Mischievous making: The madcap design process of Nolan Bushnell

Mischievous making: The madcap design process of Nolan Bushnell
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

September 20th 2016 at 1:00PM

When Nolan Bushnell summons Spil’s staff to a games design meeting, things are sure to get interesting. Will Freeman listens in on an industry legend fostering creativity through tomfoolery

Nolan Bushnell is sat at a large conference table with a beaming grin.

Around him, nothing particularly stands out that could justify such a delighted smile. He and a handful of staff from Dutch publisher Spil Games have only just entered the room. It is early in the morning, a couple of coffees have been poured, and a wipe board has had any evidence of the previous evening’s meeting erased from its surface. Nothing unusual so far.

As everyone else sits down, Bushnell’s smile only widens. It isn’t just due to the coffee before him. And it can’t be that a meeting-standard plate of pastries so easily delights him either. Something else is going on.

Bushnell is clearly looking forward to what is coming next: a game design meeting, where a basic concept he conceived in the early 1990s is to be fleshed out a as starting point for a new Spil mobile title.

Bushnell, famously, is the co-founder of Atari, the man who commissioned Pong and one of the games industry’s earliest entrepreneurs.

He has partnered with Spil Games to turn his hand to making mobile games, which brings him to the dev’s breezy converted factory building in the town of Hilversum, not far from Amsterdam.

Silly is often the path to extreme creativity, since it probably breaks more rules than the serious idea.

The game that has prompted the design meeting is Bloxx, a puzzler that – for the day’s opening few hours, at least – is described by a grid of hastily sketched lines and various scribbles.

Sat in the meeting, it’s immediately obvious how laid-back things are with Bushnell at the helm. He is certainly in charge here, conducting conversation by waving three marker pens clutched in a single fist, but the creative hierarchy is clearly very flat, and the organisational framework is apparently bare bones to the extreme. There are no agendas to pass around or schedules to follow. 

“What have we got?” Bushnell asks Spil Games’ junior product manager Nicola Mizon, junior game designer Kayleigh Mizon and VP of content Franz Stradal.

Immediately ideas are thrown forth. The tone is calm, but talking through the design of what Bloxx might become is a conversation prone to wild changes in direction, and Bushnell appears to be keen to see that happen.

Structure and hierarchy, it would seem, are not prime concerns.

“Hierarchy kills creativity,” Bushnell later confirms. “If everyone feels respected and part of a group, they are more likely to voice an opinion. That creates the very best outcome. I try to always create the atmosphere of mutual respect and to value all opinions, to glean a best approach to any problem.”

Respect certainly abounds in the room, and Bushnell is careful to give everyone a voice – including those there purely to observe. Creativity is something he seems keen to squeeze from all around him.

 

SERIOUSLY SILLY

A tone of mischief is also near tangible, buoyed up by digressions into silliness and a consistent spirit of playfulness. There is work being done, and ideas for theme and mechanics come at a striking rate. But, equally, there is a sense that at any moment proceedings could tumble into the absurd.

At one point, Bushnell is reminded of a Dr. Seuss song by a colleague’s suggestion for the game. Delivering a few lines, however, isn’t enough, as he belts out the song in its entirety, before finishing with a satisfied sigh. That grin is back, and he’s ready to go again.

“Now, where were we?” he asks.

It turns out, though, that the songs and jokes aren’t a trivial part of this process. Silliness is a serious business for this veteran of play.

“By its nature the creative process is a bit anarchist, and humour and fun are part of that,” Bushnell insists. “Humour is a way to add silly to the dialogue.  Silly is often the path to extreme creativity, since it probably breaks more rules than the serious idea. Yes, I try to inject humour as often as possible.”

If everyone feels respected and part of a group, they are more likely to voice an opinion. That creates the very best outcome. I try to always create the atmosphere of mutual respect.

 

While he may be confident in his role as a maestro of daftness, Bushnell will actually tell you he is not a game designer, at least by any strict definition. As the idea of what Bloxx can be develops, he absolutely provides inputs at a meticulous level and thrives getting into the finer details of how the game will work mechanically.

Yet, he does predominantly play the conductor role, seemingly guiding other’s ideas more frequently than he tosses his own into the ring.

“It is both a continuation of the Atari process, and a refinement,” he says. “Over the years, I have found common threads that separate creative companies from those that are simply evolutionary, or stuck in their past.

“Big companies reject silly because they think they are way too cool. That limits their outcomes and you end up like Apple, stuck in the bigger – littler – faster, better mindset that is the track to the banal.“

Evidently, Bushnell’s playful demeanour has a sincere role to play far beyond the walls of a games design meeting.

When it comes to refining concepts for mobile games, however, his influence and impact is unambiguous. Or, it would be – except that he insists he isn’t a designer.

“My skills have always been matching available technology to the marketplace,” Bushnell offers by way of clarification. “Today, there are games and games and games. Without a marketing hook or a way to help the game monetise, your time is wasted. So today, success requires [you] to think not just about gameplay – which has to be spectacular – but how it fits in the market and the platforms. I advise all game designers to not start a game unless they have the marketing hook developed.”

That insight might get to the crux of it, and throw the light on something that Bushnell offered to a fledgling Atari as much as he offers to Spil. It’s a little obvious considering his history, but Bushnell is a game entrepreneur. Games are his means to succeed, and game design is the method. The design process is something he can guide and inform, but he is not a game designer per se; he is perhaps better described as somebody who helps games design to thrive.

 

NOLAN’S CHOICE

For all this talk of what Bushnell brings to Spil’s conference table, it is easy to forget that it wasn’t just that Spil chose the Atari icon; Bushnell equally selected Spil. The publisher has been making games for over a decade, but compared to Bushnell’s 40-plus years in the industry, it is a youthful upstart. So what did Bushnell see in Spil, when most mobile developers across the world would throw open their doors to him and delight in a single insight?

“I particularly like the level of talent at Spil,” Bushnell offers simply. “I also like the level of passion and excitement that the people at Spil evidence. The team has a diversity of skills and understanding that many other companies lack.

“For example, in a very heavily male-dominated world, the fact that we have two capable women working on these projects is a breath of fresh air,” he says. “In the mobile and casual game market, having a female perspective is very important. There is also a very egalitarian feeling between employees and management that is refreshing.”

Without a marketing hook or a way to help the game monetise, your time is wasted. Think not just about gameplay – which has to be spectacular – but how it fits in the market and the platforms. I advise all game designers to not start a game unless they have the marketing hook developed.

The design meeting, which is drawing to a close, has certainly been an egalitarian process. Those few lines of marker pen that first presented what Bloxx is on a fundamental level are now covered in layers of sketches and annotations, each depicting inputs from everybody gathered for the meeting.

Things draw to a close as casually as they kicked off, with Bushnell suggesting to everyone that it’s time to wrap up. It’s not that a certain time has come, or that a particular goal has been met; rather, he seems to sense that the flow of the meeting has come to a natural end.

As some of the Spil team write up the notes, or stare at the wipe board deep in thought, Bushnell dashes off, still talking enthusiastically as he passes through the door to order a cab. There’s brief mention of another meeting.

What that meeting will be about isn’t quite clear, but it’s obvious he’s a busy man. And if there’s anything we can predict about his next session at a conference table, it is that he will start by sitting down with that beaming grin. 

And – if it’s needed to keep things on track – he may burst into song.