Sunday, 04 May 2008
During the late '70s and early '80s, one could sum up the massive video game craze with one three-syllable word: Atari. The company that had virtually created home gaming had ruled over the market ever since and was enjoying its top spot as industry juggernaut. Riding on the successes of Adventure, Missile Command, Space Invaders and Asteroids, it owned 80% of the home video game market, accounted for 70% of Warner Communication's operating profits, and recorded five billion dollars worth of sales during a five-year period.
Then came E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Having snatched up the rights to produce exclusive interactive content based on the blockbuster movie, Atari sent Steven Spielberg a $25 million dollar cheque and rushed production on a game that absolutely, positively had to be released in time for the holiday season. They gave the task to a programmer named Howard Scott Warshaw, who designed, coded and debugged E.T. in six weeks, at a time when most video games took six months to develop.
The resultant "game" indeed hit store shelves in time for Christmas. Unfortunately for Atari, that's where it stayed. Having already been burned by Atari's slipshod Pac-Man, consumers were a little antsy about dropping $60-$70 for another one of Atari's "A-list" games. Those who did give E.T. a chance were stuck with a horrible, flickering piece of junk that ranked as one of the worst games ever produced.
The industry giant manufactured five million E.T. cartridges -- only about a million ended up in the hands of gamers, and the majority of those were returned by angry mothers demanding refunds. The debacle, as it turns out, was the final nail in Atari's coffin. Market saturation, competition from rival consoles, and the arrival of personal home computers had stretched the video game industry to its limits. The company could ill afford big budget bombs like Pac-Man and E.T.; Atari recorded $536 million in losses in 1983 and its stock prices tumbled.
And as a gruesome epilogue to the whole sad, twisted story, Atari ended up trucking millions of unsold games -- including more than a few E.T. cartridges, by all accounts -- to a New Mexico landfill, where they were unceremoniously crushed and buried under a concrete slab.
A fitting end, I daresay, for one of history's most infamous design disasters.