Q&A: Nolan Bushnell gets massive

Atari founder and Chuck E. Cheese baron confirms his entry into MMOG genre, addresses advertising in games, and chides the industry's poor job of self-policing.


In the 1970s, Nolan Bushnell staked his claim to the title "father of the video game industry," founding Atari, creating the first arcade games Pong and Computer Space, and establishing gaming as a billion-dollar business. Since that time, Bushnell has been a serial entrepreneur, founding gaming-related restaurant chains such as Chuck E. Cheese and uWink, and just last year taking the reins as chairman of the board for casual-gaming ad firm NeoEdge.

Industry pioneer Nolan Bushnell.
Industry pioneer Nolan Bushnell.

During last week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, GameSpot caught up with Bushnell to get the gaming pioneer's assessment of the current industry landscape. In addition to confirming that he's working on a massively multiplayer game of some kind, Bushnell talked about his interest in the casual market, in-game advertising, the death of arcades, games as art, and the recent flurry of legislative attempts to keep violent games away from children.

GameSpot: At what point did you kind of look at the gaming industry and say, "Well, there's a core market and there's a casual market now"?

Nolan Bushnell: I was actually a speaker at a Ziff Davis retreat in Monterey [around 2001], and I was doing some research for it, and I was actually very, very surprised with how small the core user group was of the console game market. I looked at it and I said, "Boy, there's something wrong here," because the number was significantly less than the number of game players that I knew were playing games that answered positively to the question, "Have you played a video game in the last two weeks?" At that point in time, in America, that number was 50 million, and that was a combination of coin-op as well as consumer. But that's 20 years ago. So I saw it as shrinking--all of a sudden the market went from here to here, and as I did a little more digging, it really was clear that the shakeout started to happen in 1983, 1984, when the games started getting violent so they lost the women, and got complex so they lost the casual gamer. Then [controllers] went from the Atari joystick with one button and a joystick to all of a sudden a QWERTY keyboard. So all of a sudden then these things sort of conspired to push away the casual gamer.

Then the second problem was the casual gamer, what was his platform of choice? And the Internet clearly became that. But one of the big problems was the economic model was broken because it really screamed out for microtransactions and yet it didn't work. And there were still a lot of people that didn't have credit cards or wouldn't put them on the Internet. So NeoEdge came along and said, "Hey, these aren't games. This is television." And the currency is the 30-second spot. So if we can just bring the viewers that we have to casual games and monetize it through the same way that television does--and it's worked for a long time--there's a good economic model there. I dove into it and I believe it's a big idea.

GS: So why is it that with this emerging medium of games that you believe the best way to get the advertising message to those people is with the old model of television?

NB: There are a couple of good reasons. The 30-second and the 15-second spot are there because it turns out that that's enough time to give a complete thought or feeling or get an emotion implanted in the mind of the viewer. It turns out that if you go much longer than 30 seconds, your efficiency drops. So you're paying for more time but your recollection doesn't go up very much. So even though you can almost say the 30-second spot is retro, I'd prefer to look at it as a fine-tuned concept-delivering mechanism.

GS: So Pong came out, and pretty soon Kool-Aid Man, Journey, Crest, and others had their own Atari 2600 and arcade games. It didn't take long for people to look at games as a way to sell their products and build a brand. What did you think of it when it first started happening?

NB: Yeah. It was in the early days of Atari there was a fundamental problem in that everything that we did was really hard technically. [The Atari 2600] was really a primitive, primitive unit. And on top of that, to put a message out that the advertiser liked, it was just way too soon. Technology wasn't mature enough to really be a good ad-delivery method. That's in my humble estimation. I think the first time the ads kind of made sense would probably be around the time that Doom started playing around. That was probably at a threshold of acceptability in my estimation.

GS: You've been involved in a number of aspects of the industry since the Atari days, whether with Chuck E. Cheese, NeoEdge, or your uWink restaurant. Do you have any interest in the core gaming market that still looks back on your contribution to its origins, or are have you lost your taste for that?

NB: I don't like to play in ponds that are [crowded]. When you look at the center of the market, where there's literally tens of millions of dollars chasing any particular product, it's hard for a small startup, no matter who you are. So what I always look for are niches that have not been fully plumbed that are still fun, where there's still some invention left. I want to be not where the market is but where it's going to become. And it's harder to do that when you have a somewhat closed economy like on the consoles.

GS: That sounds a lot like the approach Nintendo has said it took with the Wii, and it's paid off a lot. Watching it from the outside, what have your impressions been of Wii, and when did you realize that it was going to be your kind of a breakthrough there?

NB: I called it almost exactly six months before the launch. In fact, I got trashed on Web sites. I said the PS3 was going to have a difficult row to hoe, because there was too much angst and a little bit too much too soon, and that the Wii was going to be a smash hit. I was in Japan and I saw a demonstration of both probably six months before the US launch, maybe it was eight months, and it was obvious to me that the Wii was in the right place at the right time. And [it had] the right strategy because the Wii was really aiming for the noncore gamer.

If you look at people that were initial computer-phobes, they were not so much computer-phobic as they were QWERTY keyboard-phobic. People don't realize how few people, particularly 20 years ago, knew how to type. They hadn't written a letter since they were out of high school, let alone type on anything. And so they'd say, "What do I need a computer for? I don't type, and this QWERTY keyboard is frightening to me."

GS: You said development originally was an incredibly technical process. Through the years a lot of the barriers to entry have come down as far as that. Now you get fewer people coming into it from an engineering background, more people coming to and from a creator's background with the goal of making art. Was that something that you ever really expected from the medium? When you had a blip bouncing between two paddles, were you thinking, "Someday people will fight for this as art?"

NB: Probably not at that time, but I'd say yes three or four years later when we were getting into driving games and Asteroids. And in some ways, there was a backstory with missile command. As hokey as it was, it's still a backstory. And, yeah, it was pretty easy to see, because we could see a trajectory from Pong to Asteroids and you could say, "Okay, another five years, wow, we're going to have full color, we're going to have this, we're going to have that." And yeah, you could see it was going to get better and more resolution and more ability.

GS: There are dozens of Web portals out there and dozens of game ad suppliers. The market looks like a mess. Ad firms are making deals with the publishers, they're making deals with the portals, the portals are consolidating, the same games are popping up in a variety of places, and there are new players in the market all the time. Can the PC downloadable market remain the way it is now? Will there be dozens of portals for, kind of--in perpetuity, or is it going to shake out some one or two main players, or scatter even more?

NB: I would guess the trend right now is to scatter more, and I think that's going to continue. In fact, there are some things that have happened here today [at the Game Developers Conference] in terms of engines that are pretty cool, and you can make a pretty good game if you've got a little creativity and not necessarily a lot of technology. So I believe that those are going to find their way into MySpace pages and Facebook and their own website and next to this and that. And in some cases those games are going to be fun, but they're not going to be perceived to be worth $19.95.

GS: What are the biggest concerns that advertisers have? You're offering them a television-commercial format, which they know and they're familiar with, but television advertising hasn't been thriving. But you're online, which I know a lot of advertisers are nervous about anyways, especially in the types of products that they will promote.

NB: The big issue for us really is reputation and newness. Clearly, this is a little bit new and Madison Avenue is not necessarily leading edge. They embrace things slowly and timidly in cases. And I believe that advertisers are getting used to the idea and you can see that every year they're just more and more money [moving] away from television and the old media and more and more towards the new media. So we're on the right side of the curve, and as we get known and this becomes more of a natural, normal thing. When the guy is on a blank sheet of paper writing an ad budget and he puts in interstitial video game advertising, then we're home free. Right now, he doesn't think about it.

GS: It's pretty clear you're interested in casual games. And actually the uWink restaurants sound almost like a way to keep arcade games alive and to have a social-gaming place outside the home...

NB: When you say arcade, people normally think that you've got something in a big box but it's still a one-screen-to-one-person experience most of the time. What I prefer to think of with uWink is that this is a social experience. I think we're closer to board games around the family coffee table than we are at arcades.

GS: Do you have the affinity for arcades that so many people who grew up in them share after seeing them wiped from the landscape? Or did you think of them as a one-screen-to-one-person thing that maybe stigmatized the industry and gamers in general?

NB: I believe that the one-to-one experience with the arcade games for me was magical at the right time, providing I had a beer in my hand and a stool to sit on. And that was sort of the heyday for me of the arcade. Once the games got really, really complex with high learning curve--the "punch and kick" games, I never liked very much--I kind of felt that in general if I'm just going to have a one-to-one relationship with the screen, why not have it at home where it's comfortable, where I've got good sound, there aren't people nudging me, the sound doesn't have to be turned up to hear it over the din...

The arcades became an unpleasant experience if they were one-to-one. The only main thing that made an arcade fun from probably 1988 on, was if you were there with some buddies. So I believed that the arcades actually committed suicide. I don't think it was homicide. I think that they failed to provide the superior experiences which we get at home and forgot that they were an entertainment media that now had competition that they had to stay ahead of.

I feel that there is forever a need for people to socialize. Otherwise, people would never get laid and get married and the race would die out. So they have to socialize to a certain extent, and the socialization of a bar in a restaurant and things like that is the default for many people. So I felt that if we could create the game structure that helped that socialization, we'd just be better off.

GS: You've got a hand in a lot of the big gaming trends right now, downloadable content, casual games, social gaming... Do you have anything in massively multiplayer games?

NB: [Long pause.] Yes. [Laughs.]

GS: I assume we'll hear about that some other time then?

NB: Yeah. I think that it's a unavoidable trend that there's some socialization and massive multiplayer games that are important, and as compelling as World of Warcraft is, it too shall find that there are other ways to play a game.

GS: Are there any other trends out there that you kind of looked at and said there might be something?

NB: Yeah. That's what I'd call the area of physicality, to make up a word. Whether we're talking about Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution, Nintendo Wii, I think that if I were to plot one of the major trends going forward, physicality is going to be playing an increasingly important role.

GS: Gaming still has kind of a stigma for traditional gamers. Do you see the stereotype changing with the casual explosion and things like physicality going mass market?

NB: It's going to be a little different. First of all, there are a lot of women that are playing casual games. And there's a built-in mistrust where any time young men do something, it's bound to be a little bit suspicious. [Laughs] Just by nature. By definition, because most of the other things that young men do are pretty suspicious. And that's not to say that there won't be a really serious casual game that's a totally offensive thing. And the press, being the press, will hang on to that and try to make something of it. But I don't think it'll stick.

GS: With the recent rash of gaming legislation and attempts at gaming legislation, what do you think about efforts to try and keep violent M-rated games out of kids' hands by law?

NB: I believe that it's good to keep parents in control of things that underage kids do. And if the industry can't police itself, then you have to up the ante. I've actually had some problems because I've got a 14-year-old now that would like to play every despicable thing around, and he's got a bunch of 20-something brothers. But at the same time I think that there are some games that are truly despicable.

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