Trip Hawkins – the computer games pioneer wired to succeed
William Murray ‘Trip’ Hawkins III is a genius. He has been behind some of the most pioneering developments in computer games in history. A colleague and contemporary of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, he explains why both nature and nurture are key factors to success.
The first thing you notice about Trip Hawkins is the firm handshake. The second is a penetrating stare from crystal sapphire blue eyes which in no way makes you feel uncomfortable, but instantly leads you to understand that this is an extraordinary person with an IQ that’s off the scale.
And anyone that peddles this idea that you can become anything you want in life, including the CEO of several companies and the owner of a Cessna jet is lying. It takes a conjunction of rare attributes including fearlessness, the desire to struggle against the odds, extreme self belief and confidence, team leadership skills, incredible intelligence and, above all, vision. Hawkins has all of these in abundance and oozes it.
We meet for a short 20 minute interview at a dinner hosted by the American Club of Lisbon at which he is the guest speaker at the city’s chicest hotel, the Pestana Carlton.
Trip Hawkins says he has recently been spending time on reflecting on what makes a person highly successful, how it works and how he can help other people to do it. You have to ask the question — “Who am I? How did I get to do what I did?”
Here the US entrepreneur points to destiny of birth. “I was very fortunate to born where and when I was born”. (He was born in 1953 in California, USA)
Hawkins says that his ancestors bestowed certain ‘gifts’ on him and admits that the culture he grew up in, in California, was “incredibly supportive.”
“People don’t realise what an insanely special place California is. It started with the Gold Rush 97 years ago and that attracted a lot of people who were very courageous, risk-tolerant, pioneering innovators who were willing to up sticks and prospect for gold and had to be tough enough to make it,” he reflects.
Trip says that some of his own ancestors came to California over 100 years ago and started their own small businesses despite not having much infrastructure in the state a century ago.
“The people there were capable and self-reliant and had certain qualities that everybody has but may not activate if they are born into a comfortable background in which they didn’t have to struggle,” Hawkins explains.
Trip Hawkins illustrates pioneering success and not being afraid to fail and make mistakes through the explorer Christopher Columbus.
“Columbus, to the day he died, thought he was in India (he had been, in fact, in the West Indies). Sometimes being too smart can work against you, but you have got to be courageous and brave enough to go out there in the first place,” he observes.
With ancestors that were English, Irish, Scottish, Dutch and Sicilian, Hawkins points out that in the 60s, when he was growing up, there was a whole generation in American youth inspired by rock and roll and bands like the Beatles who thought they could do and be whatever they wanted. However, he admits to having “in-born traits” to think independently, be a good observer and a systems thinker.
“I’ve always loved strategy and there are certain things I know I was born with and was already aware of them and using them at an early age. If you are five years old, haven’t started school and are aware of certain abilities, you are born that way,” he says.
“Most people don’t have a specific skills sets today if their parents and grandparents didn’t have them. Today, we live in dense cities surrounded by strangers and kids don’t grow up by their parents’ side because they are either at work or missing; they don’t have “tribal elders” like our ancestors did, and so there are lots of things that come as second nature in highly socialised societies (they still exist in Brazilian tribes) that are missing today”. It was this idea that inspired him to design the game ‘If’ which encourages social and emotional development.
Rebels and heroes
Trip Hawkins led teams that were among some of the first people who pioneered graphic design as an art form. He famously said, “Sometimes you have to reverse engineer hardware in order to get around a licence agreement” referring to Nintendo which he didn’t want to support because Sega had a better machine.
“I realised there was an opening to reverse engineer a machine, figure it out for ourselves, and then not need a licence. This means you have to go into a ‘clean room’ with a bunch of brave souls, cross that desert and figure out how it works — and perhaps fail — to write their own original document describing how the machine works, even while violating copyrighted information in order to do so.”
That violation is allowed in a ‘clean room’ as long as that individual does not exploit that information. They can publish that document to others, but they can’t use it for their own gain.
Those engineers, who had to build everything from scratch after figuring out how the mystery ‘black box’ worked down to the smallest detail, and then write it up so that others could develop games for it were, Hawkins says, the “biggest heroes in electronic arts.”
It was this spirit of rebellion which he activated that ultimately led to his success, and the success of others who worked with him, and that included both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who he knew and worked with when he was younger
“They all dropped out and that accelerated their careers because the one thing about innovation is that it is something that hasn’t been done before, so because no one has experienced it, you are not necessarily wrong with how you are approaching an idea,” he says.
“You have to have an instinctive ability to identify an opportunity of what the marketplace needs and provide it,” he says, and Trip Hawkins certainly has that ability. It is instinctive and inbred. You either have it or you don’t, and that is what, in part, makes him exceptional.
Trip Hawkins fact file
A fan of the Start-O-Matic Football pen and paper games, American entrepreneur Hawkins started his first business as a teenager trying to create a knockoff version. He borrowed US$5,000 from his father to start up the venture, but despite advertising his game in NFL Game Programs, the business failed.
Hawkins went on to become the Director of Strategy and Marketing at Apple Computer in 1982 when he left to found Electronics Art (EA), a video game publisher. EA was successful for many years under his leadership. He has been credited with spearheading the games industry’s evolution from simple one-person creations to complex team projects during his time. Hawkins signed John Madden as a spokesperson and consultant to his company’s football game which would lead to the popular Madden NFL video games.
Hawkins moved from EA in 1991 to form 3DO, a video game console company. Upon its release in 1993 the 3DO was the most powerful video game console at the time costing US$599 on release. The project failed and was eclipsed in 1994 by Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn which were cheaper.
However, despite its failure Next Generation listed Hawkins in their ’75 Most Important People in the Games Industry of 1995’ calling him one of the game market’s ‘visionaries’.
In 2012 Hawkins was on the board of Israeli technology company Extreme Reality which works on motion control software in 3D. He has been on the boards of mobile and ad technology platform Native X mobile e-sports platform Skillz.
His startup If You Can Company aims to foster social and emotional development (SEL) in children, teaching compassion and anti-bullying lessons. Their game ‘IF’ used a free-to-play model and is meant for teachers and students in an educational environment. Trip Hawkins was also the founder of Digital Chocolate, a video game development company.