E.T. Phone Home


E.T. Phone Home was the first game I worked on at Atari. I had had some doubts about following this new path, but my wife Terry gave me some advice that has become words we live by: "If you don't go through that door, you'll never know what's on the other side." So I went, and E.T. was what I found.

The game was designed by a team, the first time Atari had tried that approach for its computer games, but having already done a lot of comics, it was perfectly natural for me. Simultaneously, a completely different game was being designed by other people for the Atari game machine. Unfortunately, that one became the symbol for bad games of its time; it was the star of the infamous Atari landfill, when thousands of unsold carts were buried in New Mexico.

Our E.T., on the other hand, was not only well-received, insuring that I and others would keep designing games (and later move to the Advanced Games Group), but it was also a great learning template. We designed a very large game, then had to cut it to one-fourth its original size to fit what Atari was prepared to release. That left the choicest parts, making for a good if somewhat uneven game, and it taught me you can never expect that your design will actually make it to market.

The game's concept came straight from the film: E.T. guided Elliot around the neighborhood to find pieces of the telephone needed to call E.T.'s alien friends. When E.T. made his call, he said "E.T. phone home" - the first time speech had been synthesized in an Atari game. If the pieces were gathered within the time limit, and E.T. could scurry to the landing site without detection, the spaceship landed and carried him away. This happy ending was essential to Stephen Spielberg, who took an active part in the development of the game, approving the concept, design, and implementation - at levels above my newbie head.