Atari founder on the end of consoles

GDC Online 2011: Games guru says there's no need for another Xbox or PlayStation, Facebook games are "too stupid to live," and recalls wanting to fire early Atari employee Steve Jobs.

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Who was there: Atari founder and serial entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell, oft-referred to as the godfather of the games business, kicked off the 2011 Game Developers Conference Online with a presentation on the future of narrative in games.

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell.
Atari founder Nolan Bushnell.

What he talked about: Bushnell started off his wandering presentation with a bit of foreshadowing.

"It was a dark and stormy night. There were problems, big problems in the castle," Bushnell said, launching into a simple narrative about villains, a damsel in distress, and a hero that saves the day. But looking back at the early days of gaming, even that was a hard story to tell.

"Story was really, really hard in the early days. It was hard to get nuanced expression when you had quarter-inch pixels."
Bushnell recapped the genesis of the gaming industry, name-checking pioneers of the '50s and '60s, calling Willy Higginbotham as the inventor of the video game, and saying Steve Russell's Space War first convinced him that arcades could be big-time money makers. It wasn't until 1970 that Bushnell actually got into the business with Syzygy (renamed Atari in 1972), but games still didn't have much story. It wasn't until games like Donkey Kong and Zelda hit that stories were clearly being told in games. He also pointed to Doom as a watershed game in terms of story, even though its narrative is generally considered quite lightweight.

However, Bushnell said the end game for narrative has always been clear. It's the interactive fantasy of "jacking in," along the lines of those depicted in Westworld, Brainstorm, and The Matrix. He said eventually it's going to happen, suggesting that neural implants could be a reality in 20 years or so.

"I actually think parents are going to have a bit of pushback on this, but I'm not sure," Bushnell quipped to laughter from the audience.

"Ralph Baer always thinks that I copied him, and in some ways I did. I thought, this is a crappy game, I bet we can do better."
However, there's a problem with games and narratives, Bushnell said. With movies, the objective is that the audience becomes immersed in the story presented by the director and screenwriter, and every time the audience is asked to make a decision, it pushes them back into their own bodies. He called it the difference between being a voyeur and being an actor. As an actor, one can't have the fantasy of being immersed in the experience.

Bushnell said he tries to do something different every year, and this year's project was to write a science fiction book. In writing the book (Videogames 2070, which he called "a rollicking romp through the future with some cool people and really hot chicks"), Bushnell said he experienced an intersection between the joys of being the creator and being a member of the audience. Partway through the writing process (he wrote the book in six weeks), Bushnell found himself wondering what his characters were going to do next, experiencing the enjoyment of reading while doing the writing.

"Everybody here is going to do a really crappy game…If you're not crashing, then you're not trying. You're not pushing the envelope enough."
Taking one of many detours from the topic of the presentation, Bushnell predicted an end to the console wars.

"I don't believe that there will be another major console," Bushnell said. While he said that Nintendo's Wii is "pretty crappy," the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are as close to photorealism as people need. Despite that, he expects the PC and mobile markets to grow considerably, and he suggested cloud gaming and episodic entertainment will lead to an equivalent of Seinfeld in the gaming industry in the next five years.

Social networks are also in their infancy, Bushnell said, calling their current incarnation "really just too stupid to live." The churn of social games will overtake the market unless the games themselves get significantly better, Bushnell said.

In the Q&A session, Bushnell was asked about recently deceased Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, whose first job was working at Atari. Bushnell described Jobs as a "very smart and very difficult" person. He talked about how Jobs was "about to get fired because he didn't play well with others." As a last-ditch attempt to make the situation work, Bushnell put Jobs on the night shift to create Breakout, which wound up being a tremendous hit.

When Jobs left to start Apple with fellow Atari employee Steve Wozniak, Bushnell said he was given the chance to invest and own one-third of the company for $50,000. Bushnell declined, and said he's regretted that once or twice. Bushnell also clarified his characterization of Jobs as prickly, saying the Apple icon simply didn't suffer fools gladly, and that can ultimately be a good thing.

Quotes: "It's been a French company for a while, and that's a problem. This too can be fixed."--Joking about the current incarnation of Atari.

Takeaway: Bushnell's talk on the future of gaming narrative devolved into a general talk on the future of gaming, with the takeaway simply being a collection of predictions about where the industry is headed and how long it will take to get there. From cable channels dedicated to e-sports to PicoNets (local wireless multiplayer) and the return of virtual reality, Bushnell had no shortage of "next big things" to point to as the future of gaming.

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