In defense of Howard Scott Warshaw
Howard Scott Warshaw was one of the lead programmers for Atari back in the eighties. While I can’t say I have followed his early career, at least not as closely as my generations’ heroes like Peter Molyneux or Sid Meyer, I knew like most people that Howard was responsible for the so-called “worst game ever”. Of that was the rumor anyways, which I first heard back in the nineties or something.
The myth goes that the 1982 E.T game was so bad, that Atari actually dumped millions of returned cartridges out in the dessert somewhere in an attempt to cover up the failure. It’s turned into an X-Files type operation where the game sucked so much, that the financial losses ended up killing the once mighty entertainment giant Atari.
Being a programmer myself I know how much it can hurt when you have worked for months on something, only to have 2-3 individuals tear it apart publicly (which in this case represents a tiny forum, way out in the suburbs of cyberspace). I can only imagine what it would be like to not only get an impossible project like the E.T game dumped in your lap, with a deadline of five weeks. And please remember guys, this is hand-written 8 bit machine code running on a now ancient piece of hardware.
The urban legend from hell
There are variations to the myth of course, like with all urban legends. In later years Howard is said to have gone to Commodore shortly after, implying that he was actually a spy of sorts, destined to kill Atari so that Commodore could make its way into the market. Which is utter rubbish because these companies were, at that time, galaxies apart. Commodore was never a big hit in the US, it struck root primarily in England and Europe. Particularly in scandinavia. In the US Amiga machines were primarily used for video production and television. It never really caught the public eye. So a programmer would be less likely to want to work for Commodore than Atari.
Add to this the fact that Howard was actually never again able to get a job as a programmer due to the myth, should be enough to dismiss this rumor as pure urban legend.
I mean, just imagine it: How would you feel if every single person on the planet was told that your code was the worst ever written or published? Not on some minuscule forum where you at least can defend yourself or just fix the bugs as they are reported. No, we are talking universally across the globe for thirty years !
It just makes me so angry and sad for what truly is one of the best programmers Atari ever had.
Was E.T really that bad?
I have never played the game myself, but I have seen plenty of you-tube reviews and gameplay. And having been an avid technologist since I was in high-school I can honestly say that this is not the worst game of all time. Far from it. I have played thousands of games in my time, from the green-mesh that was ZX-Spectrum, through Commodore VIC-20, 64, 128 and all the way up to Amiga, PC and lately, an overpriced iMac, iPhone and iPad.
I also own nearly every console known to mankind, missing only the Nintendo Gamecube and the Philips 3DO in my collection. So as far as games go, I am fairly confident that I have enough experience and insight to make a fair judgement. And if E.T was the worst game, I for one would not lie about it.
But let’s look at the system we are dealing with here first.
The Atari game console that Howard worked on was the Atari-2600. This is a system which in terms of features is somewhere along the lines of a Commodore 64. Just to place the hardware and capabilities in some sort of context. All games were hand written in machine-code, a task which by today’s standards is applaudable in itself. There were no C compilers, no Turbo Pascal and certainly no Delphi, Smart Mobile Studio or SDL libraries.
Developers essentially had a primitive text-editor, less evolved than even the most low-level linux command-line variation (which I must admit that I detest), and that was it. You punched in machine code and compiled with a second program. And there was no multi-tasking remember, so you had to quit the editor to compile. Just imagine how fun it was when a typo was present in line 26000 or something. Back into the editor, fix, save, exit – and try to compile again.
This is just to place the work in some form of context, so the reader get’s an idea of what being a programmer in the late 70’s early 80’s was like.
Now back to E-T and the whole “worst game” thing.
First of all, turns out that Howard had only successes up until E.T came along. Most of his games, especially the smash hit “Yar’s revenge” sold millions of copies and were immensely popular; making truckloads of cash for Atari. So Howard is absolutely not a bad coder. Quite the opposite, he was a highly skilled computer engineer; top of his class.
The E.T project was essentially a task thrown in his lap by management, who for some reason had managed to muscle the rights to E.T from Steven Spielberg personally. So Howard got the great honor of writing a complete self-contained gaming world in just five weeks. That is insane by any standards, and no matter how good you are at coding – five weeks is just madness. Even a small title could not be completed in that time, let alone a ROM image trying to capture the essence of a movie success like E.T.
And E.T was huge. If you think Star-Wars is big and all the commercialism around it is awesome, well with E.T you can triple that. So if you released all 3 initial star-wars movies at the same time, then you will have a good idea of how big E.T actually was.
You could hardly walk into a mall or store without some piece of E.T merchandise being offered. From posters to puppets, pencil cases, nap-sacks, bed-sheets, lamps, T-shirts (I loved mine to death and actually sold my BB gun just to buy the T-Shirt), shoes — everything which could be stamped with an E.T image or name was branded and sold. It was a billion dollar orchestration on a global scale.
So. Can you imagine the pressure and commercial anticipation for the computer game? The world was in a E.T frenzy, and every child in the western hemisphere was counting down for christmas, hoping to find the game under the tree.
The blame game
I think it’s so sad for Howard that people still talk about E.T as “the worst game of all time”. It’s worse than sad, it’s almost heartbreaking – even though I have never met the man.
It’s simply not true. E.T is not the worst game at all. From what I’ve seen (and I watched two whole reviews of the game) it’s absolutely not deserving of such a title. And I know this because I lived with the alternatives. Hell I had a ton of C64 games on Turbo-Tape which just sucked the marrow from your bones every time. The way it worked back then was that you could get bootleg games on tape. Normal music cassettes. That was how games for the Commodore 64, Spectrum and all those early “home computer kits” were distributed and sold.
You had a tape recorder hooked up to your computer, and the analog sounds from the casettes were transformed into digital patterns (data). If you ever had a PC in the 90’s you most likely remember the strange sounds it made when connecting to the internet? Well, that sound is the analog version of digital data. And that technology has only recently been replaced by fiber-optics. In some parts of the world modems are still used, like south america, Africa and regions of the middle-east.
Anyways, hackers existed back then as well and you could get bootleg versions of games and programs in compressed form (a bit like winzip or rar in our age) using a packer called Turbo. Turbo allowed you to stuff 10 games into the space of a single, un-compressed game. So what we did was put as many as 50 games on a 60 minute tape. These tapes were called “Turbo Tape’s”.
You would not believe some of the games that were sold for these computers; computers which were en-par with and better than the Atari’s 2600. And judging by what I’ve seen of E.T’s gameplay, it’s a much higher quality production than the early Commodore offerings I enjoyed as a child growing up in the riches country in the world: Norway.
So whenever someone says that E.T is the worst game ever made — just tell them that it’s not true. It’s a stupid urban legend that has practically destroyed a very accomplished programmer’s career and haunted him for 30 years. It’s a total lie and any gamer or programmer with half a conscience intact should stamp the myth out utterly.
Atari as a company was massive, with thousands of employees and hundreds of programmers. So the myth that E.T sucked so much that it toppled an entire industry is a joke at best. And what a complete disaster for Howard which until recently have been carrying this label around, unable to get even a clerical job in the computer game industry because of it. People dont care that he was in fact one of the best coders at Atari and that all his games sold millions of copies. They all just remember him through the E.T myth. It has been a clear case of character assassination from day one.
From what my reading has availed, Howard had re-invented himself and is now a “silicon valley head doctor”. It makes sense to have a programmer who speaks geek fluently to also be a doctor. And considering what he’s been through thanks to this stupid myth, he no doubt have a lot of wisdom to share with stressed out programmers who need help to deal with the problems we all face in life. A lesser man would have thrown himself in front of the metro for carrying such a label, but not Howard. A testament to his character and ability to find solutions.
A global apology
The gaming community at large owes Howard an apology. Especially teenagers who have absolutely no insight into what software development is, nor would they have the skill or intelligence to produce anything like what Howard did back then. Even if they worked for years on it, they would not be able to re-produce what Howard did in just five weeks.
Nothing provokes me more than a 15-year-old kid thrashing stuff he doesn’t even know how works. He sits there with his X-Box or PSX4 and acts like he – based on his wast experience – had the right to thrash talk anything and everyone. Youth is wasted on the young plato once wrote, and no where is it more evident than in the mentality of spoiled western teenagers.
In all fairness the Kassar family and even Warner Bros themselves should write a huge check for Howard; for damages endured over a period of 30 odd years. It must have been practical to have a scape goat to blame the results of poor business decisions on; but eventually the truth comes out.
I also hope Howard one day receives the recognition he so deeply deserves, not for the five-week marathon that he incredibly enough delivered on — but for all the games he built prior to that, and for the fact that he was a pioneer. No one had done these things before. There were no books on coding games or courses you could take. These guys at Atari were the first to venture into a purely abstract science expressed through electronics; And they went in there armed only with their own ideas and ability to solve problems.
Well Howard, I can’t give you a huge check, nor can I give you an award — except to say that I will do my best to stamp out this lie which has haunted you for so many years. And I hope others who read this does the same.
Turns out that a movie about this was made a year or two back, called “Atari:Game over” which deals with the subject directly. In the movie they film as the graveyard where the so-claimed millions of games were burried, in fact contained very little E.T games. Instead some of the biggest Atari sellers were buried out there.
So what has been called a coverup and scandal, was nothing more than Atari cleaning out their storage space. No doubt to save money. Yet it ended up as a myth that killed the career of an excellent and innocent developer.
Here is a link to the movie “Atari: Game over” which can now be seen on NetFlix.