Atari's Co-Founder Explains Why Pong's Ball Wasn't Round
1972 Atari releases Pong.
Nolan Bushnell, a co-founder of Atari (and founder of Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre), pioneered the video game industry.
Describe one of your early jobs, running the games at an amusement park.
This was throwing balls at milk bottles, guessing ages and weights. And I turned into a carny, quite frankly. I was promoted to manager of the whole department. So, at 21 years old, 20 years old, I had 150 kids reporting to me. The first thing I started doing was redesigning some of the midway games so that they’d make more money. And they did make more money. I had the highest per-caps of any amusement park in the nation.
Atari started out making games for arcades and bars. Why did you get into home systems?
Bars and restaurants are one thing, but it was really very adult-oriented at that time. Kids couldn’t go into bars. Bowling alleys were not really a kid-friendly environment. I felt that games were good for you and everybody needed to play. Home gaming allowed a much broader dissemination of electronic game playing into the population. Kids, adults, everybody.
People say success is being in the right place at the right time. Do you believe that?
We hit it just at the knee of the curve, where semiconductors became blindingly cheap. I believe that video games would’ve absolutely happened without me. The stuff we did was unique enough that maybe we accelerated it by five years. We ended up with an 85 percent market share of the coin-operated game business. And our only weapon was creativity.
The “ball” in Pong—it was square, not round. That’s because square was …
Are there entrepreneurs today who remind you of the way you started?
I think Mark Zuckerberg is a fascinating entrepreneur, and Facebook is clearly an important thing. I really have some concerns, though, about privacy. Every kid has the right to have their teenage years forgotten. And I think we’re losing that. I can honestly say that I’m glad that my teenage years are mostly forgotten.
What have you learned about gaming over the years?
Games are part of the DNA of most people. The ability to play anywhere, play anything, is bound to be a continuing saga of the world, whether it be smartphones, Oculus Rift, amusement parks, Chuck E. Cheese, what have you. I think it’s all going to be blended into this interactive slurry of fun.
Tell me about one of your Atari employees, Steve Jobs.
Steve had this energy. He’s the only one I’d ever find sleeping under his desk when I’d come in. He had this ability to not just envision but to get people to share his vision. I can think of 10 things he did at Apple that I would’ve thought were impossible. Because several of ’em, I’ve tried and failed at. Like getting music rights—I just wanted to do a downloading jukebox. I couldn’t get any rights, let alone iTunes selling singles for 99¢.