In 1983, the video game market officially collapsed. Atari, the biggest player in the game at the time, had spent millions of dollars on a single game that went down as the biggest flop in video game history. Suddenly, a burgeoning industry was on the brink, and it might have tumbled over the edge if Mario and his friends hadn’t come along a few years later.
ET the extraterrestrial Rightfully considered one of the greatest films ever made, and in the world of media, if something is successful on one platform, it is likely to be successful on another. Atari snapped up the rights to a video game adaptation in 1982 for a staggering $21 million, inflation that’s roughly $62 million today. Atari wanted the game to hit store shelves by the 1982 holiday season, less than six months after the film’s release.
Of course, Atari had a whole team working on it 24/7… Except, no; it didn’t do that. Instead, Howard Scott Warshaw was asked to produce the entire game himself in five weeks. Warshaw met that five-week deadline, but there were consequences for making the game so quickly.
The final product did not receive positive reviews from consumers. You, as the iconic alien, have gathered all the pieces to assemble the phone that will allow him to contact his home planet…there has to be a cooler way to put it. It wasn’t the most entertaining gameplay loop, and it wasn’t particularly helped by a very frustrating issue where you would repeatedly fall into a hole if you weren’t very precise with your inputs.
Unfortunately, if you just launched the game without reading the manual, you would have no idea what to do. Due to time and technology constraints, there are no in-game instructions, so a thorough read of the manual was in order, something every child wants to spend their Christmas morning doing.
It quickly became a talking point for consumers that the game wasn’t what anyone hoped it would be. This was bad news for Atari, which was hoping for a big return on its $21 million investment. The game didn’t sell well, and a very large proportion of the people who bought it ended up getting a refund after trying to play it for five minutes.
Today’s publishers and development studios are so heavily financed and cautious with their spending that the failure of a single game rarely spells the end of a company. When the industry was young, however, there was no safety net. Smaller businesses had collapsed after much smaller failures, leaving something this big unrecoverable.
So Atari collapsed and the biggest names in western video games were suddenly out of work. Normally a story would end like this, but there was still one big problem. With so much anticipation for the game, all copies are made ET and other Atari games that were on store shelves needed to be dealt with, but what to do with them?
Now comes the infamous part of the story that you may already know. Instead of selling them at bargain prices to at least get something out of them, they were all thrown into a landfill in New Mexico and buried for eternity; or rather, until 2014 when they were dug up.
Those who excavated the site found 1,300 buried games, of which there were around a hundred ET, but that barely scratched the surface of what there was to find. According to former Atari exec James Heller, there are 728,000 games in this underground landfill, although it’s probably for the best that they haven’t all been dug up.
While this game wasn’t the only factor in the video game crash of 1983, it showed how fragile a new media industry can be. Luckily, Japanese companies like Nintendo were still booming, and they used that crash as an opportunity for much larger Western expansion. Eventually, the industry recovered and is now considered the richest media industry in the world.
Businesses are smart enough now to avoid single points of failure like this example, but it’s a chilling reminder of how volatile markets can be and how easily a series of bad decisions can undo years of success.
Written by GLHF.