More than 45, freaks, geeks and gazillionaires are here to check out the hottest games. Enormous screens flash with pixelated wizards and race cars. Booth babes in green Joker wigs and jet-black dominatrix boots vie for attention. They have penetrated every corner of our lives, from blockbuster Xbox games like Gears of War 3 in our living rooms to quirky hits like Angry Birds on our cell phones.
But the most influential guy at E3 is the most elusive of all. As passersby whisper his name in awe, Nolan Bushnell heads for the desolate aisles in the back, where the start-ups are. Bushnell is the godfather of video games. While modern-day dot-com whiz kids would be happy with one hit, he pulled a hat trick in the s and s that remains unrivaled: But his impact goes far beyond gaming.
A year-old hipster with a bushy white beard and jeans, Bushnell is the original Zuckerberg, the first something prodigy to run a company in Silicon Valley and define the wildly creative start-up culture that corporations from Apple to Facebook emulate to this day. A self-made multimillionaire, he rose from a suburb in Utah to make Atari one of the fastest-growing companies in American history.
How did one guy create a culture and an industry? And as Bushnell reveals for the first time, the inside story starts in the same place he stands this day at E3: The closer you get to the edge, the more tremendous the opportunities. But Bushnell, who grew up in this working-class town near the Great Salt Lake, quickly found an edge of his own. He once faked a UFO invasion by rigging a watt bulb to a kite, luring hapless cops to an alfalfa farm.
While studying electrical engineering at the University of Utah in the early s, Bushnell wandered into the department lab one day to find everyone huddled around Spacewar! It was graphically crude but remarkably compelling.
As Bushnell maneuvered his little spaceship around a black hole while firing bullets at his opponent, the future flashed in his mind. For many summers he had been managing the old-fashioned midway games—such as Skee-Ball and ringtoss—at nearby Lagoon Amusement Park, and he knew people would go crazy for something like this. Computers were too expensive to mass produce for an arcade game, and Bushnell had a more pressing matter to worry about: But shortly after the year-old fledgling engineer found employment at an audio-video company in California, he got the Spacewar!
Living in the nascent Silicon Valley, Bushnell began palling around with eccentric artificial-intelligence programmers and woolly DIY geeks, and he soon began talking up his idea. A buddy named Ted Dabney, who had studied electronics in the U. Marine Corps, had found a way to manipulate a television signal using a video board so that an ordinary TV screen could display a series of squiggles and dots—just what Bushnell needed to make a coin-op version of Spacewar! As he and his crew worked on the hardware, Bushnell knew he had to do more than make a game; he had to make it sexy enough to lure people over to play it.
He sculpted something that seemed right out of Barbarella—a tall, sloping cabinet with a screen facing out the top. Shaped like a coffin standing on end, it set the standard for arcade games to come. When it was finished, he amped up the sex appeal, taking out ads featuring a comely model in a negligee posing seductively next to the machine.
Unfortunately for Bushnell, it was too odd and complicated to become more than an overlooked novelty. Still in his 20s, he set about creating his next game. They called it Pong. To make it accessible, Bushnell kept the rules as simple as possible. Soon after, Bushnell got an angry call from the owner, telling him the machine was already broken. Bushnell dispatched Alcorn to check out the damage. When the engineer arrived and opened the cabinet, shiny coins spilled from the machine.
Quarters had clogged the coin box and stopped the game from working. Pong quickly became a hit. Inside, the floors of tchotchke-lined cubicles teem with scruffy young gamers in jeans and hoodies—the default dot-com uniform. When Bushnell arrived in the early s, Silicon Valley was still dominated by the Orwellian group-think culture practiced by IBM and its ilk. In addition to launching the modern game industry, Atari pioneered something just as influential: There he found a room full of hippies and homeless people and trucked them back to his production plant.
They also had placed some of their own machines around town. Before long, needing more production space and room for more employees, they moved the commune to an old roller-skating rink nearby.
As pot smoke filled the air and hippies skated between arcade machines, Atari became an extension of the Haight-Ashbury scene up the road. Get your job done. Dressed in jeans and a bow tie and puffing on his tobacco pipe, he nurtured a work environment that was as fun as the games. To motivate his staff, he promised to tap a keg on the back dock each Friday when they hit their quota of machines. Bushnell installed a vintage s beer tap in his office and invited anyone who wanted to join him to drink and play dice after work.
The party atmosphere spread across the Valley. I was an engineer and a geek. What was more interesting to me was the technology and the creativity. Atari was going broke.
Of all the Pongs being sold, only 25 percent of the machines were made by Atari. An ill-fated plan to produce Pong machines in Japan brought Atari even closer to bankruptcy. The financial pressures began taking a toll on the utopian company life. The festive atmosphere suddenly turned dark, and Bushnell felt himself sinking into despair. Line workers complained of low wages and showed up wearing shirts that read fuck you.
His stress turned into anger, and Bushnell wielded his ax as readily as he tapped a keg. The couple would soon divorce. With Atari on the brink, Bushnell had to dig himself out of his hole fast. He hatched a business philosophy that became his guiding principle: The ploy worked, and Bushnell soon regained market share. To inspire creativity, Bushnell began holding raucous beachside retreats and company meetings in the hot tub behind his hillside home.
The San Francisco Chronicle ran a profile of Bushnell along with a photo of him soaking in his tub with an attractive—and seemingly topless—woman. While the Magnavox Odyssey was the first home console, Pong got a huge boost from a giant distribution deal with Sears, the great American department store chain.
The pairing of Sears and Atari perfectly symbolized the transition from the old titans to the next generation of start-ups burgeoning in Silicon Valley. Bushnell showed up for his first meeting wearing his usual jeans and shirt, only to find the Sears executives in suits and ties. For the next meeting, Bushnell showed up in a suit and tie, but the Sears guys were awkwardly dressed down in jeans. The unlikely but dynamic pairing paid off.
The home version of Pong became a runaway smash. Bushnell split with his original partner, Ted Dabney. Atari settled out of court, with Bushnell maintaining that he had merely improved on a poorly executed idea.
They never leave his cranium no matter how many times you quietly and politely explain the error. To build a single-player brick-breaking game called Breakout, Bushnell tapped a gifted young hippie on his team, Steve Jobs. Just 20 years old at the time, Jobs had been dropping acid, fasting, studying Eastern mysticism and working as a phone phreaker, manipulating phone systems to make free long-distance calls including prank calls to the Vatican.
Bushnell offered him a bonus if he could use as few of the costly computer chips as possible when making Breakout. Jobs hit up a friend at Hewlett-Packard, Steve Wozniak, to help him with the machine. Steve said it was a blast to work for him. Then Jobs went to Bushnell with a breakout offer of his own: Bushnell, however, was so busy with his own success in addition to launching a series of Atari computers that he passed. But as Apple exploded, Bushnell saw the creative business approach he had nurtured at Atari go wider in the Valley.
By exploiting innovations in chip technology, Atari could create an interchangeable console that, unlike home Pong, could run a variety of games on cartridges. To pull this off, the year-old Bushnell needed more money to cover the cost of production.
He wanted to rule its future before the chance slipped away. He knew exactly what he needed to do: With video games taking over a new generation, Warner Communications, the parent company of the movie and music behemoths, wanted to cash in.
The corporation sent a private jet to pick up Bushnell and his team and bring them to New York City for a meeting. When Bushnell and his band of hippie geniuses climbed onboard, they saw a familiar face in the corner—Clint Eastwood, whom Warner was flying to New York with his girlfriend for a premiere. Kicking back in the jet alongside the Hollywood superstar, Bushnell thought, I can get used to this.
Warner put the gamers up on the top floor of the Waldorf-Astoria with a pool table and a grand piano and brought them along with Eastwood to see the film.
This time Bushnell wore a suit to the meeting. He treated himself to a new home: His moving in symbolized in many ways the arrival of a new generation of American moguls, the computer geeks who could build an empire on a chip and a dream.
He also had his own private jet and a yacht named Pong. The Atari defined a generation upon its release in October , but it was the beginning of the end for Bushnell at Atari. A serial entrepreneur, he had other plans in the works: The battle grew epic and ugly, as Bushnell believed the baby he had nurtured for so long was being dangerously mismanaged. Ultimately Warner won, and King Pong was out.