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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.?