Bill Gates was, Nolan Bushnell was. At the 2003 Classic
Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, the room had the atmosphere
of a meeting with the President. A very special man
was about to enter the conference room. A crowd was
already gathering during a small, cozy conference
right before with the Atari 800 programmer of Parker
Brothers' famous arcade conversion "Frogger"
so they would have a front row seat, unknown to the
Atari programmer that the follow up act was the grandest
of them all.
Bushnell hamming it up at CGE2K3
Nolan Bushnell entered the jammed to capacity room
wearing a white shirt, jeans, a baseball cap, and
glasses. A very jovial man, he took a seat at the
conference table, took off his glasses to allow the
crowd of adoring admirers to photograph his picture.
In a way he sort of resembled Santa Claus: The man
who created the gift that all children around the
U.S. wanted in the late 1970s through 1980s.
Videogame historian, Leonard Herman (author of Phoenix:
The Fall and Rise of Videogames) introduced Mr. Bushnell
as the "Man who needed no Introduction"
and that "None of us would be here (CGExpo 2003)
without him." Almost instantly, the room erupted
with applause showering Nolan with our appreciation
and gratitude for all he has done for our industry.
We were on our feet!
The conference was very informal. Mr. Bushnell was
allowed to speak about whatever subject he wanted
and he even interacted with the crowd by allowing
the crowd to vote on a variety of subjects he would
be willing to discuss (the Atari hot tub was one of
them although the crowd didn't bite). In the end,
the crowd wanted a walk down memory lane. Much like
the reason why they came to the CGExpo: To relive
the golden age of videogames.
Mr. Bushnell told (probably for the millionth time)
familiar stories of how he started Atari, the struggle
and the fun that went along with building the world's
first successful videogame company. Although many
of us were familiar with these early days tales, to
hear it directly from Nolan himself was like sitting
with our Grandfather around the kitchen table as he
told us about how the good old days use to be.
Along the way, Bushnell joked that he hired his first
employees only because they were "cheap."
Commented that he learned a moral lesson why you don't
hire pot or drug addicts for your assembly crew (because
they'll steal the equipment and pawn it for drugs
of course!). He even gave some business advice to
beginning business owners telling them that he hired
college students because he could always pay them
with beer! He even reflected on how he got a famous,
former Atari employee (who shall remain nameless but
would go on to create Apple Computers) to program
the hit Atari game "Breakout" recalling
how this employee had a strong devotion to trying
to be enlightened. So strong was this former Atari
employee to the enlightened way that he convinced
Nolan to fly him to India (only after Bushnell insisted
he fly to Atari Germany first to resolve some Atari
business matters) only to have a near death experience
that Nolan can only conclude helped "enlightened"
him to fly back to the States to start Apple.
The big subject of the conference was when Bushnell
addressed the long standing controversy about whether
or not he was aware of Pong before Atari came up with
the idea. Bushnell conceded that he may've seen Pong
before but that he didn't remember nor did it matter
because Atari's Pong had a completely different set
of algorithms that really made the difference in Pong's
success compared to all the wannabes. He tested his
product by having a party in his living room and couldn't
get anyone out of there. He thought that if a Pong
machine made ten dollars a day it would be in great
shape to make a profit. In the end, an Atari Pong
machine brought in over thirty dollars a day. After
30 years, the Pong controversy was finally laid to
rest. You simply can't argue with the results.
A lighter moment was when Bushnell commented on the
California economy saying that California is a mess
and joking that no videogame can pull California out
of it (a reference to the days Atari employed thousands
and single-handedly created Silicon Valley). When
asked by the crowd if he thought about running for
Governor of California; Bushnell told the story of
how he almost ran for Congress going as far as even
creating a Nolan Bushnell PAC only to decide against
it. He made the observation that our politicians are
the best money can buy.
Were there any regrets for Nolan and his days at Atari?
Nolan stated that he regretted not seeing AtariTel
(Atari's answer to AT&T telephones) and Atari
Industrial Light & Magic (a special effects division
for motion pictures) to light.
How about his thoughts about the ways his predecessors
all helped ran Atari into the ground? Bushnell, a
class act, only had to say that he left Atari in good
shape and that it was great to still see the Atari
brand name survive today. He (unlike many others in
the videogame and computer industry) had some nice
words to say about the Tramiel family (Atari's owners
before the ill-reverse merger with JTS) saying that
the Tramiels always treated him right.
After the conference, Bushnell hung around to take
pictures, sign autographs and to mingle with the crowd.
Almost everyone stayed to say their hellos and to
say their thank you to Mr. Bushnell. As I walked up
to him, it felt like I was seeing a member of the
family. For years his products had a place in my family's
home and his products helped shape America by introducing
a technology that many Americans would've been afraid
of had it not been for him.
In the end, he showed us how much fun the new technological
age was going to be and we welcomed it into our homes.
Nolan Bushnell hangin' out with
GDG President Michael Thomasson