One of the first computer games ever created was made in 1962 by MIT student Steve Russel. Spacewar became a huge hit and soon began appearing on mainframe computers across the country. One school that had Spacewar was the University of Utah and the game quickly caught the eye of a young engineering major named Nolan Bushnell. During the summer, Bushnell worked at a Salt Lake City amusement park and got the idea that people on the midway might want to play computer games too.
Nolan Bushnell was born on February 5, 1943 in Clearfield, Utah. After he received a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Utah, he went on to Stanford University as a graduate student. Bushnell then took a job with Ampex (the company that invented videotape) as a researcher in 1968. During the weekends, he worked in his home workshop with another Ampex researcher named Ted Dabney on trying to make an affordable arcade game of his own. In March of 1971, Nolan quit his job so he could finish the project. When it was completed, he sold it to Nutting Games, who built 1500 units and released it under the name Computer Space. The game ended up being a failure, it was deemed that the instructions and many buttons necessary to play the game made it too complex for a kid used to playing the relatively simple game of pinball.
Bushnell came to the conclusion that he needed to make a game that was so simple it needed almost no instructions. So in 1972, he and Ted Dabney formed their own company: Atari, named after a term in Bushnell’s favorite game, Go. The first game that came out of Atari was Pong. Bushnell went to Chicago to try and sell the game to executives at Bally, the leading manufacturer of pinball games. The company turned him down, in their minds nothing could ever replace pinball. So Bushnell took his only prototype and put it in a bar called Andy Capp's for a trial run. Two weeks later, the owner of the bar called to say that the machine was broken. It turned out that the milk carton used to catch the quarters had overflowed and jammed up the machine. The game was quickly put into mass production and was a huge hit.
In a portent of things to come in the games industry, Atari was sued for copyright infringement by Magnavox. Magnavox contended that Pong was just a copy of the Ping-Pong game that was released for the Magnavox Odyssey home game system. Atari lost the case, but only had to pay a small licensing fee.
Atari was then approached by a buyer from Sears who wanted to sell a home version of Pong. Sears would handle all the advertising and distribution as long as they received the exclusive rights to sell the game throughout 1975. Home Pong became one of the hottest games on the 1975 Christmas season and made Atari a hefty profit. Bushnell then began to work on a home videogame system that could play several different games, like the Magnavox Odyssey and the Fairchild Video Entertainment System. But in order to get enough cash to bring the system to market, he was forced to sell the company. Warner Communications stepped in and bought Atari for $28 million.
It was during the Warner acquisition that Bushnell got the idea for Pizza Time Theatre. Combining a pizza parlor and an arcade, he hoped to create a little kid paradise that would be good for families to go to. He also wanted a bunch of robotic animals that would play music and give the place an amusement park atmosphere. One of these robots was the infamous Chuck E. Cheese.
In October of 1977, Atari released the VCS (later renamed the 2600). Fueled by money from Warner Communications, the console completely controlled the 1977 holiday buying season. But soon after the release of the VCS, Bushnell became unhappy with the way that Warner was running Atari. In a foreshadowing of the dot-com days of the late 1990s, Bushnell and many of the programmers hated the way the new bosses cared only for dress codes and business. Back in the old days, Atari was about making fun games, but now it was only about making money for its parent company. Every board meeting turned into a shouting match between Bushnell and the new marketing executives sent in by Warner. By the end of 1978, Nolan Bushnell had arranged to have himself fired from the company he founded, keeping only his Pizza Time Theatre.
As a result of a non-competition clause in his contract with Atari, Bushnell was out of the videogames until October 1, 1983. On that date he announced the creation of Sente Technologies, a new company to create arcade games. Bushnell also became involved with a company called Androbot. Androbot’s first product was to be a peripheral for the Atari 2600 called Androman, a game playing robot much like Nintendo’s R.O.B. which would be released two years later. Androbot’s contract with Atari was cancelled before Androman was ever released. Sente Technologies was eventually killed due to the videogame crash of 1984.
In 1988 Bushnell started a new company called Axlon and hoped to work with Hasbro to create a console system that could compete with Nintendo. This new system, called Control-Vision, would use videotapes instead of cartridges. Axlon had developed a new compression scheme where 5 video tracks could be stored on one tape and switched between each other during gameplay. The system was never released because of the high cost of RAM would have made the console far too expensive. Two games were prepared for Control-Vision, Sewer Shark and the infamous Night Trap, both of which would later end up on the ill-fated Sega CD system.
Bushnell went on to work for Commodore’s new Interactive Consumer Products Division. He helped to develop the Commodore Dynamic Total Vision (CDTV) system, which was introduced in 1991. The CDTV was a multimedia device much like the Phillips CD-I. The high retail price of $1000 and a nonexistent advertising campaign doomed this product to failure.
In 1996, Nolan Bushnell hooked up with a company called Aristo International. Aristo developed a line of arcade sports machines called TeamNet in which four players at one location competed against other teams via the Internet. Shortly after Aristo went out of business, Bushnell was forced to declare bankruptcy and all of his assets were seized. The man who had invented arcade games had nothing to show for it.
Bushnell is currently the owner of uWink, a development company that makes arcade gamed that are hooked to the Web, connecting once a day to upload data, including player scores and credit card information, and download new games via a dial-up connection. In an attempt to recreate the magic of Pong many of the games strive to be simple, yet fun at the same time.
Phoenix: The Fall & Rise of Videogames by Leonard Herman