Have you ever wondered where Easter eggs came from? No, not the kind the actual Easter Bunny delivers. (For that answer, you should check out classic Rankin/Bass special The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town).
Instead, I’m talking about those little gems hidden in everything from video games to movies. They can come in any form from a picture to some much more complex configuration.
For example, in Tron, as the MPC examines a game grid, you can clearly see Pac-Man sharing the screen.
Or this moment from 1984’s Thor #341 where Thor accidentally bumps into a familiar face.
Or this shot from Raiders of the Lost Ark, proving Star Wars really took place “a long, long time ago”.
But where did this term come from? We can thank the fine folks at Atari. During Atari’s initial boom in the late 70’s, the games were raking in millions of dollars while the designers were often salaried and paid the same whether the games were a success or not. Credits were never issued either, as the Atari folks worried that other game companies would try to steal their best employees.
It didn’t take long, however, for their plans to backfire. And the first game to strike was Adventure.
If you’re not familiar with Adventure, it was the first fantasy game on a home console. Designer Warren Robinett wanted to turn the 1977 text adventure game Colossal Cave Adventure into something graphical.
When I got my 2600 for the Christmas of 1981, Adventure was one of our premiere games. I easily spent over fifty hours completing the same three games again and again. It didn’t matter that your hero was a square and the dragons looked more like ducks. The game play is what made it fun.
The goal of the game was to capture the “enchanted goblet” that was hidden somewhere in the kingdom and bring it back to your castle. You had to deal with three different dragons and a bat that would steal items from you during your travels.
When the game came out in late 1979 or early 1980, it was an immediate hit with both critics and gamers. It eventually went on to sell a million copies after Warren Robinett had left Atari.
Nobody is quite sure when it was first discovered, but at some point Adam Clayton, a fifteen year old gamer from Salt Lake City (but not the bassist from U2), realized that there was a secret buried in the game. If you wandered into the catacombs and used the bridge to access a secret area, you could find a “gray dot”. That one pixel would change gaming forever.
If you took the gray dot into a certain room in the game, a previously solid line would start flashing. Once you passed through that line, you’d see a message flashing in all of its 2600-colored glory: “Created by Warren Robinett”.
Before Robinett left Atari, he felt he deserved recognition for the work he put into the game. As he explained in a 2015 interview, he designed the message as a form of self promotion. Atari had grossed approximately $25 million from the game and he was paid only $22,000.
Atari’s initial reaction was to have the message removed, so they instructed employees to find and change the code. Not everyone was on board with that idea, though. Once found, the employee who discovered it said he would not remove it – he would instead change it to say “Fixed by Brad Stewart”. At the same time, Atari learned that the cost of putting out new cartridges to fix the issue would run upwards of $10,000. So they took another approach.
Steve Wright, Atari’s head of software development, decided to just embrace the discovery. In the premiere issue of Electronic Games magazine from 1981, Wright said that he was happy players had discovered something new. In fact, discoveries like this might encourage consumers to play the games repeatedly if they had a reason to hunt.
“From now on”, he told the magazine, “we’re going to plant little ‘Easter eggs’ like that in the games.”
The idea struck a chord with game developers who began searching for new ways to creatively hide messages or clues for players to find.
Robinett was one of many designers who left Atari in ‘79 and ‘80 looking for better pay and more recognition. They moved on to create companies like Activision and Imagic, the first independent, third-party game developers. And proper credit was always given on those games.
Since then, game designers have often become as famous as their products. As it should be.
Speaking of Pitfall, before you leave, check out Jack Black’s first acting role in this Pitfall commercial: