5 Things I Learned Making The Biggest Flop In Game History
There are lots of bad video games, but only 1982's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was so bad that it's credited for starting a crash that nearly killed the entire industry. It's constantly named one of the worst games ever, and it gained further infamy by having some of its unsold copies buried in a New Mexico landfill, a long-standing urban legend that was confirmed in 2014. Naturally, we had to talk to E.T.'s designer, Howard Scott Warshaw, about being the Ed Wood of gaming.
Atari Was A Company For Stoners, Party Animals, and Lunatics
To understand the failure of E.T., you have to understand the company that produced it. Atari is a big name, so you might think of them as "professional." However, that would be a mistake. Howard almost didn't get the job because Atari was worried Howard wasn't cool enough -- since he was a Hewlett-Packard employee.
"When I went to the interview, I would look very professional, thinking that's what you're supposed to do. But, the manager said they're not going to make me an offer because they're concerned I might be too straight for the environment. I really pushed and talked him into it. I took a 20 percent pay cut."
"We're only going that far because you came in with a Space Attacker watch."
Atari was full of young, eccentric people working in a new medium that no one understood beyond "Hey, this is making us tons of money. Please keep making us tons of money."
"Some people would show up at four in the afternoon and stay until four in the morning. We had a lot of freedom. There was no training. You got a manual and a workstation. The only rule was create a good game that sells. Anything that distracted, let us know. Anything that helps, let us know."
It was an industry where no idea was too creative ... for better or for worse.
Atari fit pretty much every early '80s stereotype you can imagine -- especially the drug ones.
"We had a pretty intense security team; they had orders to keep police away from our building. We did a lot of stuff behind those walls. There were a lot of substances consumed, and there was some wild and raucous activity."
Howard shared one particularly bizarre anecdote:
"Some of the halls weren't that wide. discovered that he could put his feet out onto the wall and hold himself up. And then he could run down the hallway 5 or 6 feet above the ground. So, you'd be in your office, and you'd hear 'boom boom boom,' and you'd go, 'Oh, jeez, I better not open the door or else I might send Todd flying.'"
Sadly, no one had the foresight to put him on a Spider-Man game.
"One time, he was running way up near the ceiling, and you know how sprinklers have sharp edges? He hit his forehead and crashed to the floor; he's bleeding everywhere. They took him to the emergency room; he got stitches. They ask how it happened. Todd explains, and so they write on the report: 'Programmer injured while climbing the walls.'"
Howard himself wandered the halls with a whip while working on Raiders Of The Lost Ark. You know, for inspiration.
The inspiration for those pants remains a mystery.
The internet is full of stories that make '80s Atari seem like the dork version of The Wolf Of Wall Street: meetings in hot tubs, cocaine, and pot smoke wafting out from under office doors -- one VP had a Friday afternoon tradition where he would just hand someone his car keys and corporate credit card and order that person to return with all the booze they could find. All of which may explain why one of their most famous games is about fighting off giant bugs in a field of mushrooms.
With cabinet art clearly taken from the airbrushed van of the dealer that sold them mushrooms.
The Whole Business Just Made Things Up As They Went
Atari games were made almost entirely by a single person. Howard's first game was Yars' Revenge, considered one of the best games Atari ever produced. So, what was the thought process behind that gem?
"I was assigned the Atari version of an arcade game called Star Castle. The technology I was supposed to copy was too advanced . I went to my boss and said, 'This game is going to suck. But, I think I can take the basics and make a fun new game.' He said, 'OK, go for it.' He trusted a brand-new guy; he just took my word for it."
"We'll even pay you a bonus if it winds up in the Smithsonian."
"Yeah, sure, go ahead and make something that's only vaguely related to what we wanted" isn't a strategy that usually works, but that was just Atari's "hang loose" corporate attitude. There are upsides to that kind of thinking, and there are downsides. For example: If Yars' Revenge was great, and E.T. was made by the same guy, why did the latter turn out to be such an affront to God that it had to be buried, lest it rise again and corrupt the world? Well, he had six months to make Yars' and only five weeks for E.T.
"Atari was not good at negotiating. Everyone knows they paid too much for the license to E.T. And it took a long time to work out. When you have CEOs and legal counsels negotiating, game development time is not their primary concern. So, we didn't get the word that we had the rights until, like, July 27. They wanted the game out by Christmas, so it had to be done by September 1."
The crew working on the E.T. porn parody had more production time.
Atari's CEO, Ray Kassar, thought making an E.T. action game was a dumb idea, but it was forced on him by Warner, Atari's parent company. Kassar, in turn, talked Howard into making E.T., citing his experience of making the successful Raiders Of The Lost Ark game.
"It was very dramatic. I got a call from Ray -- the only time he's ever called me. I answer the phone, and his secretary says, 'Will you hold for Ray Kassar?' 'Well, yeah, he signs my checks, so I'll wait!' He tells me we're going to do an E.T. game. "We need it for September 1, can you do it?' And I said, 'Absolutely!' What I didn't know is that he had already talked to my boss's boss, who said, "No way, you can't make a game in five weeks. Forget it." So, Ray called me because, of course, I wasn't going to say no. I was told that Spielberg had asked for me to do it after my experience with Raiders. So, I did it."
Yeah, you try saying no to 80's
Remember the environment Howard was in: a fun, party-time company where hard work always produced good sales. No one had any idea that a game could fail so hard that it would doom Atari. They hadn't had any failures.
"We had a department meeting a couple days later. It was announced I was doing E.T. People started grumbling. 'Howard gets to do all the cool games, he just got to do Raiders, and now he gets to do E.T.!' So, I said, 'E.T. is due September 1. Anyone who wants it can have it.' Crickets. That was the end of the grumbling."
Making E.T. Was Impossible Right From The Start
Howard had five weeks for the whole game. He only had a day and a half to create the concept.
"Ray called me on Tuesday afternoon. He said to be at the executive terminal of the airport on Thursday morning at 8:00 a.m., and there will be a jet waiting for you. You'll fly down and present a design to Spielberg . So, I had 36 hours to design a concept. I had to come up with something that was clever and new, but also easy to make."
Oh, and reminder: It had to impress him.
So, he came up with the idea of E.T. searching for pieces of the phone he uses to call home.
"I didn't want to think up a six-month game and try to cram it into five weeks. I needed a concept where I could do the minimum amount of coding. The basic game had to be really simple, but randomly generated. That way it's fresh every time. E.T.'s job is to assemble a phone and get picked up. So, I needed phone pieces, and then an area to randomly spread them out."
That's where the game's infamous pits come in. The idea is to search them for three pieces, but, without clear instructions, the game seems to be about falling into holes where E.T. eats hamburgers off the ground.
Nothing gives a burger that earthy flavor quite like weeks at the bottom of a ditch.
"And then you need a challenge, someone who can steal pieces if you're not careful enough."
That's the game's FBI Agent, who hounds you endlessly.
"Shouldn't we conduct an organized search instead of just sending
one guy to blindly chase the alien through the woods?"
"First day at the FBI, kid?"
"So, there's something you're pursuing and something you're avoiding. That's the basic idea; it's a treasure hunt game where everything's randomly distributed. I could do that in five weeks."
Once you understand what's going on, the game is playable, albeit still not much fun. But, in a time before you could hop online and ask other gamers for tips, the game's lack of instructions made it incomprehensible. And Howard knew it was flawed, which is why he had to be ... strategic with his pitch to Spielberg.
"That was a great moment in hubris. I pitched the game, he's looking at me, he's thinking. He says, 'Couldn't you do something more like Pac-Man?" In my head, I'm exploding: 'You're the most innovative director in history, and you want me to do a knockoff?' I was really taken aback. I also thought, 'It's going to take way too long to do that.' So, I said, 'I think E.T. is an amazing breakthrough movie, and it deserves a breakthrough game. It deserves more than a simple knockoff.' He goes "Oh, OK."
" ... I'm just saying, it worked for Alien."
Spielberg really liked Howard's Raiders game, so he trusted him. Spielberg also had no idea about the timeline crunch, which was a bad combination. But, with Spielberg's blessing, Howard worked day and night to make what he could.
"I had a development system moved into my home. Unless I was driving, I was never more than a couple minutes away from being able to work. And I did, all day, all night. I'd sleep and eat here and there. It was the toughest five weeks I had ever been involved in professionally. I completely burnt myself out. But, I delivered. I met the challenge."
And so Howard is proud of E.T., for what it is.
"I'm not saying this is a great game, and people should appreciate it. But, for me, it was an amazing achievement. To see the criticism feels dissonant. It feels like a success. I recognize that it's a failure on a number of levels in the real world. That's not a contradiction to me."
Hey, even a spectacular failure has to be spectacular.
E.T. Failed Because Of Atari's Arrogance
Atari knew that E.T. wasn't great, but they weren't concerned. Everything they slapped their name onto sold well. And E.T. continued that trend, selling one-and-a-half million copies. It was a hit movie on a hit game console -- what could go wrong?
Go ahead and just assume an ominous thunder clap right there.
Well, first, Atari paid a whopping $22 million for the rights to E.T. Then, confident the purchase would pay off, they printed 5 million copies of the game. Selling 1.5 million games isn't a success if you've still got 3.5 million gathering dust in a warehouse -- some of which were returned by disappointed gamers who warned their friends. E.T.'s failure was a slow burn that, as Howard explained, happened because Atari confused the importance of branding with the importance of fun.
"They paid all this money for the E.T. license, and they have to recoup it. They do the big advertising blitz. But, it's not about product quality; it's about marketing. Between early '81 and late '82, the thinking at Atari shifted from 'Let's make a fun game' to 'Let's market heavily and then it won't matter what we put out because people will buy it.' And E.T. is the crowning achievement of that mindset. Who cares if we have five weeks to make a game? It's the biggest license of the year, so it will sell huge. But, it can't sell huge if we don't have units to sell. They were thinking, 'Everything we do works. We just have to make sure we have enough units.' So, they ran 5 million. It was hubris."
The commercial where E.T. sneaks into your house and steals your Christmas present probably didn't help.
This wasn't like today, when a game developer can't so much as change the color of a character's pants without getting hundreds of angry tweets. The same lack of instant online communication that prevented gamers from figuring out the game also prevented them from telling Atari what they thought. And so Atari wasted months thinking E.T. was yet another feather in their cap.
"It wasn't until later that problems got discovered, because there was no internet. Initially, everyone was excited. We achieved it, and there wasn't negative feedback. It was at the top of the sales charts. It felt great. It was later that we found out about the financial problems, and it was later that we found out about the returns."
That's like someone warning you not to lean on the stove as you're rolling on the ground in flames.
But, E.T. Wasn't The Only Reason Atari Failed
Thanks in part to the E.T. debacle, Atari lost $536 million in 1983 and dumped their home gaming division in '84. But, E.T. wasn't the catalyst, so much as the logical conclusion of policies that had been in place for years. Freedom to get high and party aside, Atari's programmers began to feel stifled by increasing influence from management and marketing. Their instructions shifted from "Make a game that's fun" to "Make what we tell you, fun optional."
"Eh, good enough. Now, back to work; time is money."
"You have to understand the disconnect between management and technology. Atari was one of the first video game companies. So, it was full of programmers who were making entertainment products, a position they had never been in before. And, in management, you had people who were either used to classic formal management or people from the entertainment industry who have no concept of technology. They didn't understand that a whole new beast. To a classical manager, a programmer looks like any other blue-collar worker on a production line. But, they're not -- they have to do a lot more of the design. And they never really got that; they treated us like what their idea of a blue-collar worker was. And we resented that. It wasn't a great setup."
That resentment led to a mass exodus of programmers (some of whom went on to form a little company called Activision). Meanwhile, E.T. wasn't the only bad game Atari vomited out. They got the rights to make the home version of some game called Pac-Man. Pac-Man was another pop culture phenomenon, so Atari followed the same logic -- Popular Game plus Popular Brand equals Mega Hit, quality optional. They printed a staggering 12 million copies, even though they had only sold 10 million consoles. The rushed game was buggy, and "only" sold 7 million copies. That was considered a failure. Gamers felt burned by Atari, and they learned the valuable lesson that games could be bad.
And they were going to get a lot worse before they got better.
E.T. was just the biggest and most disastrous product of that mindset, so it gets all the blame. But, Howard doesn't mind. If you're going to be famous in your industry for making a failure, it might as well be the biggest damn failure in that industry's history.
Check out Howard's Atari documentary, Once Upon Atari, right here, or try playing E.T. in your browser. Mark has a story collection and a Twitter.
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