Howard Scott Warshaw on creating E.T. and Atari: Game Over

Legendary game designer Howard Scott Warshaw talks to us about creating the E.T. videogame in just five weeks, Atari's collapse, and more.

In the early 1980s, the Atari 2600 dominated the American videogames industry, with its biggest games selling millions of copies. Designer Howard Scott Warshaw was one of the key figures in Atari’s golden age, creating three of the era’s most famous games – Yars’ Revenge, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T. – and paying witness to Atari’s precipitous fall in 1982-83.

Although the reasons for Atari’s collapse – and the North American games industry crash in general – were complicated, one game in particular is commonly talked about in relation to it: the now infamous E.T.

Designed and programmed in around five weeks by Warshaw, the game initially sold well but was poorly reviewed, and by 1983, stories began to circulate that a financially beleaguered Atari had buried millions of copies of unsold and returned E.T. cartridges in a New Mexico landfill.

The documentary Atari: Game Over digs into the story behind E.T., its burial, and Atari’s abrupt shift from the fastest-growing company in US history to its dismantlement in 1984.

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On the surface, the much-publicised dig at the Alamagordo, New Mexico landfill – where copies of E.T. are found among the dust and trash – is Atari: Game Over’s biggest draw. But really, it’s the human story behind the making of E.T. that is its most interesting aspect – from the questionable business practices which led to the multi-million-dollar E.T. licensing deal to Warshaw’s frantic efforts to make a playable, even innovative game in just five weeks. It

The video-on-demand release of Atari: Game Over gave us the golden opportunity to talk to Howard Scott Warshaw about his unique part in videogame history, his memories of working at Atari, and how the company’s collapse unfolded from his perspective.

Given E.T.’s infamy, did the documentary give you the chance to set the record straight, to a certain extent?

I think this documentary was about getting the record right. And so they were on that mission from go. I was just participating in it, and I was really happy to do so.

This was a topic I’ve been talking about for 30 years, on and off. And I have to say, Zak Penn, the director of the documentary, really did a great job of getting me to new places with the same material. He had a fresh take, and a really some really interesting points of view. What you see in the documentary is a very small window of six to eight hours of interview. There were all kinds of things covered – it was a great experience for me to go through all that.

I think it’s a good summary. Because the way it lays it out, it seems crazy that you could pin the blame for such a big company going down because of one game.

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If you look at it from a storytelling point of view, or even from a news reporting point of view, usually, there’s an overarching theme – the big point of what I’m trying to say. I don’t talk in big generalities; I pick a face. I tell my story through that face, to personalise it, to make it specific, and make it understandable and comprehensible to people.

And so the crash of the videogame industry is one of those stories – it’s a big event, but unless you’re in business school, and writing a big paper about business cycles or product life cycles, there needs to be something you can reduce it to. Particularly in America, of late, there needs to be someone or something to blame.

So when you talk about something like the fall of the videogame industry, it’s a very complicated thing to talk about the business dynamics and all the things that really led up to it. It’s easier to say, ‘They fell off this cliff.’ That’s very comprehensible, that makes sense to people, regardless of accuracy.

It’s like Nolan [Bushnell, Atari co-founder] said at one point in the documentary, right? He said, “A simple and clear statement is always preferable, and has more power than a complicated truth.”

That’s a brilliant summary. 

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When Atari did collapse, I wonder if you felt at the time that the company should have done more to protect themselves and also their workers. Because the documentary reminds us that human beings were affected by this. Dozens of people lost their jobs.

Absolutely. Should Atari have worked harder to stem the tide and do something about it? That’s a really interesting question. It really is. And actually, I don’t know if anybody’s ever said to me, ‘Should Atari have done more to avoid this?’ It’s a really good point.

What I want to say to that is… this was a brand new ball game. It was literally a new medium that was being launched. This was the age of turning television from a passive to an active medium. And that’s a huge thing to happen.

This was state of the art. There was a programmer who used to work at Atari, and he said this about state of the art – I thought this was a brilliant summary: “The definition of state of the art means that when it’s broke, nobody knows how to fix it.” [Chuckles]

Right!

I think if you take that point, and apply that to Atari, it’s truly a comedy of errors. Some of the programming and technological advances that we did just came from dickering around with the hardware until we got something out of it. It wasn’t strictly trial and error, but there was a lot of experimentation and, “Who knows what’s going on down this corridor? Let’s go take a look”.

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Unfortunately, that was going on in the executive suite as well, apparently! I don’t know if everybody who was there at the time knew if that was happening. With the gift of retrospect, it’s kind of clear. One of the people I have a lot of empathy for is Ray Kassar. Ray Kassar’s another guy who people point to and say, “Here’s the dude who blew it. He messed it up.”

[Ray Kassar, former vice-president of fabric-making giant Burlington Industries, became CEO of Atari Inc in 1978 – a position he held until 1983.]

Because the people who get past blaming me for the game… because obviously, no single game ruins the industry. There are stories in Hollywood of one movie ruining a studio, but the proportion of the assets invested in one product in the movie industry is actually much higher than it is in the game industry. You don’t risk as much making one game as you do making a movie. At least, historically.

Now, some games are getting to that level, but it’s really only the games that have the built-in, established market, so there isn’t the risk. You just don’t see the kind of risk-reward gamble in games that you do in movies. But the thing is, this is a guy who came from very traditional corporate management. He came from, I think, Burlington. A big multi-national textile firm. If anything was classic, corporate profile, that was it. And they put him in charge of a breakthrough entertainment technology company. Brand new, in a new medium. And he’s going to come in and say, “I know how to run the company”. And that’s what you hire someone like that for. So it makes sense.

The story of Atari is the story of everyone agreeing and making sense while we walk off a cliff. There was nobody psychotic in charge going, “Oh, let’s just do this.” That was more the formation of the company, where you have people who are just nuts because they’re so inspired, so amazingly innovative, that to an outsider [their methods] can seem incomprehensible. But it’s wonderful, it’s genius. It’s happening.

Then the company starts to succeed. So the mindset shifts. We don’t want someone who’s a wild, dynamic breakthrough kind of person, because that’s already happened. The need for that has gone. What we need now is someone who can sustain growth – someone more conventional. So they tried to apply conventional thinking to a very unconventional group of people, and that became a problem. 

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One of the things I read was that Atari was over-producing quantities of its games. Something like Pac-Man, which sold well, but still had millions of cartridges left over.

Yeah. See, Pac-Man was just as big a problem as E.T. in a lot of ways.

That’s what I thought.

People were disappointed in E.T., but people didn’t have any expectations. “E.T.’s a great movie. Okay, I want the game.” But what are you expecting from the game? Who knows? Everyone has their own expectations. Pac-Man was a [already] videogame – there was a very clear, 100 percent expectation of what I should be getting when I buy Pac-Man. And they did not get that. There were people who were very happy with the 2600 Pac-Man, who get the idea that it’s not a coin-op, and away we go.

But I think a lot of people who were very unhappy when they expected the game Pac-Man, and got what they got on the 2600. And they had a lot of cartridges for those – they printed more of those than they did of E.T. But what they did was they converted Pac-Man to what we call a pack-out game – a game that goes in the base unit. And that’s how they got rid of a lot of those carts. They didn’t actually sell them. And I’m sure it helped boost the sales for a while, because a lot of people who are coming to the game are people who don’t realise what they’re going to get.

So what are your memories of those five weeks working on E.T.? They must have been frantic.

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Oh the actual making of the game? It was insane. I mean literally crazy making. Because, the metaphor I always use in my mind for it is climbing a mountain. I needed a mountain to climb. I was at a point in my life where it was important to me to have a really huge challenge. So when this thing came up, the way it struck most people was, “That’s insane, that’s a ridiculous thing to do. It’s not really doable.”

The way it registered with me was, “Ah. This is my challenge. Here’s my mountain.” And I really wanted to climb it. So I went into it with a zeal and determination that was intense. In all fairness, that’s the way I approach pretty much everything I enjoy. It was a real edgy proposition. Because the thing is, I not only had to make a complete game in five weeks, which was a hurdle, but being who I am, it wasn’t enough to make the game. What I needed to do was innovate. So not only did I want to do something in five weeks, I wanted to do something that was a breakthrough. And so I think I had good basics for it, but I have to say there wasn’t time to really work it through.

There’s also the thing where, when you make a game, you’re trapped inside of it. It’s like editing your own work. When you’re in a compressed timescale, and you’re stuck in the perspective of what you’re doing, it’s really hard to step out of it.

One of the reasons a game takes a long time to do, is because it doesn’t take 100 percent of your time to be strictly in aggressive development, but it takes time to do a version of the game, step outside of it for a minute, and then play with it, experience it, get the hang of it, and see where it needs to go.

I didn’t have that time. I didn’t have that reflection time. I didn’t have that time to release myself from being stuck in it. It was a game made by someone entirely stuck within the perspective of the system. No real external perspective. From a design point of view, that’s a problem – a limitation. 

This might sound like a naive question, but was there ever any talk of having a larger team of people working on the game, because the window was so small?

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Not really. Because for one thing, nobody else wanted to participate in it! [Laughs] This was literally something nobody would touch. The truth of it is, when they finished the deal, they didn’t call me up right away. The first thing they did was call my boss’s boss, who was the head of VCS development, and said, “We need E.T. in five weeks.” And he said, “You can’t have it. You can’t do a game in five weeks. It just isn’t going to happen.”

So after that, they called me. Ray Kassar called me directly – I didn’t know this other conversation had taken place. He said, “Can you do anything in five weeks?” And I said, “Absolutely. I can do that.”

Then, the next week, there was a meeting where they announced in my department that I was doing E.T. There was some grounding, because I’d just finished Raiders and I’d done Yars’, and everyone was like, “Oh great, Howard gets to do E.T., and he just did Raiders.”

So I stood up in the meeting, and I said “Yeah, it’s due September 1st.” This was like August 1st or 2nd. [Laughs] “It’s due September 1st, and anybody else who’d like to do this game instead, you can have it. Anybody.” I said, “I’d be happy to give it to you.”

No one said anything. But there was no more complaining either! There was no more complaining about who was going to do E.T. They got that it was that tight a deadline.

Sometimes it takes longer to organise than to get something done. In longer term projects, I don’t think that’s true – there should be organisation time built into the schedule. But on the 2600, it was more like, “Get out of my way.” It’s not that big a project in some ways. It’s a question of getting it right. It’s about having people play the game and consulting on the game, which I had people checking it. Normally it takes a couple of months just to get to a playable version of the game. You can’t really get a lot of feedback on something until it’s at least minimally playable.

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So if I’m doing the design, and it’s not that bad just to code up these pieces – it might take longer for me to explain to people and direct how it was going than to just do it. It was just balls to the wall, head down, just trying to get it going. It’s basically a game that needs to launch on first playable. Because basically I’d have three and-a-half weeks to get to a first playable, and then a week or nearly two of putting on the finishing touches – getting the graphics right, trying to fine-tune some of the play.

And, you know, the falling into the wells, which is one of the biggest problems in the game. To me, in my mind, it was, “well, that’s playability” – you need to be able to navigate, and that’s part of the challenge.

It turns out that I violated one of the fundamental rules of programming videogames. Would you like to know what that is?

Yeah!

To me, one of the fundamental rules of game design is that it’s okay to frustrate a user. It’s not okay to disorient a user. A videogame can be really tough to do. But at any point in time, I should know what I’m trying to do, and I should know why I’m failing. That’s important. That’s the frustration. Frustration is knowing what I’m trying to achieve – I just can’t seem to do it. Disorientation is, “I don’t know what the hell is going on. I don’t know what I’m trying to do, I don’t know what happened to me. I don’t know how I got to this place. I’m tired of winding up here.”

Videogames are all about frustration, right? Because the satisfaction of a videogame is overcoming a challenge. The definition of a challenge is something that was frustrating before you achieved it. Right? Because if you just went and achieved it, it wasn’t a challenge – it’s just something you did. 

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The documentary also talks about the culture at Atari, and the party campus atmosphere – which is something we now associate with modern Silicon Valley companies. It was quite trailblazing in a way, wasn’t it?

It was, absolutely. And like a lot of trailblazing things, the version of it at Atari was a lot more extreme than Silicon Valley companies today! Nolan said it really well when he said that it was the birth of the idea of engineer as rock star. The idea that they’re people to be celebrated. They’re people who need a different pace and a different kind of celebration. It’s a very interesting take on what it is. It was a different mindset for a company – how to get productivity out of your people.

It was a different kind of carrot. He really established something like that. There’s another aspect to it, which is what I refer to as ‘the intellectual blue collar’. This is another thing that came about at Atari – it’s something Nolan Bushnell really understood, and Ray Kassar really didn’t. It was one of the root causes for the eventual fail, the big problems in the gaming industry.

It was this big transition. Not just replacing Nolan with Ray, but the transition of replacing someone with an eccentric, engineering mindset with someone who was completely out of touch with frontline workers. Or had a stereotype of them instead of relating to them.

Nolan was someone who made breakthrough, creative technology. So he understood what that’s like. Kassar was a guy who’d say, “brains are the cheapest things you can buy”, and there are a lot of executives and management-types who believe that: the whole R&D group, those are the people you just put up with while we run the business we want to run. What we’re selling is widgets, and the science of selling widgets is the same, regardless of what the widgets are.

But the science of making the widgets – that became very different. Because for 150, 200 years, the production line had been enforced, in effect. Ever since Eli Whitney, a long time ago. And that production line had been the basis of manufacturing and product development. But on a product line, the whole thing is designed so any yo-yo can stand on the line and put parts in and do it. The idea is replaceability, just like the components of your product are replaceable and interchangeable – the operatives who make it happen are also replaceable and interchangeable.

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What happened in technology, and what got revealed at Atari, was the creation of the intellectual blue collar. These are people who are at the bottom of the org chart; the programmer is the lowest person on the org chart. Nobody reports to them, just like a line worker.

Except line workers, if they’re really sharp, will usually graduate to management, right? Because the managers are looking for people who will take a broader perspective. That’s not to say there aren’t smart or funny blue collar people, and it’s not like there aren’t any management people who aren’t that sharp also. But there’s a difference there. Managers certainly have control over the people that report to them. And in a lot of cases they think they’re smarter than them. And in a lot of cases, they may be.

But what happened at Atari, for one of the first times in history, was that if you plucked a manager out and put them in charge of a group of game programmers, you’ve got a situation where these people are smarter than their boss. And they like to dick around with their boss!

You didn’t see that before. It just wasn’t done! I mean, that’s not a frame of mind you’re used to seeing in business. When Ray Kassar came in, he was a classical manager. Bushnell was never a classical anything – he was an innovator. He created a new thing. And he did it with innovative people, and he was very good at acquiring innovative people and empowering them.

Kassar was exactly the opposite; Kassar was all about reeling things in and making it what I’m used to controlling, because that’s what works. Which was unfortunate, because what he was doing was trying to choke the lifeblood of what was making the whole thing work. He was doing it in the name of making a situation that was more manageable, so that he could apply the techniques that had, traditionally, succeeded for him.

It wasn’t that he was some tyrant that comes in to lord over people. I think he was trying to achieve a legitimate, reasonable goal from his point of view, it’s just that he was doing it in an environment that nobody had seen before. It was anathema to his model.

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You don’t hear people framing it that often, but I think that’s really the story of what happened.

The seed was planted. The die was cast. Nolan Bushnell, who’s a fairly shrewd businessman: do you think he’d sell a business for $22m if he thought it would be worth half a billion? It’s just – no way. He really gets where it’s about to go.

The story is, Warner came in and did all the marketing and got it all going, and that’s what made it take off. I don’t quite buy that. I think what they had with the VCS was a mouse trap. This thing was set to take off whatever it was. It wasn’t advertising that pushed this thing over, it was the fact that it was a brand new medium that was super exciting to a lot of people, including the key demographic: teenagers!

This thing was going to go. It was already set to take off.

So what happens is, they install Kassar, who starts doing his thing, and it takes off just like it was going to anyway. But since it happens after they’ve installed Kassar, Kassar gets a lot of the credit for it. And what’s Kassar going to do? Say, “I didn’t have anything to do with it?” He’s getting million dollar bonuses from Warner! He’s getting a lot of positive feedback from his bosses, saying, “Hey, nice job.” He’s not going to say, “Ah, I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

He takes his style and really shoves it down people’s throats, because he believes in it.

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But then it turns. Then it turns. It starts to shift. It starts to reverse. And when it does, that when you find out what he really missed.

Atari was the fastest growing business in American history. It was also the fastest falling company in American history.

What’s up with that? If you had that kind of success, does it make sense that it all disappears, or should it bleed off and slowly erode? It’s a very interesting thing. That’s what happens. They were handed the golden goose, and it took off, and then when it started to shift, they had no idea what to do about it. And they weren’t even aware that the things they’d been doing along the way contributed to [the fall]. They’d basically built an abattoir for themselves. And it was done with the best intentions.  

(Image credit: The picture above is the property of GameGavel.com under a Creative Commons license.)

When you were at the dig last year, and those games were finally brought up out of the ground, was that a sense of closure for you? Was it a chance for you to reassess what happened, and your part in games history?

You know, that seems to be happening. It’s a good point. I’ve watched the documentary a number of times at this point, and I still get choked up when I get choked up in the movie, because it takes me right back to where I was.

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For many, many years I’ve talked about this, and I’ve always joked with it. Because I’ve had my own way of dealing with it. I’ve never believed that E.T was the worst game of all time. I never believed I was the cause of the crash of the videogame industry. I was there, and I knew that didn’t make sense.

But I wore that badge. I carried that label for a long time, so I turned it into a fun thing – because I’m that kind of person. I’m an extremely upbeat kind of person. And I actually prefer it when people say that it’s the worst game of all time, because when you put that together with Yars’ Revenge, which is considered one of the best of all time, then I have the best range of any designer in history!

I liked that, that’s how I related to it. But people would always talk to me about E.T. and they wouldn’t talk to me about Yars’ or Raiders. So it was kind of a bummer to be focused on for all the negativity. But in my mind, I had my own defences.

When I saw this movie, and saw some of the appreciation that I got from my professional peers, and people who’d been paying attention and knew what was going on with it – it was more meaningful to me than I’d anticipated it would be. I’d so steeled myself against the onslaught, in some ways, that I didn’t realise how much redemption would mean.

It was tremendously meaningful. To feel this kind of appreciation and recognition at this point has been very valuable to me, very important. I’m incredibly grateful to Zak [Penn, director], and Simon and Jonathan Chinn, the producers, who put this together.

In the course of less than one year, I went from hearing that there’s some documentary being made, to seeing something that made a real difference to my life and how I feel about things. The promise of really going back and rewriting history – certainly from my point of view, correctly, accurately.

I’ve been speaking at conferences. I’m going to be at the Game Developer Conference, doing a post-mortem on Yars’ Revenge this year. And I don’t know what else will come of this.

There’s a grass roots movement to push me into the videogame hall of fame, and I wasn’t aware I was even being kept out! [Laughs] To tell you the truth, when I first heard about that, I really didn’t know there was a videogame hall of fame! I wasn’t aware I was missing something.

To be appreciated for what you did is a huge, huge thing. I was clear about this from the very beginning: what I was doing was helping people fight boredom. Boredom was a big problem for me growing up. I was bored with a lot of stuff, and I didn’t have videogames. I just spent a lot of time being bored, and for me, that was really, really difficult. The idea that I could go and alleviate that for other people, on a large scale, that was a great thing to do. For me, that was a noble ambition. A great goal.

Over the years, you get fan mail, people saying “I spent so many hours playing this – thank you,” or “Hey, you stole my childhood, damn you!” I see things like that, and I think, “Wow, I did it. I made a positive difference in literally millions of people’s lives.”

It took me back to that place to see this documentary, and that is a tremendous gift to receive.

Howard Scott Warshaw, thank you very much.

Atari: Game Over is available now on Xbox Live, and will appear on video on demand in the UK, US, Australia and Japan from 2nd February.