The adventures of King Pong

Nolan Bushnell, the quintessential screenager, ported table tennis to the television and launched a revolution in hand-eye coordination.

Topics: Video Games,

Video games. Big money in “professional” tournaments is won and lost because of them. Entire magazines are devoted to them. Kids in arcades boast about their mastery of them. Secret moves? Please. I was there at the beginning with a fistful of quarters. And the only secret move I ever learned was that if you rubbed your Pumas on the arcade carpet and touched your quarter to Breakout’s coin box just right you might hack yourself a free game.

This was the mid-1970s, when the Pinball Wizard was about to be struck with a bad case of Pac Man Fever and Nolan Bushnell was riding the video-game wave, figuratively and literally, on a 67-foot yacht named Pong. Nolan Bushnell was the quintessential screenager, the proto-gamer who ported table tennis to the television and launched a revolution in hand-eye coordination.

Growing up in the 1940s in the Mormon smallville of Clearfield, Utah, Bushnell had been a tinkerer since before his teens. Like the legions of Silicon Valley garage-scientists who would follow him, Bushnell enjoyed a bit of madness in his scientific method. Once, he nearly torched his family’s carport with a homemade rocket engine mounted on the back of a roller skate.

While studying engineering at the University of Utah, Bushnell divided his moonlight hours between a job working at an amusement park and playing Spacewar, an early computer game popular among pointy-head types with late-night access to massive university mainframes. That’s when the first light bulb popped in Bushnell’s Spacewar-inspired brain: incorporate a computer component into the analog amusement park’s midway. A good idea, but …

“When you divide 25 cents into an $8 million computer, there ain’t no way,” he realized before graduating in 1967 and relocating to California to work for an electronics company.

All the late nights Bushnell spent in an ad hoc research facility, formerly his daughter’s bedroom, led to Computer Space, a Spacewar-esque stand-alone video game produced by a small arcade-game manufacturer called Nutting Associates. The game bombed — the learning curve was too steep and the payoff too minimal to entice partyers in the bar environments Computer Space was designed for. Still not discouraged, Bushnell hired a young engineer named Al Alcorn and, as on-the-job training, asked him to build what would become a blockbuster.

“We were going to build a driving game,” Bushnell said in a 1983 Playboy interview. “But I thought it was too big a step for him to go from not knowing what a video game was to that. So I defined the simplest game I could think of, which was a tennis game, and told him how to build it. I thought it was going to be a throwaway, but when he got it up and running, it turned out to be a hell of a lot of fun.”

Nutting passed on the product, as did other game manufacturers, so Bushnell decided to go it alone. The name of his new company? Atari, a term from the Japanese game Go that loosely translates as “check.”

In November 1972, Pong was unleashed in the belly of the high-tech beast, a bar named Andy Capp’s in Silicon Valley. The boom was born and the dawn of the digital age was shining brightly on Bushnell. He built a rock-, beer- and pot-fueled corporate culture that attracted the brightest nerds in the valley, including Steve Wozniak, who would later be co-founder of Apple Computer. Atari finished fiscal 1973 with $3.2 million in sales, a sign of appreciation from a couch potato culture finally able to affect the image on a TV screen.

Other successful games followed and in 1975, the electronic entrepreneur set his sights on the American family. A $99 TV console version of Pong introduced the first joystick generation to “interactive” entertainment at home. By 1976 though, dozens of companies were fighting Atari for market share and Bushnell’s company was cash-starved.

“When you’re a little company, and you hear that National Semiconductor is going to build a game and that Magnavox is going to build a game, then all of a sudden you say, I’m this little tiny … do I have the resources?” Bushnell said in a recent interview. “You don’t realize at that time that big companies tend to be really screwed up, so that they’re sometimes really easier to beat than a good, well-tuned entrepreneurial operation … They just look like they can outspend you and throw millions of engineers at you, and it scares you.”

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Warner Communication signed a check for $28 million, and half went to Bushnell, who stayed on as chairman of Atari but became at odds with the powers that be. Quite simply, Bushnell said later, “I took my eye off the ball.” Depending on who tells the story, Bushnell either left or was forced out in 1978. In the years that followed, Atari skyrocketed with the 2600 home video console, but crashed in the early 1980s with the explosion of the personal computer market. Meanwhile, Bushnell was busy making pizza and ranting about robots.

When Bushnell left Atari, he took with him the idea for Chuck E. Cheese, the chain of Pizza Time Theater restaurants that combined fast food with high-technology and robot animals with affordable family dining. Animatronic Chuck E. Cheese himself, along with Mister Munch and Madame Oink, entertained the kids with cornball vaudeville while parents were still munching.

“We’re an entirely new entertainment phenomenon,” said Gene N. Landrum in 1978. Landrum was president and chief executive of Pizza Time and had been general manager of National Semiconductor Corp.’s consumer products division. “We compete with Marriot’s and Disney’s parks, but people can come here once a week instead of once a season.”

Under Bushnell’s ownership, 300 Chuck E. Cheese outlets sprouted across the country and gained $150 million in sales. But by 1984, competition — not to mention the bad reputation of the pizza itself and the loss of video games’ novelty power — led to tremendous losses, Bushnell’s subsequent departure and the bankruptcy of Pizza Time Theater Inc.

But the mechanized Chuck E. Cheese himself hinted at one of Bushnell’s next big ideas. (Of course, there were other “big ideas” along the way, including a computerized car navigation system eventually bought by Rupert Murdoch.) In 1982, Bushnell launched Androbot, a company that sold BOB (Brains on Board) and TOPO, two personal robots that fetched beers and managed other important household tasks.

“What will happen to all the dogs displaced by BOB?” Bushnell was asked in 1984.

“They’ll become curiosities, like old cars,” he responded.

Actually, it was BOB that became a dead-tech curiosity when Bushnell sold the faltering company in 1985.

“We were unable to hit the price point and the function that we wished at the same time,” Bushnell said. The Androbots were “too dumb and too big.”

Not to mention that the stubby plastic droids simply weren’t as cute as A.G. Bear, a plush plaything from Bushnell’s more successful post-Androbot venture, Axlon Inc. Without a doubt, A.G. Bear, which responded to a child’s sounds in imitative babble, and Axlon’s other offspring were the forefathers of the Furby.

While Axlon still exists as a royalty-collecting company, Bushnell has since refocused most of his efforts back on the virtual world. There was Octus, whose products enable computer-control of telephone services like voice mail and faxes, and, most recently, PlayNet, developers of networked interactive entertainment stations for bartops, which folded last year.

While it’s unlikely that Bushnell has exhausted his start-up spirit, these days he’s immersed in the role of gamedom guru for a generation of screenagers seeking their roots. He speaks about entrepreneurship, education and creative engineering to packed crowds at gaming conventions around the world, and holds court as commissioner of the Professional Gamers League.

And he’s still King Pong. Just ask Dennis “Thresh” Fong, the whippersnapper Quake champ who was schooled by Bushnell in a Pong playoff at last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. After all, there’s no secret to winning at Pong, other than following the directions: “Avoid missing ball for high score.”

David Pescovitz is an affiliate researcher at the Institute For The Future and the co-editor of BoingBoing.net. He is also the special projects editor for MAKE and the writer-in-residence for UC Berkeley's College of Engineering and the Berkeley Sciences.

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