The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack - The Desert Dump
by, 11-25-2010 at 11:28 AM (1959 Views)
Well, well, well, it just so happens that this edition of The Bi-Weekly British Backtrack falls on a traditional American holiday, Thanksgiving of course, so to celebrate a typically American holiday we’re covering a typically American pastime, dumping shit in Mexico.
Well, New Mexico.
We all love the Mythbusters right? Right? Good, because this time around we’re going to try and bust wide open a Myth that has been around for almost 30 years. The Myth we’re busting is that Atari transported, crushed and buried all of their returned E.T. games for their Atari 2600 Console.
First we need to rewind a little. We know that the whole thing began in 1982, where following the huge success of the Steven Spielberg film E.T., Steve Ross, CEO of Atari's parent company Warner Communications, started negotiations with Steven Spielberg and Universal Pictures for the license to produce a video game based on the film. In late July 1982, Warner announced its exclusive worldwide rights to market coin-operated and console games based on E.T. and the rumour mill had it that Atari had paid US$20–25 million for the rights, a very high figure at that time, and no small drop today either.
Allegedly Ray Kassar thought it was a dumb idea and he said “We've never really made an action game out of a movie." Anyway after negotiations Howard Scott Warshaw was commissioned on July 27 as the developer after Spielberg had asked for him specifically.
He was also told that development needed to be completed by September 1 to meet a production schedule for the Christmas holidays. Warshaw had taken 7 months on Yars' Revenge and 6 months on Raiders of the Lost Ark, but accepted the offer of completing E.T. within 5 weeks because of the short time frame to see if he could do it.
Spielberg had originally envisaged a kind of maze game like Pacman with the E.T. character but Warshaw designed something very different with the player controlling E.T. as he tried to assemble the parts of a phone so he could phone home, and Warshaw thought that this would capture the same sentimentality that had been in the film.
Because the deadline was so tight Atari had to skip audience testing for the game which caused people to think that perhaps they’d become arrogant or they had a false sense of security because of their previous success and because of the 2600 version of Pacman that was not popular among critics but had still been commercially successful. So, anticipation for the game was predictably high and Newsweek called Atari's license its "biggest coup".
In 1981 Atari had told its distributors to place their orders for 1982 all at once, and anticipating another strong sales year they ordered games quite aggressively, but when 1982 sales didn't meet expectations, the distributors were stuck with a lot of unsold Atari games which they returned to Atari. Initially E.T. sold very well, and was in the top four on Billboard magazine's "Top 15 Video Games" list in December 1982 and January 1983 and it went on to become one of the best selling Atari 2600 games, selling 1.5 million. Unfortunately between 2.5 and 3.5 million cartridges were left unsold. According to Ray Kassar, about 3.5 million of those produced were sent back to Atari and despite large sales, the number of unsold games and the expensive movie license made it an overall failure.
Warshaw remains philosophical about the game and says that “People worry I might be sensitive about the ET debacle, but the fact is I’m always happy to discuss it. After all, it was the fastest game ever done, it was a million seller, and of the thousands of 2600 games, how many others are still a topic? Another thing I like to think about is having done ET and Yars' Revenge I figure I have the unique distinction of having the greatest range of any game designer in history.
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.”
The biggest issue that people had with the game apart from its repetitiveness were the pits. The phone pieces were hidden in a series of pits that the player has to search and then climb out of, but it’s incredibly easy to get your timing wrong and fall straight back into the pit. Warshaw laughs it off and says that “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.”
Which brings us on to the famous myth surrounding the game. Did Atari dump all of their excess E.T. cartridges in the desert or did they not?
The story of the buried cartridges has become very much an urban legend with good evidence to say it happened and lots of people saying it didn’t, including Howard Scott Warshaw who doubts very much that it did.
So, the story goes that in 1983, an Atari warehouse in El Paso sent several truckloads (around 14) of industrial waste northwards to the landfill site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The rumour goes that this industrial waste consisted of the surplus ET cartridges, returned Pac-Man cartridges, broken Atari computers and the odd prototype machine. In September 1983, the Alamogordo Daily News reported in several articles that between 10 and 20 truck loads of Atari boxes, cartridges, and systems from an Atari storehouse in El Paso, Texas were crushed and buried at the landfill within the city.
The cartridges weren’t just dumped, they were crushed by bulldozers as they drove over them repeatedly and then had concrete poured over the top of them. According to the paper this was Atari's first dealings with the landfill which was chosen because there was no scavenging was allowed and all of the material sent there was routinely crushed and buried every 24 hours.
Atari made no secret of the fact that they did bury waste in the New Mexico landfill, and there are statements from Atari employees about the fact. Their stated reason for the burial was that it was changing from Atari 2600 to Atari 5200 games, but this was later contradicted by a worker who claimed that this was not the case. Atari official Bruce Enten said that Atari was mostly sending broken and returned cartridges to the Alamogordo dump and that it was "by-and-large inoperable stuff." So not only were Atari dumping waste, but it may not have been the first time they’d done it. There were strong rumours that their warehouse at Borregas Street, Sunnyvale was built on top of crushed inventory as well. As the concrete slab was laid for the building that would house the 2600 assembly lines, tens of thousands of ROM chips were mixed into the cement. Or so that rumour goes.
Years later at the same warehouse Pong machines and Video Pinball machines were taken outside to the parking lot where they were driven into and over by a truck and destroyed before being thrown away.
The New Mexico press reported the story, saying that “Guards kept reporters and spectators away from the area yesterday as workers poured concrete over the dumped merchandise. An Atari spokesman said the equipment came from Atari's plant in El Paso, Texas which used to make videogame cartridges but has now been converted to recycling scrap.”
So it seems like it’s not so much a question of whether or not Atari were dumping inventory in the landfill, but rather a question of what they were dumping in the landfill. Headlines such as "City to Atari: 'E.T.' trash go home" implied that the cartridges were E.T. so as a result, it is widely speculated that most of Atari's millions of unsold copies of E.T. ultimately wound up in this landfill, crushed and encased in concrete.
Eventually, the city began to protest about the large amount of dumping Atari was doing, a sentiment summed up by one commissioner with, "We don't want to be an industrial waste dump for El Paso." and the dumping ended shortly afterwards. Alamogordo later passed an Emergency Management Act and created the Emergency Management Task Force who enforced limits on the landfills to stop them accepting waste from outside the area. The Mayor of Alamogordo issued a statement saying that he “did not want to see something like this happen again."
It wasn’t just the local press that ran the story though, it also appeared in The New York Times, who quoted an Atari spokesman which seemed to confirm the dumping of their stock. So maybe with the company bordering on financial ruin and unable to sell or store the millions of returned games, they did the only thing they could think of, they loaded them up into dump trucks and rolled them out to the desert.
So, the years go by and the landfill closes down. The site is now on the outskirts of town and is being made into a park, but that’s not the end of the story, because in January 2006 a US band called Wintergreen released their first music video that tells the story of the cart burial and follows 3 band members as they track down the burial site and start digging up cartridges out of the sand.
This revival sparked some interest in the story again, but not surprisingly the game’s author, Howard Scott Warshaw still doubts that the story is true and he says “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.
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.”
So clearly Warshaw doesn’t believe it, but many others do. I think the only conclusion we can probably reliably draw is that Atari definitely did dump some waste in that landfill site, that seems to be the general consensus, but as for what that waste was, and whether it was millions of unsold or returned E.T. cartridges, we can’t be sure, and I think I’m inclined to believe it wasn’t. Like Warshaw says, they could reuse the cases if not the boards or the ROMs. I’m sorry but I just don’t get it either.
Why crush it and cover it in concrete? Well, even if it was standard practise at the time, industrial espionage is big business, as you’ve heard about Computer Space, somebody somewhere obtained the drawings or the schematics or reverse engineered an original and recreated the game. Atari had been stung once (at least) and if some of the waste was prototype machines as thought, they wouldn’t want those to fall into the wrong hands if they could help it. So, like Warshaw, I’m sorry, I don’t buy it, but I’d love to be proven wrong if that’s possible, but it is a nice story though.