Howard Scott Warshaw
||Howard Scott Warshaw is the programmer responsible Atari's biggest selling original game for the 2600 console: Yar's Revenge. He's also responsible for Atari's E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial which many have credited with starting the video game crash of the mid-'80s. Such highs, such lows -- Charles F. Gray interviewed Howard and got the inside scoop on his experiences as an Atari programmer.
This interview was originally featured on the
satirical website"Atari 2600 Duds" (conducted 2/06/04).
Hi, Howard. Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to do this interview. I'm not going to go over a lot of questions that were covered in other interviews. Instead, I'd like to talk about new or, at least, newer aspects and ideas about your involvement with Atari and especially the Atari 2600 game cartridge E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial . So how does this sound?
HSW> Sounds great, Charles. I would love to hear some new questions, particularly about E.T. :)
CFG> I am assuming that most people reading this interview are well aware of your involvement with the big video game company Atari in the 1980s, but if not, I'd like to lay a little ground work. So, when did you get your start with Atari and how did you go about getting yourself hired there?
It started when I was working at Hewlett Packard and I was very unhappy there, so I used to act up quite a bit to break the monotony. One of my coworkers used to tell "Howard" stories to his wife, and she said it sounded just like the normal goings on where she worked... Atari :) He told me about it so I went to interview there. After a few rounds of interviews, they didn't want to make me an offer, primarily because they thought I was too straight and wouldn't fit in ;) So I literally begged and pleaded for them to at least give me a probationary position so I could show them they were wrong. I ended up taking a 20% pay cut and was happy to do it. I knew that was the place for me. And shortly after I started, they all knew it was the place for me as well.
CFG> And what video game titles for the Atari 2600 did you have a hand in programming?
Not just a hand, I put my whole body into Yar's Revenge , Raiders of the Lost Ark , E.T. and a game called Saboteur which Atari
re-branded as The A-Team and then didn't get to releasing before they crashed (but it is coming out very soon, thanks to some dedicated homebrews :)
CFG> I have many memories as a kid playing my Atari 2600 trying to beat these cartridges you created. Do you have a favorite game you programmed?
Yar's is probably my favorite, because that was a game I made for me. I figured if I made a game that I would enjoy, a lot of gamers would like it too. And it had so many firsts for the VCS: first reset from the joystick, first full screen explosion, first game to show the code on screen [the ion zone is actually the assembly code instructions :) ], the first VCS game to be considered for conversion to a coin-op!!, the *only* game to ever beat Missile Command in a play test, the first game that appealed to adult women, the first game with a comic book of the back story (which I wrote), the first company sanctioned Easter egg, and the first game in ATARI history to go out with the name of the programmer on it. Yup, Yar's is definitely my favorite child :)
And the rumor that Yar's Revenge was actually named after Atari head Ray Kassar is true?
HSW> Ah yes, the story of how Yar's Revenge became Yar's Revenge , that's a good one. Here it is --
Initially Yar's wasn't Yar's, it was a nameless game in development. There were some working titles around from marketing but I felt they were pretty lame and I wanted something special for my game. So I asked if it was too late to submit my own entry, and the marketing guy said I could, if I hurried. I came up with the name Yar's Revenge because I knew "revenge" was a good title word and the Yar, well, you'll see in a moment. So I stayed up all that night writing a little sci-fi story called “The Yarian Revenge of Rassak IV.” A whole story about these creatures called Yars from the Rassak solar system. I figured a back-story to go with it would make the title stronger. And also I thought this was my chance to add to the English language (which is something I had always wanted to do). So I got this all together and handed it in the next morning.
Two days later I saw the marketing guy and asked if they had made a decision yet. He said no, so I asked him if he would like to be in on a little secret about my story. He, of course, said yes. And I swore him to secrecy not once, not twice, but three times. After he swore the third time, I was sure he'd spread it all over the place, that's when I told him... Yar spelled backwards is RAY and Rassak spelled backwards is KASSAR. Ray Kassar was the sitting CEO of Atari and the head man there. The marketing guy asked me if Ray knew about this and I told him absolutely yes. That is why secrecy was so important because I didn't want this to effect the decision unfairly ;)
I knew two things at this point:
1) This guy would DEFINITELY tell everyone in marketing about this and that should lock up the title for me, and
2) Nobody in marketing would have the balls to talk to Ray about it.
I was kind of counting on #2, because the truth was Ray Kassar had no clue about any of this :)
The next day I saw the marketing guy, and he said, "Hey Howard, guess what? We're going with Yar's !!"
"You didn't tell anyone, did you?" I asked, barely able to keep the smile off my face, and he assured me he hadn't ;)
Ray did hear about this whole thing months later and we shared a funny moment over it at a press conference. It was a very cool thing, one of my favorite Atari moments.
What was your relationship with Ray Kassar. I mean, I know he was the head of Atari, but was he a good guy to work or was he a prick? Did you ever get in any heated arguments with him?
HSW> I personally like Ray a good deal. I didn't really have to work with him though. He was just a guy who was waiting eagerly for my output and would pretend to be interested in what I was saying.
I do have one good Ray story. On a semi-regular basis, the "wigs" as we called them would come through on a little tour. It was the executive equivalent of going to the zoo to see the animals. Now you have to understand that Ray was always impeccably dressed with a very distinctive cologne, and I was an upscale slob with my perennial herringbone tweed jacket with leather elbows, jeans, a t-shirt, and rainbow sandals ala' Hawaii. Ray was also usually followed on the trips by his entourage, some 3-5 VP's close in tow.
One day they all came in my office for a demo of Raiders, which was under development at the time. So I put on the 1812 Overture and gave a good show, then afterward I talked a bit with Ray about market strategy. Now he and all the VP's are jammed into my office, and Ray and I are chatting away and he is patronizing me in the proper manner. Then at one point, Ray jokingly says to me, "Well Howard, maybe we should just trade jobs for a day and see how it goes."
I didn't miss a beat and came right back with: "OK Ray, let's do it. Here's my dev system, just give me your fragrance and let's get it going."
Now, the 4 VP's in my office are stunned, but they are also fighting back tears of laughter. People don't usually talk to Ray like this and they don't know how this is going to go. They are afraid to crack up until they see Ray's reaction first, but they are having trouble containing themselves and one or two are starting to burst. Ray is frozen. Everyone is waiting to see what it's going to be. Then, after what seemed an eternity, Ray finally giggled a little and rolled his eyes, and then the VP's finally burst and fell on the floor laughing. It was a very touching scene :)
So let's go into the whole E.T. fiasco. I know a lot of people say that E.T. was responsible for the downfall of Atari. You know, the game that brought down an empire. What are your feelings on this? Is it true?
HSW>God, I hope so! I would be very flattered to think that I could single handedly bring down a billion dollar industry :) But the fact is E.T. was a tough technical challenge that I feel I met reasonably well. I made that game start-to-finish in five weeks. No one has ever come close to matching that kind of output on the VCS. It could definitely be a better game ;), but it's not too bad for five weeks.
That said, I also realize that consumers don't (and shouldn't) care about development time. All they should care about is the playing experience. I feel E.T. is a complete and OK game. Some people like it. It certainly isn't the worst game or even the least polished, but I actually like having the distinction of it being the worst game. Between that and Yar's , I have the greatest range of anyone ever on the machine :)
For me it was more about the challenge of getting it done. No one else would touch it. And believe me, I asked them all ;) I was the only one brave/stupid enough to attempt it.
CFG> I've met a lot of people who loved E.T. the game and a few people who hated it. I myself enjoyed the game, except for the pits! So what about the pits? Why were they made so hard to get out of?
I never thought they were *that* tough to get out of, if you get the hang of it. But if I were to modify the game now, the first thing I would do is modify the pit play, that's for sure. It was the main obstacle in the game. What I really am disappointed about is the way it is too easy to get blindsided when switching screens. That is the first thing I would change. Ah, if I'd only had six weeks ;)
CFG> Well, let's suppose just for a second, that in April 1983, Atari closes its El Paso manufacturing plant. Fourteen trailer trucks filled with unsold games such as E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and Pac-Man dump and bury their contents in an Alamorgordo, New Mexico landfill. You've heard the rumor before. What are your thoughts on it?
HSW>Honestly, I doubt it for a couple of reasons:
First off, Atari was a failing company at the time. They were desperate for cash. Why not reuse the plastic cases and some of the boards and ROMs? There is a lot of money to be saved by cannibalizing the inventory and reusing that. Why would a failing company spend money they didn't have in an effort to waste even more money by throwing away usable resources?
Another reason is if this would have been going on, I would have heard about it. I was pretty tied into the Atari grapevine, and here's what would have happened:
Someone would have said, "Hey Howard, they're burying a shitload of E.T.s out in the desert." I would have grabbed a photographer (I had plenty of money then) flown us both out to the site, and gotten some pictures of me standing on top of the mountain of buried carts. How could I not do that?
But, sad as it is and unromantic as it is to say, I'm sorry but I don't buy the dumped cartridge stories.
But I would claim that Atari had no reason to contact you. Atari wanted this kept quiet and on a need to know basis so why would Atari tell the programmers of E.T. and Pac-Man that they were burying millions of unsold games. Why would Ray give you this information?
Ray might not, but you just can't keep something like this a secret. There were much, MUCH more controversial and downright illegal activities that were widely known around the company. I doubt a company that couldn't hush those things could keep this tidbit out of the gossip circles :)
There are other rumors. More so joke-rumors state that you and E.T. were both put in separate bunkers below the Atari Landfill for an undisclosed period of time for punishment due to the whole E.T. fiasco. So is this part true?
Yeah, I was down there playing poker with Indiana Jones and a couple of rogue Qotiles. ;)
O.K. If it was true. I mean, if you were confined to such a bunker during this time period and you were given an Atari 2600 hooked up to a monitor, if you could only choose two Atari games to play during your stay, what would they have been?
A much better question :), and a tough choice too. Although I would be tempted to take Yar's :), I would probably take Ms. Pac-Man and Kaboom. Those are two well done VCS games with good ongoing playability.
CFG>Sorry to joke around with you so much but the mystery or supposed fiction of it all is almost as interesting as what supposedly happened (i.e. no Atari landfill).
As you may or may not be aware of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial was jokingly modified by Christian Samuel into E.T.: The Extra Testical. Also Scott Stilphen modified the game by shrinking the pits. What are your thoughts on these alterations to E.T. the game?
See: E.T. The Extra Testical
HSW> I love it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Think about it. I did this game over 20 years ago. For the supposed worst game of all time, people are still talking about it, and even reworking it! If you look at a game as a piece of media intended to create reaction and impact, then E.T. is one of the most successful games ever done ;) Hey, how many VCS games have you forgotten? :) Besides, I know Scott Stilphen and he is a very cool guy, so anything he wants to do to any of my old games is fine with me. I'm honored.
CFG> And what are your opinions of my site Atari 2600 Duds?
HSW> Now *that* is a brave question ;) Actually, it has a great retro look and it's pretty cool. I do hope you will update it after getting this interview. A few key facts could be corrected. Jerome Domurat was the animator on the game, there was only one programmer on E.T. :) It was only $22 Million (such a bargain) and it was done in five weeks. A very important part of satire is establishing your target correctly :) A very cool sight none-the-less and the likeness of me in the bunker is stunning!!