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Total Failure: The World's Worst Video Game

In 1982, one man worked around the clock to program the video game version of Steven Spielberg's E.T. in just five weeks.
Isabel Seliger for NPR

Howard Scott Warshaw has had many gigs over the years, but perhaps his most notable achievement was also a spectacular failure:

"I did the E.T. video game, the game that is widely held to be the worst video game of all time," he says.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 was a commercial flop and a gaming disaster. Based loosely on Steven Spielberg's 1982 blockbuster of the same name, the game was a confusing mess that left players frustrated and disoriented. Millions of copies went unsold, and Atari ended up literally burying the game by dumping many surplus cartridges into a New Mexico landfill.

Within a year of E.T.'s release, the entire video game industry collapsed. Warshaw ultimately had to give up his career as a game designer. But the failure also laid the foundations for a new life.

To understand the makings of what has been described as the worst video game ever, you have to understand the mind of the man who made it. From the very start of life, Howard Scott Warshaw was in a hurry.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be older. When I was older, I wanted to be an adult. I wanted to get out and I wanted to engage life," he says.

He wanted to get through school fast, make a quick, tidy fortune in business, and retire by 30.

To that end, he zipped through college, got a master's degree in computer engineering and headed to Silicon Valley. In 1981, he was hired at a new company called Atari. Atari was basically an early Silicon Valley startup. Its main product, the Atari 2600, was the first really popular video game console.

Warshaw's job was to design games. This was the era of games like Pong, in which users used black-and-white virtual paddles to push a small, square "ball" around a screen. It was pretty sedate.

Warshaw took a much more exciting approach to game design. At a time when graphics were primitive and in-game plots were nonexistent, he pushed to make his games feel more like movies.

"I tried to make every single thing on the screen move and pulse with color and sound," he says.

His first game was Yars' Revenge. The user played a mutant space fly, trying to kill a giant monster. It was unlike anything that had come before, and it was a runaway hit.

Howard Scott Warshaw was working at Atari in 1982 when Steven Spielberg asked him to design a video game adaptation of <em>E.T.</em>
/ Courtesy of Dave Staugas
Courtesy of Dave Staugas
Howard Scott Warshaw was working at Atari in 1982 when Steven Spielberg asked him to design a video game adaptation of E.T.

Warshaw quickly became one of the company's superstar programmers. When Atari got the rights to make the video game version of Steven Spielberg's first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, they put him on the job. Now to put this in perspective, nobody had ever made a video game based on a movie. At 23, Warshaw was going to be the first programmer to ever attempt it.

It took him 10 months to design the Raiders game, write the code, get feedback, reprogram it and put it through quality control. When all that was finished, he showed Spielberg the final product.

"He looks up at me and he says, 'It's just like a movie. I feel like I just watched a movie,' " Warshaw recalls. "I thought, 'Oh my God! Steven Spielberg thinks my adventure game is just like a movie!' To me that was the ultimate compliment I could possibly receive on this work."

Spielberg looks at me and he goes, 'Couldn't you just do something like Pac-Man?'

And here's where the trouble began. The next movie Spielberg made was E.T. Spielberg wanted a video game based on E.T. And he wanted Warshaw to program it.

"Spielberg had requested that I do E.T. So fine, I'm not going to argue," Warshaw says. "But what had happened, the negotiations for E.T. had run very long."

Atari and Spielberg haggled over rights and money until the end of July 1982. To get the game out in time for the Christmas holiday, Warshaw would have to build it from scratch in five weeks. The CEO of Atari called him directly.

"He goes, 'We need an E.T. game and we need it for September first, can you do it?' And I said, 'You bet I can. I absolutely can,'" he says.

"I don't know exactly what I was full of at the time, exactly, but whatever it was I was overflowing with it, and I believed I could pull it off. I mean the hubris of it!"

Warshaw wasn't the only one full of hubris. During this period, Atari was one of the fastest growing companies in America. Its profits were soaring and bonus checks were rolling in. Inside the headquarters were drugs and sex and booze.

"It was a ridiculous, excessive, sort of 'fall of Rome' kind of environment," he says.

And everyone there believed that nothing could stop them.

Warshaw had just 36 hours to come up with a concept for the game. In the movie, E.T. puts together a communicator he uses to "phone home." So Warshaw made that the basic plot of the game, too. The player as E.T. was to go around gathering parts for the phone.

"Another issue with me is that it's not enough that we're going to do something in five weeks. I wanted to do something that was a step up, not just an add-on," he says.

Warshaw created an elaborate world for the Atari E.T. to explore. The world was designed to wrap around on itself, so traveling in any direction eventually returned E.T. to his starting point.

In a still from the game, Elliott meets E.T. in a field of wells. The player must also collect Reese's Pieces, which are represented by small black dots throughout the game.
/ Wikipedia
In a still from the game, Elliott meets E.T. in a field of wells. The player must also collect Reese's Pieces, which are represented by small black dots throughout the game.

Then Warshaw added lots of pits in the ground to hide parts of the phone in. (We'll get back to those pits later.)

Warshaw flew down to LA to show Spielberg the concept.

"I lay the whole thing out and here it is, and Spielberg looks at me and he goes, 'Couldn't you just do something like Pac-Man?'"

Warshaw was furious. "Just to give you an idea of how full of myself I was at that point. I'm sitting there with Steven Spielberg and I wanted to say, 'Well, gee, Steven couldn't you do something like The Day the Earth Stood Still?'"

In the end Spielberg signed off on the game's design. Warshaw went back to Silicon Valley. He had a game development system moved into his home so he could work on E.T. day and night.

"I would say workwise it was the hardest five weeks of my life," he says.

And in five, magical weeks, he took the blockbuster film E.T. and turned it into a horrible video game.

Here's the fundamental problem with E.T.: It's really confusing to play. The E.T. game character travels through a wraparound world that keeps returning players to the same screen again and again without explanation. The pits in the ground, in which E.T.'s phone is hidden, constantly trap the little alien. In the words of NPR's Gene Demby, who received a copy one Christmas in his youth, E.T. is the video-game equivalent of "purgatory."

Warshaw has a different way of explaining the game's problem: "There's a difference between frustration and disorientation," he says. "Video games are all about frustration. It's OK to frustrate a user. In fact, it's important to frustrate a user. But you don't want to disorient the user."

At first, Warshaw didn't know that he'd made a dud. Sales around the holidays were strong. E.T. was at the top of the charts. But then, in the halls at Atari, people started coming up to him and saying things that made it clear E.T. had flopped.

"It hurt," Warshaw recalls. "I mean it hurt to hear that people aren't liking my game."

At the same time Warshaw's game flopped, Atari was running into real trouble. The company's owners were making bad business deals. Programmers like Warshaw were making bad games. And just as quickly as it had risen, Atari was falling. The CEO was fired, and the company had to lay off hundreds of employees.

Soon, Warshaw was out of a job. "Atari was the world to me," he says. "You want to talk about a failure. The failure of E.T. was really nothing at that time in my life compared to the loss of Atari as a workplace."

But when it came to failure, Warshaw was just getting started. Atari had made him a millionaire, but he squandered it on bad investments. And then the IRS came after him for back taxes. Warshaw hit bottom.

"Until one day, I really had a sit-down with myself, and I said, 'You know, the IRS can only take my money. That's really all they can do. If I give them my happiness, that's on me.' "

And he began a long, slow journey toward finding that happiness again. He went from job to job: computers, videography, real estate. Some gigs were better than others, but none compared to his time at Atari. The months stretched into years, and eventually more than a decade. And then one day, he was talking to his girlfriend at the time and she asked him, "What do you really want to do?"

"I said, 'Well, I'd be a therapist.' I mean, I didn't even think for a second, I knew exactly what I wanted to do," he says.

Warshaw and his wife, Sherri Warshaw, earlier this year.
/ Courtesy of Howard Scott Warshaw
Courtesy of Howard Scott Warshaw
Warshaw and his wife, Sherri Warshaw, earlier this year.

Therapy. It made perfect sense. Silicon Valley was booming, except instead of video games it was smartphones and apps. Startups were failing. People's careers were crashing and burning. And after everything he'd been through, Warshaw knew he was the guy who could help.

"I have been there; I do know what it's like. I have succeeded and I've failed and I've lost it, and I've had it and I've lost it. I've seen all this go. I can help people really understand and relate and find a way around and through it," he says.

Warshaw got his license, and today he calls himself the Silicon Valley Therapist. His clients are a lot like he was back in the day: young, ambitious and rushing ahead. Business is good.

This story is the third in a four-part series on the experience of failure and how people deal with it. It was developed in NPR'sStory Lab. Nicholas DePrey created original music for the series.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.