see the light.

A Care Package

I was surprised one day when a brown cardboard box arrived at the EA office, addressed to me. There was US postage on the box; what was this? Was it from someone in the San Mateo office? Curious, I sat down and opened up the package.

To my great surprise, the McDonnell Douglas company had sent me a care package. It was weeks since I'd talked to them, and I'd almost forgotten the conversation, caught up in all the business of daily work. The package contained an array of items, including large-format glossy photographs of Apache AH64 choppers, various promotional materials, and some videos. Oh boy, those videos! In this age of YouTube, we're accustomed to seeing all manner of weird and wonderful videos, but back in the early 90s, we were not exposed to such things as military manufacturer promotional material for their weapons. And so these videos were long-form (15-30 minutes) promotional videos, aimed, one can only assume, at an audience of people who might be interested in purchasing such things for their, what? Armies? Imagine a TV commercial, with voiceover-guy-voiceover, extolling the virtues of the AH64 Apache Helicopter, all while showing scenes of destruction, with gaggles of Apaches appearing over horizons and taking out lines of tanks. That kind of stuff. It was awesome, and at the same time, it gave me pause for thought. Who were these commercials aimed at? Who, exactly, would be gathered around TV screens in dark rooms viewing these ads for attack helicopters? Visions of third-world despots with disposable $$$ came to mind. Ironic considering the subject matter of Desert Strike.

In any case, the material was awesome, and we used sound from the videos in our front-end intro presentation, along with stills from various photos that were provided.

Desert Strike Reception

Desert Strike for the Amiga was very well received, scoring an average magazine rating of 90%, according to Lemon Amiga. Sales were strong, too, topping 100K units on the Amiga. A resounding success by any measure!

Risky Woods

Risky Woods on the Sega Genesis

In January 1992, I began work on porting Risky Woods (”Dodgy Woods,” as certain folks at EA called it, a reference to the unusual use of the word “risky” in the title rather than any reflection on the game) from the Amiga to the Sega Genesis (or MegaDrive as it was known in the UK). EA decided to adapt Risky Woods for the Genesis because the Amiga version, developed by Dinamic Software, was well-received for its gameplay and somewhat Shadow of the Beast-esque graphics. 

With myself on coding and producer duties, Jimmy Savage (ex-Eldritch) on art, and Jason Whitely on music and sound effects, I figured out the Amiga version's scrolling and graphics code (it was quite a copper list!) while familiarizing myself with the Sega Genesis's hardware capabilities.

A significant challenge was the language barrier, but not in the way you might think. The code for the Amiga was in 68K assembler; that part was easy. However, the original source code (variables, function names, comments) was in Spanish, which I didn't speak. I purchased a Spanish-English dictionary to help translate the code and comments.

On the technical front, the limited video memory of the Genesis required developing a dynamic sprite system to manage sprites efficiently, ensuring smooth gameplay without sacrificing visual quality. I pressed into use the dynamic memory manager I’d written while at Eldritch to manage dynamic VRAM allocation for sprites. Dave Colclough, who was still working at System 3 on Myth at this time, was able to provide me a copy of that code. 

I mentioned the 'copper list' above; in fact, the parallax background scrolling layer was accomplished on the Amiga version by using a copper list to repeatedly slam the Amiga hardware sprite registers, reusing the sprites across the entire screen to fill in the background layer. Pretty cool!

As work continued, I successfully lobbied for the purchase of a SNASM dev kit, the 68K cross-assembler from Cross Products. EA had its infamous 'Artist Workstation' development kits, which were the preferred internal platform at EA for Genesis work. Asking for SNASM was a little controversial; however, the EA Artist workstation development environments were Mac-based, and at the time, I much preferred the PC platform. Pretty soon, I was happily pumping out 68K assembler code for the Genesis in the much more familiar SNASM dev environment.

Because of EA's "no ports" policy, we were required to introduce changes to Risky Woods. We introduced new outfits and armor (a la Ghosts & Goblins) for the main character. We added a "Simon" puzzle mechanic for variety, where players had to repeat an increasingly long sequence of notes in order to pass guardians in the levels. EA Producer Kevin Shrapnell suggested this should be Gregorian chanting, but I couldn't pull that off on the Genesis. 

The porting process continued through the summer of 1992, during which time I became very familiar with the Genesis hardware—knowledge that would prove helpful when I later moved to Westwood Studios. Risky Woods shipped at the end of 1992 to little fanfare, but it was a competent effort and, I think, generally well-regarded.

Most Inspirational

I have not received many awards in my career; rightfully, other people have deserved the limelight on the more significant projects I have worked on. But I did win an award at EA: At the EA Christmas party in 1992 (held at Pinewood Studios) I was presented with the ‘most inspirational’ award in recognition of shipping John Madden Football, Risky Woods, and (almost) Desert Strike, all within the year. I didn't expect it and didn't know what to say when I was summoned up on stage, wearing my (ill-fitting, “you’ll grow into it, lad,” according to one EA wag) tux, to accept the award at the party. It was cool, though, and very nice to be recognized. I still have the trophy somewhere; perhaps I'll dig through some boxes and find it.

LHX Amiga

What of LHX Amiga? Well, it had troubled development. Although we had some basic things running, it proved to be hard going, and progress was slow. Ultimately, it was decided to discontinue development, which led to Stef leaving the company. 

The Hoover Free Flights

Back in 1992, there was a bit of a kerfuffle when the UK division of Hoover, the manufacturer of, well, hoovers (and various other appliances), got themselves into hot water (ha!) by running an ill-considered marketing promotion: Purchasers of certain Hoover products qualified for free flight tickets to various holiday destinations—yours for providing proof of purchase and an application form. It went terribly wrong for Hoover because the take-up of the promotion was huge, and the qualifying purchase price was, not huge. Put it this way: my Mom had gifted Elsbeth & me a little countertop dishwasher, a fantastic addition to our little flat in Cippenham. The dishwasher, we realized, was also a qualifying purchase for a pair of free flights! However, the Hoover debacle was all over the news, and it really did seem like Hoover was putting the kibosh on the whole thing. Undeterred, we sent in our application & proof of purchase, figuring we had nothing to lose but probably wouldn’t hear anything back.

To make a long story short, after jumping through the various hoops Hoover put in place, we finally received two plane tickets to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. A condition of the ticket award was that we bought accommodation through Hoover’s travel partner, which we did. Ultimately, Elsbeth and I had a fantastic couple of weeks in the sun at Playa de Las Americas in Tenerife—thanks, Hoover! 

Sadly, this scandal spelled the end for Hoover's UK division, which lost millions of dollars (or, worse, pounds) before being sold in a fire sale to Candy, an Italy-based appliance manufacturer.

90 Heron Drive

About midway through my tenure at Electronic Arts, we moved from the building on Station Road in Langley around the corner to a pair of brand-new buildings at 90 Heron Drive. EA set up one building as a warehouse for distribution, and the other was the main building where everyone else was based. 

The main building was on two levels, with the main entrance and reception on the lower floor. The DTP (Desktop Publishing) department, where all our printed materials, manuals, boxes, etc., were designed, was just past reception. The DTP department was Mac-based and well-kitted out with numerous high-end Mac Quadras. One evening, after dark, graphic designer Chris Morgan was working late on a DTP project when he heard a scuffle in the reception area. The next thing Chris knew, several masked men burst into his area of the building, made a beeline for the DTP department, and told him, "Get on the floor and be quiet, and you won't get hurt!" Before long, the intruders had removed all the Mac Quadras, probably ten or more, and made their getaway. Thankfully, nobody was hurt.

We were collectively stunned that something like this could happen. Subsequently, EA beefed up security big time. We installed a new alarm system connected directly to the police. All windows were alarmed, and the alarm had flashing blue lights installed around the building. On top of all this, a security firm was engaged, and a security guard was installed at reception each evening and at weekends. 

Dear reader, I've probably telegraphed what happened next; yes, you guessed it, we were raided again! Within weeks of the first incident, the criminals were back. The security guard? He was locked in the reception bathroom and told to stay put if he didn't want to be hurt. The alarm system? This time, the thieves came in through a back window - by removing the window entirely! The alarm was triggered, but according to later reports, the intruders had cut the line to the police. That act in itself would have triggered a police notification. Still, the intruders were apparently aware of the time remaining. They reportedly had someone shouting a countdown of the remaining time while they shuttled the brand-new Mac Quadras out of the window at the rear of the building into an awaiting getaway vehicle: The criminals stole all the DTP high-end Macintosh systems for the second time.

After this, EA beefed up the security again, and to my knowledge, that was the last time we were raided. Incidents like that make you question everything, though, and the events shook all of us. Where were those friendly bombs when we needed them?

Aspect Warrior (or Desert Strike with a Space Marine)

OK, enough about criminals and vacuum cleaner companies. Let's discuss some of the other games I worked on at EA, starting with something called Aspect Warrior. Unfortunately, I think I allowed myself to be led astray on this one, but I wasn't the only one. EA had just shipped Space Hulk, a licensed game in the Warhammer 40K universe. The initial idea for Aspect Warrior was basically something like 'Desert Strike with a Warhammer 40K Space Marine/mech. I think from that description alone, it is easy to imagine the game. And I think that is what the EA marketing and sales teams were imagining, too, leading to the initial greenlight for development. Unfortunately, that's not what we did.

The game was to be developed internally within my group, John Law was assigned as lead artist, and Jules Burt and Dave Colcough were to work on the code. Andrew Corcoran was to be the product manager, and Kevin Shrapnell was assigned to the producer role (he had just completed the production of Space Hulk).

Based on discussions with the Warhammer team and feedback from our internal group, we decided to shift our focus from mechs to the Eldar and Aspect Warriors. This decision was influenced by the market's saturation with Space Marine games, either in development at EA or by other companies. The Warhammer team, particularly during our meeting at their Nottingham headquarters, encouraged this pivot toward the Eldar.

When we switched to, basically, space elves, we lost our mojo and never really got it back. The team built a playable demo on the Genesis, but the skinny little Aspect Warrior sprite was not visually appealing, and the whole game just did not sit right. I don't remember exactly when and how the game was canceled; perhaps it survived to the end of my tenure at EA and was canceled later. In any case, it did not ship and was never completed.


It is probably a little-known fact that EA's juggernaut FIFA franchise started as a development at EAUK! Artist Jon Law and programmer Jules Burt ran a development shop in Warrington and were contracted by EA to create the original prototype soccer game for the FIFA concept. From what I remember, the prototype featured a side view of a soccer field with a parallax scroll. Ultimately EA hit reset on FIFA and moved development to a large team in the EA Canada studio in Burnaby near Vancouver. EAUK producer Kevin Buckner would end up relocating to Burnaby for 6 months to oversee the effort. Jon and Jules subsequently joined my team at EA, where they would contribute to various projects developed in the studio, including Desert Strike and Aspect Warrior.

Of Wolf and Man

Gant's Tower annexing Canary Wharf - concept by Doug Telford

Drawing inspiration from, among other things, the movie American Werewolf in London and the Metallica song Of Wolf and Man, my team spent a significant amount of time on this original 3DO title about werewolves. By this time, the team had expanded, with Ian Leslie on primary coding duties, Doug Telford on concept art, Jason Lord on video editing and composition, Jacqui Odell on 3D art, and Rupert Easterbrook providing production assistance. Later, Gary Roberts joined the team to prototype the dialog system used to interact with characters in the game. 

Kevin Shrapnell owned production responsibilities, and I owned 'software management,' which, from memory, overlapped with production quite a bit. 

The game was fashioned as an 'interactive movie,' a 'product genre that crosses the boundaries of game formats and TV/film storytelling media' (the GDD stated). In the game, you play as the protagonist, James Stark, 'an independent and free-thinking person living in the simulated world of the 3DO.' One part of the game was to be adventure-style, with careful mapping to the console controller as the replacement for the mouse as you control James around various locations. A second mode in the game was ‘raving mode,’ which was imagined as a dream state in which the game’s protagonist experienced nightmare episodes as if he were a wolf, hurtling around and causing maximum carnage to people & places he encountered. Raving mode was first-person 3D, and the plan was to implement that as streaming video, sort of a cross between 7th Guest and Dragons Lair. The ‘point-and-click’ sections were to be pre-rendered scenes using 3D Studio, combined with real-time 3D rendered textures characters.

We spent a good deal of time designing the dialog system where the player navigated dialog trees with simplified controller input (negative/no vs positive/yes options), and this worked well in the prototype created by Gary Roberts.

The game's setting was around the Canary Wharf and Isle of Dogs (ha!) area of London. We did location scouting in the region, including the Greenwich Tunnel under the Thames. Canary Wharf was in the news at the time as the largest building in London; of course, in our game, we outdid this with the addition of Gant Tower, a vast building adjacent to, annexing, and dwarfing Canary Wharf, belonging to Hank Gant, the game’s main antagonist.

Electronic Arts had a large number (20-30) of 3DO titles in development, but upon the launch of this new console, the high price point and lack of launch titles led to poor hardware and software sales. Because of this, Electronic Arts scaled back on 3DO development, and unfortunately, our title was on the chopping block.

There may have been discussion about pivoting to PC, but the future of Of Wolf and Man was very uncertain.

EA Sports Double Header

EA Sports Double Header selection screen

Paul Jackson, EAUK Director of Sales, had exciting news! In a chat with Sega Europe higher-ups at an industry event, Paul had swung a deal to supply a cartridge containing 2 of the big EA Sports Genesis games on a single cartridge. If we could provide this by a specific deadline, Sega would take tens of thousands of units and include them in a Christmas ‘93 bundle. We had two weeks. Could we commit?

And that’s how I came to be tasked with creating EA Sports Double Header, a single 8Mb (8 megabits in cart speak is 1 megabyte) cartridge containing both John Madden Football and NHL Hockey, with a title screen and selection menu. In 2 weeks!

Getting a bit technical, here’s how that went down. First, I contacted EAHQ in San Mateo and asked for the source code for NHL and John Madden. First problem: the source code for John Madden Football was not available; however, the source code for NHL was available, and EAHQ  sent it to me via email. The NHL developers used Mac-based EA Artist Workstation tools and hardware. EAHQ agreed to expedite shipment of the hardware and software to me using the weekly inter-office shipment: I’d have my hands on the hardware within the week. Alright, a cunning plan started to form: I’d take a retail John Madden cartridge and read the binary data from it using a cartridge reader - IIRC, SNASM could be used to do this. Armed with the binary image for Madden, I could move on to the next step. Taking the source code for NHL, I’d change the game’s ‘origin’ to sit in the upper part of the 8Mb cart. With this, both games would fit in the cart, Madden in the lower half and NHL in the upper half. That’s not enough, though, because there needed to be a selection menu to allow the player to select between the games. My cunning plan was to implement the selection screen within the NHL source code and then set the header information on the combined cart binary to invoke this new selection logic contained within the NHL part of the cart. With me so far? Good! The next problem was that Sega had tightened its approval process since NHL and Madden had originally been approved. One specific change was that it was now required to hold the Z80 coprocessor bus when reading from the controller pads - from Sega Genesis technical bulletin #4:


When reading a location within the range of SA10000-$A100FF, which includes the controller pads, the Z80 must have a bus request. If not, the wait state will change from 250ns to 110ns. The shorter time will cause the Z80 to misread ALL further data. Once the ports have been read, the Z80 may be released.

The impact of this change was relatively small - I incorporated the updated controller pad code into the NHL source code and then ‘edited’ the Madden cartridge binary to use the new routine: no problem.

Other general changes needed included patching the 68K interrupt vectors within the first 1024 bytes of the Madden cartridge binary to support both games, with logic to switch interrupt handlers depending on which game was selected.

The TLDR is that I made all the above changes and successfully created the two-game cart within the 2-week deadline. The final binary was manufactured and delivered to Sega per the plan.

One tiny problem remained, however, and this shipped with the cart as it was deemed non-blocking: When the player selected John Madden Football, the Madden code ran as expected. As the game initialized, the audio sample of John Madden speaking was played, as usual. Partway into John Madden’s spoken introduction, the game code starts reading the controller pads to scan for a button press. The problem is that due to the updated controller code from Sega, when scanning for buttons, the Z80 coprocessor is locked out of the bus. On the Genesis, sampled audio is usually played using the Z80, which is now running a bit slower due to the bus being locked each time the controller buttons are scanned. As a result, John Madden’s voice suddenly gets slightly deeper. 


Las Vegas and Winter CES 1993. And Westwood Studios

It had been a whirlwind couple of years, but with EA support for 3DO wavering and the future of Aspect Warrior unclear, I chanced into a phone conversation with Mark McCubbin, my ex-partner in crime at Eldritch the Cat. Mark had moved to the US after being hired by Westwood Studios in Las Vegas to work on Lands of Lore. Winter CES was coming up in Las Vegas. Why didn’t I come out with Elsbeth and visit Las Vegas? Oh, and there might be a job opening, too - I could swing by the office and meet some of the Westwood folks while I was out!


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