Nolan Bushnell Interview
We sit down with one of the founding fathers of the games industry, creator of Pong and Atari legend Nolan Busnell, for an extensive chat about gaming past, present and future.
Nolan on retro versus modern games
Gameplay purity or flash graphics, polish and complex mechanics? The debate over whether modern games are better than retro ones has raged for years. And who better to contribute to it than the man who kicked it all off?
Kikizo: Now that games have become 3D and often complex, are there any out there that float your boat?
Bushnell: I'm a big believer in the Wii. I love the physicality of the Wii controller, and how you can get the feeling of throwing a bowling ball or swinging a golf club. Those are the kinds of games I really like. I would be playing first-person shooters with my kid, except that those are games in which you have to have such fast circuits. My kids just whack me, so it's no fun - I hate to lose. I like games where you can use stealth and guile. As you get older, it's like the difference between playing squash and racketball. Squash is an older man's game, because if you're stealthy and wily, you can beat a better-co-ordinated and stronger, younger person.
Kikizo: How do modern games stack up against games like Breakout? There's still a great love of retro games, which many feel have a purity and simplicity that has been lost. Where do you stand on that argument?
Bushnell: I believe that in games, when you're talking about pitting my wits and my brain against your wits and your brain, that simplicity of the game becomes a dominant factor. In some cases, that simplicity is actually helpful. For example, you never see world-class chess-players playing with anything other than a standard chess-set. There are beautiful glass and marble sets you can buy, but it doesn't help the game. The essence of the game is best played with zero ambiguity. Occasionally, there can be so much time spent on the graphics that it actually introduces a little bit of ambiguity. So the simple, classic games, where we didn't have those graphics to fall back on, had to be really well-tuned, and the response times had to be honed. We focused more on gameplay than I think people do today. I've played some games where I thought the controller wasn't working right. But it wasn't the controller - it was the way the software was interrogating the controller. You get an extra 50ms lag and it really screws the game up.
Kikizo: What for you has been the single biggest advance in the pretty much 40-year history of the games industry?
Bushnell: I think there are two or three what I would call monumental points, where I thought: "Wow, this is really, really good." One of them came from id Software. I think that what they were able to coax out of the PC in those [Wolfenstein and Doom] days was truly remarkable - it represented a big leap. It actually made a couple of leaps. Not only was it instrumental in giving a 3D experience that was believable and understandable, but it also introduced network. And the third trifecta on that was it was the first time authoring tools were given to the public so that you could create your own levels. I really think Carmack and those guys made a tour de force. That's one.
Another game that's on my top-ten list is Myst. You had such a wonderful feeling of being there - I feel that I've been to those islands, and I have probably as much of a feeling for those islands as I do for the Hawaiian islands. I feel like I've visited them both.