HSW: Well, you turn the robots into bad guys or leave them as robots. We had a Mr. T head, the main character was a giant Mr. T head, and so that was a great graphic for you. In the later screens, you are riding in a jeep and you are trying to avoid getting stopped before you reached a base to turn off the destruct button for the missile. But it was all about trying to stop people who are trying to blow up a city and create a world war. That’s the A-Team storyline. But yeah, it was basically a graphics change and a few other things, but it wasn’t really much of a change to the core gameplay itself. It did delay the release of the game enough though, so that it didn’t make it out before Atari closed.
WIRED: You write toward the end of the book, “The E.T. game did not cause the video game crash. It is, however, symptomatic of the thinking that caused the crash. I see it as the crowning achievement of this mindset.” Do you think that, hindsight being 20/20 of course, that Atari could have staved off the crash if they had the 2600 locked down so that third party devs couldn’t have made games for it, and they didn’t try to wring every last cent out of it?
HSW: Absolutely. I think absolutely they could have staved off the crash. Because the truth is there wasn’t a crash in Japan or a lot of other places, right? Sure a crash happened in the United States, and what happened? What happened was, after a relatively brief period of time, there was the next generation of systems started coming to the market, but the special lesson that everybody got was, oh, there’s a product life cycle involved in these things, and you need to protect your platform. So you don’t have just anyone releasing crap on it. I think if they would have locked the system, they would have really held their quality stuff. And if they would have just paid David Crane and those guys a little bit more money that they were asking for, they wouldn’t have gone running out the door.., and a “third-party developer” might not have been a thing for a while. There were a lot of things Atari did that were kind of short-sighted. I don’t believe the crash was absolutely necessary, but it was inevitable.
WIRED: Yeah, it seems like with a couple of minor decisions here or there they could have really stemmed the tide. You mentioned Japan. Nintendo approached Atari to release the NES in America in ’85, I believe. Do you think that could have saved Atari too?
HSW: Some of the best stories at Atari were the things they said no to. They blew off Jobs and Wozniak, who wanted to do a personal computer. They blew off VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet. They came to present that one to Atari, and everybody at Atari was like, “What is this? You can’t play a game with this. What are you showing us this for?”
WIRED: They wanted to put VisiCalc on the original Atari computer lines? The 400 and 800 and the like?
HSW: Yeah, they came in with that. Atari blew them off. Then they blew off Nintendo. Atari was hell-bent on getting exactly where they showed up. You know, there’s an old Chinese proverb that says, if you don’t change direction, you’ll wind up where you’re headed. Nothing was going to deter them, it seems.
WIRED: You had a part in the Angry Video Game Nerd movie, which focused on the Nerd finally reviewing E.T., and that’s far and away the best part of that movie, IMO. Your role was originally much larger [rewritten as the mad scientist in the desert cabin]. Why did you feel that role wasn’t “suitable” and ask for it to be rewritten?
HSW: To be honest, you know, that was the time where I was just becoming a psychotherapist. And so when I was thinking of this movie coming out and people seeing it, I was thinking, “I have clients who I’m trying to help with serious issues, and they’re going to go, Oh, yeah, that’s my therapist. He’s an insane person who lives in a shack in the desert and likes to shoot at government agents.” That really wasn’t the image I wanted to project for my practice.
WIRED: Any interesting stories from that experience or from the shoot, or did you just show up and do your thing and that was that?
HSW: It was fun while reviewing the script. I was really grateful that they were open to my ideas. I have to be one of the first actors in history who argued to get a smaller part!