Nolan Bushnell wants to put more beeps and buzzes in your life. More electronic blips and Bronx cheers, too. He is young, smart, rich and apparently destined to get richer. And everyday he plays games.
Bushnell, 35, whose Atari company invented Pang and is now marketing a video computer system that offers a wide range of more complicated games, has been winning at games for a long time. "All my life I've been a game player. That's why business is fun for me. Business." he said in an interview, "is the ultimate game in which you keep score with money."
The scoreboard shows Bushnell started Atari in 1972 with $500 and sold it to Warner Communications in 1976 for $28 million. He remains the chairman of the board.
While a student at the University of Utah Salt lake City. He started guessing ages and weights. Bushnell laughs when he's asked if there are tricks to guessing.
"The trick is that the guy pays 25 cent. If he wins, he gets a prize worth 15 cents, and if he loses he gets nothing." Key signs of age, he adds, are loose skin at the jaw and neck and lines around the eyes. To guess weight, the guesser looks over the rear end and thighs. "People carry a lot of their weight there," Bushnell said. After a successful career as a guesser, Bushnell managed other games at the amusement park.
"In every group at young guys with [WORD ILLEGIBLE] there's one Caspar Milquetoast," Bushnell said, smiling. The manager can stack the milk bottles or whatever target to make it easy for Caspar to win the stuffed animal. "Then John Jocks will throw at the milk bottles all night," he said.
Amusement parks were always in Bushnell's dreams. "When I graduated from college, my vision of the perfect job was to work in the research section of Disneyland. But they weren't hiring new engineering grads.
He says he started Atari as a way into the amusement park business. In 1972, he hired Al ALlcorn ("the brightest young engineer I knew") and set him the simplest computer problem Bushnell could think of to familiarize Alcorn with games.
"That problem turned out to be a Pong and it turned out to be fun," Bushnell said. The rest, as they say, is history.
At first, Pong was a coin-operated game in amusement arcades and its computer was difficult and costly to repair. The breakthrough to the home market came with something called a single in-channel MOS silicon gate chip" and when Atari announced on the eve of a toy show that it was going to produce Pong for people to use with their TV sets at home, Bushnell found a buyer from Sears on his doorstep before the show opened. The buyer asked how many games Atari planned to manufacture that year, 1976. Bushnell replied 75,000. The buyer asked for and got an exclusive order for 150,000.
Pong is now in about 13 million American homes.
Bushnells's video computer system is far more sophisticated than Pong and has sold about 500,000 copies at a list price of $189.
"I see us as having built a record player and now it's up to our creative people to decide how many records there will be," Bushnell said. The "records" are small cartridges that plug into the computer system and sell for $19.95 each.
In Outlaw, two cowboy figures shoot at each other around a number of stationary or moving obstacles selected by the players. The gunshots sound like gunshots and when a cowboy is hit he sits down to the accompanionment of a Bronx cheer.
In Home Run, the pitcher pitches, the batter swings and the little video men race around the bases. There are 15 cartridges now and lots more to come, Bushnell said.
The enemy is boredom. At Atari, Bushnell and his associates play their games almost daily. "The day you go to lunch without playing a game to decide who pays," Bushnell said, "you know that game has lost your interest." If it happens for a couple of months, Bushnell figures he has a winner.
Bushnell has an 1,800 chess rating, which is a class player, but far short fo a master. His favorite nonvideo game is Go, in which he is a shodan, not a bad rating for a non-Japanese. He plays Pinball (Atari is launching a Pinball line) and video games in his gameroom in his SanFrancisco home. He doesn't lose his lunch money very often.
Bushnell has heard the speculation that videogames may account for some of the recent decline in television watching by Americans.
"I feel that with the types of programing available to the public, I'm doing a wothwhile service," he says, grinning.
Appropriately enough for a successful games player, Bushnell does not lack confidence that he can handle any kind of competition. "We understand the animal that we're playing with - the leisure time of the American people - and we'll win," he said.