“Technology for the Masses”: An Interview with Nolan Bushnell

The Godfather of Gaming is ready to change the way America plays games…again.

Nolan Bushnell first introduced video games to the mainstream in the 1970s with Pong and his once ubiquitous game company Atari. But somewhere along the way between Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto, the 64-year-old tech-happy entrepreneur believes the video game lost its soul and its mainstream audience.

“The games got too complex and violent,” Bushnell said. “The complexity lost the casual gamer, and the violence lost the women.”

Now, Bushnell believes his newest business venture, uWink, which opened its first pilot restaurant in LA’s San Fernando Valley late last fall, will help bring gaming back to the masses. Labeled a “media bistro,” uWink is equal parts quasi-upscale sit-down restaurant and friendly video gaming center.

Bushnell with uWink executive chef Greg Schroeppel

Many other restaurants have games of some sort, but uWink features a unique double-sided touch-screen console that sits as the centerpiece of each table. Using it, one feels like they have been warped into a futuristic Jetsons-like world with the ability to do everything — play dozens of games, order food, or tell the bartender whether or not their cocktail should be shaken or stirred, all by pushing buttons on the screen. It’s a far different setup than an arcade/restaurant like Dave and Busters, where one eats and then plays in a large room resembling a traditional arcade.

“The entertainment is really at the table, it’s not a matter of eating and then going to an arcade,” Bushnell said.

The games at uWink, many of which Bushnell himself designed, bear little resemblance to the uber-violent shoot-em-ups or high intensity driving and action games found in arcades or home consoles. Instead, they often mimic the low-key, pick-up-and-play fare available on Yahoo! Games, a free Flash website or even the old Atari 2600. The game Squares, for instance, is a Zen-like distraction in which the player uses an index finger to guide a black square around a screen to collect other squares. It’s purposely about as complex as Pong was.

“I know how to design games that are fun for a lot of people, and these games are simple, direct, easy-to-play, and not difficult,” Bushnell said.

Appealing to the casual gamer has proven this year to have merit. The Wii, which Nintendo has actively marketed to women, older people, and casual gamers, is destroying the high-powered, graphics intensive PlayStation 3 in sales since they were both released last November. In April of this year, the PS3 had its worst month so far, selling only 82,000 units compared to the Wii’s 360,000.

Like the Wii, uWinks’ games are designed to be less intensive and involved than regular arcade games. “We didn’t want to create a bunch of zombies with the Halos and Counterstrikes of the world. Those are a male-dominated sport we want to avoid,” said Bushnell.

Indeed, on a typical Friday night at uWink the clientele is about a 50/50 split between males and females. The most popular game, believe it or not, is Truth or Dare, which asks players, for instance, to stand on their chair and announce to everyone else in the restaurant that they desperately need a date. World of Warcraft it’s assuredly not.

Many have actually compared the media bistro to another one of Bushnell’s famous creations — the kid-friendly Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater chain, famous for cheap pizza and animatronic mice. But the popular analogy in the media of uWink being ‘Chuck E. Cheese for adults’ is one that grates Bushnell.

“I kind of hate it because I think it says the wrong thing,” Bushnell said with a frown.

Like Chuck E. Cheese, however, Bushnell has long term plans to grow uWink into a nationwide franchise. Last month, the company announced that it was expanding to two new Los Angeles locations. Soon, uWinks may be popping up in different states around the country.

By now, ambitious projects like uWink for the mischievous Bushnell are old hat. The man Newsweek once called a “serial entrepreneur” has created or invested in over 20 ventures, some extremely successful, some not.

The uWink food menu

As a young student at the University of Utah in the 1960s, Bushnell often played the computer game Spacewar! on the school’s mainframe — a piece of technology, he thought, that would revolutionize coin-operated amusements. He later founded Atari on $500 (early employees included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak) and sold it half a dozen years later for $28 million to Warner Communication. Bushnell jumpstarted Chuck E. Cheese in 1977 and the franchise quickly ballooned to more than 200 restaurants. Bushnell also founded the Catalyst Technologies Venture Capital Group whose companies included personal robotics company Androbot, and Etak, which introduced the first car navigation system.

For every success story, though, there seemed to be a failure. An attempt to break into the PC market with the Atari 800 was beat out by Jobs and Wozniak’s early Apple Computer systems. Androbot never got a product to market, and a massive video game industry crash in 1983 severely wounded Atari and caused Chuck E. Cheese to go bankrupt.

Never one to fade into obscurity, however, Bushnell founded uWink in 2000, though the concept to turn it into a restaurant did not come about until 2005.

But for Bushnell, uWink is about more than just forming another company. Even though he jokes that he has professional “five-year ADD,” Bushnell says there is an overarching vision to his seemingly lack of long-term commitment to any one business. That vision is about introducing popular technology to the masses that helps social interaction.

“I like the description in terms of classical philosophy, that the poet is the person who interpreted God for the masses,” Bushnell said. “I’d like to be the poet who interprets technology for the masses. I see a lot of cool things and say, ‘Gee, that really should be made available to everybody.'”

Signs outside of uWink

His daughter Alissa, who is now uWink’s PR manager, says if you look at Bushnell’s life work, it is very focused. “Some people may see it as ADD, but the goal has always been the same, to bring technology, public space, and entertainment together,” she said. “He’s always trying to develop the world he wants to live in.”

In as much as Pong and Atari were all about bringing people together (“You had to have two people to play Pong,”) games at uWink are also a way to get people interacting with each other, Bushnell said.

Some say that online PC games and Xbox Live, both which allow players from all over the world to compete against each other over the Internet has made recent gaming a more positive social experience, but Bushnell says the online experience is not the same as sitting across a table from someone. “It’s different. The real social situation is one in which you can elbow somebody and high five with them…or take them home with you,” he said with a sly laugh.

“I believe there are times when you need to be out and meet somebody.”