If you’ve been a gamer for a while then you’ve probably played plenty of different games over the years. Some games (League of Legends) are obviously much better than others (Dota 2), but did you know that in 1982 somebody made a video game so bad it destroyed an entire company? Although there have been many attempts at this recently (Star Wars Battlefront II by EA Games), no other game to date has destroyed a company as quickly as this one did.
So how did this story start? Let’s take a journey back in time to the 80’s when games where in their early stages and Donkey Kong was all the rage.
The Worst Game Ever
In order to piggyback on the release of the movie and make some serious cash, Atari planned on releasing a video game all about ET. With no real plan on what the game would include, Atari put the game’s fate in the hands of their brightest programmer.
24 year old Howard Scott Warshaw was the programmer tasked with designing and making the game. After recently finishing the video game of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg considered Howard a genius and was handpicked by him to work on the new project. No pressure for a 24 year old programmer right?
Howard got the call from the CEO of the company asking if he was up for the job and he joyfully accepted. Back in 1982 games were manufactured and distributed on cartridges that took weeks to make. The plan was to get the game made and released for Christmas, with hopes it would be a huge hit and they would fly off the shelves. As you can probably tell, Atari were already rubbing their hands with joy as they started to visualize the profits rolling in.
The Impossible Task
Although on paper their master plan sounded good, there was one problem: time.
The problem was that the CEO wanted the game completed on the 1st September so they could start manufacturing them before the Christmas release. That left around 5 weeks to design and program the whole game from scratch. Normally, games took anywhere from 6 to 8 months back then and a lot of time and planning had to go into them. They also usually had a team of programmers and artists that would help produce sound effects, visuals, and songs for the game. Howard had to do all of this on his own and it had to be good. To make an entire game in 5 weeks was a challenge to put it lightly.
The CEO told Howard to design the game over a few days and be ready on Thursday morning for a visit from Spielberg himself. Howard spent the days frantically refining his ideas until he settled on an adventure game. The Idea was a game where the player had to help ET phone home by collecting components to make a space telephone. The player would also have to dodge government agents and scientists to complete the game.
He showed the plans to Spielberg and although he wasn’t originally pleased with the idea he managed to talk him out of the idea of making a Pac-Man knockoff. The main thing was to make him like the idea as it was probably the only one that could be made in 5 weeks!
With the game’s idea firmly decided, Howard began punching computer code into his computer and typing as fast as humanly possible.
Atari’s Master Plan
The company Atari, put a lot of money into this game and they needed it to be a success. Atari had sales of $2 billion but was losing market share to the home computers market such as the Commodore 64.
Howard set off on the almighty challenge spending countless hours a day programming. He started off commuting to the office every day but then released he still had to go home and night and eat. To make his life easier he decided to work from home so he could spend even more time programming. In fact, the only time he stopped was to eat and sleep.
After hours of long work, Howard managed to complete the game. His initial reaction was that he couldn’t believe he managed to complete it in time. Atari ordered 4 million copies of the game and budgeted an estimated $5 million on the advertising campaign. At the time it was the biggest ever campaign for a video game. Adverts for the game ran for weeks with even Spielberg himself featuring in the adverts.
Howard, the sole programmer of the game received the V.I.P treatment for his work and was flown to the London premiere of the movie. The big bosses of Atari believed as long as they put ET’s name on, it would sell millions.
On the initial launch, the game was right up there on the top seller’s list for a while. But word began to spread that there were many problems with the game. Although the game was completely finished and was a stable release, the game wasn’t perfect. There were points in the game where players would fall into pits and get stuck or it wouldn’t allow the main player to pick up items. Some of these funny bugs made the game almost impossible to play. As soon as players found out about this, the news spread like wildfire.
Obviously, players were not happy about this and once the word got out, many people decided not to buy it. Since Atari had bet millions on this game paying off they had to suffer massive losses. A few months later Atari announced that the sales for the year were disappointing and the value of the company’s stock dropped dramatically. Out of the 4 million produced they had just sold over 1.5 million. By 1983 Atari had announced losses of $310 million after their blockbuster video game didn’t pay off.
The game was a massive flop. Considering the amount of money spent on the marketing and producing the cartridges the whole thing was a disaster. Due to Atari over investing in the game and a large shift in technology the company ended up going bankrupt in 1984. A company that was once the largest and most successful tech company in the world was destroyed by a terrible video game and serious overspending.
The game was so bad in fact, that an Atari manager buried the game and other titles to the sum of 728,000 cartridges. Today the game has become a legend in its own right, with it often being cited as the worst video game of all time and the world’s worst game ever.
Nowadays many games take years to produce and a lot more effort goes into making them. Although they can be very hit and miss with fans it’s unlikely there will ever be a game as bad as this. The next time you waste $40 on a video game, remember that it could have been much, much, worse.
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