Of Easter eggs, videogames and rebels

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So, today’s Easter Sunday, a day where many children go outdoors and dedicated some time to hunting Easter eggs. That’s a fun thing to do and it reminds me of something my parents used to make me and my sister do as children, and also of something my wife and me have made our children do, as well. Searching for hidden Easter eggs is a family tradition, after all.

Something I’ve learned only much older though, with my Easter egg hunting days way behind, was that there was a meaning for Easter eggs in the world of videogames as well — and, to be honest, nowadays, in the world of movies and digital content as well.

An Easter egg is a hidden message or feature, so well hidden into a videogame, that it usually requires the player to perform a certain sequence or movements, commands or instructions to reveal it. If they do it, the message shows — and sometimes it can even be a mini game inside the main game.

Now, while going through my RSS feeds earlier today, I came across the story of Warren Robinett, a videogame designer working for Atari, his first job after graduating with a master’s degree in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Although the designing of a game nowadays is a complex work that needs the involvement of multiple professionals, back in the Atari days, the games were not that complex, meaning a single designer, like Robinett himself, could have an idea, write all the code on his own and create the needed graphics, music and sound effects. Like I got myself feeling when I decided to study Computer Science and program computers, videogame designers probably felt as book authors of movie directors, taking the plots and bending the stories of the games they created as they saw fit.

But the thing is, unlike the Stephen Kings and Christopher Nolans out there who have their names well printed on media, videogame designers were never properly credited by Atari for their creations. And of course, it made them perplexed.

So, in 1979, when Atari marketing department circulated a memo listing the top selling games of 1978 along with how much profit they brought home, meaning to inspire designers to make similar games, it backfired, and made designers notice Atari undervalued them. In the following years, many left the company and founded their own software companies, including Warren Robinett, who though the situation was like a was a David and Goliath duel.

Warren Robinett’s Easter egg in the game “Adventure” credited him as the game’s creator

Before leaving Atari to found The Learning Company and later move on to work in virtual reality for NASA and as a virtual reality researcher at the University of North Carolina, Robinett decided to insert his name into one of “Adventure” game’s many rooms.

He didn’t tell anyone he did it and nobody noticed or discovered his Easter egg while testing the game at Atari. So thousands of copies of the game were shipped into the world, with Atari oblivious that Robinett’s signature could be unlocked by any player. After finishing work in “Adventure”, Warren quit Atari. It was early in 1980.

According to his interview, “It was kind of a little fuck you to Atari management. They took away my royalty, but I tricked them into publicizing my name.” His “Adventure” game sold more than 1 million copies at ~$25 each — $0 of which went to Robinett.

So, as it’s possible to see, one of the first Easter eggs of videogame history was created as an act of rebellion. But Robinett’s egg wasn’t the first: Ron Milner, who worked at Atari from 1972 to 1985 and developed the arcade game “Starship 1” inserted his own Easter egg there, also as a desire to make the designers’ names show into the world. After a sequence of commands was performed, the players would see the message “Hi Ron”, awarding them 10 free games.

After Atari learned about Robinett’s Easter egg, the company decided to embrace his act of rebellion. A company manager named Steve Wright told the press Atari would be planting “little Easter eggs” in their future games. He coined the term, which is in use to this day. The rest is history.

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