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Games of Atari - E.T. History Draft


FujiSkunk

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Slowly but surely I'm getting some more writing done for this web project. I've put together a draft for the history of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Needless to say, this game has a bit more history than most, so if anyone's willing, I'd like to get some opinions and fact-checks before posting.. Have a read, and thanks!

 

EDIT: The updated, completed article is available for public consumption!

 

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The Myth, the Legend, The Extra-Terrestrial

 

It's the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy. A company creates a whole new industry single-handedly, and becomes the undisputed leader of that industry. After years at the top, the company's executives are convinced they can do no wrong. They release a product tied to a beloved movie character, and wait for the profits to roll in. But the profits don't come. The product, rushed and unpolished, is a disaster. Customers return the product by the truckload. The company implodes under the weight of this unexpected financial burden. So reviled is this product that it topples not only the company, but the entire industry, leaving a slew of bankruptcies and lost jobs in its wake. Afterward, what's left of the company takes those truckloads of returns and buries them in the desert, to be neither seen nor discussed ever again. It's a compelling story. But did it really happen?

 

Like all good legends, there are a few grains of truth to the story. In 1982, Atari was indeed sitting on top of the home video game world, a world the company had a large part in creating. However, Atari was having to share more and more of that world with other companies, even companies that were releasing games for its own Atari 2600 (third-party publishing was not the accepted, licensed practice that it is today, and in many cases Atari made no money from third-party cartridges released for their systems). Among these other companies was Parker Brothers, who were taking advantage of their association with Star Wars to produce games based on George Lucas's most famous creation. Atari, in their quest to keep their position at the top, also began looking to Hollywood for inspiration. Their first game based on a movie, Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, was a success. So when another Spielberg movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, became the biggest hit of the summer, it seemed an obvious plan to Atari's executives: call in some favors, write some checks, and have the same programmer who did Raiders make a new game based on E.T. Then get the game on store shelves by Christmas, when the movie is still fresh in gift-buyers' minds. There was only one problem. The Christmas deadline allowed only six weeks of development time, an insanely short window even for games of the early 1980s. Despite the accelerated schedule, programmer Howard Scott Warshaw managed to deliver the new game on time, and Atari produced loads of new cartridges for the holiday season. At first, the game actually was a hit, with more than a million sold. But soon bad reviews and negative word of mouth were in wide circulation, dampening further sales. Even though the game had been finished in time, six weeks did not leave any room for improvements and bug fixes, and complaints of shoddy controls and overly complex game play took their toll.

 

E.T. was a disappointment, but was it the stone that brought down Goliath? Underwhelming games like E.T. and Pac-Man certainly didn't help Atari's reputation or finances, but even without such high-profile duds, the home video game industry was headed for trouble. Atari's continued success had attracted a lot of interest by 1982, and the open architecture of the current game consoles and computers, particularly the 2600, meant just about any company with a decent checkbook could fund a project or two. Not only were traditional gaming companies like Parker Brothers jumping in, even companies like Quaker Oats, whose background had nothing to do with games or electronics, were hoping to strike it rich. New games and accessories from all of these different outfits were soon fighting for space on crowded store shelves, leaving customers and retailers to wonder which ones were actually worth buying. In fact, relatively few of these ventures passed critical muster, further adding to customer confusion and retailer dissatisfaction. With unsold merchandise piling up, stores began slashing prices, not only on the cruft but on the good products as well, and many people began assuming video games were "done" and it was time to look for the next big "fad." The video game industry found itself in a downward spiral, one that would continue would continue to spin for the next couple of years. Atari's attitude, and the dip in game quality that came with it, were definitely part of the problem, but it wasn't the failure of any one game, even one as big as E.T., that caused the industry to crash.

 

As for the mountains of E.T. cartridges buried in the desert, that too seems to be more myth than reality. There are records of Atari making use of a landfill in Alamagordo, New Mexico, but this appears to have been for a variety of discarded hardware and excess inventory, and not simply "millions" of E.T. cartridges. Even the number of returned cartridges appears to have been exaggerated, as E.T. remains one of the most easily found games for the Atari 2600, thirty-plus years after its release. E.T. may not have been the greatest game, but plenty of people still hung on to their purchases.

 

So, while the idea of E.T. bringing down the house of Atari is a popular one, it isn't very accurate, but it does help E.T. remain prominent in discussions on video games. Decades later, historians still debate the part E.T. had in the industry crash, and players still debate whether the game really is the worst of all time. And you know, it really isn't.

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This part doesn't seem to be quite right:

 

"Their first game based on a movie, Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark, was a success. So when another Spielberg movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, became the biggest hit of the summer, it seemed an obvious plan to Atari's executives . . ."

 

The Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari 2600 game was released in November/December of 1982 (right before E.T. was released later in December). Your text kind of makes it sound like the Raiders of the Lost Ark Atari 2600 game was released before the summer of 1982.

 

Related links:

 

http://atariage.com/magazines/magazine_page.html?MagazineID=4&CurrentPage=9

 

http://atariage.com/catalog_page.html?CatalogID=62&currentPage=5

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Thanks, Random. Yeah, I was under the impression Raiders had come out earlier. How does this sound?

 

...Atari, in their quest to keep their position at the top, also began looking to Hollywood for inspiration. They soon had a working relationship with Steven Spielberg, who agreed to let them turn Raiders of the Lost Ark into Atari's first movie game. Before that game was even finished, another Spielberg movie, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, became the biggest hit of the summer. To Atari's executives, it seemed obvious: call in another favor from Spielberg, write some checks, and have the same programmer working on Raiders also make a game based on E.T. Then get the game on store shelves by Christmas, when E.T. the movie is still fresh in gift-buyers' minds...

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You also don't quote any sources.

 

I think the best perspective would be from someone on the retail side. Not just a clerk at the store, but the guys who would have handled the accounts payable & receivable and seen the return ratios.

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I'm writing these in the style of magazine articles, not in-depth research papers, so the info presented is generally high-level "common" knowledge (common among those in the hobby, anyway) and my own opinion, not anything that must be attributed to a single source.

 

At the same time, I welcome any links that I can then add to the "links" page for people to get more info if they'd like.

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