An Open Letter To Steven Spielberg


Posted July 21, 2010 - By Kevin Kelly

An Open Letter To Steven Spielberg

Dear Mr. Spielberg, 

Is it okay if I call you Steve? I'm going to assume that it's fine with you. If you have a problem with it, just let me know. You can reach me through the usual channels. Do you even use the usual channels? It's hard to picture you texting. Just saying.

Anyhow, I wanted to write you this letter to wish you a happy anniversary. Remember? It was 28 years ago today that you signed an agreement to turn E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial into a video game. I imagine that there was probably a big press release to accompany this, with the Atari logo and E.T. posters plastered everywhere. After all, the movie had already been out for more than a month and was still topping the charts when this announcement was made. 

Do people keep pens when they ink big deals, like they do when the president signs new laws into effect? Today Barack Obama is signing some historic sweeping financial legislation, and he'll be using several special, commemorative pens to do so. Were there special pens for the Atari / E.T. deal? Not that they're close to the same thing, but I had some Space Invaders pencils when I was a kid, and they were the bomb. But you probably didn't use those.

Still, it had to be a day that you remember even now. After all, Atari was at the top of its game, selling 8 million Atari 2600 units in 1982 alone. Forget the choices of today, this was the only console to own back then, and they had achieved extreme market saturation. Likewise, E.T. was burning up the box office, staying in the top two slots for six weeks, and making tons of dough in the process. A video game seemed like a no-brainer.

An Open Letter To Steven Spielberg

Sadly, it actually turned out to be a literal no-brainer. A week after signing the deal, you hired Howard Scott Warshaw, who had spent seven months designing Yar's Revenge, which was one of the best games on the 2600, and then six months designing Raiders of the Lost Ark, which would come out in November of that year. Seemed like a good choice at the time, I'd imagine. Which is why you guys offered him $200,000 and an all-expenses paid trip to Hawaii. 

But then, Atari CEO Ray Kassar, who thought that making a game based on a movie was a "dumb idea" in the first place, told Warshaw that the game would need to be ready on September 1st. Pretty mind-boggling stuff, even for a Spielberg, am I right? Warshaw didn't even meet with you until a few days later, which basically gave him one month to design a game that was expected to sell millions.

An Open Letter To Steven Spielberg

Even when you met with Warshaw, you dismissed his idea and pitched something more like Pac-Man instead. Really? Pac-Man? I'm not sure what the mentality was there, and Warshaw felt the same way since he went off to work and based the game on his original idea. Because of time constraints and the Atari brand, the game skipped testing, and was rushed into production. Five million copies were made that year. Five million! 

Of course, 3.5 million of those iconic cartridges were returned to Atari, who secretly buried them in a landfill in New Mexico. And the failure of the game led to the decline of Atari, and the enormous video game crash of 1983. The game was actually a success in that it sold very well, although it was almost universally hated, but since Atari pumped out so many carts, they had also swelled their earning estimates. Meaning they took a $536 million dollar bath in 1983.

But still, happy anniversary. We imagine if the time-machine DeLorean from Back to the Future (a movie you produced, I might add) was real, you might head back in time and make some changes to this title. Or just tell Atari to only make 1.5 million copies. Or release Avatar in 1982 and blow everyone away and beat Cameron to the punch by 27 years. If it makes you feel any better, the E.T. board game sucked too.

But please, enough with the Boom Blox (which granted, I freakin' love) and give us a movie game that we can really get behind. That Jaws Unleashed game was truly awful, and I know you could take an afternoon and design one we'd love to play. Toss in a few full-motion video cutscenes that you directed, and there's a massive summer title. "Just when you thought it was safe to go back on your console ..." That's a freebie.

In the meantime, stay in touch, and keep up the good work. The Pacific was excellent.



Oh, P.S. You might enjoy this music video that chronicles the game. Or you might hate it. At any rate, here it is.


An Open Letter To Steven Spielberg


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