Back in 1972, Nolan Bushnell founded Atari on $500. Over the next six years, thanks in large part to the "accidental" invention of Pong and the launch of the first successful home gaming console, the Atari 2600, he sold the company to Warner Communication for $28 million. Now that story is coming to the big screen, courtesy of Paramount Pictures and producer/star Leonardo DiCaprio, who is expected to portray Bushnell in the biopic. Based on the various books and differing accounts of what actually happened, it will be interesting to see what this period piece actually focuses on outside of the game development. Nolan Bushnell took some time to talk about the rise and fall of Atari in this exclusive interview.
GameCore: I'm sure you've been pitched by Hollywood on this movie dozens of times. What separates this Atari movie pitch from past pitches?
Nolan Bushnell: These are just the right people. These guys just were the best to deliver the story. I'm just really excited about it.
GameCore: Is there the potential for DiCaprio to play you in this movie?
NB: We can't discuss any of the details of the movie right now.
GameCore: Okay. Tell me a little bit about the success that Pong had. Did it jump off the charts immediately?
NB: Pong really jumped off the charts instantaneously. The very first prototype we put out drew lines and it turns out that our cash box was too small and it completely jammed up full of quarters. It caught us a little bit flat-footed in some ways because we didn't have manufacturing amped up. We thought of ourselves as a design house up until that point.
GameCore: What was the climate like at that point in the '70s?
NB: The dominant coin-operated game at the time was pinball. At the same time, there was a game out using slide projectors. It was a driving game called Chicago Speedway and it was very, very successful. The games business really started is a coin-operated world. We did Computer Space and there were several slide projector-based amusement games that were pretty fun. Back then, coin-operated machines were pretty much relegated to amusement parks and there were a few pinball machines in bars and at the malt shop.
GameCore: Why was Pong able to make such headway in the market?
NB: I think two or three things made Pong unique. First of all, it was a two-player game. The other thing was that it was a game in which women could beat men in an athletic endeavor or in a game. It was because the game required small motor skills and women had better small motor skills than men do. It's one of the few times that women could beat a guy that was trying as hard as they could and it was sort of at the same time that there was this sexual revolution going on in women empowerment and I think that helped Pong a lot. It became socially acceptable in a bar for women to invite a guy off a bar stool to come and play Pong, so it was very female empowering and I think that really made an awful lot of difference.
GameCore: If you were going to draw the trajectory of the video game industry, would Pong be where you would start the whole thing off at?
NB: Well a little bit, I mean Computer Space did a couple million dollars, but it wasn't as big a hit as Pong was. Pong was the first big runaway hit and it made everybody aware of gaming, and that was the big difference, so I guess you can say Pong was. It's hard to say.
GameCore: Pong was released in 1972, when did the video game explosion occur?
NB: The arcade business exploded and literally there were thousands of machines being built nationwide. I could remember at one time the particleboard industry was behind because of all the cabinets that were being built. Then it wasn't until the '74 that uh we felt that technology had progressed enough to make a consumer game version.
GameCore: Tell me a little bit about those technological advances that brought Pong home?
NB: In order to do a digital home game, it required an in-channel chip, in a large-scale integration. The Pong coin-op board was quite large and we had to shrink all of that down to put it in a home game and to make it reliable enough took some pretty serious technology. That didn't really happen until the late '70. Remember, the micro processor wasn't invented until 1974, so the earlier ones were a lot of chips. Computer Space had over 200 chips. Pong had about 80.
GameCore: How would you describe what the Atari did for the whole console market?
NB: Atari created a product that captured the imagination and allowed people to have at home the experience they had in the bars and restaurants. And it just amplified that demand that was created in the bars and restaurants and brought it home. And that's really the only thing that it did.
GameCore: Can you talk about the game industry. It must've been very exciting?
NB: In the early days the attempt to take it home was very, very difficult. There had been a previous attempt by Magnavox to create a home game, which left everybody with a bad taste in their mouths. So when we took a consumer Pong to the consumer electronics show, it was actually the toy show first, we couldn't get distribution. No stores wanted to take it. It wasn't until Sears picked it up and decided to put some marketing muscle behind it that it took off. We were very confused because we knew all our neighbors wanted a Pong machine for their home, and we'd take it to the toy show and retailers and they didn't want to have anything to do with it.
GameCore: At the time, was Atari the fastest growing company in U.S history?
NB: We thought it was. Yeah, I think Atari was probably the fastest growing company at that time. I'm not sure how you quantify that, but I think Business Week said that one time, and I think Geek Magazine did, as well.
GameCore: Can you describe for me the atmosphere of Atari at that time?
NB: It was very chaotic. We never could hire enough people. Never get enough buildings in place to build things. We were perpetually out of money because we were using all our profits to grow the company. It was very, very difficult to grow as fast as the market demanded.
GameCore: Was is exciting to be part of this phenomenon?
NB: Oh, hugely exciting. It was adrenaline everyday from all of us. I think that from all the employees' standpoint, everybody thought that they were part of something very special. And it was a great place to work.
GameCore: Can you tell me a little bit about the sale of Atari. How did it come about?
NB: Atari was such a rapidly growing company, we were perpetually out of money because we had to use all our money for growth. So as we moved to the consumer market place, we really needed more capital. Wall Street hadn't awoken up to the fact that the video game industry was an industry. They saw it as kind of a quirky product, not really an industry that needed funding. Warner saw it and when most other companies didn't, they were willing to supply that capital that was required.
GameCore: This was really the first Hollywood convergence, right?
NB:It really was. Steve Ross had played a bunch of games at Disney World and said, "You know, there's something here." And he believed in it and took a shot.
GameCore: During the early video game craze, was it true Hollywood actually pitched the idea of a Kramer vs. Kramer game?
NB: If I can be a little bit blunt for a minute, the Hollywood types kind of screwed up the video game business for a while. They didn't really understand this was a somewhat different medium at that point, because we weren't really able to do the kind of graphics that really amplified the IP. You couldn't put 50 of those engineers in a room and come out with a video game in five days. It was a thing that was a type of art.
GameCore:And yet Scott Warshaw, the creator of the ET game, was given five weeks to make an Atari game.
NB: A lot has been said about ET and what a terrible game it was, but based on the time that was allowed, it was a brilliant game. I mean nobody could've done that in the few weeks that he had to program it. It was just an unrealistic idea that they could do a game from start to finish and get it into the market in that short a time and end up with anything that was less than a somewhat crappy game.
GameCore: So you weren't involved with that game at all?
NB:I was not.
GameCore: Do you know how involved Spielberg was, if at all with the game?
NB: I think that it would've been so difficult for anybody other than the designer to be involved with the game at all. Because of the truncated time frame there would be no real time for collaboration. It would be just get in, do something, get it done. And I would be very, very shocked if there was collaboration at all. In those days particularly on the Atari VCS, it was a very difficult unit to program for because the technology was so difficult that we had very little memory and not quite enough registers to do everything that you wanted to do. You had to keep track in software the horizontal and vertical sync pulses. It was this combination of doing things in software that drove the hardware, and so you really had to be a master magician to get these cartridges done. You had to be the artist, the sound engineer, and the producer of the game all in one because it all entangled in such a way that you couldn't separate them out.
GameCore: Is that a true story where they took all those ET games and buried them in a field in New Mexico?
NB: From the friends that I know that were there at the time they assert that it is a true story. The story is that there was such a market overhang of these terrible game cartridges that they took them into a New Mexico landfill, which was actually adjacent to where the cartridges were being manufactured. It's not like we were shipping them from California down there, and buried them. Some said they even put a layer of concrete over the top. I don't know, I haven't been able to verify that story, but that's what the story is. And I believe it. I think that they had to get rid of them somehow.
GameCore: So did the ET game actually cause the video game crash?
NB: No. It was a combination of everything. They shipped way to too much product--both cartridges and consoles--into the market, trying for that one more year of growth when, basically, the market was saturated. If you look at today, everyone transitions gracefully from one platform to another. The Warner people felt that this Atari 2600 was like a record player and that it would go on forever. But it was really difficult technology and the marketplace was moving so quickly that it really represented trying to sell 1976 technology in 1983. It was just foolish.
GameCore: After you sold Atari, were you involved with the company to any extent?
NB: I was involved for about two years and I increasingly became abrasive with the management style that Hollywood sort of brought into it. I had several clashes with the management thinking that they were screwing my company up and it wasn't my company anymore. Ultimately, we decided that we would leave. I probably had the last laugh when they in fact did screw my company up.