The year is 1982: you’re a 24 year old game programmer with a very bright future. Your employer, Atari, has just paid $21 million for the licensing rights to one of the highest grossing films of all time, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Steven Spielberg has requested you by name to create a video game adaptation, even going so far as calling you a “certifiable genius.” Your publisher has ordered 4 million cartridges that wait to be filled with your game, but they want to ship them out by Christmas. This gives you 5 weeks to create a game that will live up to the hype generated by the largest advertising campaign for a video game to date.
The bosses believed that as long as we put anything out the door with ET’s name on it would sell millions and millions.
This is the setup for the story of Howard Scott Warshaw, the man behind the colossal flop that was the E.T. video game, as told in a recent BBC article. It was a game so bad that it would plunge a multi-billion dollar industry into chaos. In the following months Atari’s parent company, Warner Communications, would go on to lose $300 million as a result of the game’s poor sales. Between 1983 and 1985 the gaming industry’s profits dwindled from $3 billion to $100 million, partially due to ET. After causing the financial collapse of an entire industry, Warshaw did what anyone would do and became a psychotherapist.
Having played the game myself, I can assure you it really is as bad as everyone says it is. You can still find copies for a couple of dollars, stuffed away in the back of old video game shops, longing to be forgotten. Even as a connoisseur of bad media I can’t recommend it. It’s not charmingly bad, it’s not laughably bad, it’s just plain bad. Within 3 minutes I put the game away, never to be played again. I can’t imagine anyone paying $3 for it, let alone $40. You should save your money by watching the gameplay online. Buy a cup of coffee instead.
The story of the E.T. game is emblematic of a much larger problem that still persists in the games industry today. It’s very easy to point the finger at Warshaw as the one that created this mess, but he was put in charge of a game that was set up to fail. The games industry had reached its financial peak in 1982, and large companies like Atari thought they were too big to fail. They focused less on the product and more on trying to make it a hit. This past year has seen many high budget games that were rushed to release, filled with bugs and crashes that have left players unsatisfied with the games industry. In any creative field, there will be hard working people that love to create, and people who only care about profiting from those creations. Exploitation is especially rampant in the games industry, as people will tend to work long hours on things they’re passionate about. At the end of the day, it’s important that a consumer knows where to place the blame for a bad product.