It’s been 50 years since Nolan Bushnell co-founded Atari, which brought video games to the mainstream. To celebrate, we asked Bushnell what he learned during the early years—and what we’ve lost sight of since then.
Atari in the Nolan Bushnell Era
When you hear the name “Atari,” if you’re of a certain generation, you might think back to a period in the very late 1970s and early 1980s when the Atari 2600 home video game console seemed unstoppable. But prior to Warner Communications purchasing Atari in 1976, the young company experienced four wild years of uncertainty and success while its employees relentlessly innovated a brand new class of electronic entertainment.
The guiding creative force at Atari during that time was Nolan Bushnell, who co-founded the company with Ted Dabney on June 27, 1972 in Sunnyvale, CA. Bushnell and Dabney had already worked together on the world’s first arcade video game, Computer Space, at Nutting Associates, and they were ready to take the business more fully into their own hands. They soon had a monster hit with the arcade game Pong in late 1972, which spawned copycats that spread video games all over the world. But Atari still faced an uphill fight as big names jumped into the market.
With that in mind—and the 50th anniversary of Atari at hand—we thought it would be fun to talk about lessons from Bushnell’s early years at the pioneering company. Bushnell spoke over the telephone, and his answers have been edited for formatting.
Benj Edwards, How-To Geek: Do you think the video game industry has lost sight of any innovations from the early days of Atari?
Nolan Bushnell: A little bit. Remember that Atari was founded as a coin-op company. And coin-op has this requirement that a newbie has to get into the game almost instantly without reading instructions. So the simplicity of onboarding is lost by a lot of people right now.
HTG: If you play a modern game, you have to sit and wait for loading, go through a tutorial, watch all the cutscenes, and it’s an hour into the game before you can finally play something.
Nolan Bushnell: Yeah.
HTG: What did you do “right” in the early years of Atari that people could learn from today?
Bushnell: We did really good branding. And I think that, in terms of our graphic badges and our logo and everything, we wanted to have a distinct look. I think it’s held together. Right now, the Atari logo is the only thing that’s still really vibrant.
HTG: Apple used iconic branding successfully too, and Steve Jobs was one of your early employees. Do you think that rubbed off on Apple?
Bushnell: I think so, because Jobs used to ride up to my house on Sunday mornings on his motorcycle. And we’d drink tea and talk about things. And I talked about the importance of branding and color palettes and things like that—how a brand and look is multi-faceted. You’ve never really thought about a color palette as being unique to a company, and yet it’s axiomatic.
HTG: So Steve Jobs used to hang out at your house?
Bushnell: Yeah, he used to live—I was up on a hill, and he was more down in the lots, but I could almost throw a rock and put it on his roof.
HTG: Was he living by himself at that time?
Bushnell: Yeah. Big house, no furniture. That simple. [Chuckles]
HTG: So let’s go the opposite way now. What did you do “wrong” at Atari that people could learn from today?
Bushnell: I think that I—how do I put this without sounding like an asshole? I put up with incompetence more than I should have. I should have been quicker to fire.
HTG: Well, you weren’t born a manager, right? You’d been mostly an engineer…
Bushnell: Well, that’s actually not quite true. Remember I managed 150 kids at the amusement park. That was kind of my MBA, I’ve always felt. It was a summer job, and it wasn’t like managing a bunch of engineers, but keeping everybody happy and working was important. So was managing the numbers—labor percentages and things like that.
HTG: I read an early quote from a manifesto you wrote in the early days of Atari that said something like, “If the people are happy and the company is happy, then good things happen.” Where did you get that egalitarian-type philosophy of management?
Bushnell: It was really in the air. Remember, it was the summer of love and the hippie movement up in northern California. I mean, we all had our hippy costumes, and we’d go up and be posers on weekends, and be hippies. I mean, total posing. [Laughs]
It was a kind of ethos in the air. There were Vietnam War protests and things like that, you know. Everybody was testing the status quo.
HTG: Would you do anything differently if you could go back in time and change the Atari story?
Bushnell: I think I would have been quicker to automate certain things. We were short on cash, and we were very lackadaisical about the fixtures and procedures we had.
HTG: It’s because you were hippies.
Bushnell: [Laughs] Yeah, I guess so.
“We Never Had Enough Money”
When it came time to develop and release a more advanced home video game console with cartridges (the 2600), Atari needed capital, and Bushnell sold his company to Warner Communications. Bushnell stayed with Atari until early 1979—missing both the monster-hit years of the 2600 and Atari’s spectacular failure just after that. (By then he was working on Chuck E. Cheese, but that’s another story entirely.)
HTG: Do you regret selling Atari at the time you did?
Bushnell: Yes and no. I really liked my life after I sold it. I got married, I got my house, I kinda got my personal life in order. Atari was very, very hard. And we never had enough money. We were running it as if we were going to take it public, and then the market kind of went sideways.
If I’d have gone ahead and been able to take the company public, I would have had another three or four years in the rat race and probably would have never gotten married. So would it have been a good ride and would I have made gobspocks more money? Absolutely. But on my personal life basis, it was definitely a good thing to do.
HTG: What is your favorite Atari game ever published by Atari?
HTG: That was in 1981, after you left the company. You played it anyway?
Bushnell: It was in the lab when I was there.
HTG: Why do you like Tempest?
Bushnell: I think it’s very, very dynamic. It’s one of those games that was sort of all by itself, extremely innovative. I can’t think of another game that was like it at all and that had so many different levels, all of which kept it interesting.
HTG: It’s an experience unto itself. Almost psychedelic.
Bushnell: Exactly. I wouldn’t have said that, but I think you’re correct. It was a little trippy.
HTG: What kind of music were you listening to in 1972 when you founded Atari?
Bushnell: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who, Queen. All of those. I really, really liked Queen—I can remember that. I’ll tell you another one that I really enjoyed. ELO—Electric Light Orchestra. A lot of people don’t know them. I thought the whole idea of rock orchestras was very fascinating to me.
HTG: That’s interesting because when I think of ELO, I think of the cover of…what’s the album with the UFO-looking thing on it?
Bushnell: Out of the Blue.
HTG: That reminds me of Atari design.
Bushnell: Yeah. [Surprised] Yeah, you’re right!
HTG: That was 1977. Heck, they might have been influenced by Atari at that point.
Over the decades, Bushnell has given hundreds of speeches, done thousands of interviews, and discussed almost every possible angle of the Atari story. But one thing still remains: 50 years is a long time. Bushnell himself will turn 80 next year.
HTG: How does it feel when someone says, “Hey, it’s been 50 years since you started Atari.” What comes into your head?
Bushnell: “Oh my god, am I that old?” [Laughs heartily.] My oldest daughter turned 50 a year ago, and I thought, “Boy, that says you’ve been on the planet a long time if you have kids that are 50.”
HTG: And Atari’s kind of like one of your kids.
HTG: I was just thinking how 50 is a huge milestone. I’m 41 now, so that’s memory past my lifespan. I can’t imagine trying to remember anything that happened 50 years ago. Is some of that stuff from the early 1970s still fresh? Do memories of that time come to you naturally?
Bushnell: Yeah, quite a bit. Plus, I’ve got a lot of old photos on my computer, and I have it set up so I have an Amazon Echo Show, and it scrolls through my library of photos. So I get reminded of things all the time.
Happy birthday, Atari!
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