Atari, E.T. and a dump: appreciating a programmer

Howard Scott Warshaw.  Sound familiar? Well, it will if you are into video game history or pop culture. See, Mr. Warshaw is often credited for the downfall of the video game business in the middle 1980’s.  Hard to believe that the video game industry nearly died in 1984, but, it is true. And Warshaw’s E.T. game is almost always given as the reason. Well, it simply isn’t true.

YarLet’s roll back to 1976 when the video game system, as we know it today, came about.  Fairchild introduced the Channel F, the first programmable home game console. It was very crude, had awful controllers and, the games? Well, most barely qualified for that moniker. But, it was new and very exciting.  RCA followed suit with its even worse Studio II. The Studio II, however, gained some popularity amongst computer hobbyists as you could easily make it do more than just play the cartridges.  Later, in 1977, Atari followed suit with its Video Computer System, or VCS.  The VCS, later known as the 2600, had better graphics, more colors, sound from the television and most importantly, more games.

Between 1977 and 1980, though, the home game market kind of languished. Initially, sales of the VCS were slow. It took the home game port of Space Invaders to start moving the system.  From then on, it was a huge success.  Others entered the market, like Intellivision and ColecoVision, but Atari remained king.

Atari’s work atmosphere was very laxed.  No dress code, no set hours to work, lots of parties and lots open use of drugs and alcohol. Somehow, it all seemed to work. Atari went on a hiring frenzy and, in a brilliant move, hired a young programmer named Howard Scott Warshaw.

Warshaw’s first assignment was a conversion of the arcade game, Star Castle. Realizing that a port was not feasible on the VCS, now called 2600, he convinced his management to let him take the best parts of the game and come up with something new.  Warshaw decided to come up with a backstory as well..a first for an original game.  So, not only did he succeed in developing a little game called Yar’s Revenge, he also set two precedents: the back story and the embedding of the programmer’s initials.  This had happened only once before, in the game Adventure, but Warshaw would continue it in all his games.

Yar’s Revenge became the first original game for Atari to sell more than one million units.  It was a bonafide hit.

Warshaw was asked to develop the game version of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Again, when it was released, the game was a huge hit, selling over a million copies.  Warshaw was now a money machine.  Which is why his phone rang one day, a day that would, ultimately, lead to his leaving Atari and changing careers.

That phone call was the one asking to develop the concept and then code the home version of E.T., the Extraterrestrial.

Oh, he only had FIVE WEEKS to do it.

Holy tight timelines!

Well, he did it.  The game was given to Steven Spielberg for the final approval and, he liked it. Spielberg approved it and then went on television hyping the game.

Millions of the carts were produced.  Some say more E.T. carts were made than there were consoles.  Incredible.  Atari actually thought that more consoles would be sold because of this game.

They were wrong. Dead wrong.

Christmas rolls around and, yes, the game sold very well. However, something unexpected began to happen…people wanted to return it.  It was too difficult. It was unplayable. It sucked. 

Over the course of the next few months, Atari stock fell to a new low, Ray Kassar was forced out as CEO and, Warshaw left the company.  The home video game market was dead.  It only needed to be buried.

Well, it was buried, sort of.  Atari took a bunch of unsold stock, wrote it off and then buried it in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico.  For thirty two years, this part of the story was legend: there was no proof, other than a generic looking photo taken on the day of the dumping.

In 2014, however, the loot was discovered and, yes, Atari had, in fact, buried a bunch of stuff, but not the millions of E.T. carts that were alleged. In fact, E.T. made up only 10 percent of what was found.

Warshaw was on hand for the digging.  Warshaw, now a psychoanalyst, commented that he was touched by all of it. Saying that something he did thirty plus years ago was still being discussed, brought up fond memories by some and elicited such frenzy, was, well, heartwarming.  I would agree.

The fact is that E.T. had little to do with the game industry downfall.  Sure, it did not help, but it certainly did not cause it.  The game was not great, but it was far from horrible.  Far from ‘the worst game ever.’ No, there are far more deserving games for that title, like Chase the Chuckwagon…which had more to do with the downfall than E.T.

And, Warshaw? I’d say he should go down as one of the most brilliant programmers of all time.  This man, who had two million plus games under his belt, did the impossible in FIVE WEEKS. From concept to completed game for what is, arguably, one of the most difficult platforms to program, was genius. 

Pure genius.