Down the Rabbit Hole: The E.T. Landfill

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Somewhere in the vast, red deserts of New Mexico, there exists a landfill, overflowing not with sticky candy wrappers and rotting takeout containers, but with millions and millions of copies of video games - Atari’s 1982 cartridge of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to be precise. Here’s one gaming urban legend that turned out to be true.

In 2014, the New Mexican government worked with Microsoft and other companies to excavate the site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and recovered about 1,300 of the approximately 700,000 buried copies of E.T. and other under-performing Atari games. So, what happened? What exactly would lead a company to literally trash nearly a million copies of their products?

 These guys might be the only two that benefited from the whole disaster.

These guys might be the only two that benefited from the whole disaster.

In 1982, Atari was king, accounting for a staggering 80% of the video game market. The company had enjoyed great financial success porting popular coin-operated titles like Space Invaders to their Atari 2600 console, allowing gamers to bring the arcade to their living rooms. This growth, as it so often does, led to overconfidence, when Atari manufactured a whopping 12 million cartridges of their Pac-Man port, which ended up being panned by critics and gamers alike for its poor animation and sound effects. Though they did manage to sell over 7 million copies of Pac-Man, they still had millions of unsold copies lying around. The king’s crown was suddenly tarnished.

This leads us to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which became central to the (eventually true) story, and is often maligned as ‘the worst video game of all time.’ E.T. was, of course, based on the blockbuster movie of the same name, and Atari was counting on the film’s popularity to sell their video games. The company traded over $20 million dollars just to acquire licensing rights to the title, which meant they had to sell 4 million copies of the game just to break even. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, they decided in the summer of 1982 to commit to a Christmas release, leaving just five weeks for the entire development cycle of the game (for reference, games at that time took about 6 months to develop).

 When your core gameplay is described as “falling into holes,” you might want to rethink some things.

When your core gameplay is described as “falling into holes,” you might want to rethink some things.

Predictably, E.T. was an absolute disaster. Though it was initially a coveted item during the 1982 holiday season, word of mouth quickly spread that it was boring, frustrating, and tonally incongruent to the beloved, classic film. For example, much of the gameplay involved E.T. searching pits for items, but the holes were incredibly difficult to get out of, and often didn’t contain anything you were looking for. Consumers quickly gravitated toward other titles, and of the 1.5 million cartridges (5 million were manufactured) that were sold, many were swiftly returned.

Stuck with such a high volume of unsellable merchandise, Atari entombed their failures in concrete in the New Mexican desert.

Like the other articles in this series (and all good urban legends), there’s an important lesson to be learned from the E.T. Landfill story, although in this case it’s more for developers than consumers. Particularly in today’s video game market, where questions and controversy constantly swirl regarding loot boxes and other possibly predatory practices, it would be prudent for AAA publishers to study their gaming history.

As the common saying goes, “Pride goeth before a fall.”