Features// Nolan Bushnell at BAFTA

The Women’s Liberation was just coming into its own..

Posted 23 Mar 2009 18:03 by
Nolan (r) and Nuttall (l)
Nolan (r) and Nuttall (l)
It?s not every day you get to sit in an audience listening to a living legend, particularly one who practically gave birth to the games industry. Last week, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell entertained a captivated audience in London?s BAFTA auditorium to discuss the history of his work and thoughts on today?s computer game landscape; and I was in it.

Introduced by games historian (and SPOnG mascot) Andy Nuttall, Bushnell exuded a personality that was akin to seeing a cool uncle for the first time in ages. As he sat down on a stage decorated with classic Atari games and hardware, conversation immediately turned to his influences and early life. As the stage conversation mellowed, a theatre full of eager journalists and industry workers suddenly relaxed into some essential historical information.

?Even as a very young man, I was inventing things?, Bushnell recalled as he spoke about childhood events leading up to the founding of Atari. ?I had invented a control for a rocket ship, made out of wool, light switches and bottle caps. In my mind, I went to many places in the galaxy.?

Bushnell's lifetime trophy.
Bushnell's lifetime trophy.
Before computer games were even a consideration the entrepreneur was a bona fide workaholic, holding down two different jobs at the same time. During the day he ran an advertising company, selling spots around the sides of a public blotter; in the evenings he would manage a local amusement park. ?No matter how much money I had, I knew I could always spend more?. In admitting that he is still constantly working on multiple projects, his philosophy rings true to this day.

During this early life period, Bushnell had seen a game called SpaceWar!. So impressed with it was he that he started to plan an arcade version to appear in amusement parks. The prohibitive price of the computer hardware, however, meant that dream was dashed before it grew to maturity. Not to be defeated, however, he decided to create a clone using his knowledge in computer science and a $5000 computer, with a clockspeed of? 800MHz.

That game was Computer Space, and it was programmed in his daughter?s bedroom. While Bushnell worked on the game itself, Ted Dabney ? who later co-founded Atari alongside him ? engineered the components for the machine. The duo became known as Syzygy (?I knew I had a problem when I ran out of Y?s?) and made a contract with Nutting Associates to put the game in commercial venues. However, it failed to make much of an impact.

?The problem with Computer Space was? I loved, Ted loved it, all my friends loved it? but we were all scientists! The average user who decided to play the game didn?t really get their heads around it, and as a result I guess it wasn?t mass market enough?. However, from these roots Atari was formed after a deal fell through with Nutting Associates to bring a game called Pong to market.

The rest, as they say, is history. Pong became so popular that it called to question the legality of ?Intellectual Property? for the first time, as copycat versions of the tennis game were released in uncountable quantities. As no protection was given to computer game creation in the early days, Bushnell recalls how Atari instead constantly made alterations to the base code and released different versions of Pong, such as Pong Doubles, Pin-Pong and Puppy Pong. As a result Atari had staved off enough competition to earn an 80% market share in its own game by 1977.

World changing Pong.
World changing Pong.
But why was Pong so successful? ?Because it was a great icebreaker, a game that anybody could play and was real social to boot. Adding a 2-Player to the game was a very fortunate mistake. Round about the time we created the game, the Women?s Liberation was just coming into its own as well, and this was a game that girls could beat guys at.

?Pong only needs low muscle exertion, while most games at the time needed quite high muscle exertion. It started a culture where girls would see a guy they liked at a bar, challenged them to a game and then hook up after kicking their ass! There are a lot of people who come to me today and say that they met their wife or husband through Pong, and it?s interesting on that basis just how social games can get.?
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AmazingRuss 23 Mar 2009 19:58
"Internet may seem social but it?s really not that cool, especially if the person on the other end of the line turns out to be some 40-year-old guy in his underpants."

As a 42 year old guy in his underpants, I take exception to that slur!
W 24 Mar 2009 15:19
Just a glance over, but what happened to our "Questions" from the last article.
more comments below our sponsor's message
Andy 24 Mar 2009 22:12
To be honest, they weren't really usable within an hour's stage interview. I took five along with me, but only two really good ones, and I asked one on stage. Another two or three from the audience, and time was up. What was yours?
W 25 Mar 2009 11:23
industry wide cross platform development game VOS system to save money and time publishing games.

The other question, is what about such a system for a instant on access, instant install, no disk required to play each time, with copy protection PC game system form factor sub specification. That this system could work
with and without windows. Even if this system was instead based on a very small basic Linux form factor that was tailored towards game hardware and performance?

Do you think that Sony, 360 and Nintendo are restricting the industry (apart from costing consumers more money) and a PC game console specification like above, that can be worked into every PC is a better, more open and cheaper option for development (and consumers)?

But also interested in Joji's questions:

Joji wrote:
My questions:

What do you think of the rise of Indie game development on XNA, PSN, iPhone (especially the latter?

If you were to give three pieces of advice, to any indie start up
developer out there, what would you say?

Has he any new games in the pipeline?

Lastly, piracy indirectly/partially helped the industry thrive to a
degree, but will it be the red button to its downfall, like many
Andy 25 Mar 2009 22:12
All noted, I'll be doing a follow-up with Nolan at some point soon (I hope), I'll be sure to ask them then. Cheers.
W 27 Mar 2009 00:47
Andy wrote:
All noted, I'll be doing a follow-up with Nolan at some point soon (I hope), I'll be sure to ask them then. Cheers.

I wasn't expecting that, Thanks.
lance 31 Mar 2009 18:17
800Mhz is wrong...possibly meant 800Khz. The speccy/64 were about 1 or 2 Mhz.
Andy 1 Apr 2009 18:46
IIRC he said KHz.

Edited highlights are on the Bafta site now - about half an hour of the hour session. Doesn't include the pants quote! http://tinyurl.com/dy8mb7
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