I’ll Be Sprite Here: The History of Atari’s E.T

(Written as of 2014)

Back in 1982, the most popular film around was undoubtedly Steven Spielberg’s E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial; the highest-grossing film ever made at the time, and which currently stands as the 46th highest-grossing film of all time, universally hailed by movie-goers and film critics alike. The film focuses on a stranded alien life form, which befriends a young boy, and together, they attempt to build the machine needed to contact his home planet. Although the basic premise couldn’t be seen at the time as something to make a video game out of, Atari tried anyway, and to say the least, the critical failure was immeasurable.

Development began back in 1982, and was completed by the end of that year to coincide with the holiday season. Production costs are estimated to have been within the region of $125,000,000. Steve Ross, the CEO of Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications, opened negotiations with Steven Spielberg in an attempt to acquire the license to produce video games based on the film; going on to acquire rights to develop coin-operated games in July of that year. Reportedly, the license cost Atari around $20-$25,000,000, but the exact details were never disclosed. However, not everyone at the company was lukewarm to the idea. Ray Kassar, CEO of Atari at the time, was asked of what he thought of the concept, but he responded by saying that he thought it was “a dumb idea”; especially since there would be no time to develop a coin-operated game after all, given that Atari that a very short deadline.

The game was developed by Howard Scott Warshaw, the developer of the popular Atari 2600 game, Yars’ Revenge. He was commissioned to develop E.T on July 27th, after Spielberg himself had personally requested Warshaw’s part in developing the game. However, Warshaw was given merely six weeks to finish E.T, which was considered a drastically short development cycle, even at the time. The game had to be complete by September 1st. Warshaw took the job anyway, since he was used to working with time constraints; for example it took him merely seven months to develop Yars’ Revenge and six months to develop Raiders of the Lost Ark. Aside from Warshaw seeing this as an attempt of making an innovative game for the Atari 2600 based on a popular license, Kassar and Atari also offered him an award of $200,000 along with an all-expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii in compensation. A few days later, Warshaw was instructed to arrive at San Jose Airport a few days later for a meeting with Spielberg himself.

Warshaw used these days to design the game and split its concept into four ideas; the world, the objective, the path to completion and obstacles within it. He conceived that ET should strive to complete the very same task that he must in the film; to assemble the machine needed to contact his home. However, he experienced difficulties designing the obstacles of the game, due to the limitations of the Atari 2600 console. He eventually concluded that pits, adults and a time limit should be incorporated as obstacles, after having been inspired by the film. However, when they presented the game to Spielberg, he was less than impressed. He asked Warshaw to instead to develop a game, which played out more like the hit game Pac-Man. But Warshaw, believing that doing so would be far too derivative of what was being made at the time, decided to simply go with his own idea, believing it to capture the same sense of sentimentality the film had. Later on, however, Warshaw admitted that Spielberg’s idea might have had merit in hindsight.

Warshaw spent the remaining time that he had programming the game, and Atari even skipped the process of audience testing, but regardless still expected the game to sell exceptionally well during the upcoming holiday season. It was said by Warner’s co-chief operator Emmanuel Gerard, that Atari had however fallen into a false sense of community based on the critical failings, but commercial success of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.

However, despite all these setbacks and internal company skepticism, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial was initially a commercial success. It was among the top four of Billboard Magazine’s list of Top 15 best-selling video games, and remains the fifth best-selling game for the Atari 2600 overall. The problem instead lay in the fact that Atari had produced far too many copies than what they could ever have hoped to sell, with 2,500,000 to 3,500,000 copies of the game going unsold. Retailers stated that sales expectations were not met, despite the fact that the game sold particularly well over the holiday season. Atari executives were also extremely disappointed with the lack of sales figures the game garnished, and that J.C Penny in America discounted the game a total of five times before it was eventually reduced from $49.95 to less than a dollar to simply get rid of it.

The critical response was no better. As I said, E.T: The Extra-terrestrial is now considered by most people to be the worst video game of all time. Common criticisms are aimed at the game’s needless level of difficulty as well as it’s poor graphics, even for the time, and lacklustre gameplay. Of course, most critics attribute the poor quality of the game to the hopelessly short development cycle it underwent, and that it was simply rushed out to retail in an attempt to coincide with the release of the film. Warshaw, however, expresses little regret towards making the game, and actually feels as if he made a good game with the time he had available to him.

Although there were a number of different factors, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial is often cited as being a major contributor, and some would even say the sole contributor, to the video game crash of 1983, which almost ended the industry. Regardless of this belief, E.T of course, initially sold particularly well, and the main reason why it was such a failure is because not only was it of poor quality, but as I stated, there were simply far too many copies of it mass-produced, and that alone ended up with Atari posting a loss of over $100,000,000. Other factors that contributed to the crash, and the factors that were actually more severe, were that there were far too many home console out at the time on top of the coin-operated arcade game business, and consequently, revenue was far too spread out for any one company to do well. These factors also led to the bankruptcy of many prominent video game companies at the time, including Atari, who would eventually be split into three subsidiaries and subsequently absorbed back into the Warner company, making the entire thing come full circle again, since Atari were initially a subsidiary of Warner.

The failure of the game also led to a very quirky urban legend stating that a multitude of intact and unsold copies of the game were buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico. But the fact of the matter is that most of what was buried in the landfill were damaged or defective Atari 2600 consoles, and that they would have been put under a steam roller first and buried under a concrete slab to prevent simple-minded people looking to dig up a copy of the game from hurting themselves. Although remnants of the game have since been found at the landfill, that’s all they are; remnants, and not games left intact. Although the legend has since been thoroughly debunked, it is interesting to think that this game contributed to the near-end of video gaming, and that it indeed serves as a reminder to experienced and aspiring developers of how not to make a game. It also makes me hope that something like that doesn’t happen again to the medium I love, and that with the commercial successes of games today, that the gaming industry will be around for a very long time.

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