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An Interview With

Nolan Bushnell
June 15, 2007

 

 

 

Introduction:

Nolan Bushnell is a serial entrepreneur. He was the creator of Atari and is considered by most to be the father of video games. After Atari he created the enormously successful Chuck-E-Cheese. His latest creation is uWink, a restaurant with terminals at each table where you can order your food and play games. I met with Mr. Bushnell to discuss uWink and the concept of social gaming. We met in the first uWink, located in Woodland Hills, California, just outside LA. To learn more about Mr. Bushnell and uWink visit www.uwink.com.

"What you really want this to do is elicit a smile."- Nolan Bushnell

Spencer:


You created the first video game which would be known to the world as Pong. Your creative genius led to the success of Atari and later Chuck-E-Cheese. Before 1972, no one had ever heard of a video game. What was your inspiration to create Pong?


Mr. Bushnell


First, let me correct a little. The actual first video game was done by a guy named Willie Higgenbotham at the Brookhaven’s National Laboratories and he did a thing called Tennis for Two in 1958. If you look up Willie Higgenbotham you will see that what he did was on an oscilloscope and it was just a bunch of parts.

Then if you want to go next, a guy named Steve Russell programmed a PDP1 at MIT to play a game called Space War. And so, in some ways he was the first guy to do a digital video game but he used a very, very expensive, two and a half million dollar computer to do it.

Then after that you go to me at the University of Utah. In 1966, I programmed on a PDP1 the game called Fox and Geese. Then I graduated and I came to California and – oh, I put myself though college working at an amusement park. And so, I understood the economics of the game business and orders going into coin operated games.

And so, one day a $5,000 computer came across my desk and I thought, “Ah, I bet I can build one of these things commercially.” And so, I was going to take this, program it like I did in college but, I was going to make it a new computer – a new display, because the displays were like $20,000.

And so, I started to design the interface from this computer to the terminal and I kept running out of cycle time. And so, I had to keep making the terminal smarter and smarter. Then, one day, I said, “I’m gonna throw the computer away. I’m just gonna make this smart terminal.” And that was the first video game that I actually manufactured as opposed to just program, and that was called Computer Space. Then, it was a year later that I did Pong.


Spencer:


So, what was your inspiration for Pong?


Mr. Bushnell


Well, in my log book I had, basically, all the sports games. And then that I spring I’d heard – I’d been in the video game business, at this point in time, for two years with Computer Space. And, I had heard that Magnavox had a presentation in Burlingame, California, of a video game. I said, “Holy cow what’s this?”

And, I went up to that, I saw this game, it was the Magnavox Odyssey. And, I played and I said, “Well, this isn’t very much fun. Not much of a problem.” And, it so happened that I just hired my first engineer. And so, I said, “Make this game, like this Odyssey game, but let’s make it fun.” And so, we’re gonna put score and sound and a little different algorithm so that when you – where you hit the ball on the paddle it’ll ricochet off.

Once that happened we had a terrifically fun game. I never planned to commercialize it. It was just a training project for my first engineer because it was a very simple game. And so, in some ways it was really inspired a little but by Magnavox but, the real thing that happened was, we just did it right.


Spencer:


uWink is your creation. Currently it is one of the hottest spots in the L.A. area, more locations are under way. Can you explain, for those who don’t know, the concept of uWink?


Mr. Bushnell


uWink is an at the table terminal which plays not just games but allows you to order food and drink by touch screen to be delivered to your table. So, it’s a very seamless restaurant, bar, fun and games environment, including games that will be from table to table and restaurant to restaurant.


Spencer:


You have said there are nine rules of social gaming. Can you explain a few of them and explain the importance of social gaming in general?


Mr. Bushnell


Social gaming and probably the most important rule is, no game zombies. That is, the game should facilitate conversation, not squelch it. Many games – if you go into an internet café throughout the world you can hear a pin drop. Because people are playing World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike, and what have you. What you want in a social game is to facilitate camaraderie, fun, and sharing of an experience, and that is probably the most important one.

The second one is, the games need to be short. Because, you want to be able to have it finish, take a few bites of your meal, order a drink, and then you can play another one. And so, that really becomes one of the social natures of what you want to do.

The third one is they have to be simple, no instructions in general. You should be able to be intuitively involved in the game without having to read a 40 page manual. And then, probably – there’s a bunch of others but, what you really want to do is to elicit a smile. You want people to have fun with this. And are you having fun with the game? Are you having fun with each other? If you can’t answer that question, that’s okay. But, as long as you’re having fun then you’re in good shape.


Spencer:


Modern gaming and violence seem to go hand in hand. This problem has been discussed in the classrooms, by clergy and even congress. Can anything be done?


Mr. Bushnell


Probably not. The issue with games with violence are there is a certain classic game construct and the construct is kill, or be killed. And, unfortunately it’s a wonderful game construct. Socially, not very good, but, it’s a good game construct. At Atari, we actually had a rule that you couldn’t commit violence against a humanoid. You can blow a tank, you can blow up an airplane but you couldn’t blow up a person. Sounds kind of quaint today.

You know, with the blood spurting. Almost everybody played games in the early ‘70s. But, in the early ‘80s games got violent. That lost women. They got complex. That lost the casual gamer. And so, if you really look at the game market today, it’s only 15 million people. It’s not as big as the noise would let you believe.

The good news is that those people, those 15 million people, each spend about a thousand dollars a year. That’s a 15 billion dollar market. And so, out of 300 million people, only 15 million are gamers. So, you got another 285 million. Now, out of those 285 million, we have people who are playing casual games on the internet, Yahoo, Pogo, what have you, addictive games.

But, I believe that we can actually set the clock back a little bit to games which were fun, frivolous and not violent. The violence is a little bit like pornography. You’re never, ever gonna get rid of pornography and some people will always be able to make a buck by racing to the bottom. And if you look at Grand Theft Auto and things that are, really what I call, socially deviant, they’ll make a buck and then they’ll go away. But, I actually think the Halo’s, the Halo 3 are gonna stay in place because the game architecture is really fun.


Spencer:


It’s very complicated though. I tried. I know, my friends that’s all they do is play Halo and they’re good at it. But, for someone like me, I’m like a casual gamer.

In school we study media literacy and the importance of a target or demographic audience. You have said that women are your target audience at uWink, why?


Mr. Bushnell


We believe that when you’re building a restaurant-bar there are some pitfalls. One of the pitfalls are we did not want this to turn into a sports bar. And so, if you look around and you have a lot of media on the walls, it’s very easy to turn that into a sports bar.

I feel like sports bars have been done, overdone and overdone. Increasingly in social situation women control a veto. And, those of us who have been married for a long time – the women control. It’s just kind of the nature. We all give up. Women will always outthink us when it comes to relationships. And I tell my sons, I said, “Just hang up. Just go with the flow and you see ’em nod and you don’t necessarily need to listen but you nod.”

And also, I feel like that women need to have a place for themselves. And, if you look around, we’re finding clusters of women that come. And, a lot of times, the women that come have a couple of kids attached and that’s great too.

And, I maintain that if you say that I’m gonna focus on women 21 to 35, what you’re really saying is everybody. Because every girl that isn’t 21 wants to be 21. Every woman that’s older than 35 wants to be 35. And then, all men want women. And so, basically, if you can fill the place up with women, you by definition will fill the place up with men.


Spencer:


Working at uWink must be like being part of a team. From a technology perspective uWink is very advanced. Could you explain the technology team and how they all work together?


Mr. Bushnell


Yes. What we have is a relatively small group here in the United States and pretty good sized group in Shanghai. And, the team that we have here are just really smart people. I mean, they can crack walnuts with their brains. And, they are not just good technologists but they have a sense of whimsy, which is what we want to do.

Because, if you forget that you’re doing something to have people have fun then you’re missing a significant part of your target. In general, I run this very similar to the way I ran Atari. And what we do is we have an offsite three times a year, about every four months and we plan what we’re going to do. And then the rest of the time we don’t really look back and we execute against that plan. And then, we’re willing to completely rewrite the business plan every four months based on what we’ve learned in the last four months.

And, so we plan, we set out a series of goals, and we execute against it.


Spencer:


Much like any other business type of teamwork setting.


Mr. Bushnell


Yeah.


Spencer:


You described yourself as a serial entrepreneur, what does this mean?


Mr. Bushnell


That means that I have five year ADD. What happens is that I’m good at going from zero to about 100 million in sales. And, that’s when you’re dealing very closely with customers, landlords, technologists, what have you and you’re creating this series of business recipes, if you would. Once the recipes are in place, anybody can follow the recipes and build the stew.

I find the minute the system has been reduced to the recipes, following the recipes is not an interesting thing for me intellectually or creatively. And, I always have seven business plans that are either on paper or that I can hardly wait to get to. And, so for me, it’s very easy to let somebody work my recipes and I’ll go off and I’ll create some new recipes on something else.


Spencer:


uWink is working two more locations in L.A. One is the famed Hollywood in Highlands and now Miami franchises are under way. What’s next?


Mr. Bushnell


The problem is we’re a public company and so I can’t be as forthright as I’d like to be. However, let’s say that we have significant numbers of other locations under negotiation and we have several other franchisees that are also under negotiations. Not just in the United States but internationally. And, as soon as those happen we will be announcing them.