How E.T. The Game “Succeeded”, Despite “Killing” the Gaming Industry

We often get into vigorous debates about what the “best game of all time” is, but what about the worst game of all time? For decades, that honor has popularly belonged to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a 1982 licensed game for the Atari 2600 based on the movie of the same name. But the real story of ET is far deeper than the hole that was dug to house hundreds of copies of the critically-panned game in a New Mexico landfill. Rather, ET’s development is a tale of the perils of crunch, an advent of new game design ideas, one man’s efforts to make good on a promise to a film giant, and an industry-wide crash that transformed video games forever. This is Art of the Level.

This video was originally published on Aug 17, 2022 on IGN Games.

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We often get into vigorous debates about What the best game of all time is but What about the worst game of all time For decades that honor has popularly Belonged to E.T the Extraterrestrial a 1982 licensed game for the Atari 2600 Based on the movie of the same name but The real story of E.T is far deeper than The hold it was dug to house hundreds of Copies of the critically panned game in A New Mexico landfill rather Et's development is a tale of the Perils Of crunch an advent of new game design Ideas one man's efforts to make good on A promise to a film Giant and an Industry-wide crash that transformed Video games forever This is Art of the level The person who called me was Ray Kazar The CEO of Atari at the time my bosses Bosses bosses bosses boss Which you know I don't get that call Very often But I was sitting in my office just Putting the final touches on Raiders of Lost Ark in came the phone call you know Hey Howard we this is July 27th we need ET for September 1st can you do it I Said absolutely I can do it provided we Reach the right Arrangement that's Howard Scott warshaw the primary Developer and sole designer behind the ET video game IGN spoke to warshaw for This somewhat unusual art of the level

To talk not about the making of a Particularly beloved game but about how This one fateful phone call and a Five-week deadline imposed by Steven Spielberg himself set him on an Unexpected path to video game infamy To understand warshaw's seemingly Strange acceptance of an almost Impossible deadline it's helpful to know A little bit about how he ended up at Atari in the first place I was in love With computers in my graduate work in College and I fell out of love with Computers at Hewlett-Packard where I was Kind of drowning in a sea of Computational mediocrity and it was very Uh unsatisfying so I used to act out I Used to do some wacky stuff especially By HP standards and one of my co-workers Came up to me one day and said you know The kind of things you do they happen All the time where my wife works I said Oh where's that he said Atari Sorry Number one video After this fateful conversation with his Friend warshaw called up Atari and Maneuvered his way into a series of job Interviews and was rejected but warshaw Wouldn't take no for an answer he pushed Back and eventually was hired on Probation at a much lower salary than Initially discussed and once an Atari he Didn't make things easy on himself

Either first he was asked what system at Atari he wanted to work on I didn't have Much of a basis for the decision so I Just said to him what's the the lowest Dirtiest most grungy system you have to Work on what's the most difficult one to Program and he said oh that's the 2600 And I said well that's where I want to Start because I never like moving down You know so I like to start at the Bottom and move up what was the 2600 or As it was once known the Atari BCS I'll Let Atari explain it System with Classics Galore from Space Invaders to cause that Roar so warshaw Was assigned to convert the arcade game Star Castle to the Atari 2600 and Immediately began stirring up trouble First thing I did with my project was go To my boss and say you know what this Game's gonna suck I don't want to do This game this is not the project I want To do warshaw presented an alternate Gameplay idea that he felt was better Adapted to the machine and his pitch was Accepted that game ultimately became Yar's Revenge which has since become the Best-selling non-licensed game for the Console and remains well regarded to This day Let's go on the strength of yar's Revenge warshaw was recommended to do The first movie to video game conversion For Atari Raiders of the Lost Ark and

His work on that made a strong enough Impression that in the final days of Development he earned himself that Fateful phone call from the CEO of Atari Signing him up to make E.T the Extraterrestrial Hey Howard we this is July 27th we need E.T for September 1st can you do it I Said absolutely I can do it provided we Reach the right arrangement Foreign not only did warshaw have to Build a functional video game from Scratch in five weeks after spending Seven and six months respectively on Yar's Revenge and Raiders but he also Had to impress a film industry giant Steven Spielberg warshaw was given 72 Hours to put together a basic design Concept for E.T fly out to LA and Present the idea to Spielberg directly With E.T I had enough time to just Implement my design I certainly didn't Have time to step away from it and hang Out for a while and then see where it Goes and it probably is worth noting That when I did present that design I laid it out Spielberg listen to the Whole thing and at the end he looked at Me and he said Couldn't you do something more like Pac-Man And I was I couldn't believe my whole Bottom fell out at me but the truth of It that I that I knew that he I hadn't

Communicated to him was that this was a Game I could deliver in the time frame I Didn't want to say that to him because I Didn't want to come off as desperate you Know frankly and so what I did say was You know Stephen E.T is a really an Extraordinary it's a special film And I think it needs a special kind of Game to go with it and this is a unique Design and this is something that I Think you know Lives up to the level the film and uh is Appropriate to what we're trying to Produce and so and he went okay yeah and He agreed with that and that was good Because if he would have said no I Really want to Pac-Man I would have had To say to him we can't do Pac-Man in This time we only have five weeks this Is what I can do please be okay Table so what was Workshop pitching to Spielberg When he sat down to design an ET game he First had to puzzle out what genre he Was going to make whatever it was it had To be simple enough to be made very Quickly but needed to be fun enough to Replay and have a broad enough scope to Actually be replayable Warsaw settled on the idea of a treasure Hunt for the phone pieces ET assembles During the movie Once players find all three phone pieces They then have to find the one spot on

The map where they can use the phone to Call the spaceship to come get them and From there must find the landing Zone And there are also a number of candies Reese's Pieces rather scattered about That E.T can collect either to help Restore his energy as it's spent by Walking around or to give to Elliot in Return for a phone piece all this while Running from enemies trying to drag ET Off to other screens or steal the phone Pieces he's collected so far but people Who weren't around in the 1980s may not Realize is that in some ways E.T was Actually somewhat groundbreaking for its Time It had an open-ended structure with Multiple ways to complete its primary Objective a detailed title screen an Animated cut scene at the end multiple Difficulty settings replayability Easter Eggs and yes impressive graphics the Backgrounds are fairly simple but the Characters themselves are fairly Detailed for a time when even having Multiple colors on a character was a Feat there aren't many characters so I Can do the characters in one line res Graphics I could do the maximum Resolution Graphics get the most color I Possibly can in and turn that part over To my graphics person so that he has the Freedom to make the best looking stuff That he can and it's this multi-layer

Treasure hunt scenario that hopefully is Fun enough so that the game has legs so You can play it over and over again this Was the first 3D World in video gaming I don't know how many people realize That but ET is played on a cube the World is consistently works it's a cube And if you think of the cube wherever You are on the cube as you exit the Screen you will always go to the right Next face of the cube depending on where You go it's a cube where the top is the Forest the bottom is the city and the Four sides are the pits We're also one of et's biggest problems People thought hey I touched a pit with My head and I fell in that doesn't make Sense I should only have to fall in if My feet touch it while players may have Been confused about why they were Constantly falling into pits their feet Weren't touching warsha has an Explanation It wasn't that there was anything Explicitly wrong with Collision Detection on the pits in fact the Collision detection was Pixel Perfect if ET touches a well at all he falls in That's just it no one expects to fall Into a well that their head is touching This game got people so bought into the Characters as characters that they Started to try and apply real world Physics to what was going on in the game

To try to make sense of it that way That was the problem with the Collision Attack so people really expected the Characters to perform as characters the Way they think of characters not as game Elements in a game Collision was definitely a major issue With ET but it wasn't the only one Another of et's greatest flaws warshaw Explains is that it commits a Fundamental sin of video game design it Disorients the player frustration is an Essential part of video games Frustration isn't necessary because if You don't experience any frustration or Any pushback from the game there's no Satisfaction when you achieve something So there has to be some frustration in The game what you can't do is disorient The player and there's a big difference Between frustration and disorientation Right frustration is understanding what I'm trying to do but I'm I don't seem to Be able to do it this orientation means I suddenly don't understand what's going On around me and I'm lost in the Environment so the analogy I always use With it is that frustration is I can see The cookie jar but I can't figure out How to reach it disorientation as I walk Into the kitchen to get a cookie and I Find them in the garage and that's what Happened in E.T when people understand The game people who have played The Game

Come to understand the game or even God Forbid read the manual for new players Who don't really get it it is too easy For you to suddenly make a move that you Didn't understand and wind up in a place You don't know how you got there and how What am I doing here it doesn't make any Sense it actually becomes disorienting And that's a problem Another major issue Workshop pinpoints Is the simple fact that an Atari 2600 Game made in five weeks was never going To live up to the expectations of the Massive license it had taken on And not just because of the size of the License but because of the genre of the Film itself His previous work Raiders of the Lost Ark have been based on an action movie That he was able to turn into an action Game but ET was not an action movie it Was an emotional Journey about family Friendship and connection between two Individuals from very different worlds Not exactly the kind of film easily Translatable into video game format way Back in 1982. Foreign People come out of E.T the movie and They think wow what an amazing movie Because it is a great movie And you feel great after having seen it You're inspired and it's uplifting and It's got an alien and you like the alien

You know it's just boy wouldn't it be Fun to live some of this stuff so then You pick up a game you think yeah now I'm going to be able to have the ET Experience And I just don't think there's a video Game you're gonna make on the 2600 That's going to carry the emotional Weight of those expectations The issue up conveying emotion on the Atari 2600 is not a problem warshaw was Ever going to be able to solve but given Et's Fame he's often asked what he would Do to change the game if he had the Chance and warshaw of course has some Ideas first and foremost he removed the Aforementioned disorientation issue by Making it so players only fell into a Pit if their feet touched it and he'd Make it impossible to fall back in Accidentally once he'd emerged it's such An obvious major Improvement that at Least one fan of ET has already figured Out how to adjust it and shared the fix Publicly so that anyone can open up an ET ROM and make the change themselves Alongside other minor bug fixes and Adjustments such as making E.T Brown Instead of green the next thing I would Do is there's a bunch of arrows in the Game that I thought would be an Interesting expedient to have you jump From one screen to the next to save you Time because walking and running in the

Game costs energy so these arrows save You a tremendous amount of energy Jumping around the world the problem is People can jump into the other area and Fall into a pit and boom suddenly They're in a pit and they don't Understand what happened so I think I Would just I would either fix it so when You jump to a place You always land in a safe place which Would have been a really good idea even Better I would probably just eliminate The arrows because there were too many There's too much stuff going on in the Control panel if I were to do just those Things I think the game would have an Incredibly different perception I think a lot of people would be far Less frustrated with the game [Music] While most people might be sensitive About having a game they worked on Referred to as the worst ever made Warshaw instead has embraced the title His recent book once upon Atari is Subtitled how I made history by killing An industry referring to et's reputation Is a major component of the infamous Video game Crash of 1983. a quick History lesson in the early 1980s the Atari 2600 success led to a sudden major Influx of other new consoles from Different manufacturers all trying to

Get a piece of the pie and all with Their own libraries of games at the same Time third-party developers were Entering the scene for the first time Adding to the excess of software Flooding the market and not all of it Was especially high quality either given The greenness of many teams making these Games This is more action than even Spider-Man Can handle well all this was happening Bullish analysts predicted a boom for The industry leading both console and Software manufacturers to overproduce Systems and games and then Atari Released ET alongside the Atari 2600 Port of Pac-Man which was also Critically panned these two Disappointing releases weakened consumer Confidence in Atari and games in general Right at the same time the market was Overwhelmed with new games and consoles Far more than even enthusiastic Consumers could reasonably purchase all At once all this led to overwhelming Amounts of both Gathering dust on Shelves and ultimately being returned to Manufacturers causing huge revenue Losses multiple company bankruptcies and A multi-year-long industry recession Atari itself buried a large quantity of Excess software stock in a New Mexico Landfill leading to the now iconic image Of hundreds of copies of E.T being

Excavated years later but warshaw isn't Bothered by this reputation he's proud Of his work on ET After all he accomplished what he set Out to do he made a functional ET game In five weeks that passed quality Assurance and met every goal he was Given it may not be perfect but what Video game is players opinions Are valid so a lot of people really Hated the game I never argue with Players about opinions what's Interesting about the phenomenon of Worst game ever Is that there's a tremendous number of People who like to come up to me and Tell me hi ET is the worst game ever It's the worst game ever made you made The worst game and what I always like to Say to them is oh Have you played it And you'd be amazed how often the answer Is no And I don't really have to say anything Else I prefer when E.T is known as the Worst game of all time because I also Did yara's revenge and so as long as E.T Is the worst I have the greatest range Of any game designer in history and I'm Kind of proud of that Thanks so much for watching our latest Art of the level for more on the series Check out our deep dives into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Shredder's revenge

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