It is painfully apparent that the game is a rush job, pushed out in order to quickly recoup the money paid by Atari to Namco for the Pac-Man license. Programmer Frye is ensconced in a room by himself to code for the four-month deadline, and upon release the game is a big hit, eventually hitting nine million cartridges sold. With a 10 cent royalty on every copy sold, his sales-based bonus results in a paycheque approaching a million dollars, which he cockily staples to his office door. Better versions are eventually released for other platforms like Atari’s own 400/800 computers and the 5200 Supersystem, as well as other manufacturers’ game platforms like the Commodore 64. Atari is eventually redeemed with the vastly improved Ms. Pac-Man on 2600, appropriately released on Valentine’s Day of 1983.
Of course, not every game released by the company of this era is a turkey, as shown by the marvelous Yars’ Revenge, released in May of 1982. The game is originally conceived as a port of Cinematronics’ hit vector arcade game Star Castle until the licensing deal falls through. The designer of Atari’s version is Howard Scott Warshaw, creator of some of the more complicated 2600 games, including Raiders of the Lost Ark as well as The A-Team, a game which itself had started out being called called Saboteur until the graphics are altered and the name of the hit early 80’s Mr. T vehicle is slapped on the cartridge. Warshaw juggles the play mechanics of the now-license-less Star Castle port around a bit, and Yars’ Revenge becomes one of the most original and involving games in the 2600 library. The title character’s name is taken from Atari president Ray Kassar, to show his triumph over the failed license deal.
To herald the release of Yar, as well as promote 2600 games Asteroids and Star Raiders, Atari commissions an impressive two-minute commercial, titled The Fly, featuring state-of-the-art CGI by Robert Abel and Associates, who also do CGI work on the groundbreaking Disney film Tron, released the same year as the commercial. Made to run in theatres over the summer of 1982, the ad features actor Rod Davidson sitting in an office chair with his back to the audience, posing as an Atari game designer brainstorming ideas, which manifest themselves as computerized images zooming and swirling around him. Designer-director Clark Anderson and co-director and technical expert John Hughes of Abel first design the commercial as an animatic on an Evans and Sutherland Picture System II computer graphics terminal, the animatic being a B&W wireframe version that is the equivalent of the pencil test in traditional animation. The wireframe design is then filled in with tightly-packed smaller lines, and filters are used between the output video screen and the 35mm camera recording it on film to add colour fill to the images. Actor Davidson is filmed in front of a blue screen, acting against the animatic hidden on a video screen in front of him. Computerized lighting cues expose the actor to the various lighting effects synced to the colourful video game elements; there are 80 different lighting events over the two-minute commercial. Live action, CGI and other VFX elements are then matted together, to make an ad that startles moviegoers in 1982.
Atari’s next big fumble is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Warner chairman Steve Ross negotiates a 21 million dollar deal with his friend Steven Spielberg, MCA, Inc. and Amblin Entertainment for the exclusive worldwide coin-op and home game rights to the film, and Atari expects their game to match the success of the movie, at the time the highest-grossing ever made. So it demonstrates a special kind of chutzpah when giving a preview of the game’s development to Spielberg and a cadre of movie execs at the 2600 game development lab at Atari, designer Howard Scott Warshaw starts off with this bold prediction: “This is the game that will make the movie famous!” The company announces publically that Spielberg is directly involved in the game’s development, with Atari Consumer Division vice-president of marketing Ron Stringari stating that the movie director meets with the game’s designer about its development on a weekly basis. Spielberg himself tells the press that he’s helping to make E.T. “the first emotionally oriented video game ever produced.” It’s hard to figure out just when Warshaw would be able to find the time to consult with Spielberg, as the game designer has accepted a breakneck six-week deadline to get the 2600 E.T. game out for December 1982.
The resulting product nets Warshaw a $200,000 payment, but it is torture for gamers to play, featuring frustrating control over the lost alien, along with endlessly confusing gameplay. Expecting a windfall of sales, Atari manufactures around five million cartridges, but only one million are eventually purchased. Even though wary retailers had scaled back their orders on the game, many are still left with unsold product as they struggle to move E.T. off the shelves after an initial Thanksgiving rush of retailers ordering it. A lavish TV commercial for the video game is produced by Spielberg, who also handpicks its director. Even utilizing the cinematographer and camera operator from the film doesn’t help the ad dig E.T. the video game out of its hole. Bob Abbate, president of the Sounds Alive chain of music stores of Connecticut, would put the industry’s attitude about the game’s release most succinctly: “E.T. is a bomb”.
The Big Dump
With unsold inventory piling up, under cover of night sometime in late 1983 a convoy of 14 dump trucks lines up at Atari’s El Paso, TX. manufacturing plant, previously rendered defunct with its operations off-loaded to factories in Puerto Rico, as well as Taiwan and other points in the Far East. There the trucks are loaded with millions of unsold Pac-Man, E.T., and other surplus cartridges such as fellow movie adaptation flop Raiders of the Lost Ark, released in November of 1982. Also designed by Warshaw, the obtuse gameplay of Raiders makes the game mechanics of E.T. seem clear and concise. Joining these unwanted games are various hardware prototypes and limited production runs littering what now serves mostly as an inventory storehouse. The filled trucks are driven north to the Alamogordo municipal landfill in New Mexico, home of another big bomb; nearby was the site of the 1945 Trinity test, the first explosion of a nuclear device. The contents of the trucks are dumped and covered with a layer of concrete, in order to deter looters. Atari later insists the sudden burial was done to dispose of “defective” inventory. If only they could bury the lack of confidence the missed sales figures of games like E.T. fosters in shareholders, retailers and consumers alike as easily. They’re not the only culprit, however, as both Mattel and Coleco overproduce cartridges in a market becoming less and less able to support them.