The early days of Atari were the stuff of legend, with a chaotic anything-goes atmosphere dominating a shooting-star of a company that quickly found itself on the forefront of the home video game revolution. But things weren’t so rosy for the company’s star programmers, who were often treated like replaceable cogs in a machine, and even denied credit for their hit creations.
Enter the Adventure “Easter egg”: A now-legendary attempt by programmer Warren Robinett to sneak due credit into a game, without his Atari bosses knowledge nor consent. By following an arcane series of steps, players could unlock a secret room that featured the giant flashing words: “Created by Warren Robinett”. (The Adventure Easter egg, of course, plays a key role in the Ernest Cline book Ready Player One, and will presumably appear in the 2018 Steven Spielberg adaptation.)
Today, video game secrets are commonplace and expected. But back then? It was something new. I spoke to Robinett about creating the original Easter egg. Here’s the story in his own words.
Atari kept us programmers all anonymous. The original Atari guys, Nolan Bushnell and his crew, they needed a lot of money to enter the home video game market that was about to happen in the mid-70’s, so they sold their company to Warner Communications. I don’t think they thought that Warner was going to take over, but it did.
Those guys played hardball and they treated the existing game designers rather disrespectfully and rudely. They weren’t going to give us any leverage or any name recognition with the consumers because we might start asking for things like royalties. It was a power struggle between the new owners and the creative types. We were nerds. You had to be a nerd to write the code for the Atari video game.
The famous Adventure Easter egg gives credit to the game’s creator.
It became clear to me pretty quickly that they weren’t treating us very nice and I didn’t like being anonymous. No royalties. No recognition. On top of that, they were rude to us. They told us, “Anybody could do this.” That was a big mistake. That’s why Atari came down. It may not be the only reason, but it’s a pretty big one because all the game designers quit. The ones they hired after us didn’t know how to do what we knew how to do.
Jumping ahead, my game Adventure sold more than a million copies at $25 each retail. Atari got about half of that. This was more than $10 million of income to Atari and they’re paying me $20,000 a year. I was not clever enough to think of a way to get a piece of those profits, but I did think of a way to get public recognition, which was to hide my name in the game in the secret room in a place that’s really hard to get to. That’s what I did. I didn’t call it an Easter egg, but that name was bestowed on it by someone else.
If it had been too easy to get into the secret room, somebody at Atari would have found it. There were internal testers at Atari. It wasn’t formalized, but there were some people that worked there that just liked playing the games under development and they’d give you some feedback. The guy who wrote the manuals played all the games and he thought Adventure was pretty good. He was giving me feedback as I was working on it. If it had been too easy, he would have gotten into the secret room and I was quite clear in my own mind that if anyone found out what I was doing, that secret would spread like a brush fire in Australia. Then it wouldn’t happen. It would get taken out.
I had to keep it secret. But if it was too hard, nobody would ever find it. I had a backup plan if it was so hard that none of those 100,000 kids found the secret room. My backup plan was that I could start the rumor. I could show one kid and then he’d show another kid and so on.
Here’s how you found the Easter egg. There was a yellow castle, a white castle, and a black castle. There was a yellow key, a black key, and a white key. If you found the black key, you could open up the gate of the black castle and get into it. Inside of the black castle was a maze. That particular maze consisted of two disjointed mazes that were intertwined with one another and the only way you could get into the part of the maze that had the thing that lets you get into the secret room was if you used the bridge to cross one of those walls in the maze inside the black castle. If you did that, used the bridge, crossed the wall, you get into a little tiny chamber, and if you just went in, you’d run into the key to the secret room.
The key didn’t look like a key. It was a single pixel. I called it The Dot. The kids called it The Dot. It was the tiniest possible object. I’ve corresponded by email with a number of people that played Adventure over the years. From one kid, I heard that he found The Dot. He knew it did something. He wouldn’t let his parents turn off the video game or the TV for three weeks while he tried everything under the sun and finally figured out what The Dot was for.
Some of the kids, just by trial and error, figured out that if you took The Dot into one particular room and had two other objects in there, it would let you get through one of the sidewalls. Then at that point, I didn’t see any reason to hold back. Half the screen filled up with may name in flashing colors: “Created by Warren Robinett.”
I don’t think I’m actually the very first one to ever put a secret in a computer program, but this was the first one that got called an Easter Egg and it was pretty big news because it was a subversive political maneuver.
The Easter egg was first discovered by a 15-year-old kid from Salt Lake City named Adam Clayton. On his own, he found the secret room, found my signature, and wrote a letter to Atari. The letter is actually in my book, so you can get his exact words. He drew maps and showed exactly how to get in there. That was the first that Atari knew about it.
I’ve met [Ready Player One author] Ernie Cline. We had lunch a couple of times and he got me tickets to the world premiere of the movie.
The information about how big of a deal Adventure was didn’t actually get to me very clearly because I quit Atari and didn’t have any communication with them. One thing I didn’t realize at the time is there were probably kids writing me letters, but Atari was not forwarding them to me. If I had been smarter, I would have filled out one of those little post office forms and I might have been getting bags of mail every week. Then after five years, Atari crashed, and video games were happening on personal computers and I didn’t really think anybody cared about the old video games after that. From about mid-80’s until the Internet came along, I thought nobody cared about the old games.
In retrospect, I guess it makes sense that secrets could be an interesting thing to put in lots of video games, but nobody knew that was going to happen back then. I knew it was a secret, but it was for the purpose of publicizing my authorship of that particular game. It wasn’t a general idea. I didn’t think: “Oh. I’ll put a secret in here and then there will be secrets in every video game in 10 years.” I didn’t think that. I just thought, “I’m going to trick these bastards and sneak my name into the game and I’m not going to tell anybody and they’re going to manufacture 100,000 units of Adventure and they’re going to ship them all over the world and kids are going to get them out of the boxes and there will be no way that Warner Communications can undo that maneuver.”