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 looks into his crystal ball
Bushnell is back in the games industry with uWink - which seeks to unite games and social situations, in a similar manner to Chuck E. Cheese - and NeoEdge, which explores ad-funding of casual games. So he has kept touch with the industry, and this is where he thinks it's heading.
|Bushnell's Hall of Game plaque|
Bushnell: Any business that does not innovate will fail over time. And for some reason, the differential between what you can play at home and what you can play in an arcade has become very small. What we do at uWink is really focus on the social nature. People can buy a bottle of gin and drink it at home for about a buck a drink, whereas they are willing to go to a bar and pay 12 bucks for the same cocktail. The difference is that man needs to be social. So I believe that there is a strong demand for games that are social, and we've been able to prove it. I'm talking about really simple games, yet people want them.
Kikizo: Can you talk us through uWink? That's your main project these days, isn't it?
Bushnell: I'm working on two or three things, but uWink is my main focus. I'm also chairman of the board of NeoEdge, which is a very interesting way of monetising casual games. I actually think that, if you look at the numbers, there are only about 15 million people in the United States who play console games. But there are 150 million people who play casual games. But the thing about that big marketplace is how do you monetise it? Some people pay $20 to download a game, but the vast majority want to have them for free or advertiser-supported. So we've created all kinds of ways to facilitate advertiser-support for casual games, which means that the quality of the casual games will increase - and they already have, because of some of our innovations.
Kikizo: And you're involved in a company which lets people play skill-games against each other and win vouchers for a lottery draw?
Bushnell: That is correct, and this is a way to keep games social. People love to compete - and competition is more fun when there's a little bit of skin on the game. Giving prizes is a good way for our sponsors to reach the kind of people that they want to sell their products to.
Kikizo: Where can you see consoles going in the future - how will the console companies differentiate their machines when games are purely downloaded?
Bushnell: I believe the differentiation will become less console-centric and much more network-centric. I think all the real activity is moving to the network. There's a funny thing that's happening, in that as the power of the consoles' processors lets you approach photo-realism, you lose your market differentiation. If I say: "My photo-realism is better than your photo-realism," you'd say: "I don't care." I almost feel like the consoles are going to be relatively stuck where they are if they're just going to talk about manipulating more polygons than you can. It will be much more a war based on innovation, as it should be.
Kikizo: Do you still keep an eye on the modern Atari? The licence pinged around the industry for a while, but the current incarnation, with Phil Harrison, seems to have more credibility than it has for ages?
Bushnell: Phil Harrison is a very smart man, and he knows the games business. I really hope he can put some of the lustre back on it. The big problem with any of the games software companies is working out what they stand for, and for many years, Atari didn't stand for anything - it was doing me-toos, movie licences and things like that. I believe Atari should stand for technical innovation, and doing things a little differently - and I hope that's the direction they take.
Kikizo: You must be pretty excited about your BAFTA fellowship?
Bushnell: I'm ecstatic - it's a very nice honour. The other people who have received it have been people who I respect and find very exciting.
Kikizo: Will Wright was the last person to be awarded a BAFTA Fellowship. Have you spoken to him about?
Bushnell: No, I haven't. But Will and I are friends. I've appreciated his work for years and years.
Kikizo: Games are now very much part of popular culture: do you feel vindicated now that pretty much everybody is playing games?
Bushnell: Well, I don't know if it's called vindication, but I appreciate the fact that technology and games are a big part of life. I think like any proud father, you're happy when your children do well.
Big thanks to Nolan Bushnell for his time and the people at BAFTA for helping us get together with him. Interview conducted by Steve Boxer.