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Few game developers have had quite as eventful a career as Howard Scott Warshaw. Thrust into the booming video game industry, Warshaw quickly distinguished himself as one of the most talented designers working on the Atari 2600, with games like Yar’s Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But, surprisingly, it would be one of his biggest career failures that would cement his place in gaming history. In December 1982, ET the video game was released. It would later be labelled as “the worst video game of all time”.
Prior to working on ET Warshaw had already created a big name for himself in the industry. His first title, Yar’s Revenge, was a best-selling game on the Atari 2600. The game, which was originally intended to be a remake of the popular arcade game Star Castle, introduced a lot of mechanics that would later become standards in gaming, including full screen explosions and the introduction of a “pause” feature in between levels. Given the limitations of the Atari 2600, this was an impressive feat by the young developer that opened up a lot of doors. One of these opportunities was the chance to work with Steven Spielberg on a video game adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
When it came to showing Spielberg the finished product, Warshaw was tasked with creating a demo tape of the game. In order to create the demo, he played through the game and narrated it, before adding some after effects in post. With the completed demo tape in hand, he then travelled to rendezvous with the famous director at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) in Chicago.
“When we hooked with Spielberg, we went up to the Atari booth and I played the tape for him, and he sat there and just watched the tape run all the way through with my narration and everything that was going on. At the end of it, he just sort of looked at me and he said, ‘You know, it feels exactly like a movie.’ That just blew my mind. I had put together a game that was themed on a movie, and when he played a demo of the game Steven Spielberg felt that it was just like a movie. That was one of the single most gratifying moments of my life. That was a very proud and satisfying moment. I’m still grateful to him for that.”
Raiders was another success for Atari, selling over one million copies. This put Warshaw in the rare position of having two hit games that had shifted over a million units. Fans eagerly awaited his next game, but what came next surprised everyone.
After working on Raiders, Warshaw was sitting at his desk when he received a call asking if he could create an adaptation of Spielberg’s latest film, ET. This time he was to be given only five weeks to complete the game. This contrasted greatly with the average development cycle of an Atari game, which was usually around 5-6 months. Despite the warning signs, Warshaw was enthusiastic and accepted the offer. The next day he was immediately flown by private jet to meet with Spielberg to discuss ideas.
“I put together…a design of the game, which was essentially the design of the game I did. After the presentation, Spielberg just thinks about it for a sec…and then he goes, ‘Couldn’t you do something more like Pacman?’ I was…dumbfounded. There just something about that moment, because I had hoped that I’d established myself as a creative innovator with Steven Spielberg, who is certainly a creative innovator. To have him suggest, OK, just do it as a knock off’—there was something really weird about that moment.
“I had this impulse when he said that to say to him, ‘Gee Steven, couldn’t you do something more like The Day The Earth Stood Still?’ You know, but this was Steven Spielberg, and I did not say that to him. I just said, ‘You know Steven, I don’t think we have the time to do a knock off. I don’t know that that’s a good idea. Shouldn’t we do something more unique to this game? ET was such an amazing movie, and we really want to do something that is more of a homage.’ After a while, he agreed that we should just go with the game.”
The ambitious designer incorporated several elements into ET the game that he hoped would convey the emotional connections from the film. One way he tried to achieve this was by having certain characters react differently to ET. The FBI agent, for example, is interested in what you have, and therefore steals your possessions; whereas the scientist is more interested in your identity, so he kidnaps you to take back to the city to study.
“In 1982, with the VCS and 128 bytes of RAM, to try to get an emotional tone in a video game is probably an unrealistic expectation. But that’s where I was, and I did create the innovative world,” Warshaw said. “I did create one of the first 3D worlds in a video game. It had regenerating gameplay, so it was sort of a puzzle solving, racing game that regenerates itself each time and tries to have life. I felt there were some very good design principles in it, particularly since I came up with all of those in about 48 hours.”
Despite his best efforts, ET the video game would be a critical and commercial failure. It also prompted a large number of returns from disappointed customers. This was in part due to a glitch in the game that would continuously cause ET to fall into pits if any section of his character overlapped with a hole. Stuck with potentially worthless stock, staff at Atari made the decision to bury surplus cartridges in a landfill in the New Mexico desert.
ET for the Atari 2600 would later also go on to be labelled “the worst game ever” by many gamers and much of the gaming media, as well as erroneously blamed for the North American video game crash of 1983, although industry professionals have since contested this later point, claiming instead that it was Atari’s oversaturation of the market that was to blame for this significant event.
Talking about the game’s failure, Warshaw comments: “The way you do a five-week game is that you design a game that can be done in five weeks. That’s what I was doing, but I still wanted to make it a socko, whammo, super contribution game, instead of a simpler game that could have been done in five weeks. But I can’t do that. I can’t back off of my expectations and the goals that I set for stuff. That doesn’t make sense for me. So I shot a little too high and maybe I was a few days short. With just a couple of extra days, I could have gone and cleaned up some of the things if I had a mind to.
“But, you know, the funny thing about the whole ET situation is if I were to take two more days, and gone in and cleaned up the well thing, the falling in, and straightened out a few more things, it probably would have made it just an OK game and we probably wouldn’t be talking about it right now. It would have literally changed history in a way that would have been much less interesting to me.”
As video games magazines began to build the myth of ET being “the worst game ever”, Warshaw learned to deal with it with humor. Very soon he even began to feel disappointed whenever he encountered a list of bad games that didn’t include ET.
“I don’t believe for a second that ET is as bad a game as people bill it to be, but I’ll never argue with someone who’s played the game who believes it’s a horrible game,” he said. “Everyone’s opinion is correct for them. I would never argue with that. The way I’ve always looked at it is I did Yar’s Revenge, which is frequently named as one of the best games of all time, so between ET and Yar’s Revenge, I had the greatest range of any designer in history.”
DIGGING UP THE PAST
It’s hard to argue with that, but it’s ET’s legacy that pursues him still. On April 26 2014, a crowd of people congregated at the believed site of the mass ET burial in Alamogordo, New Mexico. As the assemblage of games journalists, amateur historians, and video game enthusiasts waited with bated breath, a dedicated crew worked tirelessly to excavate the site. After much work and several hours, they unearthed something of note: an Atari 2600 joystick. This was followed soon after by a greater discovery: they had in fact located a cache of Atari games, among them ET.
The dig was to be the subject of a movie by filmmaker Zak Penn, titled Atari: Game Over. This film was helpful in once again establishing the significance of Warshaw’s work as a game designer. This was important, as he had been largely absent from the video game industry for over 30 years.
“I didn’t really think that it was much of a weight that I was carrying,” he said. “But, I have to say, to this day every time I see Atari: Game Over I get very emotional. I get very emotional. There’s the thing of being exonerated for ET, and that’s one thing, but there’s an aspect to that movie in which I really get to hear people that I respect and honour appreciating the work that I did and the contribution that I made. To see that remembered is emotionally overwhelming for me. So there’s this thing I was carrying for a long time that I was carrying with humour, though it was funny, and learned to make fun of it, but I didn’t realize how much I missed some of the appreciation until I actually saw it. Seeing that is a deeply meaningful experience. I’m incredibly grateful to Zak Penn, and to Simon and Jonathan Chinn, the producers, for creating something that was very healing in my life quite honestly. It means a lot to me, and had a tremendous impact.”
In 2012, Warshaw finally achieved his goal of becoming a licensed psychotherapist. He now practices psychotherapy in Silicon Valley, helping creative individuals to overcome their mental blockages to better perform. This has earned him the nickname “The Silicon Valley Therapist”.
“Human behaviour has always fascinated me,” he said. “But when I got to college, I didn’t really study psychology; I did in high school, then I got away from it. Just like with computers, sometimes I have to get away from something before I dive into it. With computers, I totally avoided them until I suddenly dove into it and made it my total focus. Psychology was kind of like that too. I got away from it for a long time, until I started to realize that, whether it was filmmaking, or even programming, and certainly managing technical projects, the way I was doing my job wasn’t as a technologist. It was much more as a psychologist.
“It’s absolutely true though that being a therapist is the most gratifying work that I’ve ever done,” he continued. “It’s literally the first time in 30 years that I have had the job satisfaction that I achieved at Atari. It’s very meaningful work for me. I’m very passionate about it. I’m very happy to do it. I believe I’m pretty good at it. The way I look at it is, ‘I used to entertain the nerd population, now I’m actually making their lives better.’ So I’m still working with that same crew, but I just feel I’m doing better work. That 30 years between Atari and really becoming a psychotherapist was a long time to go missing satisfaction. And knowing that it was possible and I wasn’t getting it, that was a long trip through the desert, but I made it.”
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