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Two questions I face constantly are...


People worry I might be sensitive about the ET debacle, but the fact is I’m always happy to discuss it. After all, it was the fastest game ever done, it was a million seller (even after subtracting returns), and of the thousands of 2600 games, how many others are still a topic? Another thing I like to think about is having done ET (consistently rated among the worst games of all time) and Yar’s Revenge (consistently rated as one of the best) I figure I have the unique distinction of having the greatest range of any game designer in history.

“How can you wear those pants in public?” and “Can I ask you about the ET thing?”

You can check out YouTube for the pants, but about the whole ET thing I’d like to say two words:

Happy Anniversary!

And now I’d like to add a few more.

Exactly twenty-five years ago today, millions of ET cartridges were being produced and distributed to retailers around the world. They were still hotly anticipated Christmas gifts and I was still recovering from the development and making plans to fly to London for the debut. The games hadn’t yet made it to discount bins, desert burial sites or even Worst-Of-All-Time lists. In twenty-five years I’ve told many stories about the game that “killed the industry” and answered many questions about having authored the worst game of all time. I’ve spoken at length (on these very pages) about the final resting place for all those cartridges. It’s always been about the aftermath. So to honor the silver anniversary of the ET game I would like to share some of the least told anecdotes about the inception of the most celebrated catastrophe in video game history.

It was the afternoon of July 27th, 1982, just three days before my own 25th birthday when my office phone rang. It was a lovely female voice asking me to hold for Ray Kassar, the reigning CEO of Atari. So I held. When Ray came on the phone, he said “Howard, we’ve just completed negotiations for ET. Steven Spielberg has personally asked for you to do the game. We need it by September 1st, can you do it?” I thought about the question.

September 1st was exactly five weeks away. I just finished spending about ten pretty intense months doing Raiders of the Lost Ark and that was right after having spent over 7 months doing Yar’s Revenge. No one had ever done a game in less than six months, so five weeks? Hmmmm. But the challenge is very attractive and Spielberg is asking for me personally. That’s pretty cool. But how much of a game can I do in five weeks? Am I setting myself up to fail? But ET is a very hot property and I like the movie and what an opportunity to make something very innovative and fresh on the 2600. But trying to do something totally new in the shortest development time ever, does that sound like a great idea? Of course, the key to doing a game in five weeks is to design a game that can be done in five weeks. But would that be a good game? What would make it worth doing?

That took about three seconds. At which point I said, “Ray, I can definitely do that game . . . provided we reach the right deal.”

I was very satisfied with my answer.

So Ray said, “OK, be at the Private Jet Terminal at San Jose Airport at 8:00am Thursday morning, there will be a Learjet waiting for you.”

“Oh good,” I thought, “at least I have two days to do the design.”

In 1982 I got Quote of the Month in Games magazine for telling Steven Spielberg why he was an alien. My theory was this: our first “close encounter” was imminent and the aliens had sent an advance team to prepare our planet to receive them peacefully. The plan was producing movies that showed aliens as friendly and non-threatening and then getting these movies seen all over the planet. Steven Spielberg was the production arm, the one making the movies, and his buddies were the marketing people who ensured the movies were seen the world over. It was a cool theory and Steven liked it enough to tell Games magazine about it, that’s why they called me for the quote. I actually believed this theory until one day in 2005 when I realized it couldn’t possibly be true. That was the day Steven Spielberg released his version of “War of the Worlds.”

How does one design a video game? Simple. You need a world with a goal. Then you need a path to the goal. Then you need obstacles. It’s really that simple. It’s not easy. . . but it is that simple.

So let’s do it. World? Go 3D, play on a cube. And the goal, well, with ET it has to be “phone home.” The path to the goal? You assemble the phone, call the ship and then meet at the landing zone. Sweet. What about the obstacles? Hmmm.

Goals are always simple. It’s the obstacles where a game succeeds or fails. ET’s obstacles were mostly adults. So we’ll have some adults who chase ET. OK. Adults? On the 2600? Five weeks? We’ll need something else. A timing challenge for the pick up? Good. What else? How about hiding the phone pieces? Where? Ah, I know, I’ll create pits. They’re easy to manage and they’ll add an extra venue. Cool.

And just that simply, I laid the basis for 25 years of ignominy. At least that was step one.

Step two came the next day, after a Learjet flight and a limo ride. I’m in Steven Spielberg’s office laying out my design of an innovative original 2600 game play for ET. He listens carefully and then says, “Couldn’t you do something like PacMan?” That blew my mind. I thought, “Gee, Steven, couldn’t you do something more like Star Wars?”

But that was just my ego twitching, and in retrospect he was probably right. He was invoking the sacred Hollywood mantra: “Talent borrows, genius steals.”

Perhaps a little Grand Theft Gameplay would have been a better choice. On the other hand, we’re still talking about it after twenty-five years, harkening back to another bit of Hollywood wisdom: “There’s no such thing as bad press.”

Happy Anniversary to me and ET, pressing on.


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