Atari co-founder: mobile games make me want to throw my phone

The video game arcade is the cathedral of the games industry. Veteran players see these increasingly endangered places as shrines to design purity, difficulty and player skill, bathed in the glow of flickering monitors. They were, after all, the places where the conventions of the medium were forged, and their gradual disappearance has only served to make them more alluring.

Mobile gaming, meanwhile, receives a great deal less reverence, thanks in part to its vast popularity. Despite design masterpieces like Monument Valley, The Room and Hearthstone, smartphone titles are collectively seen as casual time-killers, lacking cultural clout. Term’s like “free-to-play” and “microtransaction” are used with derision, and viewed as evidence of capitalism muscling out creativity.

One industry veteran, however, sees arcades and mobile gaming as almost indistinct. He is Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of Atari, and the entrepreneur who commissioned Pong, kickstarting the global games business. Often referred to as the godfather of video games (a phrase he dislikes), he is just about to make his debut in mobile game development, having established a partnership with Dutch publisher Spil, where he will help deliver at least three as-yet-unnamed titles.

Nolan Bushnell commissioned the arcade classic Pong.

“When you look at mobile and arcade gaming, they’re identical,” Bushnell says. “Mobile has some of the same game constraints for the player, and that ‘easy to learn, and difficult to master’ metric.” This common phrase is, as it happens, known as “Bushnell’s law” – he first uttered it in 1971 while making his preliminary steps into the arcade business with seminal coin-op Computer Space.

‘Most games are missing fundamental game design’

Forty-five years later, his comparison of mobile and arcade sensibilities will be controversial, but they hold weight. Back in the games industry’s golden era, arcades were a mass market business, generating billion-dollar global revenues. Classics such as Pac-Man, Breakout and Donkey Kong were designed so that their play mechanisms were obvious from a glance, and the business model was built on microtransactions – the continual input of coins.

However, despite these similarities, Bushnell argues that mobile game design still has a lot to learn from the arcade forefathers of the 1970s, when the likes of the Apple pioneers Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were among Atari’s first employees. “Generally, a tremendous number of mobile games are poorly designed,” he says. “They can be so focused on graphics that they forget they have to get the timing right, and they have to have proper scoring constructs. I have been so pissed off with some mobile games I’ve wanted to throw my phone, even if I’m only going to hurt my phone there, and not the game.

“There are a lot of mobile games out there that just miss it; they miss what I’d call ‘hardcore fundamental game design’. At Atari we had to totally focus on that, because our graphics were so terrible, because the technology was so primitive by today’s standards.”

Bushnell concedes that games makers today have many more technological opportunities open to them. His role at Spil, he says, is to take Atari’s approach to gameplay design and furnish it with all the functionality of connected, online and social gaming. “There’s the network effect, that I always wanted to use in the early days of Atari, but we never really had those tools. I think there’s a virality to player-v-player, particularly if you do it asynchronously, and that’s powerful.”

‘Sharing your mistakes is the biggest gift’

Competitive social gaming seems to be a key focus for Bushnell, who apparently always has no less than 12 games of chess underway at any time, playing with friends across the world. He believes mobile milestones like Words With Friends have only scratched the surface of what is possible with connected, asynchronous gameplay, giving a hint at what may be under way at Spil. Ultimately, though, Bushnell’s plans for mobile remain something of a mystery.

“I can’t help but design games, so at Spil I’ll be a producer and a designer in a way, but I think I also want to be an advisor,” he says, referring to the notepads filled with ideas that he’s kept throughout his adult life. “My success with these games will be interwoven into the success of the company itself. I feel like I’ve made all the mistakes in the world, and I feel that sharing your mistakes is probably the biggest gift you can give someone.”

He is quick to reveal what he sees as his biggest error; one in which $28m change hands as it played out. “I made a mistake by selling Atari to Warner,” he says. “They basically crashed my baby, which is always kind of a problem. But I was faced with a situation where I needed a tremendous amount of capital to launch the Atari VCS. It was a big project; in fact, it was probably a bit of an overreach.

“My plan was to take the company public, but the market just sort of hiccupped at the time. And then Christmas was coming, and I knew I didn’t have enough money for a proper launch, so I ended up selling to a company that was willing to put a whole bunch of money into it, which they did. But what I didn’t realise was that they basically thought like a record company.”

The Atari 2600 console. Photograph: Alamy

The misjudgement at Warner, Bushnell posits, was down to a fundamental misunderstanding of games consoles and their relation to the medium. “If you really look at the failure in 1983 of Atari, it was because they didn’t launch a new platform in 1981,” he says. “They tried to push their old 2600. When we designed that machine, memory was very expensive. By the time we actually launched it, memory expense had dropped, so you’d get 100 times as many bytes at the same cost.

“In a video game, memory gives you so much flexibility. For example, it’s the difference between quarter-inch pixels and tiny pixels that give you graphics that are wonderful.”

‘Silicon Valley culture came from Atari’

Today, Bushnell hopes to take everything he learned at Atari, and bring it to Spil. It’s quite a coup for the Dutch publisher – which established its name in a previous guise as a browser gaming portal and is now one of the biggest players in the mobile games market.

“At Atari I was always the CEO, but at the same time, I continued to dabble as sort of a senior producer,” Bushnell says. “For example, Breakout was one of the ones that I kept trying to talk my guys into. They didn’t want to do it, because they thought ball and paddle games were over. And that’s why I got Jobs and Wozniak to do it for me, those nights at Atari.

“I had a big hand in Asteroids, a big hand in Tempest, and a big hand in several others. In a proper company, you really want to have a system where everyone thinks that they created the game, because you really want everyone to have ownership. And in fact, that can be real, because sometimes the nuance suggested by one person on the team is the difference between a successful game and a horrible game.”

The Atari co-founder may, of course, bring more than game design and production insight to Spil. He was the driving force behind Atari’s infamously irreverent company culture, which Bushnell believes still serves as a model to the vast tech firms now populating Silicon Valley. He says the playful spirit that seethed through Atari’s veins in the early 1970s was far from incidental.

“I thought it was important because San Francisco was sort of the nexus of the hippie movement in the late 1960s,” he says. “Part of the ethos or mindset of that movement was about changing the system for the better.That, and not trusting anyone over 30.

“At Atari we wanted to use that idea to create a perfect meritocracy. A meritocracy is really focused on outcomes, and not process. So the children of meritocracy say ‘we don’t care when you show up. If you want to go to work at noon and stop at eight o’clock, that’s your business’. That’s being outcome-focused. If people wanted to come in a swimming suit, or naked, that’s fine.”

Before Atari, software engineering was considered a highly professional career – white collar even – which meant coders wore a tie and a sensible haircut. “Atari was able to change that corporate culture a great deal,” says Bushnell. “When Steve Jobs – who worked for me – left, he took that ethos to Apple. Everybody else who worked in Silicon Valley back then looked at these two fastest growing companies, and started to think maybe our culture was important. So they started copying it, and now, today, anybody in technology can go to work looking like shit. That’s one legacy.”

Turning up naked may not quite become the norm at Spil, of course, but Bushnell’s presence should certainly be increasingly familiar to the publisher’s team. With those three projects under way – the first of which is due in early 2017 – the reluctant godfather of video games is likely to become part of the furniture for a time yet. And if his endeavours in mobile share a fraction of the success Bushnell courted at Atari, he may find himself working on smartphone games for a little while longer still.

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