Interview with Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell 'No Acid Was Ever Used at Atari'

Nolan Bushnell installed the first "Pong" machine 35 years ago. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, the founder of Atari reminisces about assembly-line smokeouts, a certain co-worker named Steve Jobs -- and reveals what he hates about the industry he spawned.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: When was the last time you were stoned?

Nolan Bushnell: Oh boy. That was probably 1977. I wasn't a big user anyway, it was just parties.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There are legends about people in the Atari assembly lines in the beginning, when you sold the first Pong machines, smoking joints. Are they true, or not?

Bushnell: Actually not. We had rock music in the assembly line. But we didn't allow any drug use while people were working. People probably violated that on occasion. But it was not part of the corporate culture. The ethic of Atari was "work hard and play hard -- and keep them very separate." The reason we became known as something of a party company was that we had a very young work force. People preferred having a big party to having bonuses. So if they hit quotas, they would have a beer bash that was paid for by the company.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about the rumors of board meetings conducted on LSD? The video game historian Steven Kent mentions that in his "Ultimate History of Video Games."

Bushnell: Not true. To my knowledge, no acid was ever used at Atari. Steven Kent is a great guy. But he tries to sell books any way he can.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Today the video game industry is a multi-billion dollar business, with a lot of suits and ties involved. Do you think making video games has lost some of the fun in the last 35 years?

Bushnell: A lot of the games now are very corporate and almost production-line-ish. But many of the little studios are still great places to work, the 12-man or 20-man shops. The big companies -- working there is like being a production worker at General Motors.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're still following the business?

Bushnell: I'm right in the middle! But I always try to do something nobody else has done. And that's a different space than Electronic Arts doing "Madden Football 243."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Was the beginning of Atari the birth of the video game industry?

Bushnell: Absolutely.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What about Ralph Baer, what about the Magnavox Odyssey, the first gaming console for the living room that was sold before the first Pong machine was ever installed?

Bushnell: Atari was in the business long before the Magnavox came out. We did "Computer Space" before Magnavox. Atari had success after success, and Magnavox had one analog game that wasn't very well received. It just wasn't fun. Ralph Baer likes to think he invented Pong, but he invented Magnavox, which is a totally different game.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Well, he did get a presidential medal for his "groundbreaking and pioneering creation, development and commercialization of interactive video games." But then you were way more successful financially. When Baer was here in Germany last year, he said he still goes down to his basement every day to solder stuff and invent things. Is that the same with you?

Bushnell: Not really. I'm a different guy. I think in terms of businesses, in terms of things that are really big and marry technology with entertainment. That's where I like to spend my time, and I try to make sure there's a business case for it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why did you leave Atari, the company you had created, in the successful year of 1977?

Bushnell: Atari management under Warner was increasingly stifling. I had Chuck E. Cheese going at the same time and just decided I was an entrepreneur and not a corporate guy. Atari had changed from an engineering-driven company to a marketing-driven company. Innovation wilted and died -- and they failed.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Chuck E. Cheese is a restaurant chain that combines pizza with video games ...

Bushnell: I was creating entertainment -- the pizza parlor was just the delivery mechanism. The restaurant part was all done by my people. I focused on the fun stuff.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you sometimes look back and think you should have stuck with the gaming industry?

Bushnell: I definitely regret selling Atari. I thought Warner was going to be a helpful, not destructive force for video game development. I was wrong.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Warner, and Hollywood in general, theoretically were perfectly set up to advance video games as a medium -- but to this day, they haven't managed that. Why do you think that is?

Bushnell: Because the studios are not built on the ability to understand and keep abreast of technology. They are based on images and storytelling. The game business is always pushing the edge of technology. And the studios aren't good at that.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Steve Jobs used to work for Atari.

Bushnell: Yes, he was in the engineering section. He did Breakout, one of my favorite games. I had the original concept, and he did the execution of it, together with Steve Wozniak. I still meet them once in a while, but we usually don't talk about the past, but the projects we're working on now.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you proud of what the game industry has become?

Bushnell: There are parts of the industry that I don't like. The obsession with violence is something that I'd prefer not to have as much of. The social games that I'm doing are preferable to me. I think "Grand Theft Auto" is a horrible game. It's as close to pornography for the game business as you can get. It's a race to the bottom on some occasions. But there are also some bright signs, educational and fun games that are fascinating and make you think.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So you still play games today?

Bushnell: Right now I'm playing more Wii than any of the others. I can get a few licks on "Guitar Hero," and I'm actually not bad at "Dance Dance Revolution." I also tried "Halo," but I get whacked so quickly that it's no fun. You have to understand that I've got five sons and three daughters, so I have to keep them all happy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You're not worried that they might become violent or addicted to games?

Bushnell: I have to use a certain amount of limitation. My 13-year-old would play games morning, noon and night if I allowed him. You have to draw a line somewhere. You have to at least get out of your pajamas and go outside once in a while.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What are you working on right now?

Bushnell: A series of restaurants called uWink, that have touchscreen-ordering at the tables. All the walls are media. There are games that are created for groups and can be played restaurant-to-restaurant. It is a media-centric restaurant. It's got rave reviews, we're knocking it out of the park and we're expanding -- and we hope there will be one in Germany sometime soon.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see yourself retiring at some point?

Bushnell: I'm going to work till I drop. This isn't work, this is fun. It's my play. And I hope to be playing for about another hundred years.

Interview conducted by Christian Stöcker

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