What the Horrible Video Game E.T. Can Teach Us About Training

It's said that for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction. A few weeks ago, I explored the connections between instructional design and the critical and commercial success of the video game app Angry Birds, and how many of the same principals that made that game so popular could be co-opted into training programs.

But of course that's just one end of the spectrum. For ever blockbuster hit like Angry Birds, there must be an equally colossal video game failure. And there is: Any discussion about video game failures must include the 1982 game for the Atari 2600, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.

This reference may seem a little obscure to some, as E.T. is nowhere near as ubiquitous in 2012 as Angry Birds. So let me give a little background on this game for the uninitiated:

E.T. was based on the classic Steven Spielberg film, which was one of the most successful movies of all time. And the Atari 2600 was one of the most successful video game systems of all time. The game was released during the holiday season at a time when the system and video games in general were very popular.

It seemed like the perfect combination for a very successful game, and yet it turned into one of the biggest commercial failures in video game history. The story of this game is fascinating, ending with millions of copies of the game famously dumped in a New Mexico landfill. If you’re interested, you can check out the full story of the game on Wikipedia … after finishing reading this post, of course.

Let’s explore why this game failed, and how we can avoid having our training programs suffer a similar fate:

The Time-Cost-Quality Triangle

There are typically three measurements related to production: Time, Cost, and Quality — as demonstrated by the triangle on the right. You can't improve one measurement without adversely affecting at least one other.

Atari signed a license to create a game based on E.T. in the summer of 1982, right around the time the film was a blockbuster in theaters. Because they wanted to release the game for the 1982 holiday sales season, the developer assigned to the game had only six weeks — a ridiculously short development time — to create the game so the cartridges could go into production for the holidays.

The need to have the game delivered quickly increased both the Time and Cost factors. When two sides of the time-cost-quality triangle are increased, the third side must shrink unless the overall scope is changed. In the case of E.T., the cost and time sides of the equation were getting all of the attention, and with Atari not willing to change the scope of the game project, the game’s quality suffered immensely.

In the world of training, many times the timeline for delivering a solution consists of a single word: Yesterday. Do we and our stakeholders understand this paradigm when we set project timelines?

There’s a bit of a paradox here. On one side, you have the stakeholders who want a quality program that effectively addresses the desired performance needs. On the other side, we have the training group, who often deliver the programs they can, rather than the programs they should, because the constraints of the project (low budget plus quick turnaround) limit the degree of quality that can be delivered.

Why does this happen? Quite simply, it's because training pros don't speak up and say that the constraints of the scope will affect overall quality. That may sound like a difficult thing to say, but if you position it correctly, it doesn't have to be.

When I’m faced with these situations, I almost always preset my solutions like this: Here’s what we can do based on the existing scope; and here’s what I think we should be doing that will better address your needs. That almost always results in the stakeholder asking for a second option, which is exactly what I want them to say. That opens the door for me to say, Then we need to re-examine the overall scope.

Never Skip the Testing Phase

When a project has more work then can be completed in the allotted timeline, you have two options: Extend the timeline (which is preferred) or eliminate non-essential tasks. "Eliminate non-essential tasks" is a euphemism for "cut corners," and that’s what Atari needed to do in order to deliver the product by their own assigned deadlines.

I’m not completely opposed to cutting corners. Occasionally you may need to cut corners to adapt to unexpected shifts in the business needs, and while that may not be ideal, it’s realistic. But when that happens, you need to be very careful to cut the right corners.

One of the stages of development that Atari cut was the actual testing of the game. That turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes Atari made: The game shipped with a number of bugs and more importantly, gamers found it frustrating and boring.

Do you test your training programs? You should, regardless of the medium. A live workshop should have a pilot; e-learning should be tested for both technical functionality and effectiveness before being launched; even a simple job-aid should be submitted to a member of the target audience before being publish or distributed.

Testing is critical to any production cycle, and is a stage that should never be skipped. Skipping testing, in training or any other field, creates a serious risk of an inferior product and diminished reputation.

Great Content Is Meaningless With Poor Design

E.T. is one of the greatest films of all time: It had a great story, endearing characters, and was kid-friendly. In short, it was great fodder for a video game.

But none of what made the film so endearing made it into the game. Why? The design of the game missed everything that made the movie a hit: The story was absent, even when judged by the low bar set by Atari 2600 games. The low-quality graphics (again, even judged against Atari 2600 standards) did not allow any of the characters’ personality to show. And worst of all, the game-play was monotonous and boring. It did not share the arcade action that was common in that time, instead focusing on a recovery-mission approach that was completely lost on its target audience.

This same problem exists in training programs. You can have content that maxes out the scales in terms of importance and relevance to an audience. But if that content is buried in a program that is poorly designed and doesn't engage the audience, the knowledge and skills associated with the content just won't transfer.

NOTE: It's actually said that the developers of the E.T. game actually did an admirable job considering their six-week project timeline. But ultimately it's immaterial. Regardless of the developers' skills, you can't deny that the game's design failed to deliver on its potential.

Repetitive Activity Isn't Engaging

When it worked, the E.T. game was extremely monotonous. It consisted of walking around and intentionally falling into holes to see if one of the missing pieces of his machine was there. If it was, you walked in it to pick it up and climbed out of the hole. If it wasn’t, you still climbed out of the hole. You repeated this process until you found all the missing pieces.

Supposedly there was another step before you actually won the game. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) most gamers never saw this ending.

It’s not as if the game was so challenging that players couldn't finish it. Gamers couldn’t bear to finish it. It was excruciatingly boring, and worse, had bug-ridden controls. Most players turned off the game long before finishing it. In truth, many customers returned the game because of how disappointing it was.

How many of our training programs do people check out of? Are we designing learning and performance programs based on content delivery or engagement?

Think about your programs for a minute: In your live workshops, do you shift gears every 10 minutes or so? Do you have engaging activities planned after lunch to combat the post-meal desire to take a nap? Does your e-learning follow the same template that gives learners an almost identical experience each time with different content? Do you incorporate different types of activities to engage? And really … is some of your e-learning still a book displayed on screen with a NEXT button to turn the pages?

Learners have a choice, just as the players of E.T. did. The main difference is that learners can’t return our programs, though maybe they should have that right.

Mistakes Have Value, If They Result in Learning

A ton went wrong with the E.T. video game. By almost all measurements, the game was a colossal failure, and is widely accepted as one of the worst video games in history. Had Atari and the video game industry looked at the game and said “What a mistake!  Let’s move on and hope that never happens again," the game would have almost no value to it. That’s not what happened

Many of the accepted practices in the video game industry of today originated from this colossal failure. One example is how companies now handle licensed games based on movies. These deals are now signed well in advance so that proper time is allocated to design and development. In addition, game companies and movie studios often collaborate to create a better product.  E.T. crashed and burned, and from its ashes stronger and better practices were enacted that in many cases stand to this day.

Training programs sometimes fail. Even if the overall program succeeds, there are usually mistakes made along the way. We should always be taking the time to reflect on our programs, and especially our mistakes. These mistakes have tremendous value if we allow ourselves to reflect on them.

More: What Angry Birds Can Teach Us About Instructional Design.

David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and ember of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.


Start a free trial.

See how your retail business can leverage Mindflash to deliver consistent, up-to-date, on-brand training affordably.