Atari founder Nolan Bushnell is still gaming’s showman by GamesBeat

In 1972, Nolan Bushnell co-founded Atari with Ted Dabney. The company went on to launch seminal video games such as Pong and Breakout that defined a generation of gamers. Almost 43 years later, he’s still the spokesman and showman of video games.

By Dean Takahashi for GamesBeat/VentureBeat

In 1972, Nolan Bushnell co-founded Atari with Ted Dabney. The company went on to launch seminal video games such as Pong and Breakout that defined a generation of gamers. Almost 43 years later, he’s still the spokesman and showman of video games.

Bushnell still has a lot of fun as the public voice of gaming. He has an educational games startup, BrainRush, and he’s an advisor to many game startups. He wrote the book, “Finding the Next Steve Jobs,” where he talked about how he could have owned a third of Apple for $50,000. He’s also writing a new book, “The Unemployment Myth,” about how tech can both destroy and create jobs.

I interviewed Bushnell on stage at the opening of our GamesBeat Summit, our executive event last week at the Cavallo Point resort in Sausalito, Calif. Bushnell was the opening talk. Just before it, he asked me how irreverent he should be. “Just be yourself,” I told him. And he was. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and had us laughing from the start.

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation. You’ll see why he was the most popular speaker at our event.


GamesBeat: You’re working on something called BrainRush. Can you tell us about that? Why is this a bold idea?

Nolan Bushnell: I’ve always felt that education and games were linked in some very interesting ways. As you get older you start thinking — I have eight kids. I saw them learning through games and learning through school. Games were better. I thought it would be fun to work on some software and push it forward. We’re having modest success. It’s a tough market. Selling to government institutions — one should never do it. But it’s going to be fun.

GamesBeat: You say that games make us smarter.

Bushnell: Absolutely.

GamesBeat: Here’s the second part of the question. How does that explain Gamergate, then?

Bushnell: Well…

GamesBeat: That’s a gotcha question.

Bushnell: The reality is that our brains are constantly creating new dendrites, new axons. Unfortunately, about half the population are dead from the neck up. I’ve found that one of the things that makes a successful company is only hiring alive people. If you continue with that, you can have a pretty good company.

It’s the whole idea that you want to surround yourself with people with enthusiasm and passion and curiosity. So much of what our educational constructs do is fight that. They actually train out creativity and enthusiasm. They pound in boring 45-minute lectures. You have to deal with growing up without having all the spark snuffed out of your life. Unfortunately that’s the reality of today’s school system.

GamesBeat: You wrote a book about finding the next Steve Jobs. You confessed very self-effacingly there that you had a chance to get a third of Apple for $50,000.

Bushnell: That’s true, and I regret not doing it.

GamesBeat: What was the point of writing that book?

Bushnell: If you look at Back to the Future, there’s a lot of different threads. The fact that I introduced Steve to Don Valentine, who introduced Mike Markkula to Jobs — I think Markkula was as important to the formation and early days of Apple as anyone. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that if I had made the investment, I would have been the CEO or president that Markkula was. The whole outcome may have been different.

At 21, Jobs was a very unfinished product. He didn’t smell well. There were a lot of things — my litmus test for a good CEO, it’s not Steve Jobs. But he grew into it. So who knew?


GamesBeat: You have a new book in the works as well. Tell us more about that one.

Bushnell: It’s called The Unemployment Myth. Technology in the next 20 years will destroy, in the United States alone, about 50 million jobs. It’s going to be the major war and political issue of the next 20 years.

Ned Ludd, 1779, was a weaver. He was a good weaver. He had a wife and three children. He went to work one day and he got fired. He realized he got fired, amongst a bunch of his buddies, because an automatic loom was installed. He decided, this cannot stand, so he got a bunch of pickaxes and hatchets and went in and destroyed the looms that night. That became the start of Luddism as an anti-technology movement.

Think about what the self-driving car is going to mean to the Teamsters. You can see, all of a sudden, that’s going to be a massive war. Those jobs are going to go away.

GamesBeat: Did you know that you just described the theme for the next Call of Duty game?

Bushnell: I did not. But it should be. Anyway, what the book is going to do is talk about all the jobs that are created because of technology and the life that we can live. It’s hopefully going to be aspirational and enthusiastic. I want you to all buy several copies, because they’re actually good for breakfast.

GamesBeat: A lot of people approach you with ideas. How do you filter them? That’s the kind of job that a lot of people in this room probably have to do as well.

Bushnell: I’m always looking for disruptive innovation, not evolutionary innovation. Most of the stuff I see is evolutionary — pedestrian, sophomoric. I tend to not like that. I like to get involved with things that are truly revolutionary, that look like they’re going to be important.

Games, more than almost any other thing — games have a slightly longer life, in most cases, than movies. The half-life of a typical game, a really good game, is six months to a year. Exceptions are World of Warcraft and a few things like that. So what you want to do is find threads that have sustainability.

The mobile space right now, to me, is very noisy. I’m always looking for the mass reset. There’s a reset coming around every four to five years. The next reset is clearly AR or VR. I have a little wager on each one. My gut actually says that AR is going to be more important. VR has some wonderful spaces in the public space world. AR is going to take over the game world.

GamesBeat: I believe your family helps you with scouting this out.

Bushnell: As I say, I have eight children. They have six companies. They’re so good at what they do. They’re very dismissive of me. Which is good. Then I come up with some new stuff, and the minute I show them something that’s cool, they immediately think it was their idea. It’s just not fair.

GamesBeat: You get out a lot, though. You go to a lot of meetups.

Bushnell: Yeah. Right now, a college degree is very imprecise. I find that hiring strictly for passion and enthusiasm almost trumps formal education. I’m looking for people who are self-taught. I’m a massively passionate person about Unity. It’s such a great tool for us in so many ways. Today you can find some of the best talent in the meetups, among the people who are spending nights and weekends on their passion for games while they’re flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s.

GamesBeat: The hard part is that you have to do it around the globe these days.

Bushnell: If you’re traveling around the globe anyway, doing that instead of having another fluffy dinner with too much wine is okay.

GamesBeat: If you were investing now, where would you put your money? Do you like mobile games? Do you like online games?

Bushnell: I’ve been for the next platform. There’s a company called CastAR which I think has the best opportunity for the next big thing.

GamesBeat: Jeri Ellsworth’s company.

Bushnell: Don’t you love Jeri? She used to be at all the hacker’s conferences. If you’ve played an Multiplayer Online game like LoL, you already know you have to get an ELO boosting service, or in-game currency – it turns into a waste. You just know that the tech is sound.

GamesBeat: She taught herself to be a chip designer, right?

Bushnell: I know! She did her own transistors. That’s amazing. But more than that, the construct that they have is really cool. There’s a whole class of games — I believe that human beings, in their DNA, have games built in. All the classic games, there are instances of them being played around the campfire in caves. The only thing that’s changed is they went from paper to printing to plastic and now we have video games.

One category of games hasn’t been adequately done, technologically. That’s shared public perspective, private personal perspective. If you look at games like Texas Hold ‘Em, there’s a shared public perspective and a personal perspective. Now, though, you can do all kinds of things where as long as you can create the hidden personal perspective in a group environment, I think that’s game-playing at its best. When you say, “Wow, I can play Settlers of Catan and have everything moving?” or “Now I can have a construct in the middle of the table and play Angry Birds and we’re all trying to knock down this construct?” that’s cool. That’s going to be an important thing.

Bushnell: It has some cost problems. Unless they can pierce the $200 barrier, when you look at the way they’re doing it, it’s going to be hard for them. Now, Microsoft has more money than God. They can clearly afford to fund it if they can have a significant enough ecosystem going backwards to get a piece of the revenue in the app store. But I think you’re much better off if you can have a sub-$100 price point on the platform and then make money on the app store as well.

GamesBeat: A number of people who’ve been speaking over the last couple of years have said we’re in this golden age of gaming now. We had one of those back in the arcade days, just before the big crash in the early 1980s. If you think about this cycle, or the hype curve, what’s a smart way to play this?

Bushnell: I like blue oceans, not red oceans. Right now mobile is very red ocean. It’s very difficult to hit that great app. Then, once you have a great app, how do you market it efficiently and cheaply? I’m looking for other things. I feel like, if we’re really game designers, we have to open up the floodgates a little bit and say, what is this market really about? It’s very fragmented. But let’s ask questions. Escape rooms are starting to do some pretty good business worldwide. Is that a video game? Not really, but it’s a game that has technical constructs and good puzzle design. People are having a lot of fun with it.

My son does a thing called the Two-Bit Circus. It’s going to be in San Francisco later this year. They create a whole bunch of public experiential games that do not lend themselves well to monetization. And yet by buying a ticket you can go in and you can play all these games. It’s a massive success. So the question becomes, is the economic model of an amusement park around games good?

We’ve been doing a little design on a micro-amusement park, because there’s a disintermediation going from goods to experiences. If you talk to any mall, they’re just scared to death. There’s more and more business going online. People dress like me instead of in an Armani suit. That’s hard on the retail construct. They are in the business of selling real estate. Anybody who comes up with something that can provide experiences, Katie bar the door, that’s a big business.

The other part that gets to be very interesting is the area of board games that can be automated. That’s back to the CastAR, but also, there are apps that — who’s played One Night, the werewolf game? It’s a great party game. That’s another thread. We may see very interesting things.

GamesBeat: I organized this event on the assumption that billion-dollar deals are a good thing. It’s interesting that they are finally happening in games. But it’s also interesting that indie game-makers are as big as they’ve ever been.

Bushnell: Absolutely. Things like Unity make it easy to build good apps, so that you can turn an idea into a construct very quickly. But more than that, I think that any time you can drop the cost of development, you increase innovation. The movie studios don’t do Iron Man 104 for any other reason than the cost-benefit. There’s less risk. As the cost of a movie goes up, the willingness to take risks goes down. Games are the same way. What did the last Call of Duty cost, $500 million? A lot of money. You only get so much innovation when you have a stable construct. The indie developers are the engine of innovation.

GamesBeat: What games are you playing lately.

Bushnell: I still play Go online. It’s very retro, but I love it.

GamesBeat: That’s what you were playing before you started Atari.

Bushnell: I know! And I play several games of chess concurrently all the time. In fact I just let somebody make a move. I really like Portal. That was fun. I like Minecraft. I can’t play first-person shooters anymore. You lose about 50 milliseconds of reaction time for every year you get older. When I sit down with my boys, I’m just dusted before I know what’s going on. And I’m competitive. If a game has stealth and guile, I’m still winning. But when it comes to reaction time, I’ve just written those off.

Question: Looking at the future, is it possible that we could suddenly see a decline in digital, as people get tired of all the digital stuff around them? Could things become more focused on real games, or augmented board games?

Bushnell: There was a very interesting schism or discontinuity with Atari in 1983, when all of a sudden coin-op revenue dropped, the video game business almost imploded — Atari was in deep distress. There’s been a lot of talk about what caused that. I’m actually not sure. But it looked that was going to be a permanent truncation of the business.

Then Nintendo swept in, and there was another very interesting thing that happened. When I left Atari, 40 percent of the population said they played a coin-op video game within the last week. Subsequent to that, it dropped to five percent. That drop was precipitated by the punch-kick fighting games. Those were very good for people who were gamers. But they were very violent, so they lost women. They were very complex, so they lost the casual gamer. Even though the revenue from coin-op went up with these kinds of games, the total market shrunk.

One of the things about mobile games and iPad games is that a tremendous number of women play them, which is somewhat new compared to the consoles, where the demographics are heavily male. Games, by their nature, are somewhat addictive. It’s a predictable world. It’s fun. But if there’s going to be a truncation, I think it’ll be less than five or 10 percent, and then it sparks off again.

What happens sometimes is that the economic model changes. The revenue streams get hollowed out. The number of hours per day actually increases, though. I do believe there are more collaborative games coming in the future. Less isolation. That’s my wager.