Monday, February 22, 2016

The Man Behind E.T. and His Story

The BBC caught up with game programmer Howard Scott Warshaw for an interview about a well known, craptacular game called E.T. The game has been the source of blame for the start of the video game crash in the early 1980's, and the subject of documentaries. In defense of Warshaw, when Atari purchased the rights (reportedly for $21 million) for the E.T. brand, they had 5 weeks to develop and release the game. When you have a very limited amount of time to get a product out to the public, it's going to be a massive challenge just to complete the darn thing, let alone worry about glitches.

What was Spielberg's, the creator of E.T., first impression of the game? 'Why couldn't it have been more like Pac-Man.'

Warshaw wasn't an unknown to Atari or Spielberg. He designed and programmed the Raiders of the Lost Ark game and was given a certifiable seal of approval from the boss-man himself. So when  Atari's CEO's asked him to make E.T., they expected it to happen. In 5 weeks, with 2 days to develop a concept and show it to Spielberg. Turn-around time for Atari cartridges was 6-8 months in those days.

I can't imagine being in Warshaw's shoes. Talking to a director that you idolize (I do too) and trying to explain to him why a Pac-Man-like game wouldn't work for E.T. It's an innovative movie. You need an innovative game. That takes some balls to convince Spielberg to move outside of his vision of the game and put faith into this programmer.

We know what happens next: the game was finished, it wasn't the best, but Atari felt it would sell because it had the E.T. name on it. I know for a fact it did because my dad bought the darn game for his Atari and we played it as kids long after the game crash. It's still not a well designed game, but for 5 weeks to put together, that's damn impressive.

Atari put too much faith into the game, issuing an initial run of 4 million copies in hopes for Christmas and holiday sales to coincide with the movie's release. E.T. did sell 1.5 million copies, which is amazing for any game. But when you spend the money to make 4 million of them, the profit margins dip drastically.

Warshaw comments in the article that he thinks it's great that his code could have single-handedly brought down the gaming industry, but we all know that the truth is much more complex then that. Video games had over-saturated the market by that point. PC's were becoming popular and the fad was wearing thin. Warshaw ended up leaving Atari not long after and moved into real estate. Then back to gaming and made the trek to writing for television.

Despite all of his notoriety for E.T., Warshaw created some of Atari's best selling games such as Yars Revenge (often credited as one of the best games produced). He takes the E.T. situation in stride, and was even able to find closure by attending the New Mexico dig to unearth old E.T. cartridges.

The BBC article is an amusing, and inspiring read today. Take a look at it.


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