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This forgotten video game helped pave the way for Madden NFL

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This week’s release of Madden NFL marks the 30th anniversary of the most popular sports video game of all time. While it has generated more than $4 billion in revenue and inspired three decades’ worth of gamers and football fans, some of Madden’s humble roots can be traced to a start-up company working out of a house in Bethesda and an early football game that featured slow-moving dots in lieu of animated players.

Before there was Madden, there was a game called Gridiron, unremarkable for its stone-age graphics but ahead of its time for the physics and coding that laid the technical groundwork for sports titles to follow. It was the first game created by Bethesda Softworks, now an industry giant, and the game was so advanced at the time that Electronic Arts (EA) originally contracted with the small outfit to help work on an early version of Madden.

A legal battle eventually ensued, the two companies went their separate ways and 30 years later, Gridiron is a largely forgotten part of Madden’s history, a footnote to one of the most famous video games ever created.

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“While we did not end up completing the game for legal reasons, the work we did under contract with EA, using Gridiron’s underlying engine and game-system technology, heavily influenced the early Madden series and paved the way for what it is today,” Christopher Weaver, the Bethesda Softworks founder, explained in the book “Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play.”

Weaver was working with an electrical engineer named Ed Fletcher on laserdisc-based video games. After the industry crashed in 1984, Weaver and Fletcher were waiting for the next laserdisc contract to come along when they started fiddling with the new Commodore Amiga computer. Fletcher was a big football fan, so they agreed to work on a football game. The titles already on the market at the time largely ran on patterns and predetermined outcomes based on play-calls.

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“As someone who did not know very much about football but had a background in physics, I found that approach very boring,” Weaver explained to The Washington Post in an email.

Fletcher, too, found existing football video games to be lacking, a far cry from mimicking the movements, decisions and outcomes of an actual football game.

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“My approach to creating games was that if you try and model reality as much as possible, you’re going to give the user a better experience,” Fletcher said in an interview, “because they’re going to feel like they’re really there and they’re really experiencing it. And so my attitude was always, ‘Let’s make these guys behave as realistically as possible.’ I wanted it to feel like real football.”

Fletcher started creating a game where every player on the screen wasn’t necessarily equal, though all were dots, scurrying across a green rectangle. Some were stronger and some faster, their attributes all based on statistics. They could bounce off defenders, break tackles and power through defenders. While the underlying physics and artificial intelligence was more complex than anything on the market, visually the game was beyond rudimentary.

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“We had no animator, no artist,” Fletcher said.

Working out of Weaver’s home, Fletcher made the game in about nine months. Weaver said they printed a few hundred copies and packaged them in plastic bags as a test. It hit the market in 1986 for Commodore 64, Amiga and Atari ST computers, and despite the simple graphics, Gridiron immediately caught the eye of serious gamers — and other developers.

“The almost instant reaction to Gridiron! surprised us,” Weaver said. “The games were gone within a week of distribution. There were competing products from much larger companies, but Gridiron had obviously hit a sweet spot among computer football devotees. … In short order we were the leaders in computer football. That was the reason EA asked us to help them create what came to be known as John Madden Football.”

EA had been tinkering with its own football game and had been working with John Madden, the former coach turned broadcaster, since 1984. Madden famously wanted the game to feel as much like real football as possible with 11 players on each side and a full playbook at the gamer’s disposal.

“I think they recognized that as a software designer, I wanted the same thing that they did with Madden: to make it as realistic as possible in terms the terms of play,” Fletcher said.

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The two sides signed a contract. Bethesda Softworks agreed to help build John Madden Football, as the game was known at the timeand while the new game was in development, EA was to help market and distribute the Gridiron title.

“Rather than compete, they wanted to absorb,” Weaver said. “We just did not fully realize their plan at the time.”

Weaver and Fletcher met in person with Madden to pick his brain and understand his vision for the game, a highlight for Fletcher, the football fan, during the two companies’ brief partnership.

“As someone who was not a professional football fan,” Weaver said, “I personally found Madden one of the most boring people I have ever met in my life.”

Before long, Bethesda Softworks began to sense that EA was not promoting and distributing the Gridiron game. The Maryland company stopped working on Madden and filed a $7.3 million lawsuit, claiming EA was incorporating major portions of the coding into Madden while stifling Gridiron distribution.

The two sides eventually reached an undisclosed settlement, but development of John Madden Football was slowed. It wasn’t released until June 1988, initially only available for the Apple II computer.

While Bethesda Softworks never turned over its code, the Gridiron elements and game play were apparently evident in the final Madden product. “The influence of physics-based play systems was dramatic,” Weaver said. “All our competitors effectively copied it. But it helped the industry move forward so, in hindsight, it was a good thing.”

In the long run, the Madden contract was not a lucrative one for Bethesda Softworks, though it could have been. Weaver said EA initially offered royalties for a lower build price. He rejected the offer and instead negotiated a higher development fee upfront.

“After thinking it over, I decided we would be better off taking the money,” he said. “After all, we were the ‘world leader’ in football games for that time, and EA was using our technology. So, I saw little upside. I like to imagine I learned a lot from that fateful decision as it definitely ranks as one of the worst ones I ever made. Luckily, the company survived that poor decision.”

Madden didn’t really take off until its 1990 release for Sega Genesis, and it quickly became the most prominent football title on the video game market. It had reportedly sold more than 120 million copies when the franchise turned 25 in 2013. EA did not respond to an email seeking an updated total.

After the break with EA, Bethesda Softworks, immediately began working on Wayne Gretzky Hockey, applying many of the same principles and some of the coding. Fletcher consulted with the Washington Capitals and received weekly guidance from Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Murphy to make the game as realistic as possible. The game was released in 1988 and was a critical and commercial hit. The company also made basketball (NCAA Road to the Final Four) and auto racing (BurnOut) titles, using the same basic Gridiron approach.

Bethesda Softworks became an industry force with the release of The Elder Scrolls in 1994. Weaver stayed with the company until 2002 and, despite a nasty split, is reportedly still a leading shareholder of ZeniMax, the parent company for Bethesda Softworks.

Fletcher, now working for BreakAway Games, still has a couple copies of Gridiron discs in his Hunt Valley, Md., office. It’s a reminder of his start in the video game business but also the roots for the industry’s most popular sports title.

“It was really interesting and fun time,” he said.

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