The 1982 Atari 2600 game ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ is a game burned into the memory of a lot of people for a lot of different reasons.
For some, it’s a warning of what overconfidence can do to not just a company, but the entire game industry, being cited as one of the reasons for the crash of 1983. For others, it’s the peak of bad game design and what to avoid in the future. And then, for many more, it’s just a hilariously bad game and an intriguing story.
If you’re not familiar with that story or need a refresher, let me introduce to you one of gaming’s most infamous and tragic tales. For those who are familiar, maybe I can tell you something you never knew. Either way, buckle up because it’s a wild ride from start to finish.
In 1982, Atari wasn’t just a game developer, they weren’t Kings among game developers, they were Gods among game developers. And they knew it. Employees showing up at noon, drinking, drugs (security guards were told to keep police away from the building) and… Guys running on walls just because they can and wanted to prove it to everyone else in the building. And going to the emergency room because of it.
In amidst all this chaos was one former Hewlett-Packard employee, Howard Scott Warshaw.
This man was single-handedly responsible for creating and then unleashing E.T into the world. The majority of Atari’s titles at the time were all developed by one person and in this case, Warshaw was it. Atari had previously made a Raiders of the Lost Ark video game that Warshaw had also developed and it was a hit. They then went ahead and paid entirely too much money ($22 million, to be exact) to gain the title to develop an E.T. game, which was also given to him.
The important thing to note at this point is Atari was confident. Over-confident. They hadn’t had a single failure, hence their party lifestyle. Although a lot of these games had months of development time, too. Warshaw was told he had five weeks. On top of that, he was given 36 hours to come up with a solid concept to present to Steven Spielberg himself. And, naturally, ‘no’ wasn’t an answer anyone was going to accept.
So, Warshaw created the entire game in what was probably one of the first biggest examples of game development crunch in history. Then, Atari ordered 5 million copies of it to be made.
So, what did this game actually play like? What made it so horrendous that word spread making it a mess consumers refused to have anything to do with?
It was a top-down adventure game in which the player had control of E.T. Parts of the telephone he’s going to make into an interplanetary phone (just like the movie!) were randomly scattered across the map in various holes which all look the same. E.T. also had an energy bar which depleted from… any action at all. Even moving. It could be replenished through Reese’s Pieces (just like the movie! Again!). Once all the pieces are collected, E.T. phones his spaceship, it lands somewhere, and the player is given a countdown to go find it.
Then the game resets and you do it again. And again. And again. Until you run out of energy or lives.
Also, an FBI agent and a scientist are chasing you the entire time (just like the movie) which makes it more difficult.
I don’t remember the movie being a huge convoluted mess of falling down pits and taking like 30 seconds to get out of it only to immediately fall into another one, though. Honestly, 90% of the game is just falling down these damn holes. There’s really not a lot going on and no sense of completion given you’re just repeating the events over and over with no reward or even an indication you’re progressing.
Long story short, it’s not good. Which, of course, led to…
So, the game is out. Atari has printed 5 million of these things. All on the assumption that not only will every household buy one, but that they’ll also probably buy two! Or, something? Honestly, there’s no good reason anyone can think of as to why Atari would print that many other than ‘hubris’.
Atari proceeded to lose $536 million in 1983 and close their home gaming division altogether in 1984. Of course, E.T. wasn’t the sole cause of this. But, given it was their first major failure, it certainly helped. In reality, it was the culmination of an unsustainable business and a shift in design. They went from spending the time making something that’s enjoyable to play and instead focused on marketing their games. Of course, figuring that that would generate all the sales they needed regardless of quality.
In all fairness, it can’t have been easy. Atari was one of the first companies out there making games and everyone working there only had people who had worked in other sectors. They were throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck. And when you throw enough stuff at your walls, they’re going to come crashing down on top of you.
Urban legend confirmed
And so what do you do with thousands of leftover copies of your failed game? You throw them out, of course. And in spectacular fashion, Atari chose to put them all into a landfill in secret, hoping no one would ever find out. For years, this was just considered an urban legend…
…Until 2013, when a team was put together to film a documentary about the legend of the worlds worst video game and was also given access to the landfill. What they found in 2014 was the stuff of legend. Not only E.T., but dozens of other unsold Atari games all lie in this monument to failure. Even the Smithsonian took one of the cartridges to display as part of their collection.
So, what’s the lesson here? There’s a lot. From crunch culture through to knowing your limits, there’s a lot.
But my personal takeaway is, at least I don’t have to play it.