There will always be bad games suffering from poor gameplay, terrible programming, hideous graphics, or all of the above, destined to stay buried at the bottom of an electronic store bargain bin. One game was so bad however that it has remained buried for nearly twenty years. Not under a pile of other unsold games, but deep underground in a New Mexico landfill. It has become a legend among gamers and a haunting reminder for businesses. That game was “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”. Released for the Atari 2600 in 1982, it has been a cautionary tale for the booming industry to come.
In the late 70′s, video games began hitting store shelves with the most popular console being the Atari 2600. Current generation games are made by studios comprised of dozens of programmers, artist, designers, and directors, spending years to design, develop, and test. Not so in the early Atari 2600 days when, every game was created by a single programmer receiving a paltry pay and not even allowed to be credited for his work.
Many talented programmers ended up leaving Atari and first-party companies, fed up with low pay, short deadlines, and lack of acknowledgment. They banded together to establish third-party gaming studios: Activision being the first. In 1982, Atari lost a lawsuit it filed against Activision for creating games that ran on the Atari 2600. The ruling legitimized the creation of third-party developers to make titles for proprietary game systems, and before people knew it the industry was flooded by new and cheaply made games trying to cash in on the craze.
Feeling the pressure as customers were buying these cheap third-party titles over Atari’s full priced games, Atari bought the video game licensing right for Steven Spielberg’s new movie “E.T.” for $25 million in hopes of making a blockbuster hit.
After acquiring the rights in late July 1982, Atari insisted on a holiday season release. This meant that programmer Howard Scott Warshaw had to design, program, and publish E.T. in a time frame of six weeks leading to skipping the testing process in order to meet the deadline. Though this was an unthinkable and unrealistic task even for current industry standards of production time, Atari continued on with their plan releasing E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in December and consequently, earning its status as the worst video game ever made.
Shortly after release, Atari’s quarterly statement caused stock in all video game companies to plummet. Just after that Atari, once the fastest growing company in United States history, was bankrupt and $500 million dollars in debt and creating the video game crash of 1983. Sales of entertainment systems and software tanked from an enormous $3 billion to only $100 million, a decrease of 97 percent. Overstocked by the mountain of games from 1982, retailers began to return old unsold products to publishers. Unable to adequately refund these returns forced many of the leading gaming companies to collapse.
The gaming industry survived with a few third-party developers like Activision, releasing titles for the rising market of personal computers eventually recovering to grow into a new video game industry.
The catastrophe caused by E.T. painfully reminded the gaming world of the importance of maintaining a higher level of quality control. The industry’s bad business practices and a lack of oversight propelled it into the self-destructive combinations that lead to the video game crash of 1983. But, today gamers enjoy the benefits of a high standard of entertainment, and developers are appropriately recognized for their creative contributions.
Sure, terrible games continue to be released year after year, and the relationship between publishers and customers still tends to be an unsteady one. But the demise and reconstruction of gaming is what made it the improved business we enjoy today. Thanks to a game that lowered the bar for how awful a game could be, it slayed the mighty beast of the electronic entertainment industry so it could respawn stronger than ever before. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial may have been the worst game ever made, but it established itself as an infamous warning sign, as well as one of the most important, in gaming history.