Why, though? Atari's 55-week flop

Atari tried to rush a blockbuster game.

These days, a good video game can take years to make. “Baldur’s Gate 3,” 2023’s sprawling Game of the Year, took Larian Studios six.

The cover of Atari’s “E.T.” video game in front of a landfill.

Today’s story, however, is about a disastrous game that one Atari developer tried to crank out in a few weeks.

A tight schedule

Atari’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” based on the 1981 Indiana Jones flick, was a success, and filmmaker Steven Spielberg was on board for another game about his next hit, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), per NPR.

Unfortunately, Atari and Spielberg took months to settle rights negotiations, giving game designer Howard Scott Warshaw — who’d helmed “Raiders” — just over five weeks to have it ready for that year’s holiday shopping season.

Warshaw’s plot was simple: help E.T. find pieces of a phone to call his home planet, while collecting Reese’s Pieces, the film’s famous product placement, for energy.

So, what went wrong?

The time crunch meant Atari skipped testing and the rushed game was a confusing mess with no real ending. (You can see the gameplay here.)

Atari paid a reported ~$22m for rights, meaning it had to sell 4m copies to break even. It only sold ~2.6m, of which ~670k were returned.

It gets worse, actually

Atari had already released one flop that year — a poorly reviewed “Pac-Man” for its Atari 2600 console — and in Q2 of 1983, reported a $310m loss. (Its CEO, Ray Kassar, was charged with insider trading that same year and, though cleared, resigned.)

Atari’s woes — alongside oversaturation of the console games market and the rise of personal computers — contributed to a US industry crash in the mid-’80s and opened the door for Japanese brands like Nintendo and Sega. No American company would again release a successful console until Microsoft’s Xbox in 2001.

Postmortem

Rumors circulated that Atari buried its unsold “E.T.” cartridges under cement in a New Mexico landfill.

A 2014 excavation for the documentary Atari: Game Over turned up ~1.3k “E.T.” cartridges — a small portion of the hardware and other games Atari had dumped there.

One cartridge now lives in the Smithsonian Institution, as a testament to Atari’s golden years, its decline, and video game history.

Topics: Games

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