Will Wright interviews Nolan Bushnell

Will Wright interviews Nolan Bushnell

By Develop

March 23rd 2009 at 9:51AM

Nolan Bushnell is an industry legend, arguably founding the entire games industry. But when the opportunity arose to speak with new BAFTA Fellow, we didnâ??t just want to settle on a dull Q&A.

Instead, we thought it would be good to get another industry legend Will Wright, creator of The Sims and the first BAFTA Fellow, to interview his friend Nolan instead.

Here, the two talk about the early days of the games industry, inspirations, the effect games have on children, and even robots…

Will Wright:
Nolan, to start with I read that, as a kid, you built a liquid-powered rocket roller skate – and I can only imagine what other trouble you got into. So my first question is: were you a pain in the ass as a kid? Were your parents concerned about you? Or were they encouraging you?

Nolan Bushnell:
It was half and half. My dad was constantly encouraging me and my mother thought that I was crazy. But later on, after my dad died, my mom became very supportive. So I think they might have been ‘good cop, bad cop’-ing me the whole time.

That was their masterplan. OK, second question: You and I both grew up in the age of the pinball machine and there is a lot of nostalgia about that, and I have a lot of friends who are really into collecting classic pinball machines and stuff like that. But I realise that, probably more than any one else on the planet, you are responsible for the death of pinball as an industry by pushing forward with video games. So… do you feel guilty about that?

NB: Absolutely! I loved pinball growing up – the fact that the art form, if you can call pinball play or designing that, no longer has resonance is… yeah, I am sad about that.

WW: Do you miss it?

NB: Yes I do. And I must confess I’ve always had a couple of pinball machines in my home and really have enjoyed some of the old classics, like Fireball.

WW: What was your favourite machine?

NB: There was one called Tempest that was an old Williams game which probably had the fastest playfield around. In fact it was so fast that they had trouble keeping the machines going as they just beat themselves to death.

WW: I remember as a kid in the early ‘70s, at some point I was in New Orleans airport and I came across this thing called Computer Space, your first arcade game. It looked like an alien object which someone had dropped into the middle of the airport. A sleek fibreglass machine and all-electronic display. It was pretty much the first electronic game I had ever encountered in my entire life. And it pre-dated Pong, which I know was your more critical success. My question is: when you were making these things, did you have any inkling that this was a historic shift in mass entertainment? Or from your point of view were these weird experiment sorta ‘let’s try these out and see how they do’? Did you realise how significant these things were?

NB: The simple answer is that I didn’t realise the magnitude. I thought that this was going to be an important event and I felt it was going to be pretty big because it was really… I had so much fun and everyone I knew had so much fun playing computers on big mainframes – y’know, in the middle of the night when you could get computer time – that I just knew it had a resonant component to it.

So I always looked at myself as the guy who was going to make it cost-effective. It’s funny, I really felt that instead of a million dollar mainframe I was dropping the cost so anyone could do it. It was obvious to me that if the cost was right everybody would do it.

WW: And that’s a pretty significant drop in price – going from the mainframes down…

NB: Well, I actually started out thinking it was going to be a microcomputer connected to multiple terminals. And that was the design direction I had started going down. It wasn't until later that I realised that I could make a standalone unit. The early computer games – Computer Space and Pong – they weren’t built with an architecture at all.

They were just really great signal generators, just because you couldn’t… well, first of all the microprocessor hadn’t been invented yet! And the chips just didn't want to go fast enough to refresh at video rates and so we had to do all kinds of tricks to get the thing to work.

WW: In many respects it’s amazing they appeared when they did – it seems like
they came out ten years earlier than they should have.

NB: Yeah, the first microprocessor game was Asteroids and that was in ’77. And so I felt that my contribution was really to make the video game happen maybe six or seven years earlier.

WW: So you founded Atari, and later on another company Sente – both names are phrases from the board game Go, which you famously love. When did you first play Go? How long did it take you to realise how cool it was – in a game design sense?

NB: I was killing time in the stacks at the university and I came across this book called Go. And I started reading about the game and it became very fascinating to me. Of course, there was no internet play and I was at university at the time. It was just before Christmas and I was talking to my wife and said: ‘This sounds like a really interesting game, I’d like to get it’. She actually found one somewhere in Salt Lake City, believe it or not, and I started playing it with my friends. And not having a clue about what the game was, but falling in love with it.

WW: Were you teaching your friends how to play it?

NB: Yes. And then when I moved to California I found out there was a Go club in San Francisco, and that was the first time I actually played with people who knew what they were doing and really fell in love it. I fell in love with it as a game the minute I started really playing it.

WW: Yeah, I think it is the ultimate game in terms of simplicity of design versus strategy.

NB: Exactly. Minimum rules, maximum complexity.

WW: So, the Atari 2600 is considered the pre-eminent home game machine, and I don’t even know how many titles were originally published on it – but of all the games on the 2600 did any stand out to you as your favourite? Or did any stand out as what this machine was built for?

You know, even thought Atari didn’t build it, I thought the game of Pitfall was a very, very good adaptation. The other one I remember was that we had a chess game on it that had very good AI in it for the time, and when I consider how really clunky the computer was, and we had 128 bytes of memory on the thing – not Kbytes, but bytes: 128 – it seems like that wasn’t enough to display the pieces.

WW: Wow. That is a challenge.

NB: Yeah. And we had already made so many compromises on the 2600 to get the cost down that I felt that the machine would only last a maximum of three years and that we’d soon have to upgrade it a bit. Because the memory and user memory was so key to it all but the cost was falling by half every year – so the decisions you made for one year were completely wrong for the following year.

There’s a funny analogy with the first planetary probes that NASA sent out, which had minimal hardware – and the times they had to reprogram they had to try all these tricks to keep the things running. It’s what you can do in terms of software on limited hardware is what is amazing.

NB: Yeah, and when we were designing the 2600 we were thinking they could make… well, it would be good enough for just 20 games. And what you say is completely true about hardware – it was the brilliance of the software. I think there were ultimately thousands of the cartridges developed for the 2600 over its life.

WW: In addition to game systems, you have also been involved in a lot of very interesting robotic toys. Of those, which do you think was your favourite?

NB: Robodog. It never made it to market but it was a robotic tin-looking dog. It was actually plastic, but it looked like it was made out of tin. And it would play a series of games with you that were really fun and it had a speech synthesiser chip and a pretty good little processor. We put in a game that was actually a lot of fun, called ‘Hunt the Wumpuss’. The dog would spin around and say ‘I smell a wumpuss’, and ‘The wumpuss is eight feet in front of you’.

The objective of the game was then to go and jump on the wumpuss eight feet in front of the dog – it was totally imaginary, but if you didn’t do it the dog would turn and say ‘The wumpuss ran away and is now two feet behind me’. It was so much damn fun – you’d play it for fifteen minutes and would be exhausted, but a good person could step on about 20 wumpusses in a game session.

WW: That’s brilliant. It sounds like one of those games that’s fun because it’s fun to watch people play it.

NB: Absolutely. Get a bunch of kids, and its great fun to watch. Get some adults and – especially after a couple of glasses of wine – it’s just hilarious.

WW: Rather dangerous I imagine! So as well as toys and games, you also started restaurant chains Chuck-E-Cheese and more recently your new venture Uwink. A lot of people, they tend to take their success and use that to fund world domination or other productive enterprises. For you it seems like it’s restaurants. What’s the deal? Why are you fascinated with restaurants?

NB: It’s actually my fascination with people at play. It turns out restaurants are a good environment for having public play. I used to say at Chuck-E-Cheese that the pizza was the life support system for the game arcade. Uwink is really about creating a party or a festival or a banquet. Throughout history, , when they play – whether it is sports or a get together for a festival celebrating either Easter the Harvest or whatever – there is a food element. So I thought it would be important to have some places where you can choose to go, and there is a party going on all the time. That is what Uwink is all about. And that’s what Chuck-E-Cheese was all about.

I visited Uwink down near the Kodak Theatre recently – I really enjoyed it.

NB: Well it, like so many other things, it has so many extra things we can do, and we’ll kind of grow into our own skin a little bit. But I’m happy with the early results.

WW: In your career so far, in all the things you’ve launched, what are the things you are most proud of personally?

NB: My kids. I’m really proud of them, now that they are coming adults; the mature people they are turning out to be. I must admit that’s mostly my wife’s responsibility, but I am very proud.

WW: You have quite a few kids, right?

NB: Yeah, I have eight. From a technical standpoint I am proud that I made the video game happen faster, and Chuck-E-Cheese… I dunno, I always tell people I am most excited or proud of what I’m currently working on. And right now I’m working on a whole bunch of things.

WW: On a related note, there is an old saying in autoracing that if you don’t crash every tenth race then you aren’t going fast enough. And I think the same is true of technology and entrepreneurship – unless you have a number of failures or risks you aren’t pushing the envelope. You’ve had numerous successes, and like anyone a few failures. So which of the failures were the most noble? Where did you take a risk that was a good proposition but didn’t really work out?

NB: I’m not sure I would class it as a noble experiment, but I think my ‘Andy bot’ programmable robot – it was frustrating more than anything. I was 100 per cent convinced the market was ready for it, but I misjudged the technological difficulty. It was the only company I have ever had in which the technology just wouldn’t yield to me.

WW: You couldn’t get it to work?

NB: Yeah, and the money… in the mid-‘80s the technology of robots just didn’t want to work. We didn’t have the necessary multitasking software, didn't have a lot of sensors at the price we wanted it to be. It was too big a prospect. It was probably my biggest failure and the most painful – and yet at the same time I think that… well, I just can’t envision a future in which we don’t have little guys running around doing stuff for us.

But 25 years later, it’s still hard to do. It’s amazing you were attempting it back then with the simpler technology we had then.

NB: Yeah… no, it was foolish!

WW: In terms of the future what are your thoughts? I ask because especially nowadays we face more and uncertainty, and at the moment there are people who are falling clearly into one camp or the other – even over the short term, the next 20 years or so, people speculate about issues financially, environmentally or socially. Would you say you are an optimist or a pessimist about the future?

NB: Definitely an optimist. I think we will constantly solve problems in an interesting way. I tend to be very sceptical about government’s ability to help us – but I think man will try and figure out its ways in spite of government.

So you are very much a libertarian. Well, that’s the end of my prepared questions.

NB: Hmm. I don't know what else we should talk about.

WW: It’s weird, I’ve done so many interviews, but never had the chance to be the one asking the questions.

NB: Well, much in the way you’ve been asking me about my career – I’ve been a great fan of yours. I’ve been an aficionado of The Sims since… well, forever. I always rate you as one of the best game guys.

WW: Well, I don't think any of us would have had a chance without your work.

NB: I think that we all, in working on the video game as an entity – all developers really enjoy the fact that they haven’t had to get a real job!

WW: Yes, that’s very true. I’ve only just recently convinced my mother that I’m doing something worthwhile. It took her a while to get it. It’s a generational thing. I guess you see that in your kids – because you and I grew up with these things as we were young adults, but you see kids grow up with these things, they have a resonance with games. But I work with these things every day, but don’t have the resonance that I see my daughter or young kids have with games.

Yeah, and it turns out that that is one of the things I actually have a bit of a concern about. Video games in some ways are too powerful, they have too much resonance with kids. And it’s very easy to overdose on video games and to let the outside world go by. I am constantly trying to limit my kids’ video game play. Which kind of seems funny coming from me! [laughs]

WW: Completely. You have two roles – one as a parent, and one in the games industry. And you see how captivating games are – you realise that we have discovered this circuit in their brain and we are kind of exploring and exploiting more and more effectively…

NB: …taps into an endorphin pouch or something.

WW: Right, yeah – and it’s a combination of pixels moving on the screen, they can capture your vision, and we have all these virtual worlds we are trying to deconstruct. It’s amazing how complicated these games are, and even a seven year old can get into these systems and engage with them and reverse engineer what is under the hood so quickly. That part I think is going to serve them well going forward in a technological future, where they need to deal with difficult systems and need to figure out the gestalt of a system very rapidly.

NB: Yeah, I remember my four year old son once saying ‘I could understand this game a lot better if I could read!’ [laughing] He was only four or five at the time.

WW: It proves that games can be a great motivator – I know people that have learned Japanese just because they liked playing import Japanese games; they learned katakana from reading the interfaces.

NB: Exactly. I can remember bringing home a Nintendo one time and the kids had most fun trying to intuit what everything meant.

WW: Right. You try doubly hard when something is in another language – it’s another system on top of it.

NB: It just goes to show what a great medium we have built and which others are evolving.