VC&G Interview: Nolan Bushnell, Founder of Atari

December 12th, 2007 by Benj Edwards

Nolan BushnellEarlier this year, I had the chance to interview Nolan Bushnell, career entrepreneur and nigh-but-legendary founder of Atari. For the last seven years, Bushnell has been pouring most of his energy into his latest venture, uWink — a sort of Chuck E. Cheese restaurant for adults.

Of course, being the history buff I am, I wanted Bushnell to clear up some things regarding articles I was working on at the time. Accordingly, we touched on a variety of topics, such as the origin of the term “video game,” Steve Jobs at Atari, his “feud” with Ralph Baer, the Atari 800, and his wife’s love of the Wii, among other things. Despite being such a grab bag of topics, I figured the interview was worth publishing in its entirety while it still feels relevant. Bushnell’s thoughts deserve to be heard, especially since he took time out of his busy schedule to share them.

This interview took place on March 30th, 2007 over the telephone.

Early Video Games

Higinbotham's Tennis for Two

Benj Edwards: I’d like to start out first just talking a little bit about early video games. In your estimation, what was the absolute first video game ever created?

Nolan Bushnell: I think it was Willy Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two, I think that’s about 1958-59.

BE: Do you know how the term “video game” came about?

NB: I think it was started at the first trade show that Computer Space was at. And I think it was coined by a reporter, and that was in the fall of 1971, when we showed it in Chicago. The reporter, writing for one of the trade magazines, coined the term “video game.”

BE: So it was around 1971, you think?

NB: Yeah. To be exact, it was November, 1971.

BE: Do you have any idea what reporter it was that might have coined the term?

NB: No, but I know the magazine. I think it was the magazine called Vending Times.

[Editor’s note: It should be no surprise that I’m looking for fall-winter 1971 issues of Vending Times. I spoke with VT’s current Editor-in-Chief earlier this year, but he doubts that the term occurred that early. He’s done some searching himself in his archives (albeit in later issues) but has thus far found nothing. If anybody has old copies of Vending Times, please let me know.]

Nolan Bushnell QuoteBE: How much influence did Steve Russell’s Space War have on you in creating your first video games?

NB: I’d call it pivotal. It was Steve Russell’s Space War that really opened my eyes to the potential, and I’ve often credited him as being the true really exciting visionary on the video game side.

BE: Your Computer Space was a version of Space War, right?

NB: That’s correct, yes. My objective was to create something that was commercial, because I loved the game and played it every chance I could get. I didn’t get as many chances as I wanted. [laughter]

BE: Was Computer Space a raster-based game, or did it use a vector display?

NB: It was raster.

Nutting's Computer SpaceBE: So you used an ordinary television set that you took apart and interfaced with?

NB: That’s correct.

BE: I’ve heard a lot about your former neighbor Joe Keenan and Kee Games, and I am wondering why we haven’t heard more from him in the history side. What’s he up to these days, do you know? Is he still in good health?

NB: Yeah, Joe is kind of retired. He owns a Chuck E. Cheese in San Jose, California, and I think he’s doing some sailboat racing and having relatively a good time.

Video Games and Personal Computers

BE: What effect do you think video games have had on the development of personal computers?

Apple IIeNB: I think very, very significant. I think that — and this will sound very strange — but up until the video games, people didn’t really think of being able to control a video image. It’s kind of like training wheels. There are a lot of processes that go along in starting up the video game, playing the video game, closing it down, scoring, various things. There are processes that are very similar to what you have to do to run a personal computer. And some of the technology that we had to connect a television set and a video game were actually used in the Apple II. I think there was a lot of “standing on the shoulders,” so to speak. The graphics on the video games has always led the technology of the PC, and so virtually all the graphics steps forward were derived because of the game business and its intersection with the PC.

Nolan Bushnell QuoteBE: Do you think video games or business applications were more important in the adoption of personal computers among the general population?

NB: There were really two parallel paths that happened. The very, very early stage was almost all game-driven or hobbyist-driven, and that probably started in ’77-’78 and lasted pretty much through ’til IBM introduced the PC. And I don’t know what the ratios were, but let’s say that the video games had a 100% market share until the PC. Yeah, you could do word processing and a few things like that — you know, VisiCalc on the Apple.

But I really think then, because it was IBM, it seemed OK to put [a personal computer] into business. And then the business usage really exploded at that point. I would say, within a few years, business uses had exceeded the game uses. And then I think you have to wait until about the early ’90s, with the “multimedia PC,” as it was called then, to say that all of the sudden the game usages of the PC became very important. And that happened throughout the ’90s. Probably, one of the pivotals at that point was Doom, because that was just a monster game in the PC world.

The Atari 800

Atari 800BE: How much involvement did you have in the Atari 400/800 computers at Atari?

NB: I had quite a bit in the early phases of it and very little in the marketing. And later, it was on the drawing boards — it was architected and designed while I was there — but it really didn’t hit the market heavily until after I had left.

BE: Did you ever use an Atari 800 and like it?

NB: Yeah, I did. It was, in a lot of ways, a significantly superior machine to the Apple II; it had sprites. It was definitely a better game machine.

One of the problems was that Atari was so big at the time and we had such a strong relationship with Sears that they wanted FCC Type 1 approval, and that was very hard to get. So we had this big cast [metal] thing and only serial ports, and that was all to hit the FCC regulations that turned out to have no teeth at all. And so all the other PC companies, including Apple, were not Type 1 compliant, which gave them the ability to put in a good parallel bus and made the Apple II much more extensible. It was one of those things where you thought you were doing the right thing. [laughter]

BE: I guess with the Apple II they didn’t build in an RF modulator, so they didn’t have to comply with that.

NB: No, it wasn’t that. It was the actual radiation that came from the circuit board itself. And if you ever tried to look at a television set next to an Apple II, there was an awful lot of junk coming out of all of the PCs at the time. The processors were going fast enough that each of the little traces on the board would actually radiate.

Steve Jobs and Woz at Atari

Steve Jobs and Steve WozniakBE: Since we mentioned the Apple II, I’d like to talk a little bit about Apple’s brief intersection with Atari. What were your first impressions of Steve Jobs when you met him?

NB: Brilliant, curious, aggressive.

BE: What was his job, exactly, at Atari?

NB: He worked in the engineering department working on games; you know, basic circuit design.

BE: Have you talked to him recently?

NB: Oh yeah. We maintain a relationship.

BE: Do you think he looks back favorably on his period at Atari there?

NB: Oh, I think so.

Nolan Bushnell QuoteBE: What did you think of Steve Wozniak, back in the day, when you first met him?

NB: Well, Steve was also very brilliant — very quiet. I didn’t really get to know Steve as a personality, even though I was around him, until several years later. Interesting guy. But he was very quiet at Atari.

BE: He told me that you guys still see each other every once in a while.

NB: Oh yeah.

BE: Do you ever regret not taking up the Apple guys’ on doing their computer at Atari?

NB: Well, it wasn’t ever really offered to us. I was very happy for them to succeed. I gave them permission to use some our circuits and various things. I knew that we were going to try to do something in the PC some day, but we were just selling as many video games as we could build, and so it didn’t make a lot of sense for us to distract ourselves at that point in time.

Ralph Baer

Ralph Baer in 1969

BE: It seems like you might have a bit of a grudge against Ralph Baer. How did that originate?

NB: Well, the issue really is that, if you listen to Ralph, he invented all this wonderful technology and then, one day, I sort of fell off a turnip truck, bounced twice, came in and saw the Odyssey and started a video game empire, from ending up in the Mountain View showroom.

When in reality, if you really look at the time lines, I started designing video games in the middle ’60s while I was a college student, and I have a signed and witnessed lab book to prove it, and that I’d already been in the market selling product for a year and a half before the Magnavox showing.

Nolan Bushnell QuoteI saw the Magnavox project. I signed my name. There was no skulduggery, or serendipity, or under-the-counter view on the thing. I saw it, and I thought that it was a relatively crappy product. [laugher] I didn’t feel like it was going to do anything. I do acknowledge that it probably reminded me of some of the designs that I’d done before. So, when I had my new engineer, I assigned him to fix that game: to make a ping-pong game that was in fact fun, which we did.

BE: You improved it.

Pong Arcade MachineNB: When you say I improved a game in which a ball goes back and forth, which for Ralph to claim the invention of that, he has to go back to Willy Higinbotham. Well, who did I…was Pong inspired by William Higinbotham or Odyssey? Ralph likes to claim that he invented Pong, which he didn’t. He invented Odyssey, which was a marketing failure. Pong happened to be successful, and so he wants to claim that. I just think it’s wrong.

BE: I definitely don’t consider him the inventor of Pong — obviously, it’s a different game. But personally, I think [Baer] feels a little bad because you were influenced by his ping-pong game, and you’ve never given him credit for that influence.

NB: I have [given him credit] in various things. I’ve said that I saw the game and it reminded me, but he knows full well that I had a similar game designed in my lab book. In the patent lawsuit, I presented my lab book in evidence.

Nolan Bushnell QuoteHe also likes to make a lot of talk about the fact that Atari licensed his patents. We got a paid-up license for less than 0.6% of our sales. I mean, it was $100,000 a year for five years. He thinks it was seven [years], but I think it was five, but I don’t remember exactly. But it was $100,000. That was less than it cost us to — in those days, it cost about a quarter of a million to $300,000 to fight a lawsuit, a patent thing. And so, to get a paid-up license for less than my attorney’s fees, that was just a good business decision.

Anyway, that’s why I sound like I’m a little irritated by it. He also patented a couple of things that we invented. Ask him who invented Simon, who invented the light gun?

[Editor’s note: History shows that Baer and Harrison unquestionably invented the video light gun.]

Milton-Bradley SimonBE: I was going to ask you about the Touch Me thing. Were you upset about that when he turned it into Simon?

NB: I wasn’t upset. I was more upset at myself for not seeing the consumer opportunity. We did it as a coin-operated game, and I didn’t see it. And so hats off to him. But I don’t think he should claim authorship of it. [laughter]

The original game of Touch Me came from a small prototype that came from an engineering skull session with Grass Valley. And it was put together by Steve Mayer.

BE: Baer told me that you and he were invited to play a game of Pong at a classic gaming expo, but you never showed up. Is that true? And why not?

NB: I basically… That particular classic game expo, I was in China. It had nothing to do with…

There have been a lot of opportunities to be on the same panel discussion, and if I’m going to be there, Ralph doesn’t show up. It’s kind of one of those funny things. So I think it’s disingenuous for him to say that I’m the no-show. But anyway.

I’ll show you a test. I am willing to have a conference call, that will be recorded, with Ralph any time he wants to. So, isn’t that a test? Because nobody can say they can’t show up for a conference call.

BE: That’s an interesting idea. Somehow I wish that you guys could get together and talk and at least be civil or friendly towards each other.

Nolan Bushnell QuoteNB: The real problem with the whole thing is that it’s a tempest in a teapot. The reality is that Ralph did some things, and he should get credit for those. And I did some things and I should get credit for them. And that’s good enough, you know? Fundamentally, you can’t alter history. We did what we did. We accomplished what we accomplished. And it’s just no big deal. You just don’t want to overreach. That’s the only problem.

[Editor’s note: Shortly after this interview took place, I approached Baer about the aforementioned conference call Bushnell proposed, but Baer wanted nothing to do with it. He told me to stop playing “matchmaker” (in a friendly way), so I’ve left the issue alone ever since. Although they may never see eye-to-eye, I respect both men and their essential contributions to video game history.]

Video Games Today


BE: I’d like to talk about video games in the present and the future. How do you feel about the Japanese essentially dominating the video game market from the late ’80s until now?

NB: Well, I think that they did some really, really cool, fun games. I think Zelda was a very good game. I think some of the things that Nintendo did with Donkey Kong and that — you know, there was a certain lack of technical innovation after I left Atari, and it was picked up by the Japanese.

And so, in some ways, would it have been different if I hadn’t sold Atari? I think so. But maybe not. I would have made some different mistakes than Atari did in the ’80s. One of the big things that happened is that the United States market was really trashed in 1983 because of some bad business decisions that Atari made. And so the door was left wide open for the Japanese to come in. The American video game business…you know, it wasn’t homicide.

Nolan Bushnell QuoteBE: So Japan just filled in a gap where it needed to be filled.

NB: And they filled it. Once it was filled, they had presence and they dominated it up until right now, when Microsoft came back in. But it cost [Microsoft], some people say, five to six billion dollars to get where they are right now. So you needed some deep pockets to dislodge them. And I kind of think the 360 is winning this round in a pretty healthy way over Sony. But Nintendo with its Wii project is making some headway. So everything swings back and forth. The fun thing about business is that it’s never static.

Nintendo WiiBE: That brings us to uWink in a way. Nintendo, these days with their Wii, seems to share your philosophy about making games that are fun for everybody to play, like a social experience. What do you think about the Wii and Nintendo’s tactics? And could you compare and contrast that with your uWink philosophy?

NB: Well, I think that for a home game, the Wii, and the controller, and the strategy is brilliant. It has, in fact, created a whole bunch of video game players that previously were not, my wife being one of them. We have been known to bowl and play golf after dinner — something that she would never have done before. It’s kind of fun to have the whole family or dinner guests to sit around and bowl after dinner.

We are doing the same thing [with uWink]. We are having people that have never played a video game ever playing games in our place. We have people that have not played a video game for thirty years playing games in our place. So I feel like uWink shares the Nintendo philosophy that gaming can be bigger than the 15 million 18 year-olds or 12-28 year-olds. And we are accomplishing that. And as we roll out our restaurants, we think that we’ll get a lot of people playing games and having fun that would never have done so otherwise.

BE: I’d like to ask you one last question. What do you think history gets wrong about you the most?

Nolan Bushnell QuoteNB: I think the difference between what my perceptions of me and what the world’s perception is — I think they think of me as sort of this creative guy, who has this light bulb go off, and all of a sudden, I go out and do these things. My perception is that I’m a guy who really does a lot of homework surrounding any project that I do. And they may be very innovative, but they are all vetted very, very carefully, both economically and technologically. And I don’t think people understand how much hard work innovation is. That it’s not just getting an idea. You really have to cross your T’s and dot your I’s long before you ever start on the project. I don’t think people perceive that about me. I work hard. [laughter]

12 Responses to “VC&G Interview: Nolan Bushnell, Founder of Atari”

  1. XCALBR8 Says:

    Great interview! Nolan is the man and it’s great to read such an interesting interview. Nice work!

  2. Kitsunexus Says:

    Ralph Baer got pissy at you? Dude, if I ever see him at an expo, I’ll pop him in the jaw for you.

    Nice interview, btw. ^_^

  3. Benj Edwards Says:

    Whoa, there, Kitsune. 🙂 Nah, Baer wasn’t pissy. He was friendly about it. I’m still on good speaking terms with him and have talked to him many, many times since. He’s been a huge help with a number of projects. So no Baer-bashing (or Bushnell bashing for that matter), ok?

  4. Daniel Says:

    Thank-you for this. Another great read!

  5. Jim Ulrich Says:

    Intersting article. I wonder what would have happened if Bushnell didn’t sell Atari. Does Activision spin-off? Would have the crash of 1983 happened? Would the Japanese dominate the business like they do now?

  6. Benj Edwards Says:

    All very good questions, Jim. Have you been reading my Atari 30th article on 1UP? 🙂 If not, you might find it interesting.

  7. Jim Ulrich Says:

    Benj, I did read your article and it was quite good. Gamasutra had a feature on the history of Atari with a promise of two more. Here’s the first covering 1971-1977:

  8. Joe Cassara Says:

    Noland’s such a swell guy. By the by: Jobs offered to do the Apple at Commodore, not Atari.

  9. Scott Stilphen Says:

    Great interview, Benj. It’s nice to see someone of Nolan’s stature reaffirm Willy’s ‘Tennis for Two’ game as being the first, true video game (regardless of Baer’s limited/antiquated definition).

  10. Cindy Says:

    Hi – I’m a curator at a small museum working on a video game exhibit. We’ like to use the photo of Ralph Baer in our display, but it will not be published – do you know who owns it? Thanks for any info~

  11. TimeAndDate Says:

    Did anyone notice the time/date stamps on the comments section? What’s the significance of December 14, 2007? Is this article that old? Are we communicating with the past…?

    I’ll try sending an email to my past-self just as soon as PC World releases the software for me to download.


  12. I am a Moron! Says:

    Whoops. Hope some editor deletes that comment. I didn’t realize the linked article was that old and was actually part of an archive. That’s what I get for skipping the fine print at the end, huh?

    I still want to email my past-self, though.

Leave a Reply