Howard Scott Warshaw stands out in video game history as the man who single-handedly shrunk the industry. His creation, or perhaps more accurately, his product design challenge, played a pivotal role in reshaping the gaming landscape. Let’s look at the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Atari 2600 game and its profound impact on software product development.

Context: What Happened?

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” for the Atari 2600 is often considered one of the most infamous video games in history. Released in 1982, the game was developed by Howard Scott Warshaw, who had previously gained acclaim for creating successful Atari 2600 games like Yars’ Revenge and Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, it flopped in a way that had never been seen before. 

Game Overview

Genre: Action-adventure.

Objective: Players control the titular character, E.T., navigating through various screens to collect pieces of a phone to “phone home” and ultimately escape Earth.

Gameplay: Check it out for yourself:

To meet the demands, he had only five and a half weeks to design, develop, and complete the game. In attempting to capture the essence of the popular movie, Warshaw made design choices that, in hindsight, compromised the overall quality of the game.

Worst game or not, it’s a great story to tell. It even has its fanfic movie (which he had an active part in):

Issues: What Made the ET Game Lame

“E.T.” received overwhelmingly negative reviews from players and critics alike. Many considered it a major disappointment and a low point in the history of video game development. This was due to an underwhelming combination of:

  • Uninspired Graphics. The Atari 2600 had limitations in terms of graphics capabilities, but even by the standards of the time, “E.T.” was criticized for its lackluster and unappealing visuals. The game’s presentation did not capture the charm or essence of the beloved film.
  • Poor Gameplay Mechanics. The gameplay was perceived as confusing and lacked intuitive controls. E.T.’s movements were often awkward and challenging for players to navigate. The collision detection was imprecise, making it frustrating to interact with objects.
  • Repetitive Gameplay. The game suffered from repetitive and monotonous gameplay. The player’s main objective was to collect phone pieces, but the gameplay loop became tiresome quickly, contributing to a lack of day to day player engagement.

Overproduction and Burial

Atari overestimated the game’s potential success and produced more cartridges than there were Atari 2600 consoles at the time. Facing excess inventory (and a plunging bottom line), Atari made the controversial decision to bury unsold copies of “E.T.” in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico, adding a surreal and symbolic chapter to the game’s legacy.

Hundred of Atari ET Game cartridges were found buried in the desert

Hundred of Atari ET Game cartridges were found buried in the desert

In retrospect, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” for the Atari 2600 serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of rushing game development and prioritizing commercial timelines over quality. The game’s failure played a role in shaping the video game industry’s approach to quality control and the importance of delivering polished, enjoyable experiences to players.

Beyond the Scapegoat: A Look at the Gaming Industry Timeline

To understand the seismic shift caused by Warshaw’s game, we need to understand the gaming industry’s timeline. From the Atari era to the present day, each year marks significant market milestones, and technological advancements that have sculpted the industry we know today.

Modern Games’ Early History

Before the Atari 2600, several developments and systems contributed to the evolution of the video game industry. Here are some key milestones that came before Atari:

Early Analog and Mechanical Games (Late 1940s - 1950s)

Early Analog and Mechanical Games (Late 1940s – 1950s)

Before electronic video games, there were analog and mechanical games. Notable examples include Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device (1947) and Nimrod (1951), which were electromechanical devices allowing players to engage in simple games.

OXO (1952)

OXO (1952)

OXO, also known as “Noughts and Crosses,” was a digital adaptation of tic-tac-toe created by Alexander S. Douglas in 1952. It ran on the EDSAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator) computer at the University of Cambridge.

Tennis for Two (1958)

Tennis for Two (1958)

Physicist William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two on an analog computer at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1958. This two-player tennis simulation was one of the earliest examples of interactive electronic entertainment.

Spacewar! (1962)

Spacewar! (1962)

Developed by Steve Russell and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Spacewar! is considered one of the earliest digital computer games. It featured two spaceships battling in a gravity well and became a significant influence on early video game development.

Magnavox Odyssey (1972)

Magnavox Odyssey (1972)

The Magnavox Odyssey, released in 1972, is often credited as the first home video game console. Created by Ralph Baer, it allowed players to play a variety of games using interchangeable cartridges. However, it had simple graphics and limited capabilities compared to later systems.

Pong (1972)

Pong (1972)

Developed by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and released in arcades in 1972, “Pong” was a simple but highly successful table tennis simulation. It became a cultural phenomenon and played a crucial role in popularizing arcade gaming.

Home Pong (1975)

Home Pong (1975)

Atari released a home version of Pong in 1975, marking one of the first commercially successful home video game systems. It allowed players to experience the arcade sensation in the comfort of their homes.

Fairchild Channel F (1976)

Fairchild Channel F (1976)

The Fairchild Channel F, released in 1976, is considered the first video game console to use interchangeable game cartridges. It offered a more advanced gaming experience than previous systems. Check them out – even PacMan was already there!

These early developments laid the groundwork for the video game industry and set the stage for the success of the Atari 2600, which was released in 1977 and became a pivotal moment in the history of home video gaming. The Atari 2600’s popularity and expansive library of games helped define the console gaming experience for years to come.

How Consoles and Games Shaped the Industry

Atari's Boom and Bust (1980-1983)

Atari’s Boom and Bust (1980-1983)

Atari’s meteoric rise propelled the gaming industry into mainstream culture during the early ’80s. Howard Scott Warshaw contributed to this success with the aforementioned iconic video games.

  • Why It Matters: Atari’s success established video games as a viable entertainment medium. Warshaw’s creations showcased the potential for storytelling within the limited capabilities of early gaming systems.
  • How It Changed Things/Consequences: Warshaw’s innovative game designs set a standard for the industry. Later, Atari’s decline shifted the industry’s focus to quality control
The Infamous E.T. Video Game (1982)

The Infamous E.T. Video Game (1982)

Rushed development and a desperate attempt to capitalize on the movie’s popularity led to the creation of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The game’s critical failure became a symbol of the industry’s overconfidence.

The subsequent 1983 market crash led to a reevaluation of industry practices. It couldn’t be any other way: sales dropped 97% from $3.2 billion to $100 million in three years.

  • Why It Matters: “E.T.” exemplified the risks of prioritizing speed over quality in game development. This led to a cultural shift among product owners, developers, and designers, who began prioritizing meticulous development processes over rushed releases. 
  • How It Changed Things/Consequences: The fallout from the E.T. debacle prompted a reevaluation of development timelines and practices. Product owners became more cautious about setting realistic production roadmaps, developers focused on enhancing game mechanics, and designers worked towards creating more engaging and visually appealing experiences to avoid market flops.
Nintendo's Renaissance (1985-1990)

Nintendo’s Renaissance (1985-1990)

Nintendo’s introduction of the NES and iconic game, Super Mario Bros., reinvigorated the gaming market. Nintendo’s strict quality control policies set a new standard.

  • Why It Matters: The NES became a cultural phenomenon, resurrecting consumer confidence in video games. Nintendo’s approach shifted the industry’s focus from quantity to quality.
  • How It Changed Things/Consequences: It was a renaissance of console gaming marked by a commitment to excellence and memorable franchises. Fandom and merchandising gained traction with additional products and services related to characters and stories.
The 3D Revolution (Mid-1990s)

The 3D Revolution (Mid-1990s)

The mid-’90s witnessed a transition to 3D graphics, allowing for more immersive gaming experiences. Sony’s PlayStation emerged as a dominant force, challenging traditional gaming norms.

  • Why It Matters: The shift to 3D graphics opened new possibilities for storytelling and gameplay. Sony’s success showcased the importance of market competition. Sony’s PlayStation brand established itself as a key player in the industry.
  • How It Changed Things/Consequences: It marked a significant shift in the skill set required for game development, with an increased focus on creating visually stunning environments. After all, the transition to 3D graphics required software teams to new tools and technologies.  The era of 3D gaming became synonymous with innovation and expanded creative horizons.

Online Multiplayer and Connectivity (Late 1990s - Early 2000s)

Online Multiplayer and Connectivity (Late 1990s – Early 2000s)

The late ’90s and early 2000s saw the rise of online multiplayer gaming with titles like Quake and EverQuest. Consoles like the Xbox prioritized internet connectivity.

  • Why It Matters: Online multiplayer introduced a social aspect to gaming, redefining how players interacted with each other and the medium. The internet became an integral part of the gaming experience.
  • How It Changed Things/Consequences: Consoles began to integrate online capabilities as a standard feature. Product owners began considering the importance of community engagement, developers integrated robust online features, and designers focused on creating visually stunning and immersive online environments.

Indie Renaissance (2008 Onwards)

Indie Renaissance (2008 Onwards)

The democratization of game development with the rise of indie studios. Platforms like Steam and the App Store provided accessible distribution channels.

  • Why It Matters: Indie developers brought fresh and innovative perspectives to the industry. Digital distribution platforms empowered small studios to reach a global target audience.
  • How It Changed Things/Consequences: A surge in creativity, diversity, and unique gaming experiences. Indie games gained mainstream recognition and became an integral part of the industry. 

Also importantly, the rise of indie impacted how software companies and game studios approached talent acquisition. Developers and designers found new avenues for showcasing their creativity outside traditional studios, influencing the overall diversity and innovation in the industry.

4 Lessons Learned: Impact on the Industry, Final Product Conception, UX/UI, and Development

Product development trends also influenced talent acquisition; in the image, we see man using MacBook and cordless headphones

The rise of indie impacted how software companies and game studios approached talent acquisition. Developers and designers found new avenues for showcasing their creativity outside traditional studios, influencing the overall diversity and innovation in the industry. Photo by Stefan Steinbauer

1. Quality Over Speed

The rushed development of “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” exposed the dangers of prioritizing speed over quality. Since then, it’s now a given that quality games lead to better player satisfaction and long-term success.

The episode made it abundantly clear that rushed releases can have lasting negative consequences for a brand and the industry as a whole. 

  • Developers and studios began placing a higher emphasis on thorough testing and quality assurance.
  • The industry witnessed a cultural shift toward delaying releases to ensure a polished product.

2. User Experience Matters

The evolution from pixelated sprites to lifelike graphics emphasized the importance of immersive user experiences. They are essential for capturing and retaining a player’s attention. Graphics, sound, and narrative contribute to the overall enjoyment of a game.

  • The demand for improved graphics and audio capabilities influenced hardware advancements.
  • Games evolved from simple mechanics to complex narratives and realistic virtual worlds rich in history, politics, and culture.

3. Diversity in Platforms

The expansion of gaming across various platforms – from consoles to PCs, mobile devices, and cloud gaming is here to stay. A diverse range of platforms allows games to reach a broader audience. And different platforms cater to varying player preferences and lifestyles.

  • The industry adapted to multi-platform development, creating games for different devices.
  • Cross-platform play and game streaming services became integral parts of the gaming ecosystem.

4. Community Engagement

The growing role of player communities and social interactions in shaping the gaming experience. Community engagement enhances player loyalty and extends the lifespan of a game. After all, social connections contribute to a sense of belonging and shared experiences.

  • Online multiplayer, forums, and social media platforms became essential components of the gaming experience.
  • Game developers now actively involve the community in decision-making processes and content creation.

Product Development Trends We Expect to See in the Future

girl playing vr gaming at sunset

Embracing technological innovations, such as virtual and augmented reality, blockchain integration, and AI advancements, requires the strategic guidance of a CPO. Photo by Vinicius “amnx” Amano

1. Virtual and Augmented Reality Integration

Advancements in VR and AR technologies for more immersive gaming experiences, with new dimensions of interactivity. Enhanced realism and sensory experiences redefine the gaming landscape.

  • There is potential for entirely new genres of games and interactive storytelling.
  • We estimate a growing shift toward more physical engagement in gaming experiences (who recalls Nintendo Wii’s accessories?).

2. Blockchain in Gaming

The utilization of blockchain for decentralized gaming economies, asset ownership, and digital scarcity ensures transparency, security, and true ownership of in-game assets. It opens new avenues for player-driven economies and monetization models.

  • Players will have true ownership of digital assets, leading to new economic opportunities.
  • Bridges the need for enhanced security and fraud prevention in virtual transactions.

3. AI and Procedural Generation

The incorporation of artificial intelligence for smarter NPCs and procedurally generated content allows for limitless, dynamically created game worlds.

  • Games become more responsive to player actions and choices.
  • Endless possibilities for unique and personalized gaming experiences.

4. Continued Rise of Indie Developers

The flourishing indie scene is gradually empowered by accessible development tools and digital distribution platforms. This can be great: indie developers bring fresh and innovative perspectives to the industry. They can tend to diverse and niche game experiences that might not be explored by larger studios.

  • Continued diversification of gaming experiences.
  • A focus on unique storytelling, aesthetics, and gameplay mechanics.

5. Quality Control and Protagonism of the CPO

In the contemporary landscape, the Chief Product Officer (CPO) plays a pivotal role in steering development teams toward delivering polished and engaging products. 

With an eye for market demands and a commitment to user satisfaction, the CPO acts as the guardian of product quality. Their involvement in decision-making processes, especially concerning development timelines and feature prioritization, ensures a balanced approach.

As we gaze into the future of the gaming industry, the CPO’s role becomes even more critical. Embracing technological innovations, such as virtual and augmented reality, blockchain integration, and AI advancements, requires the strategic guidance of a CPO. They are at the forefront of ensuring that the company remains adaptive and ahead of the curve.

A Continuing Saga of Evolution

The journey from ‘E.T.’ to the present day is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of an industry that thrives on constant reinvention. Howard Scott Warshaw’s impact on the gaming industry extends far beyond that singular game release. His inadvertent contribution triggered a series of events that shaped the industry into what it is today. 

As the industry continues to evolve, embracing technological innovations and prioritizing user experiences will remain essential. Ubiminds, a leader in talent-as-a-service and staff augmentation in Latin America, stands at the forefront of this evolution. 

We empower companies across diverse industries to build high-performing and collaborative software development teams. By connecting organizations with top-notch product experts in Latin America, we ensure a deep understanding of market demand and facilitate the creation of products that resonate with and delight potential customers. 

In an era where remote work, quality control, and distributed teams are crucial, Ubiminds provides the expertise needed to navigate successful product development. Drop us a line below, and we’ll be happy to help you on your journey.


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