In modern culture, a lot of things have a tendency to descend to descend into a pissing competition. Nowhere is this more true than in videogames, an art from that, in spite of what many would like us to believe, seems to be regressing in spite of how much technology we throw at it. (To be fair, the same is proving to be true of cinema, music, and literature.) In order to understand what I mean, it is necessary to go back in time somewhat to the early to mid 1980s, when a little boy had his head so firmly buried in the television that people began to wonder if something was wrong (aww, really?) and if so, how to correct it (you know how it goes). If you did not live in this era, it is pointless for me to try and explain how different things like television and communication were then. The combination of mass networking, highly-affordable (especially by the standards of those days) desktop computing, and portable telephony has changed the world so radically that unless you have lived at least five to ten years of your life in a time before those things, you cannot begin to imagine how different the world was prior to then. And by a time before those things, I mean before more than one out of ten twelve to fifty year olds per street knew what a modem was, leave alone had one. (The street I lived on through most of my boyhood was an irregular oval forming an outer ring around two blocks that was only interrupted by the fenced-off grounds of a community hall. When I was six years old, I was the only one I knew of who had access to a Commodore 64. By the time I was 13, that number had expanded to include four families.)
Like all aspects of the entertainment industry, videogames have been evolving (more on the use of this word anon) at an ever-increasing pace since I was born. Which brings me to one of the reasons I even began to write this little article. Whilst I am not a fan of the AV Club in general, they did post this nice little article about the absolute fiasco that was the videogame based upon the Steven Spielberg film E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. As you can sense from the title, it was not made with high-intellect types in mind, but nor was it as outrageously childish as films made for a similar demographic were at the time. In fact, the children in the film, who ranged in ages from pre-school to mid-teens, behaved and spoke more or less exactly as children in such age ranges did. This is an art that seems to be peculiar to films of the 1980s, and especially seems to be lost upon filmmakers of recent years. But the subject of how modern films in particular refuse to give anyone credit for their post-infancy development is one for another time.
At the time that the videogame based upon E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial was made, saying that Atari was riding high on the videogame fad is an understatement on par with saying that Black Sabbath changed the way people express unhappy or intolerable situations in musical forms. But the game also became a great expression of the hubris that was already rotting the company from within. Common lore has it that one of the managers at Atari even told Steven Spielberg that the game would make his film famous. This not only sounds like a stupid thing to have said in hindsight, it was a patently stupid thing to say in foresight. In 1982, whilst there were people in the film industry who were more famous than Steven Spielberg or his even more eccentric friend and frequent collaborator George Lucas, they were very few in number. Whether this story is true, or if so what Spielberg said in response, appears to be lost to time.
One of the disadvantages of working in an industry or service that is relatively new is that the logistics of an operation tend to be an unknown quantity. Whilst there was some established idea of how long it took to produced a finished videogame, the financiers did not have such a good idea of it that they were likely to stick with such a timetable. The story I have linked to states that Steven Spielberg specifically asked that a man named Howard Scott Warshaw serve as the primary maker of the E.T. videogame. Speilberg knew of Warshaw because Warshaw had created the videogame based on Spielberg‘s slightly earlier film Raiders Of The Lost Ark. I have personally played a Commodore 64 port of the videogame based on Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Compared to contemporary classics such as Pole Position or Jumpman, it is nothing special, but it at least has the virtue of having had any planning or logic put into it. By the time Warshaw was given the task of adapting E.T. into a videogame in late July, the film had already been circulating in American theatres for over a month. And with a release date set for September 1, Warshaw had about five weeks to make a finished game.
People who are familiar with the story of Daikatana already know how this one goes, but to a little boy visiting friends of his family and playing the game on an Atari 2600, it was a source of much puzzlement to say the least. It took this autistic little boy a few years to learn and a further few years to fully grok the concept that in spite of our best intentions, sometimes our creative work just does not turn out as well as we were hoping for. And no matter how noble or reasoned our choices sometimes seem, sometimes we feel compelled to make the wrong choice. For instance, Spielberg supposedly advised Warshaw to take the easy route and make the E.T. videogame a clone of Pac-Man, a videogame that was selling in droves both in arcades and at home at the time. For reasons that are probably going to never be known, Warshaw made the fateful choice to reject this advice and base the game on a unique concept. As cynical and anti-creative as this advice might have been, with a little tweaking or fine-tuning, it could have made the game far better than it turned out.
As a parallel example, the Midway videogame known as Wizard Of Wor was released in 1981. In it, players control a Human-like “Worrior” tasked with hunting down and shooting various (mostly) alien creatures in a maze-like environment. Obviously, with both companies in the E.T. mess desiring to promote a “family friendly” feel with the game, a straight copy of Wizard Of Wor would never happen, but a version with a few tweaks to create parallels between the two would have helped no end. Unfortunately, the development process on the E.T. game was nearly thirty years ago now, and Wizard Of Wor‘s elements like being able to kill the player one was competing with for points was quite some distance ahead of its time.
But in case you have not noticed something about the screen captures above, well, the tools that videogame designers had at their disposal in the early to mid 1980s were simple at best, and downright crude at worst. When they were not under pressure to crank out a game in six weeks, they had to manually type up thousands, even tens of thousands of lines of code. I have personally seen some “simple” Commodore 64 games in the BASIC language, and let me tell you, they are not a pretty sight. Whereas games today can be made using routine-reducing tools like level editing programs, texture-mapping code, and other shortcuts, code splicing was the extent of the shortcuts available in the 1980s. Even the taken-for-granted functions of cut, copy, and paste were nowhere to be found then.
So what does E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial say about us from the dark recesses of the videogame industry of the early 1980s? Well, I have played the game. As in I have really sat in front of a television with an Atari 2600 connected to it and tried to guide the titular character around to find his little puzzle pieces and arrange his trip home. That I made one attempt is testament to the fact that when I was a little boy, I would literally try anything if it involved manipulating an electronic device connected to some form of Cathode Ray Tube. Hell, I even tried programming in Commodore 64 BASIC and word processing on a Commodore 64, for god’s sake! But after enough attempts at E.T. to realise that the effort versus reward factor just was not worth it, I moved on to other games like Surround, Pitfall, or Hey, Stop!. As much as I like to complete games, I was also very much into the whole quick gratification thing in those days.
Atari spent a reputed twenty to twenty-five million dollars securing the rights to make a videogame based on Spielberg‘s film. Reread that as many times as it takes to get your head around it. Using the latter estimate as a basis, that is nearly two and a half times as much as Universal Pictures admitted to spending on shooting the damned film. This is before we even talk about the cost of having coded the game, duplicating cartridges for it, and shipping those to retailers who eventually found they could not give the things away. Whilst a certain amount of being taken by surprise in the process of discovering one has backed the wrong horse in the industry can be expected, this was something entirely different for Atari. Even calling it hubris does not adequately describe it. The videogame crash of 1983 did not happen because the market was flooded with lousy titles (and believe me, the E.T. videogame was far from an isolated example). It did not happen because programmers were being short-changed in terms of royalties and credit for their work. Nor did it happen because there were inadequate controls in place to prevent idiots from flooding the market with crud like Custer’s Revenge. No, these were all symptoms of the actual disease, so to speak. The real problem in the videogame industry of the late 1970s and early 1980s is the same one that the film industry is starting to buckle under in the 2000s and early 2010s. Namely, the wrong people are in charge.
I have played some of the best videogames the industry has ever produced. Both on the console (Resident Evil sequels, for example) and coin-op arcade machines (Golden Axe, Cabal, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the list goes on and on). The thing many people fail to notice about the best games the industry has produced is that irrespective of how flash (or not) their graphics were, they were fun to play and kept audiences coming back for more. In light of those titles, what E.T. tells me about myself is that I will investigate anything as much as I need to in order to determine whether it is worth the effort to investigate further (obviously, E.T. was not). What it tells me about general audiences is that whilst there is always going to be a certain element out there that can be fooled by anything. Stores eventually managed to rid themselves of their stock of the game by placing it in bargain bins, and people did end up buying it so heavily discounted that even in 1982, such stores could not expect to sustain their rent costs on the back of selling the cartridge.
It is not a coincidence that videogames in today’s industry cost so much that one could possibly buy half a dozen Blu-ray Discs and still have money left over for the same price. Nor is it a coincidence that some videogames, especially the fantasy multiplayer role-playing online games have moved towards a subscription model. Although the costs of maintaining a network on which to keep the games running can be substantial, so too can the profit from a game that has reached critical mass. In the days when Atari paid Universal tens of millions of dollars for the privilege of making a cartridge based on E.T., the number of households with a videogame console in the U.S. market could not have been more than a few hundred thousand. The idea that such a game had a hope in hell of turning a profit was, indeed, laughable. Even without adjusting for inflation, I doubt that even Blizzard Entertainment have paid as much to make all four of the current iterations of World Of Warcraft as Atari ended up throwing away on E.T., but the number of dollars a marketeer could reasonably expect to gross from such an endeavour has grown quite dramatically. Although 10.2 million goes into the world’s population 686 and change times, if the worldwide market for a computer game as well-made as The Last Ninja was even half of 10.2 million in 1982, colour me surprised.
So if you have read all of this and taken away anything from it about the state of the entertainment industry, especially the videogame aspect, then thanks for making the writing process worthwhile. Hopefully in another thirty years, today’s four year olds will look back on this article and laugh, asking themselves if people really were this prone to hubris and lack of foresight when I was that age.
Powered by Qumana