Howard Scott Warshaw,
the Sad Clown
Howard Scott Warshaw is one of the most controversial gures in the history of the Atari
2600, responsible for both the best (Yar’s Revenge) and the worst (E.T.) games ever released
for the platform. Sitting down to chat with him in the summer of 2010, I was immediately
impressed with his candor and seemingly innite supply of hilarious stories about the ear-
liest days of the videogame industry.
Famous for his pranks, jokes, and overall wackiness, Howard might well have been a
stand-up comic instead of a hardcore game designer and programmer. So it’s all the more
surprising that his tenure at Atari began aer the departure of its pioneering founder,
Nolan Bushnell, who had sold his company to “Big” Warner. Bushnell was an engineer, and
he’d run the company like one. e new management, by contrast, was strictly business,
with little to no understanding of how games were actually made. e result was com-
pletely unrealistic deadlines, massive overspending on popular licenses, and overweening
hubris. All of this led, inevitably, to the terrible “Crash Christmas” of 1983.
Howard’s story is perhaps the most dramatic in this book, since he literally went from
industry darling to industry scapegoat in little more than a year (see Figure 8.1). Although
he’s clearly maintained his lightheartedness and penchant for humor, it’s also clear that
he’s still stinging from the rejection he received aer E.T. When he said he wanted a time
machine so he could go back to x it, for the rst and only time during our chat he wasn’t
smiling. Tellingly, he was far more aected by the idea that he’d disappointed his fans than
any damage it had done to his career.
When did you become interested in programming?
Well, me getting into programming is an interesting story because I avoided comput-
ers like the plague until midway through my college career. I had access to them in high
school, but I never wanted to get near them; that wasn’t where I was going to go.
I was at Tulane majoring in economics. But everybody kept telling me, if you don’t know
computers, you aren’t going to get anywhere with economics. So I tried a little half-credit
98 ◾ Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers
FORTRAN course—and I loved it! I just thought, oh my God, this is it for me. It was all
fun, no homework. You just hang out and solve puzzles. It was great! I dove into computers.
My rst job programming was at Hewlett-Packard doing distributed systems, some of
the rst networks. I was one of the rst people to work on the “Internet,” although back
then it was called the Arpanet. I wrote packet switchers and node soware back in the late
’70s. at was cool, but it was getting kind of dull at Hewlett-Packard. I always thought of
it as the soware pasture where programmers go to die. I liked microprocessors and real-
time controlled programming. I was also a wacky guy, especially for Hewlett-Packard.
One day, one of the people I worked with started telling me about his wife and the cool stu
she was doing at her job. He said it sounded just like what I wanted to do. I asked where she
worked, and it was a place called Atari. So I went in and did an interview, but they didn’t want
to give me an oer because they thought I was too straight. But I begged and pleaded with
them. Finally, they gave in, and as it turns out I wasn’t too straight to work for Atari [laughs].
You worked at Atari aer Nolan Bushnell had le and Ray Kassar had taken over. What
was Ray like?
Ray was a very interesting guy. He was a classical manager that came from a huge com-
pany. He was brought in to run Atari by “Big” Warner. en, nobody really understood
soware management. Ray came in to straighten us out and produce products just like he
had done at plenty of other companies.
FIGURE 8.1 Howard Scott Warshaw, the best (and worst) game designer on the Atari 2600.