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A Game Creator Updates the '70s

* Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's latest venture is UWink, which has brought back the type of coin-operated arcade machines that emerged three decades ago. They now have a modern twist via updates through the Internet.

September 27, 2001|ALEX PHAM |

Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari Corp. in 1972 and sparked a video game revolution, is back where he started: in the world of coin-operated game machines.

Bushnell, 58, has created UWink Inc., a Playa del Rey company that makes and distributes game machines in restaurants, cafes, hotels and bars.

There's one big difference: UWink machines, unlike Atari arcade games, 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 the future, Bushnell sees them perpetually connected via broadband so gamers across the country can play one another in real time.

UWink games are similar to "Pong," Atari's simple yet addictive arcade game from the 1970s. They are either beat-the-clock puzzles or trivia games that deliver short bursts of game play.

From Bushnell's 30-year vantage point in the video game industry, not much has changed about how people play games. They still enjoy games that are "simple to learn but impossible to master." That was the formula he used in building Atari, a company that employed Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the pair who went on to found Apple Computer Inc.

Bushnell, who also has started 20 other businesses, including Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theaters, talked recently about the state of today's game industry and its online prospects.

Q: What was the first game you created?

It was a game called "Computer Space" in 1971. I designed it but licensed it to another company. "Pong" came after that in the spring of 1972.

Q: Legend has it that the first "Pong" arcade quit working after a few days because it was so jammed with quarters.

That's true. It took about two days. It was absolutely electric. I'd actually talk to the guys who installed the machine and said, "If we can do $5 a day, that's a good game. If it's $10 a day, it's a great game." It was doing $60, which had never happened before. It just blew my expectations off the hinges.

Q: What do you think was Atari's contribution to the game industry?

At the time, it was very hard to do things technically. We didn't do a square ball in "Pong" because we thought it was cool. We did it because that was all we could do. We found ways to make games fun. We also had a rule against violence. You could not shoot a human being. You could blow up a tank or an airplane, but never a person. We felt that was kind of an important rule. Atari never violated that until long after I sold the company. We found that when a game was nonviolent and not overly complex, it appealed to everyone.

Q: Give an example.

In the 1970s, 40% of our players were female. Remember, it was socially acceptable for women to challenge men on a game of "Pong." Women were very, very good at "Pong." It was part of the dating scene. The number of people who told me they met their wife or husband playing "Pong" was huge. They were shoulder to shoulder, talking and playing. It was body contact and verbal contact. And it was fun. Virtually no women play games in arcades today.

Q: What are you trying to do today with your new company, UWink Inc.?

We are basically trying to re-create the same demographic we had in the 1970s and 1980s. We're actually proving that the market is still there. We've put people who say they're not gamers in a room with our games, and pretty soon they're addicted. I've always thought legal addictions are a great way to create a business. Starbucks is a wonderful example.

Q: You're swimming against the tide. Most games today strive to be highly cinematic and chock-full of features.

You have different games for different people. When I am on an airplane, I like to take a walk up and down the aisles of a plane and check out what people are playing. It's solitaire. Not "Doom" or "Quake." On a recent flight to London, I noticed that more than half were playing some form of simple game like "Tetris."

Q: Now that you're involved in the world of online games, do you think mainstream America will want to play online games from their living room consoles?

Yes, absolutely. People like to compete with other people. There will be some element of competition. The online element for the PC clearly works. The Sega Dreamcast was online, but Sega never created a good community of players. You never felt like you were part of a community when you were playing. Whether Sony's PlayStation 2 or the Xbox from Microsoft does it right, I don't know. But the concept in general, properly executed, could be very successful. We plan to be helpful there. We have some very important content that will be well-tested in the public eye.

Q: How?

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