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E.T. The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600






Howard Scott Warshaw with Steven Spielberg.
Warshaw describes Spielberg as "a very cool guy that thinks like a
director and sees like a child. "



The biggest flop in gaming history was Atari's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial game for the 2600. Atari licensed the title from Spielberg for a reported $21 million. It rushed the game into production to make the Christmas '82 selling season. Atari had only six weeks to come up with a game. That was about a third the time it would normally take an Atari developer. Atari management asked for a volunteer to take on this insane project. No one wanted the job until game developer Howard Scott Warshaw (of Yar's Revenge fame) stepped up.


Warshaw budgeted himself only a handful of days to design the game. After sketching it out he presented it to Spielberg himself. Spielberg seemed disappointed, wondering if the game could not be made more like Pac Man. Warshaw quipped back to the titan that Pac Man had already been done. "Could you do E.T. again?"


If Warshaw had pulled it off, it might have been considered one of the great achievements in gaming history. Alas, it proved to be one of the greatest blunders.


Players found the game confusing. The controls had different functions depending upon what zone your E.T. was in. The game was unplayable without constantly flipping back to the manual -- something an 11-year old was loathe to do. The over-all play mechanics were reminiscent of Atari's Adventure cart (programmed by Warren Robinette). You moved a little E.T. around a strange land that was filled with temples and FBI agents. You had to find 3 parts of a phone so you could call home. Ha ha. Your E.T. had limited energy but could power up by finding and eating Reese's Pieces. Ha ha.


Atari pressed 5 million carts but only managed to sell a million. Ostensibly more carts were made than actual 2600 game systems existed. Atari unceremoniously loaded up 19 tractor trailers with 4 million unsold games and buried the lot in a landfill near -- get this -- Roswell, New Mexico.


Many credit the failure of E.T. as the beginning of the video game crash of the mid-'80s. Twenty years after the fact, Howard Scott Warshaw is somewhat proud of his role in toppling an entire industry. Despite his reputation, Warshaw fared not too badly during the salad days of Atari. Warshaw became a millionaire by the age of 27. Although E.T. was not the high point of his career, many consider Yar's Revenge one of great games of the classic video game era. No one can take that away from him.


Oddly enough Yar's Revenge almost did not make it out of Atari's doors. Play testing revealed adult women gave the highest rating to the space action shoot-em-up. Atari's marketing department was aghast. Never in their experience had they encountered a situation where women liked a combat game the best. There was nothing in the Atari playbook on how to market such a game.


Warshaw went on to produce a documentary about the early days of the video game industry called Once Upon Atari. Unlike many ex-employees, Warshaw takes the unique position that Atari was a great company to work for. His four-episode film is filled with interviews and anecdotes from the actual game developers.



-- Karl Mamer





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