lamogordo, New Mexico — The dusty town of Alamogordo seems more like a relic of the highway culture of the 1950s and ’60s than it does a future player in the world of video gaming. Currently known by few outside of the town and airmen who passed through a term at nearby Holloman Air Force Base, most of what would be considered “downtown” is nothing more than gas stations, hotels, and fast food. It’s as though the town accepted its fate as a pass-through rather than a destination and grew-up accordingly. Even in the gilded age, when railroads ruled the vast expanses of America’s west, steam engines passed right by Alamogordo (the local water is very hard, and reacted corrosively with the tanks on the great bellowing machines). In spite of the rugged beauty of the surrounding southwestern wilderness, including White Sands National Monument, Alamogordo would probably be largely ignored and its place in time and relevance set in stone. But a certain consumer electronics company has decided to give Alamogordo its own footnote in the history of video games (should such a book ever be written). The Atari corporation, makers of the hugely successful video game adaptation of Stephen Spielberg‘s film “E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial,” have decided that the sleepy town an hour north of El Paso will be home to a grand new distribution and shipping center for their games and consoles.
“I had spent six months working on [the video game adaptation of] Raiders of the Lost Ark, and that film had many action elements in it that would translate into something people would be interested in playing on a home video game system,” Warshaw said in an interview. “But they wanted me to develop E.T. to be ready to ship on Christmas. That meant I needed to have it completed by September 1st.” It would have been extremely difficult for Warshaw to create a game in such a limited window of time, but he had a little bit of help.
“Stephen Spielberg had some ideas for the game,” Warshaw said, “He wanted it to be in the same style as Pac-Man. I basically said ‘yeah, yeah,’ kind of brushed him off, but the deadline was looming and one night it occurred to me that maybe [Stephen] was right. I was trying to make this game where E.T. had to collect phone pieces by falling into pits scattered about the different boards. Totally by luck. It would have been hard to implement that mechanic in a way that was fun.”
What ended up happening is history. Warshaw took the concept of a Pac-Man game and improved upon it. The player controlled E.T. as he collected Reese’s Pieces and phone pieces that were scattered throughout a maze. The character was chased by government agents, like the ghost monsters in Pac-Man, but unlike Pac-Man, E.T. could be helped by his human friends from the movie, Elliott and Gertie. “That changed the whole mechanic,” opined Warshaw, “Pac-Man was about avoiding the ghosts while collecting the pellets. E.T. added a new dimension by putting in characters who would assist you.” It was a feat of savvy programming given the limitations of the hardware, and the result was the single largest commercial success in video game history. Capacity has greatly exceeded what Atari can handle in its El Paso, TX facility, hence the new distribution center in Alamogordo. But is the runaway success Atari is now enjoying here to stay, or is it already too late to save the fledgling industry?
E.T.’s success is a double-edged sword. It certainly helped boost Atari’s profits and it led to an uptick in sales of the “2600″ system. But it also gave everyone else an idea: if Atari can do it, why can’t we? Video game adaptations of movies are nothing new, but with dollar signs in their eyes the higher-ups at nearly every movie studio have approached gaming companies to make their films into video games. Failing at that, some studios set up their own game development studios to do it anyway. Nearly all the results have been universally terrible. “Suddenly there are games for every movie that enjoyed even a moderate amount of success,” says electronic media analyst J. Elisha Brown, “Rocky III was a decent enough game, but did we really need to rush out to buy ’48 Hrs.,’ ‘First Blood,’ or ‘The Biggest Little Whorehouse in Texas?’” It’s not just movies that are being slapped onto game cartridges and rushed to stores. “Chase the Chuckwagon,” a game that was originally a mail-away promotion for Purina pet foods is now on shelves at toy retailers nation wide.
“The problem,” says Brown, “is that there’s just too much out there. It’s unsustainable. No one can make any money when there are ten, twenty, a hundred alternatives vying to catch a consumer’s eye.” So much software on shelves makes it confusing for most parents and grandparents, the largest group presently buying video games. “They walk into a store and it’s just overwhelming,” Brown continues, “Not just for consumers, but for retailers as well.” The problem, Brown believes, is that too many games are flooding the market. “When you flood a market, prices are driven down. When no one wants to buy your product at a price that allows you to make money, you end up out of business.” Evidence of such a scenario can already be seen in many toy store bargain bins. Games that may initially have been priced at $29 are being discounted heavily — sometimes sold for as little as three dollars. “This is something that started before E.T. was released,” says Brown, “E.T., through its success, actually made it worse. Now everyone wants a piece of the pie.” Brown believes we may be nearing the end of the video game era. “All of this substandard product, it’s going to be over taken by advances in home computing. We may be on the precipice of the collapse of an industry.”
Don’t tell that to the people of Alamogordo, as they line up outside of a temporary Atari personnel office. The distribution center is expected to be the second largest employer in the town, after the local Air Force base, and Atari has vowed to fill most of the positions with people from the community. There’s no sign in this town that anything is wrong with the electronic entertainment industry. “My kids love the E.T. game,” says a woman who asked not to be named. “They’re really excited that Mom might be working for Atari. They hope I get to bring home games for them.”
Seth Macy is a freelance writer and host of the F-List Movie Podcast. When he was a
kid he never suspected E.T. was actually a bad game, but rather he
just thought he was really bad at it. Turns out both explanations are
Of course, E.T. was a terrible game and millions of copies were
crushed, tossed into a pit, covered in cement, and then buried beneath
the hard, dry soil of the Tularosa Basin. It was perhaps the largest
and most visible failure in the history of gaming, but it was a
symptom of a much larger problem and not the sort of event that
single-handedly led to the great crash of ’83. If E.T. had been the
ultimate video game, it wouldn’t have made a lick of difference. By
then the wheels were already in motion for the near-extinction level
event of gaming.