<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> 2600 and Counting: An Interview with Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell
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2600 and Counting: An Interview with Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell

We all have our favorites. For some it was Dig Dug or Asteroids or even Chopper Command, but regardless of your favorite cartridge you had a system or you knew someone who did and for hours after school you would sit playing. And while you wrecked your thumbs with the joystick and button combo and more often then not threw the rolling control to the floor in a fit of rage, you probably never stopped to think of the man who made it all possible. Well, that is, until now.

Interview by John Sellers


The following is an excerpt from Arcade Fever: The Fan's Guide to the Golden Age of Video Games by John Sellers and was previously published in Aquatulle Magazine

If video games can be compared to baseball, then Nolan Bushnell is the industry's Abner Doubleday. The California entrepreneur created the world's first coin-operated video game in 1971 with the obscure Computer Space and quickly founded Atari, the company that said "play ball!" with its release of the 1972 megahit Pong. Just four years later, when Bushnell sold off his stake to Warner Bros. for a cool $28 million, arcades had become the hip place to hang out. After leaving the company, he bought Atari's interest in the fledgling Pizza Time Theater chain of video-game-fueled eating establishments and, after changing the name to the kid-friendly Chuck E. Cheese, he kicked off yet another feeding frenzy. John Sellers, the author of the new book Arcade Fever: The Fan's Guide to the Golden Age of Video Games, tugged on the coattails of the man who forever changed the career path of quarters everywhere.

Did people think Atari was a Japanese company at first?
Yes, they did. But at that time in consumer electronics, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

Where did the three-pronged Atari logo come from?
It was just done by our head of creative as one of the potentials for the new Atari logo. It became known as the Fuji logo because everyone thought that it looked like a symbol for Mt. Fuji. But it was totally an arbitrary graphic.

Were you upset about all the Pong clones?
It pissed me off so much. This was all during 1973, and at the fall trade show the conference organizers had set up this seminar called "The Future of the Video Game Business." And all the guys who had copied me were asked to be on the panel and I wasn't, and I was just fuming. When it came time for question-and-answer, I stood up with a microphone and said, "This is the biggest sham I've ever seen. How in the hell do these guys know what the future is when their only technical capability is copying me? I could tell you what the future is, but I don't think I'm going to. You're not going to get it from these yokels up here." And I asked each one of them, "Where did you get the design for your Pong game?" I embarrassed the shit out of them. And the whole audience gave me a standing ovation. It was one of those moments of epiphany where these guys knew they didn't have Nolan Bushnell to push around.

Did you end up hiring any of those people?
No, I crushed them. We had an 85 percent market share three years later.

Can you describe your feeling upon realizing that Atari was a success?
I can remember driving into the parking lot one time and seeing all these cars and being struck by the fact that this company was making payments on all of them.

What did your office look like?
Remember this was in the heyday of the 1970s, so I had a bunch of ferns and plants hanging down from the ceiling. And off to the side I had an oak beer tap.

Did you actually have beer in there?
Yeah, I had beer on tap in my office. What we'd do every day sort of after work, all the managers would gather in my office and we'd have a beer and we would discuss games. I'd always have two of the latest prototypes in my office and we'd try to get a good feeling for what they were.

Do you remember what kind of beer it was?
Actually I do: Coors.

What was Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs like when he worked at Atari?
He was a bright kid. He did a couple of very interesting projects -- he and [Apple cofounder] Steve Wozniak did Breakout -- but he was not like a major player inside the company.

Did you have any idea what he was up to?
Oh, yeah. In fact, I always laugh and say I had a chance to have a third of Apple Computer for $50,000 and turned him down. Shows how smart I am.

Were you sad to leave Atari?
It's one of those things where I wasn't sad to leave once I realized it wasn't my company anymore. I think what I had was seller's remorse. I would have loved to stay at Atari forever when it was the kind of Atari that I envisioned. But as soon as it became the kind of company that Warner envisioned, the fascination was significantly less.

How did you come up with the name Chuck E. Cheese?
It was a name you can't say without smiling, and that was the rationale.

Did you ever hear any stories about the Chuck E. Cheese characters giving kids nightmares?
Oh, yeah. There's an axiom that says little kids are drawn to things that might scare them. I always tried to make them as friendly as possible. We also knew that little kids had love-and-hate relationship with them.

How do you perceive your place in video games?
I think I was the guy who started it two years earlier than it would have been started without me.

What would you say to people today who may not know who you are?
I would just say that they're really lucky to be able play some of the neat stuff that they have now, instead of the kind of cheap stuff we had then.

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