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The man who made 'the worst video game in history'


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The video game of Steven Spielberg's ET is considered to be one of the worst of all time and has even been blamed for triggering the collapse of Atari. Howard Scott Warshaw, the gifted programmer who made it, explains how it was rushed out in a matter of weeks - and how he feels about those events in California now.

Spielberg was unimpressed.


"Couldn't you do something more like Pac-Man?" he asked.


It was July 1982 and Atari, then one of the world's most successful tech companies, had just paid a reported $21m for the video game rights to Spielberg's new blockbuster, ET the Extra-Terrestrial.


Howard Scott Warshaw was the programmer tasked with designing the game.


"I was stunned," says Warshaw. "Here was Steven Spielberg, one of my idols, suggesting that I knock off the game! My impulse was to go, 'Well, gee, Steven, couldn't you make something more like The Day The Earth Stood Still?'"


Warshaw's stock was high at Atari. The 24-year-old had just finished the video game of Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg considered Warshaw a "certifiable genius" and 36 hours earlier Warshaw had been hand-picked for their next collaboration.


"It was a day that will live in infamy in my life forever," says Warshaw. "I was sitting in my office and I get a call from the Atari CEO. He said, 'Howard, we need the ET video game done. Can you do it?'


"And I said, 'Absolutely, yes I can!'"


Games for the Atari 2600 were distributed on cartridges that took weeks to manufacture. If ET was to be in the shops for Christmas, Warshaw had a tight deadline.


"The CEO goes, 'We need it for 1 September.' That left five weeks to do it! Normally it'd be six to eight months to do a game, not five weeks.


"Then he said, 'Design the game and on Thursday morning, be at the airport and there will be a Learjet waiting to take you to see Spielberg.'


"I'm not sure exactly what I was full of but whatever it was, I was overflowing with it."


Warshaw drew up his pitch to Spielberg, and travelled from the Atari headquarters in Sunnyvale, California to Los Angeles. His idea was an adventure game in which the player had to help ET phone home by collecting components to make an inter-planetary telephone. The player would have to dodge government agents and scientists in order to complete the mission.


"I got down to Spielberg and I laid out the whole design," he says. "I told him, 'I think it's really important that we do something innovative. ET is a breakthrough movie and I think we need a breakthrough game.'


"I talked him out of the idea of a Pac-Man knock-off. But the key was to design a game that I could deliver in five weeks."


Atari needed ET to be a hit. In 1982 sales had reached a peak of $2bn but the company was losing market share to home computers like the Commodore 64, which could do more than play games.


"It was the hardest I've ever worked on anything in my life," says Warshaw, who was the game's sole programmer. "I started working at the office but after a while I realised there was a problem; I still have to go home to sleep and eat occasionally.


"So we had another development system installed in my house so that I would never be more than two minutes away from working on the code except when I was driving.


"There was a manager who was assigned to make sure I was eating so that I'd be able to keep going.


"When it came to the end of the process, my reaction was, 'Wow, I did it!'"


Atari ordered an initial run of four million copies and budgeted a reported $5m on what would be, at the time, the biggest-ever advertising campaign for a video game.


"ET needs help from his human friend - and that's you!" read the magazine ad. Television commercials ran for weeks. Spielberg himself appeared in a promotional video, whilst Warshaw was flown to the London premiere of ET and given a seat in front of the Princess of Wales.


"The bosses believed that as long as we put anything out the door with ET's name on it would sell millions and millions," he says.


To begin with, the game was "right up there on the Billboard top sellers" but word began to spread that there were serious problems.


"It was a finished game but it certainly wasn't perfect," Warshaw says. "There were too many opportunities where you could suddenly wind up in an odd situation. That was too much for a lot of people and caused them to put the game down."


Players complained that the ET character would inexplicably fall into pits and get stuck. As one 10-year-old told The New York Times: "It wasn't fun."


Atari soon realised that ET was not going home. In early December 1982 it announced "disappointing" sales for the year and the value of its parent company Warner Communications plunged. The results triggered steep drops in the value of other video game makers.


"After the Christmas season it was starting to come back from retailers," says Warshaw. "It still sold nearly 1.5 million units, but when you needed to sell four million, that's not good enough."


By the second quarter of 1983, Atari's parent company announced losses of $310m.


"Things just started to unravel," says Warshaw. "It's awesome to be credited with single-handedly bringing down a billion-dollar industry with eight kilobytes of code. But the truth is a little more complex."


Consumers were turning to the home computer and the market was saturated with video games. In a bid to avoid collapse, prices - and much of the workforce - were slashed. But it was futile and in July 1984 Warner offloaded Atari for $240m.


"I took some time off to recover from the whole experience," says Warshaw. "I went into real estate for a couple of years and hated it.


"Eventually I went back to technology, returning to video games as a manager and director, but it had lost the charm by then."


Creatively unfulfilled, Warshaw undertook projects in writing and TV production.


"I knew I was done with the industry but I couldn't envision an alternative. I became depressed."


Warshaw's solution was "to throw reason to the wind" and in 2008 he retrained as a psychotherapist.


"Maybe a part of me really wanted to compensate for all the trauma and depression I created with the ET game," he says. "But in reality it's something I always wanted to do."


Today Warshaw bills himself as The Silicon Valley Therapist, "fluent in both English and nerd". Does he use his own story of colossal failure with clients?


"Sometimes I do," he admits.


"But every therapist uses their own experience with their clients. To me it's a very natural thing. Programmers and therapists are all systems analysts. It's just that I've moved on to a much more sophisticated hardware."

In April 2014 Warshaw was given his own chance to obtain closure on the ET fiasco. A film company was making a documentary about a legend that had persisted for 30 years - that in 1983 Atari had buried truckloads of the unsold ET games in the New Mexico desert.


"I never believed it, I just thought it was absurd," says Warshaw.


The city of Alamogordo granted permission for a public excavation to take place. Warshaw was invited to attend.


"When we arrived, there was a long, long line of fans from all over the country who had travelled to see this," he says. "It was an odd thing to sit there and literally watch your past being dug up."

The excavation confirmed that Atari products were indeed buried at the dump and Warshaw was filmed at the moment a battered and crushed copy of ET was pulled from the ground.



"I became extremely emotional," he says. "This little game that I had written in five weeks more than 30 years ago was still generating excitement. I was full of gratitude.


"Is ET really the worst game of all time? Probably not. But the story of the fall of the video game industry needed a face and that was ET.

"I actually prefer it when people do identify it as the worst game of all time because I also did Yars Revenge and that's frequently identified as one of the best of all time. So between the two, I have the greatest range of any designer in history!"




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The game did what Atari wanted it to...sold more units than most anything available at the time (ET being as common as Pac-Man or Combat to this day is evidence of that). Nothing is good enough when the market is being eroded away from the inside and out...like so many rocks being tossed into the Grand Canyon by that point.

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I think Warshaw has always had to take way too much of the blame for E.T. If the game was a failure, it wasn't his failure: its biggest problems were the rushed production schedule and the fact that Atari would have had to sell more copies than was realistically possible for it to be financially successful, neither of which had anything to do with Warshaw. Management decided what had to be done, and when they needed someone to carry it through, Warshaw stepped up to the plate and succeeded in delivering something that, while necessarily flawed, was much better than its (undeserved) reputation as "the worst game of all time" would lead one to believe.


Given the short development timeframe, I think it's admirable that Warshaw tried to do something different with it, even if he didn't have enough time to refine his ideas: if he had made it into just another Pac-Man clone, I'm sure we would all be criticizing it for that instead. I haven't seen the Atari documentary mentioned in the story, but if it helped to set the story straight, I think it's long overdue and I'm glad that Warshaw is finally getting some of the praise he deserves.

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We knew most of the details, but I learned a new thing or two about HSW - his life after going out of game development, and the fact that Speilberg wanted something more arcade-like (like Pac-Man)


Ohh the irony. Be careful what you ask for.... Today 2600 E.T. is forever linked with 2600 Pac-Man as two of the worst games of all time.

We all know it isn't the worst game but game of all time but the game which created the most disappointment with the most number of people just doesn't have the same ring to it.


Hindsight is 20/20 but it is hard to disagree with Speilberg. An arcade style game or even a simple bike racing game where you play as Elliot instead of as ET would have been a much more commercially viable product than an Adventure style puzzle game.

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E.T. is not even close to being the "worst video game ever made." I am soon to be 35 and I played it since I was younger and besides all the frustrations of falling into the wells it is not that bad of a game. It is very similar to an Atari game made a few years prior called Adventure. The Scientist is equal to the dragon and the FBI agent is equal to the bat. Adventure gets good reviews but E.T. doesn't. It's all because of the people growing up in this generation are hearing reviewers who most likely never played an Atari 2600 let alone touch a joystick say that it sucks because it caused the video game crash and they buried numerous cartridges in a wasteland because people thought it was bad. So they go by word of mouth it's bad but not the truth. Everyone thought 2600 games you could just pick up and play for example shooters and Pac-Man clones. It is like the Legend of Zelda and Simon's quest for the NES. You are exploring and need to use the instruction manual for reference. Atari overproduced the quantities is what the problem was. Howard Scott Warshaw did a fantastic job in just over a month to make the worst video game of all time. :roll: I play E.T. every now and then and still enjoy it. The worst games for the 2600 are Ssssnake and Firefly. Calling E.T. the worst 2600 game is truly irrelevant.

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HSW single handedly crashed the video game market.


Wracked with guilt, he never returned to programming, instead choosing a life of mediocrity as a psychotherapist.


If it was not for ET, the 7800 would have been released 2 years earlier, crushing the Nes.

Wow. Your post crammed so much crap into such a small space that I think it warped spacetime.

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And if anyone cared to follow the money...4m carts made, lets say $5 per cart, $20m. Another $5m for marketing so $25m total. 1.5m carts sold so say $15/cart comes back, $22.5m. So rough numbers, no overhead included, but to me it looks like ET lost somewhere around $3m. And the next quarter Atari loses $310m...and ET is the problem? Never made any sense. Even if you say no money came back and the entire $25m was lost, plus the $21m license fee that only accounts for $46m. Sooooo who lost the other $264m? And that was only one quarter.


Viewed from another perspective...what would ET had to sell in order to "save Atari"? To just have broken even using just the $310m quarter loss and a guess of $10/cart profit ET would need to have sold 31m carts in that one quarter. More carts than there were 2600's.


Obviously my numbers are guesses...but ET was never in the ballpark of crashing anything other than a few egos.


The Warner people could only run a company that had so much cash coming in it couldn't fail. As soon as the cash slowed it showed their real abilities. But that story will never be as sexy.


Plus I think Howard is no fool. He sees the value in notoriety. He sure hasn't shunned the limelight. Good on him.

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If it was not for ET, the 7800 would have been released 2 years earlier, crushing the Nes.

I don't think it would have crushed the NES, but it would have lost some money during the post crash, pre NES years, and NES vs 7800 vs SMS would have played out like SNES vs Genesis vs Turbografx, with SMS in third.


The extra competition from 7800 would have likely also helped the SMS compete because Nintendo would not have enjoyed the solid monopoly with 3rd party devs had they not entered the market as the only console maker.

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