Nolan Bushnell

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This is a transcript of an audio interview. This transcript may contain errors - if you're using this material for research, etc. please verify with the original recorded interview.

Source: ANTIC: The Atari 8-Bit Podcast

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Interviewers: Kevin Savetz and Randy Kindig

RK: Hello and welcome to a very special interview-only episode of Antic, the Atari 8bit podcast. I am Randy Kindig, one of your hosts for this podcast. I say "special", because it's not often that you get a chance to talk to an icon, like the one we talk with today. Kevin Savetz and myself were given the chance to "sit down", so to speak, with Mr. Atari , Nolan Bushnell, and spend a few minutes "shooting the breeze". If you need any more of introduction for this guest, then you're probably listening to the wrong podcast. In fact, he's one of those guys can just go by a single name, just "Nolan", and everyone in the Atari community knows who you're talking about. Before we get to the interview, I want to thank the Atari community, on the AtariAge forums, for suggesting questions for Nolan. When we put out a request for questions, who knew we would get such a large and varied response? Regrettably, we only had time for some of them. Many of you will recognize the questions that you submitted, and we are very grateful for your help. I also want to thank Marty Goldberg, for his suggestions and guidance, as someone who has talked with Nolan in the past. This interview was conducted on July 30, 2015.

KS: So how are you doing today?

NB: Well you know, it's a beautiful day here in Los Angeles. I'm, uh, heading over into the Valley, where it's going to be hotter, but it's good.

KS: Nice. So you're on a drive while you're talking to us today?

NB: I am.

KS: I grew up in the uh Valley <edited or unintelligible>.

RK: Well, hopefully we won't ask you any questions that cause you to have an accident or anything like that.

NB: Yeah, well I'm in bumper-to-bumper, so other than rear-ending somebody, it's gonna be pretty innocent.

KS: Want to start Randy?

NB: Cool.

RK: Yeah, now Nolan, some of these questions are going to be really geared towards the early days with the 2600 and the computers. So, one question that we had, we had… we put it out there for some people to provide some questions for us, people were curious… if you had stayed in control of Atari, what do you think would have happened differently, and what would have been Atari's priorities from the 2600 on?

NB: Well, a couple of the big ones, is that Chuck E. Cheese would have stayed as part of Atari, instead of, it was one of those things where… I think that if I had not sold to Warner… There's a couple of things you have to understand. We were about to take the company public. 'cause we knew it was going to take about $15 million dollars more than we had, to properly launch the 2600, in terms of the size of the factory we had to outfit, in terms of inventory we had to build, and getting the cartridge system all going. And so in some ways, it was a little bit of our, our back was to the wall. I would have preferred to have taken it public, but the market just sort of took a dump before, we, when we were all ready. We had the S-1 all written and everything, and the underwriters selected and the markets just didn't cooperate. With that being said, if we had been able to figure out a way to get the funding right… There are two, what I consider to be really "watershed" differences. The first one is that... Actually there’s four. The first one is, Chuck E Cheese would have stayed part of Atari, ‘cause I always saw that Chuck E Cheese was a marketing outlet for the Atari coin-operated games. And so that... and I think that we would have built a line of coin-operated games that were more kid-friendly, and so would others, but it also would have helped Chuck E Cheese; that's one.

NB: The second one, is that I wanted to immediately start... the day we shipped the first 2600, and this was after Warner owned the company, I wanted to start immediately working on the next "rev" of the 2600. I said "the day you launch a product, it's obsolete". The big issue in those days was the cost of memory. From the time we had frozen the design, until that time, memory had dropped in cost almost an order of magnitude, and I felt that by the time we actually got the number two into production, that memory would have dropped maybe as much as another order of magnitude. And, you know, the 2600 only had 128 bytes of memory, of RAM, and as you know, that's just, that really cripples a system. So I felt that if we could have a line-buffer, or better "off-the-screen" buffer in RAM, instead of having the big blocky pixels we had in the 2600, we could have gotten down into a more, let's call it a "Nintendo-like” look-and-feel, which I felt was important, ‘cause I thought that the minute somebody used more memory, because of the better cost, that the game experience would be much better. So we would have done that, and that would have launched probably sometime in the ‘80 to ‘81 timeframe. Warner had the record company mentality, and they thought that the whole business was about creating software, not about making record players. And so that was a big problem.

NB: The third problem is that they wanted to go into the regular pinball business, rather than the wide-bodies. I don’t know if you track the Atari pinballs, but we pioneered the wide-body pinball machine. That was as much as because we had about a $200 cost differential over Chicago, and it was $300 if you put shipping in. And I felt that if we entered the normal pinball space, against the Chicago guys, there was no way we could make money. Warner was insistent, and they got their way, and found out that all of a sudden, the pinball division was losing a lot of money and they closed it. So, I think we would’ve stayed in the pinball business for a longer period of time.

NB: The fourth issue, which is kind of speculative. We had the fastest modems in the world, and all of our patents and everything, Warner sold to US Robotics. But the reason we were building those modems, we wanted to create a telephone-link game system. Remember this was before the internet, before anybody had heard the word Internet, let alone you know, a computerized network. We were going to do a closet, in each area code, that had a bunch of computers, a bunch of modems, that were going to switch packets, between the game systems, and then we were going to link those closets together with T1’s. Well, if you look at it from a technical standpoint, that clearly could have turned into a router network basis, and I’ve often thought, you know, it just might have just evolved into being the Internet, and it wouldn’t it have been fun if Atari had owned the internet. I don’t want to do an “Al Gore” on us. But, I can remember a conference we had, in which we were trying to decide whether game players wanted to communicate by typing, to other game-players. The room was about equally divided. Saying no, game-players would never want to necessarily talk to anybody else, and game-players didn’t know how to type anyway, and hunting and pecking would be too slow. And then that led into… we were going to do this by hooking the modems actually into a port on the 2600’s. Then of course getting the keyboard hooked into that was a little bit tricky. So we said, ok the computers would also, the 26.. the Atari 800 and 400 could also be part of that network. But it was preliminary, but we were building the modems ‘cause we thought that was the big problem, and that we had to go back through the acoustic couplers, and a lot of people thought well you know, going native, straight into the phones lines, that wasn’t a very good idea. But you know, I thought that it would move in that direction.

KS: So was this thing even, was it prototyped, or was it just an idea on paper?

NB: The modems were prototyped, the structure, the network, was on paper, including the IP stack, which was very, very similar to the IP protocol of the internet.

KS: That’s… interesting. Awesome. So you said, I wanted to clarify something. I was gonna… it sounds like you sold to Warner primarily because you needed the capital to build the factory to make the 2600’s. Is that correct?

NB: That’s correct. You know, the launch of the product can be very expensive, because you have to put together a whole bunch of inventory before you’ve sold it. Remember that Atari was always funded on a shoestring, because nobody believed the video games business was a business.

KS: Did you regret selling it?

NB: Every day of my life.

KS: Why?

NB: Well I just felt… When I sold it, I was hopeful that Warner wouldn’t screw it up. It was kind of your baby. I kind of thought I was going to be with Atari for the rest of my life, without all the financial headaches. You know, I just hadn’t realized how fundamentally incompetent big companies can be. I was young and dumb.

RK: So, Nolan, I mean when you were talking with them, about them buying Atari, I mean did you have a pretty good feeling about them before you sold to them, or how did you feel…?

NB: Yes I did. They talked about how they … all of their directors and producers, they were very “hands-off”, they gave creative control, you know, in the hands of the people that knew what they were doing, dah dah dah dah. The same old “song and dance” that big companies when they’re buying the little companies always say. And always violate.

KS: Were they liars, or incompetent, or both?

NB: I believe… I don’t believe they thought they were telling lies. That’s what makes them so convincing. But you know, but in the operation of business, people in power, have just a hard time jumping in and meddling with things that they think are the right solution. When they really don’t know what they’re doing. You know, people that don’t know what they’re doing, have been meddling with people that know what they’re doing, since business began.

KS: So we’ve read that you were initially against getting into the home computer business altogether. And were wondering if that’s true. And so, did your view shape…

NB: Not true. Not true at all. I was very enthusiastic about it.

RK: So can you tell us kind of how that got started? Who had the idea, and how did that take shape to actually make the computer line?

NB: I think it was a combination of two guys… One was Steve Mayer, and one was Joe Decuir, and… oh three guys, and Al Alcorn. And they felt that the 6502 would make a really good computer, and that the home computer was kind of, you know… they saw it as a way to get a better game system into the home. Then be able to say that it’s also good for you because you could word process, and do all kinds of wonderful things.

KS: So did they bring that idea to you, and sold you on it? Or how, just kind of how did that get started?

NB: That wasn’t really the way we did it. We just kind of brought up ideas, and I think it was one of the planning sessions, or it might have been when we had a meeting up in Grass Valley, and they said this is something that we can do, and we have the technology, and we have the understanding, and in those days, the cost of doing the research was actually quite modest. You know, in terms of getting the design, it was, you know, a couple of people. Then a couple of people in the operating environment, and what-have-you, and then once you sort of had “works-like” prototype, you could really put numbers together and figure out what was actually going to cost to manufacture and to get it operational. You know from a manufacturing and marketing standpoint. So it’s very easy green-light an engineering project. It took a lot more money to green-light… you know, going into mass-production and marketing.

RK: So you were… the computer started in 1977, or the work started in ‘77, I believe is what I’ve heard.. We’ve been lucky enough to talk to Al and Joe and Steve. You left in ’78, is that right?

NB: Yes.

RK: So how far along were things by the time you left?

NB: Well, the thing was pretty much designed. I can remember… A particular meeting where we decided to put the operating system in a cartridge, so it in case it goes buggy, we could have it easily swapped out.

KS: So when it came out in ’79, did you run out and buy one?

NB: I think that somebody actually gave me one.

KS: And what did you think, when you had the actual unit on your desk?

NB: Oh I thought it was great. But I also had an Apple II, so I pretty much understood what was going on, ‘cause the Apple II pre-dated the Atari 800 by a little bit.

RK: Do you still have that machine?

NB: I think I do actually.

KS: That answer implies, it’s in the closet or in the attic something.

NB: I have a big box in the garage that’s full of a lot of old Atari stuff. The one thing that I really regret is that I had a whole box of DRAM’s for games that never made it to the market. For cartridges. I just, you know, I think ended up giving it to a nephew or something like that. I just thought that those would really be interesting as historical artifacts right now.

RK: Absolutely. I guess, Nolan, I’m interested in knowing your opinion about the way things turned out with, you know, DOS and then Windows becoming the de-facto standard. Do you think there’s anything Atari could have done differently to survive like Apple did?

KS: In other words, how could you let this happen Nolan?

NB: Right… There were two major things that happened. That were totally, you know, preventable. The one was, as I told you, that Warner had very, what you call, a “software/record-company mentality”. And they didn’t… and they saw that they were enabling, you know, selling these computers, and they wanted to own all the software. Steve was out evangelizing other people to write software for the Apple II. Atari was saying, “if you write software for Atari, we’ll sue you”. So let alone, not publishing specs and things like that, it was actually they were hostile to the whole idea of third-party developers. Because they were hostile to the Imagic and Activision that basically started making cartridges for the Atari 2600, and then it kind of followed with Nintendo when they put the scramble chip on it, to keep people from you know, doing clone Nintendo cartridges. So that meant that things... You know, if you really look at… people buy software, and the hardware that they need to run it. If you really look at the spike in Apple II sales, it was when they got VisiCalc. Which all of a sudden, was a really valuable business tool, that a lot of people saw the importance of, and they bought the Apple II for it. Atari didn’t get any kind of a VisiCalc program for a year later, and that was a massive mistake. There was one other issue that was, a little bit, that worked on a little bit. We were selling to Sears. Sears required that we have really tight FCC approval. An FCC approval that Apple never got. They just flouted it. So as a result, if you look inside the Atari 800’s, we had this casting, and shielding, and all kinds of things. But that also said that we didn’t have a bus, you know with the six or eight slots, I don’t remember the number in the Apple II, which made it much harder to develop ancillary things for. I don’t know if I’d have done, but I think I would’ve. I think would have done another version which had an expansion bus on it. ‘Cause it was very clear that the expansion bus was an interesting piece of flexibility as the technology matured.

KS: Do you think that Atari should have skirted the whole issue like Apple did, by not including an RF modulator, or did you guys think of that? Or was it on the table as a possibility?

NB: Our problem was that we were too big and too successful, working with Sears. They were too big of a company. They wouldn’t play in a world without total FCC approval. That drove an awful lot of our solutions. But I think that it would have been... I think that I was tricky enough at the time, that I would have said we’ll have a consumer version and we’ll have a commercial version. Because in fact, the FCC standards that were really hard to deal with, had to do with home emitters, home broadcasters. That’s kind of the, Apple always said it was personal computers, but primarily for business. It turned out the FCC had no teeth anyway, you know just Sears thought they did.

KS: It seems like you feel you wish that Atari had reached out to developers earlier, and released developer documentation before it did. Is that right?

NB: Absolutely. I think it was a massive, massive mistake. ‘Cause remember we had sprites, we had an integrated circuit in it, along with the 6502. The Atari 800 was a significantly better computer than the Apple II. Yet, with the exception of the expansion bus. That being said, Apple whacked... you know, beat our ass. We actually had a lower cost of manufacturing than Apple did. So it doesn’t make sense that Apple dominated over Atari, and their market-share was increasing at the same… you know, even after we were head-to-head with them. So, it clearly said that better technology didn’t work, so there were other screw-ups going on.

RK: So I mean obviously you weren’t involved with Atari after the computers came out. Is there anything in particular that you feel like they could have done differently that could’ve made it more competitive with the Apples?

NB: Well I think that the technology was good enough. I just think that it was the way they marketed it and the way they promoted it. Again this whole idea of a “walled-garden”, which I don’t think has ever worked in the computer business. Where it has worked in the game business, you know “walled-gardens”, with licensing, and tariffs on cartridges. So you can play the razor/razor-blade game, and I can understand that you if you’re going to take no margin on the hardware, you have to make a little bit of margin on everybody’s piece of software

KS: All right let’s pick on CEOs. We would like you to state what you think of the following CEOs: Ray Kassar.

NB: Oh he was a disaster.

KS: Ok. Can you elaborate?

NB: He had no feelings for the technology. He didn’t understand the technology. He destroyed the corporate culture, by becoming very, very elitist. Whereas Atari… we didn’t even allow reserved parking places for executives, let alone a limousine, and a three-starred chef; executive dining room. I mean those are the trappings that were really antithical to the Atari corporate culture. A real “us-versus-them” kind of thing, and that sort of culminated in you know a high-strung prima donna working for Atari kind of thing. That started out, and the second one, is that the company had massive success based on the power of the technology. The fact that, I’d structured it in such a way… it was very, very hard for there to be competition. That was you know... You’ve heard the story I’m sure about tying up all the n-channel capacity. That basically I signed contracts with all three, I think there were three n-channel capacity… foundries at the time. I signed a deal for the second, you know, the next VCS with all of them… Which basically, with the non-compete, didn’t allow them to build the chip, a custom chip like the Stella, for anybody else. Ray canceled those contracts, the ones that we didn’t do, and he thought they were you know his <unintelligible> … He wasn’t a strategic game player. The minute he canceled those, they had already developed chips. So one of them went to TI. One of them went to Bally. One of them went to Mattel. all of the sudden in the space of a single year, they had competition from three places where, you know, they couldn’t have done that if Atari hadn’t already spec’d out the next generation, and canceled it.

KS: Well let’s ask about the next guy, let’s keep going, if you’re even paying attention to the company at this time. James Morgan.

NB: James didn’t know what he’s doing either, he was trying. What happened is that you went from a engineering-driven company, a technology-driven company, to a marketing-driven company at exactly the time when all of a sudden their technology was not up to par. Of course they were hemorrhaging money, they were trying to get rid of overhead as fast as they could, but it always takes a long time and it’s a difficult thing to do. With that being, said he was the wrong guy, for the wrong job also. The company continued to implode, and it ended up going to Jack Tramiel. Jack was the opposite. He was kind of a guy that you didn’t to market, you just needed to drop costs, and that wasn’t the right answer either. So he tried a couple of times at hiring some technology, get his sons involved with the Jaguar. It was kind of problematic. I think that he really didn’t know what to do with the company. He play games, he didn’t like games. He was more, I mean basically he started out as life selling sewing machines, then adding machines and what-have-you. I think that it was a mismatch in mindset. He never was really willing to spend what it took to properly launch a product at that point-in-time. When you really look at, some of the things that he was gonna… You know Mike Katz is a really good guy, but was just never given any kind of real… you know it’s one thing to delegate authority… it’s another thing to not give anybody a budget. He was severely hampered by the management style of Jack.

KS: Yeah. Did you ever feel like you could… You know later, Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple then came back. Did you ever wish that you could pull that trick and get back in the seat?

NB: Oh yeah I tried to, but Warner didn’t to have anything to do with me. They felt that if I was back in and made a success of it, that it would make them look stupid. To tell you how far that went, I tried to buy the coin-op division, you know Atari games, after it had been split up from Atari corporate, and they wouldn’t even give me a chance to bid on it. I had the money raised and everything.

RK: Ok, I have a follow-up to that Nolan. So, I don’t know if you’ve been following the current state of the company that calls itself Atari. But, we had a listener wondering why you haven’t bought the Atari name back, to re-launch it properly and modernize the brand?

NB: The answer is very simple I think that… While the brand is important… I think that the amount of money... You know, I actually tried to about four years ago, five years ago... Went to raise the money, did all kinds of things, that was still is a Paris stock-exchange company. Was a time when we got the money all ready, then all of a sudden, the stock almost tripled and so the cost to buy out the Paris shareholders... Then dealing with the French public company, and the procedures, it was scary, because there were so many ways that a distant shareholder could sideline the whole thing, that when the stock escalated, it just became not reasonable. Then you know, you get busy with other projects and say okay, I chased that car and bit it and it hurt, and I chased that car and I bit it and it hurt, tired of chasing the car.

RK: That’s a good analogy I like that. I have to ask you, is there any update on the Atari movie?

NB: No it... You know. The thing you realize, is that the… there is so… such a long lead-time, to get the same cast, and green-lit for actual production. I mean there are literally thousands of scripts that are laying around that are fully optioned and ready-to-go, but for some reason or another, don’t get green-lit. I actually think if the first Steve Jobs may be done really, really, really well, I think it would have been green-lit right now. But since it was sort of lackluster, I think that it cast a pall on bioptics of Silicon Valley folk. I think that’s amateur analysis, but I kind of think what’s going on.

KS: So what’s one of the most important things that you need to accomplish, with the rest of your time on this planet?

NB: Oh. I wanted to create a new amusement park. But call it a micro-amusement park. Think of it as a “modern arcade”. I think there was a historical place for the arcade. The arcade was to bridge the technology that was in the lab, when it was too expensive to be in the home. Once the home games got on-par with the video games, the coin-op business kind of fell off, to where it was not nearly as exciting. So if you look that at the coin operated game business right now, it’s pretty much what we would call redemption… get tickets; get prizes. That’s something that you can’t do at home. They really haven’t upped-the-ante, on technology, and there are so many wonderful pieces of technology out there, that need to be presented to the public, long before they can be brought into the home. I’ve actually got a whole plan about a micro-amusement park, that I think would be massively successful. In fact I would think it would make Chucky cheese look like it’s a small-time outfit.

KS: Nice. Wow. So is this pipe-dream or possibility?

NB: In process.

RK: We’ll look forward to that.

NB: I think it will be fun.

KS: So if you can send a message to the Atari 8-bit computer users, that still exist, and you can right now, what would you tell them?

NB: Keep up the good work, and my hopes and best wishes are with you. I think that we had some very, very interesting technology, and I’m really honored that you guys are sticking with it. Remember that there are some interesting innovations, and it’s gratifying that the innovations have lasted this long.

KS: Are you... Do you keep up with what innovations there are? ‘Cause I mean there are still people making new hardware, and memory upgrades and amazing things, and software?

NB: A little bit, but not definitively.

KS: Yeah. Well you know, honestly, as pod-casters for this machine, it’s our job to keep up, and it’s hard because, sometimes, some months there will be like five new things, so it’s hard to be definitive about it.

NB: Exactly.

KS: Which is incredible, you know.

NB: I know what you mean.

RK: That’s amazing for a 35-year-old machine, isn’t it?

NB: It really is.

RK: Well I have to say that we’re just extremely honored to talk with you . Nolan, Is there anything that we haven’t asked you that we should have? Or anything else that you want to talk about?

NB: I think one of the fun issues is to… kind of figure… you know, just kind of go down memory lane, and think about out the “woulda-shoulda-coulda’s”, and <unintelligible>. It’s great fun. So I guess that’s it.

KS: That’s it. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it

NB: My pleasure. You bet. Bye guys.

RK: Thank you so much.