Also, if they did indeed sell 1.5m copies at $40 per copy, that's $60m. Even allowing for large amounts of unsold stock that surely can't have been too far off covering costs, and can't have been the only reason for their subsequent $310m loss.
EDIT: Fair points about distributors margins, retailers margins, manufacturing costs etc. But even if they only saw $10m-$20m of the $60m in retails sales, that is still a reasonable amount, and mean their losses on that one game would only be in the millions or low 10s of millions, so there must have been additional reasons for the company's $310m loss.
So he was probably quite motivated to get it done.
At the same time, home computers were starting to nip at the game consoles' heels. Computers weren't just "toys," you could sell them on their practical applications as well. It was easier for little Timmy to get his parents to buy him a computer "for school" and then sneak games on it anyway, than just plonking down for a piece of hardware that only played inferior crap like E.T.
E.T. was the flashpoint, but the crash of 1984 had a lot of causes.
Perhaps they could have made two games in parallel so if one failed, they'd still have a spare.
On a project like this, adding people to it will make it later. The 2600 is a different beast from something that you can divide-and-conquer using APIs and so forth. A typical commercial 2600 game is a holistic, byte-shaved monster piece of spaghetti code, full of tricky timing and other traps. Hard to imagine that any collaboration would have resulted in a better game.
Given that atmosphere, Atari would have probably just given the job to someone else (on the same deadline, of course.)
And adding more than one programmer to a 5 week project for a platform like that would slow things down, not speed it up.
There's lots of things they probably could have done better, such as having testers on standby, but the project timeline and putting one programmer on it doesn't seem like something they realistically could have done differently.
Taking the risks they did on it in terms of volume and marketing costs, is a different matter. The poor planning that led to those timelines, likewise.
> This was not his fault, but shows a shocking lack of planning and communication within Atari at that time.
Here we are in total agreement.
In this case "the best move is to not play"
For a game being implemented (and probably having design changes on the fly as problems crop up since there was no time for a design phase) in assembly, with instruction- and register-level hacks to save the 128 bytes of memory, with no source control aside from sneaker net, how many developers can reasonably work on it at the same time? 1? 2? I mean at that level don't you need to hold the whole code and memory map in your head? Each change can have huge repercussions.
I don't know from first-hand experience, but my impression has always been that the main game loop would be virtually impossible to develop as a team effort.
To give a bit of back story for those that are unaware, the 2600 did not have a frame buffer for storing the current contents of the screen. To save memory, what it did instead is use a line buffer. This was a small amount of memory on the graphics controller chip (Stella) that it used (in combination with some minimal sprite logic) to render the current scan line on the screen. To display anything other than vertical stripes on the screen, the CPU had to update the line buffer and sprite registers for every change. (This is why you see vertical stripes when the 2600 crashes... the CPU isn't updating Stella, so it just keeps rendering one scan line for the whole screen.)
The other consequence of this line-buffer design is that to execute, the CPU had to run in lock step with the display update process. Developers had to know how many CPU cycles it took to render a line and frame of the screen, and write code that executed in just that many cycles. Otherwise, the CPU's display update would happen out of phase with the refresh process and you'd wind up with garbage on the screen. It is hard for me to imagine how a team of two developers could collaborate on such a small and sensitive section of code.
Another way to look at this is that developers that programmed the 2600 were almost working as hardware designers more than software designers. The 2600 CPU was essentially a super-complicated state machine sitting aside the graphics update logic. (Later Atari PC's offloaded display update to a separate chip called Antic that could pull data from a frame buffer, etc.)
It of course never occurred to me that by having so many scan lines being the same, they could save a lot of work.
This is a recent (2011) Atari game that renders several concentric rotating circles, each with a gap. It's the game that Howard Scott Warshaw (the E.T. guy) decided couldn't be done on the 2600. Knowing what I know about the 2600 graphics subsystem, I can see why he came to that conclusion.
Of course, Warshaw then Star Castle as inspiration for Yar's Revenge. This game was widely considered to be excellent... leading to Warshaw having the credibility to be asked to do E.T.
The assembly code is too small and tightly knotted to be able to usefully work on different parts simultaneously, but coding as a pair (given that it's an intelligent person you can stand for 5 weeks of intense) seems to me it would have mostly benefits?
Maybe I'm overlooking something obvious, but isn't the main disadvantage of pair-programming that it's not quite as good as two programmers working in parallel (and thus wasteful of workforce)?
Atari had plenty of people imagining great games; they didn't ship much content that was compelling, and were generally held in contempt by the "real" game programmers (e.g., the folks in the coin-op division).
Also, the 2600 has no screen buffer. It's all real-time raster generation with the CPU in cycle-by-cycle lockstep with the beam. Game design on the 2600 is very tightly bound to what the hardware is capable of. For instance, you can't just say "I want this game to have a spinning blue cube that defends against enemy fire," you have to see if you can make one. If you're a Real Programmer, maybe you can (and you might ship a killer game).
If you're a poser in marketing or management who's wondering what all the fuss about this programming stuff is about and why the hell people are complaining about those blue cubes you demanded, you run the company into the ground doing design that way.
Six months later there were massive purges in marketing.
Not soon enough, IMHO. I might respect a moral position, but mayyyybe you should have a business plan to back up your moral stance (if that plan is "We're going to go out of business because our resolve is strong" then, okay, I'll respect that too -- but say it so we can at least have a discussion about your continued employment). The games that resulted from that decision were horrible and never even paid for their development.
Basically, just deferenced a pointer to OpenGL memory that I shouldn't have...
There's another neat hack which would cause the machine to run in slow motion. I don't know how it worked; I can't find any references now. Possibly it overloads the system with interrupts. But under its influence, clearing the screen would take several seconds. These two hacks combined beautifully, letting you see all the details of, e.g., Basic's heap management.
It does overload the system with interrupts, by making the (normally 100Hz) timer interrupt that the OS uses occur a lot more frequently.
An initial run of 4 million copies is a lot of pressure on a single developer, the sort that can make you a legend or a catastrophe. I wonder if release management was considered to allow for bug fixes in subsequent production runs or phased production runs with hedged risk.
Probably adding to the pressure is the frustration that immediately following the production run you find a one-liner bug fix but you are 4 million copies too late.
Interestingly, Pac-Man also had millions of unsold cartridges left over. This candid Q&A talks more about the failure of ET, the frustrations and challenges:
There was a precursor to the BBC story in Playboy last September: The Guy Who Made the ‘Worst Game Ever’ Has Nothing to Apologize For
The Atari 2600 was designed, almost exclusively, to play Combat. It has the ability to animate only 3 sprites: player 1, player 2 and "ball". There are many hacks to get around this, but we're talking about the pre-release period of the Atari Video Computer System, AKA VCS, the Atari 2600.
The only other game in mind for the system was Pong, which actually come out for the system in the form of Video Olympics, and it was created by one of the 2600's TIA chip designers, Joe Decuir. That chip literally synced up the processor with the television's refresh rate, and had each scan line drawn out of processing exactly when the electron beam was moving over the proper position on screen. The 2600 has no frame buffer. Essentially, when it's in the CPU, it's drawn on the screen. The machine only had 1024 bits, not bytes, of RAM.
But that's neither here nor there. For more info on the fascinating hardware that was the Atari 2600, read Racing the Beam by Ian Bogost and Nick Montefort. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/racing-beam
Video Olympics could be considered to be the 100-in-1 of Pong games, with dozens of variants on the Pong theme. Combat takes the same sort of approach, with lots of game modes, but the actual gameplay was based on another arcade game. Rather than just recreating the arcade game, however, Combat expands on the theme, as Video Olympics did.
Combat is, to my mind, the only game on the 2600 that really holds up to this day. It's still fun, despite it's graphical limitations. For its day, it was the Super Mario Brothers of the Atari: that cart you could always turn to for fun.
It's elegant in its simplicity, extremely deep in its variations on a theme, and even offers a few asymmetrical playing options: one player can be given a different set of planes from the other.
Combat is the Go of computer games. Oh, and all the graphics are drawn in 1's and 0's. Same for the numbers on screen: big binary sprite maps. Here, look! http://benfry.com/distellamap/150dpi/combat-illus-150dpi.png
Thanks for the memory :)
80's kid here. My mom could always kick my butt in a small set of video games. Galaga, Ms. Pacman, Tetris. But she can't beat the first couple levels in Super Mario Brothers to save her lift.
I was quite young when ET came out. I loved ET, but the game was basically impossible for me to play because I couldn't get out of the pits very well; which was exacerbated by falling into them when I shouldn't have.
In contrast, Combat was easy to figure out and play and I could play it with loved ones.
I'm amazed that he shipped anything.
Good read, interesting fixes.
Never beat it. Got extremely annoyed/bored with it after a short time. There were games with much worse graphics and sound that had a much better gameplay overall.
They estimated 10 million consoles were actively being played, so they made 12 million copies. They sold 7 million, and that's before returns. 7 million people who would think twice before buying another Atari game.
Nothing beats game programming in the 80s. IMO, the golden age of programming.
That was he one thing I complained most about with the Atari PacMan. I don't think I ever noticed the flickering ghosts specifically, or even how different the bird layout was vs the arcade version.
But instead of a cherry/orange/pretzel that moved around the screen, the bonus fruit was a dark-brown square inside another slightly-larger light-brown square. It didn't move, it didn't look good, and as a kid I felt like this was the classic example of either the game designers cutting corners or limitations of the system.
I used to joke about this specific example as one of the key reasons to move on to better consoles when they came around.
It isn't his fault the managers were being unreasonable in the timeline, and the company grossly over-manufactured the cartridges.
If I made something in just 5 weeks that sold 1.5 million units, I'd be proud of myself! hehe, and as others have pointed out, it isn't actually the worst game.
Yes, the real problem is that they expected something comparable in quality to his previous games with less time to develop it. He did agree to it, though. Watch "Atari: Game Over" and you'll be able to tell from interviews with him that he held a lot of guilt about it- for years.
The fact is that he was one of the best game developers in history that accepted a job that he couldn't do without making sacrifices that killed the game. He shouldn't take credit for killing Atari though. They ended up being split focused on computers (that did fairly well but were competing against giants) and consoles. And they messed up by releasing both the 5200, which was a bomb partially due to its controllers, and the 7800, which came too late. Even if Atari had done everything right, it would have been really difficult to compete with Nintendo.
I still love Atari, though. The NES was great, but the 2600, for its time, was the best thing that ever happened in the home gaming industry. It was the first proof that a home gaming console could be a staple to a first-world kid's life.
Did I guess correctly?
Sidenote, somehow googling "youtube video nintendo marketing video game crash analysis boys" had the video I was thinking of at the very top.
Or maybe the centralised content censorship thing. Nintendo waa pretty infamous for that in the olden days, and it may have been the inspiration for sometimes rather insane guidelines for modern day app stores and the likes.
In the same era, early 80s, kids across the UK were single-handedly writing games packed into 1-16k, some of which (Manic Miner being a prime example) sold in their hundreds of thousands in the UK market alone.
There was some pretty amazing programming skill going on back then.
There's also a number of magazines devoted entirely to retro gaming, such as retroGAMER  that regularly have articles and interviews with the people involved.
I grew up in this era, first programming on an Aquarius. It was quite the hobby in the UK.
There is also diaries for Making of Prince of Persia and Karatek. http://www.jordanmechner.com/backstage/journals/
Both highly recommended, I reread it three times already.
IIRC when the Raspberry Pi was first announced, it was suggested it might inspire kids to program in the same way that computers did in the 80s, since teaching at UK schools apparently centres around how to use Microsoft applications.
Skill is still here, it is just muted by the modern media. Back then a any game release was huge news, today such games are made all the time every day and don't even get noticed.
If programming from one era was good, why do you think that means programming from another era "must be bad"? Why can't good programming exist in both eras?
> But a reasonable guess is good compared to today
If you insist on guessing there's more to my final sentence, why isn't a reasonable guess, "as well as non-amazing programming back then" or "just as there is amazing programming today"?
Second, those games are only possible due to the existence of frameworks, high-level languages and the proliferation of programming knowledge over the internet. Almost no one doing a weekend hackathon is cranking out a playable game in raw assembly.
Now to be fair, most games in the 80s were terrible as well - that's part of what led to the crash, and it's just Sturgeon's Law in effect. But what's being praised here isn't really design skill so much as a level of programming skill which simply isn't strictly necessary in the modern day to create a game.
Of course, not all of the time was coding, there was a lot of hand-drawing stuff, converting it to numbers, paper calculations, testing, etc
* Atari games like this cost $40? That seems expensive!
* Why did Pennsylvania residents have to call a different number?
* Funny that a point of advertising was getting the game before everyone else. It reminds you that these were real games people wanted and not just nostalgic blasts, how I view them now.
(Link to poster: http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/news/624/cpsprodpb/1972/production/_...)
Best 2600 title screen ever though. No one ever mentions that about the game though.
With the DLC and "Season passes" and other nickel and dime schemes they have, sure, but usually it's around $70-80 for AAA titles. I have an Aussie friend who I'd often gift games, then she'd pay me back on a 3rd party service what I paid, and end up saving money.
Australia really does just get screwed for whatever reason.
Is it a 95% fun tax?
Basically, we get screwed because there's precident establishing that we can. And it permiates almost anything that is produced overseas including phones and laptops but also all kinds of software, not just games.
Here's an article from when it was a hot topic in the news: http://www.smh.com.au/technology/technology-news/adobe-chief...
At the time it was literally cheaper to fly from Sydney to LA, buy the software in LA and fly home.
It's an 18% "fun tax".
95% I plucked out of my head, as an extreme percentual screwing value! :-)
I remember seeing this sort of thing a lot back then. Probably a sales tax thing - maybe the fulfillment center was in PA.
One of her jobs in the early 80s was to calculate the bills for WATS lines. There was a room full of mechanical counters, like odometers, that would increment while people were talking on their line. Every day she'd write down the new counts, subtract the previous day's counts, and they'd bill the difference.
Also, Desert Bus for Hope raises money for charity: https://desertbus.org/
At time of writing, they've raised $3,112,329.72.
More info here: https://desertbus.org/about/
Big Rigs Over the Road Racing, meanwhile, was for all intents and purposes an alpha build sold as an actual game, in a box and everything.
> "I actually prefer it when people do identify it as the worst game of all time because I also did Yars Revenge and that's frequently identified as one of the best of all time. So between the two, I have the greatest range of any designer in history!"
I really liked Yars' Revenge. That constant droning sound -- it was really unlike anything I'd heard at that point.
Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing was critically panned.
The game's criticism is largely directed at its
"blatantly unfinished" state: lack of collision
detection and frequent violation of the laws of
physics, frequent and major software bugs, poor
visuals, and severe lack of functionality. As a result,
the game is now widely regarded as one of the worst
video games of all time.
A close friend of mine worked on PaintBrawl, which made the list (#2.11). PaintBrawl is a first person shooter but used paintball guns since WalMart wouldn't carry violent video games in the 90s.
Of course times have changed and this isn't a practical scenario anymore, and likely for good reason. But it still reminds me of how a simple DOS game that a man could do on his own was state of the art. Sure there's the odd app like Flappy Bird that goes viral and garners success, but that's the luck of the lottery, really. It's different from back then.
I miss that simplicity.
Found out there are some other games in that genre, some quite a bit more shocking. :O
It's quite an interesting read and exposes some of the concerns that must have been present in designing games for incredibly limited memory at the time, including where to put the patched instructions.
Then again, I had weird taste in video games when I was a kid.
I mean, for the time it was moderately impressive on a technical level, and as dull as it ended up being, it wasn't really all that broken as far as bugs go.
No, if you want something a bit more worthy of the title, try Big Rigs (mentioned below), Action52, Superman 64 or Sonic 2006. Something that is literally broken beyond the point you can easily repair it, and which were a lot less impressive for the time they were released in.
Rise of the Robots was extensively hyped, but was a terrible game. (Winnable by mashing A.)
The problem was that the console games of the time were incredibly poor in graphics/sound, and typically also in game play.
Consumers wanted better games than what the console hardware at the time could produce, once something came along which was a technical leap compared to the Atari, Coleco etc, it did fantastically well, this was the NES.
As much grief as Warshaw has gotten for E.T., it really is an amazing accomplishment that he put it together in five weeks. (This is particularly true, considering the extreme resource impoverishment of the 2600 platform.)
>The bus contains no passengers, there is little scenery aside from an occasional rock or bus stop sign, and there is no traffic. The road between Tucson and Las Vegas is completely straight. The bus veers to the right slightly, and thus requires the player's constant attention. If the bus veers off the road it will stall and be towed back to Tucson, also in real time. If the player makes it to Las Vegas, one point is scored. The player then has the option to make the return trip to Tucson for another point, a decision which must be made in a few seconds or the game ends. Players may continue to make trips and score points as long as their endurance lasts. Although the landscape never changes, an insect splats on the windshield about five hours through the first trip, and on the return trip the light fades, with differences at dusk, and later a pitch black road where the player is guided only with headlights
The worst movie ever made probably doesn't have enough Rotten Tomato or IMDB reviews to be considered. I was once told I had hosted the "worst program on television", but being community tv there were probably 100 people watching each week and as far as I know no extant copy has survived - we'll never appear on a "worst TV shows of all time" list.
So almost by definition on a site like BBC.com, 'the worst video game in history' means 'which also sold tens of thousands of copies ', which is a measure of success and recognition most genuine failures won't achieve.
 Someone actually called the station and left a voicemail to that effect. I took it as a compliment - it meant he'd watched the whole show, because nobody calls to complain if they just changed the channel.
 Or, in ET's case, 1.5 million.
I mean, what's the hardest game ever made? Probably if you're really picky, some ultra obscure shoot em up or kaizo esque Mario ROM hack. But the average list will only name titles like Battletoads, Dark Souls and I Wanna Be the Guy, because those are the ones many people (including the authors) have actually heard of.
Same goes for movies: a "worst movies" list would probably be limited to movies that actually made theatrical release, not someone's home movie, or even a straight-to-DVD movie.
And much of:
And everything on Hardcore Gaming 101's Weekly Kusoge series here:
There's also the fact a lot of games are distributed pretty well (and sometimes even sold), legality be damned. Is there any more legitimacy to a bad (and likely illegal) app store game featuring characters from Mario or Pokemon than a game mod or fan game featuring the same thing? People sold Doom Wad collections in boxes in shops at one point, does that count?
Even assuming only legal retail games, there's an awful lot of somewhat obscure shovelware that could fill up an entire (very long) list. Like the tons of PS2 and Wii shovelware (the latter's games were often ported from the former) by companies like Data Design and Phoenix Games.
A worst game ever list would be incredibly hard to make to any decent degree, simply because you have so many possible choices to include on it, especially if you go looking outside the most popular titles.
Probably some bullet hell game which requires pixel perfect movement. Such as: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nscP9QpXoFM
I'm 99% sure near the end there (the last minute or so, last phase of the boss) it is literally unbeatable without buying more lives and if this wasn't an arcade game that allowed purchasing new lives, I don't think it'd be beaten by anything short of a tool-assisted run.
Atari had reached a point where it thought it could print money in perpetuity regardless of what it did. And that was true for a while. But you can't screw customers over forever. Eventually they bail, and that's what the big "video game collapse" was all about. Poor quality products being pushed at absurd prices. The lesson here is for startups with lock-in or few competitors: it doesn't take much to have it all fall apart. Make the best product you can.
I mostly marvel at the fact that this was done in 5 weeks. That's absurd. And while it was, objectively, a "bad" video game, there were far worse. They just weren't as high-profile. The second lesson is for developers: always appreciate the fact that you live in a world where patches, releases, and iterative development allow you to retroactively fix the things you had to do in a hurry.
It's on Netflix as well.
- 5 weeks development time, one person.
- 5 mio 1980-USD marketing budget.
- 4 mio units produced
- 1.5 mio units sold
The units probably listed at 15-20 USD (corresponding to 50-60 USD at today's prices) and cost around 5-6 USD to produce.
Amazing facts if you have any idea on how the game industry work today.
In particular the little resources spent at development stands out. Showing that video game development back then probably was more akin to making a board game or a toy than the huge software development projects it is today.
Eight kilobytes?! How do you build anything meaningful, especially a game, with just eight kilobytes?
 Yes, I see what I did there.
Here's one of the higher-ranked 8k demos:
http://www.pouet.net/prod.php?which=32203 (YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WogMZn87hkk )
- In 2600 coding you often don't need a stack, so you can use 'S' as a temp register. Very useful in the display kernel.
- The 2600 has a standard parallel port chip. There are configuration registers (e.g., port direction) that can be temporarily hijacked as RAM, when you don't care about input or output (which you generally only sample once a frame). That's a whole 8 more bits of RAM, not to be sneezed at.
One of my cow-orkers at Atari decided that he'd try to learn 2600 programming (he was mostly doing Atari Home Computer stuff). Over three or four months I saw him go through what I can only describe as deterioration and utter discouragement. The people who could get even an awful game out of the 2600 were pretty damned good hackers.
But that was storages, which was huge compared to the 128 bytes of RAM. Further complications happen because you need to time things with the scan lines of the display.
It doesn't even have a screen buffer, just a half a line buffer. You have to count scan lines and keep track of what's being drawn on a cycle by cycle basis, then update the line buffer live to get what you want on screen.
Often times you don't.
Think of how many computer programmers there were back then. How many notable 2600 programmers were there? 20? 25?
Granted that the sales were probably mostly due to intense marketing and ad campaign.
Today, I find it's one of the better popular-gaming litmus tests for whether or not somebody treats games as experiences to which critical analysis can be applied. (One doesn't have to like the game, there are lots of reasons not to even if I happen to, but does one get the thrust of it?)
Altogether very interesting stuff that kept me up longer than I wanted to be. Thanks for the link and lack of sleep. :)