On January 14th, 1999, members of the Tiger Woods '99 team turned up to work at Electronic Arts' Redwood studio and were confronted with some surprising news.
Reports had started circulating the office that somebody had called into a radio station in Tampa, Florida, claiming that they had found an unauthorized copy of the South Park short The Spirit of Christmas while searching through the files of the Tiger Woods PS1 game on their computer. The news understandably sent the studio into a bit of a spin, with many employees wondering how something like this could have happened and what the potential repercussions would be. After all, the game was rated E for everyone, and The Spirit of Christmas featured everything from swearing to child murder. The company had to act fast to get ahead of the news, so it decided to recall the offending discs and claim publicly that it would catch and punish those responsible for its inclusion.
At the time, sites like Wired, IGN, and Gamespot covered the events as they unfolded, telling people how to access the file and alternatively, the method by which they could send off for a replacement. The story has even resurfaced thanks to more contemporary write-ups from publications like Kotaku. But, up until now, nobody at EA has ever spoken publicly about the incident, besides the head of communications Pat Becker whose job it was at the time to show that the company was doing all it could to resolve the issue.
So recently, Time Extension decided to contact members of the Tiger Woods team to find out exactly what happened, and how the short managed to end up on the disc. Among those who replied to us were an individual who had some fairly intimate knowledge of the event (who preferred to remain anonymous "just in case"), and the former EA employee Steve Cartwright, who was a producer on the project.
According to these sources, The Spirit of Christmas AVI was discovered inside zzdummy.dat file. This was a file commonly included in the directory for most EA games for the PS1 that was typically loaded with dummy data to fill up the disc and improve the PlayStation optical drive's ability to read its contents. The name was front-loaded with a bunch of Zs as a method of ensuring the file would be categorized last alphabetically in the directory and that the optical drive would never accidentally read the dummy data while accessing other parts of the disc. Traditionally, this data would be some random piece of duped course or animation memory that players would never see, but in this instance, someone inside the studio had decided to use an AVI of The Spirit of Christmas instead.
Accounts vary on whether its inclusion was intentional or not. Cartwright, for instance, suggests that it was simply placed on the disc as a temporary solution and that everybody just forgot about it, while our anonymous source claims to have known nothing about it until its eventual discovery and put the blame on a single engineer who thought it was a harmless prank and that nobody would find it. Regardless, shortly after the game was released in December 1998, the Easter Egg quickly came to light, with the news soon reaching the studio that someone had successfully got the AVI file to run and had discovered its contents.
Cartwright recalls, "It was some weeks or months later that we heard that I guess some kid in Florida just to experiment had taken the Sony disc and put it in their PC and started poking around the files to figure out what they are. He sees this big couple hundred-megabyte file and he’s poking at it, clicking on it, and nothing is happening. So he says, ‘I wonder what type of file this is' and starts renaming it all kinds of things. I think eventually he stumbled across [.avi] or something like that, he clicked on it, and boom the video came up. And then, of course, we heard about it and everybody is like, ‘Oh my god, we forgot about it.’"
She was like, ‘Okay, have we traded on this? Is it in the packaging? Have we advertised it? Have we alerted the players? Have we done anything with this material that suggests we’re marketing or trading based on its inclusion?’
Our anonymous source adds, "We grabbed the PS1 disc and put it into a PC and interrogated the files. We can see the files, but there was nothing on there that said The Spirit of Christmas. But there were some files that you can "open as". So we’re kind of monkeying around and we do that and up comes The Spirit of Christmas and I went, ‘Holy shit!’ You could knock me down with a feather."
After the discovery was made, the team leads immediately went to consult with EA's general counsel Ruth Kennedy, who had the situation explained to them and was shown exactly how the file was accessed. Kennedy was stern and silent throughout most of the demonstration but reportedly broke into laughter following the appearance of the American figure skater Brian Boitano. This momentary lapse only lasted for a few seconds, however, before she was back to silence again.
Our anonymous source says, "She was like, ‘Okay, have we traded on this? Is it in the packaging? Have we advertised it? Have we alerted the players? Have we done anything with this material that suggests we’re marketing or trading based on its inclusion?’ They said, ‘We don’t know. We didn’t know about it until 25 minutes ago.’ She’s like, ‘Okay, I’ll see you soon.’ Then she walks off. And everyone was like, ‘Oh, thank god!’"
Following this, a meeting took place between Electronic Arts CEO Larry Probst and the heads of each department, with Probst being forewarned ahead of time that an issue had appeared with the Tiger Woods game.
One of the leads on the game explained the situation again to a room of senior EA staff, and then it came for Probst to respond.
"He like shakes his head," our source tells us. "A lot of things are happening at EA, so it’s just another problem for him. So he goes around the room almost like a NASA launch. He goes, ‘Stan, what’s the impact here on our finances? What’s our exposure?’ He goes, ‘Well, we’ve sold through most of this. We were about to do another reorder. I think it’s fairly negligible. If we have to recall, then it’s a hit, but we’re okay.’ So he starts marching around the room and someone says, ‘Well, it’s easy for us to remedy this because we can just swap out the file with another file that’s not The Spirit of Christmas and remaster and send it out. So we can turn and burn this thing in a day.’"
They’re like, ‘We have to call, like right now, every one of those partners and let them know that this has happened because it’s going to hit the big press. We’re going to have to have a press announcement. We’re going to have to apologize.’ And they wanted heads...
Everyone seemed to agree that a voluntary recall was the best course of action and the issue seemed to be close to being resolved, but then marketing and PR within the company spoke up to discuss how it would respond publicly.
"Marketing and PR were very upset and very concerned," says our source. "EA has always taken its partnerships pretty seriously and The Spirit of Christmas is not something very consistent with the values of the PGA or NASCAR or Tiger or anybody we deal with. So they’re like, ‘We have to call, like right now, every one of those partners and let them know that this has happened because it’s going to hit the big press. We’re going to have to have a press announcement. We’re going to have to apologize.’ And they wanted heads: ‘Who did this? You don’t do this accidentally. This is purposeful. Who did it? They should be fired. This is a PR disaster!’"
The meeting disbanded soon after, with several initiatives being put into place. The company would do a voluntary recall, produce a replacement build, and try to track down the custody of the file to punish the person responsible. The last of these three enterprises eventually led the team to an engineer who the leads believed had added the file.
Our source recalls, "We talked to an individual who said, ‘We needed a dummy file and it was too good to turn down. It was awesome and I didn’t think it harmed anybody. I had no idea it would ever be brought to light. I apologize. It was just an unintentional consequence.’ But then the marketing folks came up to our office again and they were screaming at us about ‘dereliction of duty’ and ‘You’re responsible!’. Typical dev bullshit. So we had to apologize to them again. In their world, it was a big deal. And we reassured them that it wouldn’t happen again."
So what was the impact of all of this on EA and Tiger Woods PGA Tour? Well, we asked our sources, and seems to not have been as severe as initially thought. It certainly didn't damage the relationship between Tiger Woods and Electronic Arts or prevent the company from releasing further titles in the series.
As our source tells us, "By Q4, we had sussed out its financial repercussions and there weren’t very many. It it was selling well. It was reinvigorating the franchise and we were gaining on Links, [another rival golf game]. So it was like, ‘Okay, let’s keep going. Let’s go press the gas pedal.’ Our partners also took it pretty well. They were understanding. And we weren’t known for that kind of behaviour. EA was pretty buttoned up. So it was anomalous for them. Tiger took it well. The Spirit of Christmas — he was a fan of the content. He didn’t take it the wrong way. We weren’t trying to insult or attach that to anybody or any one group."
Cartwright adds, "I don't remember anything, other than we were embarrassed that it was on there. At first, it was like, 'Oh my gosh!' We kind of laughed about it. But the worst thing for us, as I said, was the managers pointing fingers trying to cover their butts saying this employee did it on purpose and it was sabotage, which was all a lie."