What was the first video game Easter egg? That honor belongs in part to Adventure, a graphic adaptation of the classic text game Colossal Cave Adventure for the Atari 2600. This early video game set the stage for fantasy and action-adventure games, and inspired a long history of video game Easter eggs that continues today.
Warren Robinett, developer of Adventure, included the Easter egg as a personal stamp in a time when developers and programmers weren't often credited. Using a hidden pixel, he hid his name inside the game to ensure his contribution lived on even after the game's release.
By creating a means to credit himself, Robinett created the first discovered Easter egg in a video game. Discovering this secret in the larger game made players seek out more hidden content. Inspired, other developers started including secrets in their own games, which also encouraged other media to do so as well—in fact, the Easter egg in Atari Adventure is actually believed to have coined the term as we know it today.
In 1978, developer Warren Robinett's boss at Atari caught wind of a project he was working on. It was a video game version of the text adventure Colossal Cave Adventure. His boss actually forbade Robinett from working on the game, called Adventure, because he believed the adaptation would be too difficult. Colossal Cave Adventure required hundreds of kilobytes of memory, which he believed would be impossible to adapt to the Atari 2600's meager four kilobytes. But, instead of abandoning the project, Robinett continued developing the prototype in secret.
After he developed a working prototype, he presented it to the marketing department at Atari, and the employees were impressed. They told him to continue working on it, despite the resistance he faced. The prototype was used to develop 1979's Superman, one of the first licensed video games in history. Meanwhile, Robinett continued to work on Adventure.
Ray Kassar accepted a job as the president of Atari in February 1978. By November 1978, he was promoted to CEO. Kassar had something of a disdainful attitude toward the expertise and artistry required by developers. Programmer David Crane recalls,
“He told us, ‘You’re no more important to those projects than the person on the assembly line who put them together. Without them, your games wouldn’t have sold anything. He was trying to create this corporate line that it was all of us working together that make games happen. But these were creative works, these were authorships, and he didn’t get it...He said, ‘I’ve dealt with your kind before. You’re a dime a dozen. You’re not unique. Anybody can do a cartridge.’”
Because of this attitude, game boxes credited the publisher, Atari, instead of individual developers. That's why Warren Robinett decided to include a secret chamber in Adventure which credited himself. If Atari wouldn't credit its contributors, Robinett would cement his own part in gaming history. Developers also made no royalties from the titles they worked on, meaning that when Atari sold 1,000,000 copies of a game like Adventure, Robinett didn't see any of that profit. As he told Wired, "I got a $22K a year salary, no royalties, and they never even forwarded any fan mail to me.”
Robinett's Easter egg, which he called his signature, was inspired in part by The Beatles. "My model was the hidden messages that were supposedly present in Beatles records played backwards back in the late 1960’s [sic]. Messages like ‘I buried Paul,'" he told Paste Magazine.
Keeping the Easter egg a secret was all part of the plan for Robinett. He didn't tell anybody about it; instead, he allowed Atari to produce mass amounts of game cartridges with his self-made credit intact. The chamber wasn't included in the manual, either, meaning players had to discover it through experimentation, exploration, and detecting the screen flicker that occurs when too many sprites are in one room. Robinett also left the company in 1979, shortly after turning in the final code for the game. Because the secret was mostly for his own satisfaction and a sort-of thumb in the eye for Atari, he let the public figure it out on their own rather than divulge its existence. Thankfully, it took less than a year for players to catch on.