The Origin of Video Game Easter Eggs


In the early days of gaming, Atari revolutionized the home video game industry with its groundbreaking creations. However, behind the scenes, the star programmers who brought these games to life were often treated as replaceable cogs in a machine. Denied credit for their hit creations and lacking name recognition, they faced a power struggle with the new owners of Atari. One programmer, Warren Robinett, decided to take matters into his own hands and created what would become the first gaming Easter egg. In this article, we’ll delve into the fascinating history of gaming Easter eggs, focusing on the story behind the creation of the very first hidden surprise in a video game.

The Rise of Atari and the Anonymous Programmers

Atari, founded by Nolan Bushnell and his crew, entered the home video game market in the mid-70s with the need for substantial investment. To secure the required funds, they sold their company to Warner Communications. Unfortunately, the new owners treated the existing game designers with disrespect and rudeness. They denied them any leverage or name recognition with the consumers, fearing that it would lead to demands for royalties. The creative types, including the programmers who brought Atari’s games to life, found themselves in a power struggle with the new management. As Warren Robinett, one of the star programmers, recalls, “They told us, ‘Anybody could do this.’ That was a big mistake.”

The Origin of Video Game Easter Eggs

An Unlikely Hero: Warren Robinett

Warren Robinett was one of the talented programmers at Atari who grew frustrated with the lack of recognition and royalties. He had created a game called Adventure, which went on to sell over a million copies, generating more than $10 million in income for Atari. However, Robinett received a mere $20,000 a year, a fraction of what the game had earned. Determined to find a way to gain public recognition for his work, he devised a plan to hide his name in the game, a secret room that would be challenging for players to discover.

The Birth of an Easter Egg

To keep his secret room truly hidden from internal testers at Atari, Robinett had to strike a delicate balance. If the secret was too easy to find, it would be uncovered during the testing phase and removed before the game’s release. On the other hand, if it was too difficult, no players would ever stumble upon it. Robinett designed a series of intricate steps that players had to follow to access the secret room. Inside that room, they would find the key to his hidden message.

The Origin of Video Game Easter Eggs

The Yellow, Black, and White Castles

In Adventure, there were three castles: yellow, black, and white. Each castle had a corresponding key of the same color. To unlock the secret room, players had to find the black key and use it to open the gate of the black castle. Inside the black castle, an intricate maze awaited players. However, only by crossing a specific wall using a bridge within the maze could players access the part of the maze that contained the key to the secret room. This key, aptly named “The Dot,” looked like a single pixel and was barely visible. Robinett himself referred to it as “the tiniest possible object.”

Trial and Error: Unveiling the Secret

Discovering the secret room and Robinett’s hidden message required persistence and creativity. Some players stumbled upon The Dot by trial and error, experimenting with various actions until they found the key’s purpose. One player, as Robinett recalls, “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.” Others figured out that by taking The Dot into a specific room along with two other objects, they could pass through a sidewall, revealing Robinett’s secret message.

From Secret to Public Recognition

Once players successfully made it into the secret room, half of the screen filled up with flashing colors, proudly displaying the words “Created by Warren Robinett.” Robinett’s plan had worked, and he had achieved the public recognition he desired for his work on Adventure. Little did he know at the time that his creation would go down in history as the first gaming Easter egg.

The Impact and Legacy of the Adventure Easter Egg

The Adventure Easter egg, although not initially called an Easter egg by Robinett himself, became a significant milestone in the gaming industry. It marked the birth of a new trend, with developers and players alike eagerly searching for hidden surprises in video games. The Adventure Easter egg’s political undertones also added to its allure, as it represented a subversive act of rebellion against the mistreatment of programmers by the industry giants.

The Discovery and Recognition of the Easter Egg

The Adventure Easter egg was first discovered by a 15-year-old player named Adam Clayton, who wrote a letter to Atari detailing his findings and even included maps to help others find the secret room. This was the first time Atari became aware of Robinett’s hidden creation. In the years that followed, the Easter egg gained recognition and became a topic of discussion among gamers and industry insiders alike.

The Unforeseen Impact of Adventure and Its Easter Egg

Warren Robinett’s Adventure and its groundbreaking Easter egg went on to become a classic in the gaming world. However, Robinett himself was not fully aware of the game’s impact or the attention it was receiving. Having left Atari before the Easter egg’s discovery, he had no communication with the company and was unaware of the letters and messages from players that Atari failed to forward to him. Robinett’s assumption that nobody cared about the old games after the crash of Atari in the mid-80s would soon be proven wrong.

The Origin of Video Game Easter Eggs

The Evolution of Gaming Easter Eggs

In retrospect, the Adventure Easter egg set a precedent for the inclusion of hidden surprises in video games. While Robinett did not anticipate the widespread adoption of Easter eggs in the industry, his subversive act inspired future developers to follow suit. Easter eggs became a staple of gaming culture, with players eagerly searching for hidden secrets in their favorite titles. The Adventure Easter egg remains a testament to the power of creativity, persistence, and the desire for recognition.

Conclusion: A Hidden Gem in Gaming History

The Adventure Easter egg, created by Warren Robinett, stands as a seminal moment in gaming history. It not only brought public recognition to Robinett’s work but also sparked a trend that would shape the industry for years to come. Today, Easter eggs are commonplace in video games, delighting players and adding an extra layer of excitement and discovery. The Adventure Easter egg will forever be remembered as the first hidden surprise, a secret room that unlocked a world of possibilities and forever changed the way we play and appreciate video games.

So, next time you’re exploring a virtual world and stumble upon a hidden secret, remember the Adventure Easter egg and the programmer who dared to challenge the status quo and leave his mark on gaming history.

“I’m going to trick these bastards and sneak my name into the game.” – Warren Robinett

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