Nolan Key Bushnell is an American engineer and entrepreneur who founded both Atari, Inc. and the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza-Time Theaters chain. Bushnell has been inducted into the Video Game Hall of Fame and the Consumer Electronics Association Hall of Fame, received the BAFTA Fellowship and the Nations Restaurant News “Innovator of the Year” award, and was named one of Newsweek's "50 Men Who Changed America." Bushnell has started more than twenty companies and is one of the founding fathers of the video game industry. He is currently on the board of Anti-Aging Games, but his latest venture is an educational software company called Brainrush that is using video game technology in educational software, incorporating real brain science, in a way that Bushnell believes will fundamentally change education. Nolan, who is co-founder and chairman of Brainrush, believes that Brainrush will be his biggest success. Nolan is credited with Bushnell's Law, an aphorism about games "easy to learn and difficult to master" being rewarding.
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You probably know me for founding Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, for starting beer and pizza Fridays in the tech industry, and for turning down 1/3 ownership of Apple. I also wrote a book called Finding the Next Steve Jobs. These days I'm focused on education and how we can combine games with brain science to accelerate learning at BrainRush!
Edit: All done for today. Thanks for your interest - I'll do it again if you'd like.
Is it true that you had beer on tap in your office when you were at Atari?
Yes, and at Chuck E. Cheese. And at all of my companies.
Have you ever taken the 8 kids into a Chuck E. Cheese?
Many, many, many times! And yes, they loved it as much as most of the rest of America does. After I sold it, they were mad at me because they couldn't get as many free tokens as they wanted.
I don't know if you are aware of this; but there are people on youtube who own the robotics from Chuck E. Cheese and then make them peform hardcore rap songs.
Are you aware of this and if you are, what is your favorite one?
Not Chuck E. Cheese - just the dreaded animals from Showbiz Pizza which Chuck E. purchased in the late 80s.
Did Steve Jobs really stink that bad that he had to be relegated to work the night shift??
Yeah. I knew that Jobs and Woz were fast friends and Woz worked days at HP. If I put Jobs on the night shift, I'd get two Steves for the price of one. A very good business proposition.
Hi Nolan! What was the best piece of advice you received early in your career?
Bob Noyce, one of the founders at Intel, told me, "If you think the other guy's business is easy, it means you don't know enough about it." It's very easy to think of a business from the opportunity side when in fact there are many hard obstacles that have to be beaten to be successful.
What's the biggest lesson you learned at Atari or Chuck E. Cheese that you wish you had known before you started?
Don't sell to big Hollywood studios. Atari had an extraordinary corporate culture that was destroyed within 2 years of the sale. I think that Atari would still be important today if that sale hadn't occurred.
I’m a young engineer who likes the idea of being an entrepreneur. What advice can you give to people who are trying to pursue a dream of starting a company but who are not quite sure how or where to start?
Thank you for doing this AMA.
The most important part of starting your first business is to right-size it. Don't start out thinking you're going to do twitter or facebook. But do something you can fund with the money that is in your wallet - get some experience with a little tiny company that you can do in your spare time. Train yourself. I've seen too many startups in which it's like they want to play in the big leagues before they played any sandlot baseball.
Favorite videogame, go.
Also, what's your very best life advice?
Not only is Go a great game, I think it's also good discipline for your brain for being an entrepreneur. In business, you need to think far ahead in playing your moves sequentially. When you play a lot of chess or Go, that makes your mind always think about strategies in a sequential way - which is very helpful.
Edit: Actually my favorite video games in the coin-op space were Tempest and Breakout - Steve Jobs worked on Breakout for me. Currently I like Portal a lot.
Who would you hire to act as yourself and your peers in a movie of your life?
My life rights were optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio and they are currently in development in a movie about me. I think he'd be great to play me :) Or perhaps Liam Neeson.
Ever seen that New Mexico landfill?
I've not seen it, but I helped the people who did the movie on it and saw the movie and wished I had been there.
Hey Nolan! What's it like to be the exact same guy to create Chuck. E. Cheese and Atari, AND BrainRush? Weird? Fascinating?
Are you sad that you turned down 1/3 ownership of Apple?
Thanks for doing the AMA!
EDIT: Thanks for telling me about the book Finding the Next Steve Jobs. I'll definitely buy it.
It's been fun working on very different projects. It keeps me from being bored. As for turning down 1/3 of Apple for 50,000 dollars, what do you think? I regret it. :(
Do you consider Wink a business failure? Was it just ahead of time, seeing how many restaurants adopt tablets for ordering and menu?
Yes. The company was just beginning to have traction when the '08 recession hit. Because the company was still in the fragile stage, it couldn't sustain the downturn. I view it as my mistake because I chose to grow instead of cutting back, hunkering down, and waiting for the economy to rebound.
How do you feel about people still playing the games your company created over 30 years later?
First of all, I created the technology. Most of the games were really created by my technologists. For example, even Pong was made by Al Alcorn - though I injected ideas, I feel that he was the true architect of that game. What Atari did was take a tremendous amount of care making sure that the reaction time and the difficulty was very finely tuned. And that's what makes a really good game. A really good game that is timeless.
How do you feel about adult versions of Chuck E. Cheese like say Dave & Buster's ?
I love public space entertainment and gameplay. I can think of about 20 things that could make a tremendous entertainment location using some of the cool technology that is just coming online. For example, I think there will be some great games coming from the platform that Google calls Project Tango. It will be too expensive for homes, but it will really rock in bars and restaurants!
I'm a teacher and I listened to a talk you did about BrainRush a couple of years ago. My question is: video games, pizza, and now education? Why?
Thanks for doing this AMA!
I learned how to motivate kids. That skill applied to education in my estimation is a noble work. As I get older, I ask the question, "what would I like my legacy to be?" And one of the answers comes back - I would like to impact education in an extremely positive way.
what would be your best advice for people who want nothing more in life than to be rich?
In general, the people who get rich are driven by the project more than by the money. Many times in entrepreneurship, you're actually making less than minimum wage, sometimes for years. People who just want to get rich seldom have that personal discipline and therefore fail to achieve that rich goal.
What was your initial reaction when Nintendo intended to release their console in the United States?
Also, can you tell me anything about the copy of Pong you had installed in Khartoum? My mom said that one of the first arcade cabinets developed was Pong in Khartoum. So I'm curious about it.
Thanks for stopping by.
Actually, to my knowledge we never had a Pong in Khartoum. The first install was in Andy Caps in Sunny Valley. Khartoum was very special however because it was owned by my wife's father and I met her when she was working there. We dated, fell in love, married, had kids, and are married to this day.
Thanks for answering!
What would you say was your favorite creating: Atari, Chuck E. Cheese, or BrainRush?
Atari was the most frightening because I was really young and dumb. And everybody in the business was bigger, had better presence in the marketplace, and had more cash. In the early days of Atari, we were totally unable to raise venture capital - so we were outgunned in every direction. Our only weapon was that were the most creative and slowly but surely that difference allowed us to secure an 85% market share.
Even though it was most frightening, I think it represented the most fun.
What would you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I consider my 8 children who are all creative, cool, and well-adjusted as both the hardest thing to accomplish and the most rewarding. In the business world, I am working on fundamentally changing the way people learn which I think will have the greatest impact of anything I've ever done.
With the Atari you were at the cutting edge of technology back in the day. If you were starting today, as a technology entrepreneur, what technologies would you focus on?
I think that robots and entertainment will be very important in the future. I'm also very interested in businesses that will be enabled by autonomous or auto-drive cars. There will also be an interesting intersection between computers and biology. Harder tech, but important, is nanotech i.e. micromachines.
How do I turn a concept into a reality?
First step is really research a product plan. Know intimately the feature set. I even like to make a sell sheet as if the product already exists. Once you have that, go out and try to sell it to people - if you can, you're on the right track. If you can't, you should probably keep working on it.
what did you learn from trying the robot cafe concept -- anything you'd like to bring back from it?
I found that two-thirds of the population loved it and the last third hated it. Kids universally loved it, particularly ages 10-20. I think that adding games as well as automatic ordering will clearly be the fast food and the quick-casual structure of the future.
I mostly would just like to say thank you so much..
As my name implies I had Juvenile Rheumatory Arthritis and boy did Atari help to distract. Prior to a proper diagnosis (which took 2 years,) I spent a particular special 3 weeks in a hospital for monitoring with 3 times a day blood draws. I only remember it as a positive experience. 95% of which was because the nurses felt bad for me and let me bring in my Atari. I remember spending countless hours playing millipede and breakout with the different nurses as they would change shifts. Being grown as I am, looking back at this thought makes me realize how well I had it - sitting at the end of a bed with a constant supply of all hot (okay my brain may have embellished a bit,) nurses playing breakout and skipping school...
Because of this, breakout and Atari for that matter will always be special to me.
What video games would you say were your favorite from that era? ( please say break out, please say break out.)
Thank you again for the great things you've added to our lives,
Hello Mr. Bushnell! I'm a game journalist and I'm wondering, what are your thoughts on what gaming has grown into? In particular, what do you think about game journalism? I'm interested in being an honest journo- but there are a lot of issues in the field (payola, bribery, all sorts of nasty business).
Also, thanks for doing this AMA!
Most parts of the business I find are pretty straightforward, honest, serious people. In any business where there's a lot money, you find a few crooks. An interesting part of the game business now are the youtube channels that teach gameplay tricks and commentary. This is something very new and interesting - where it will lead, who knows. Minecraft is more fun after you take a few tutorials.
How do you think it would have changed the landscape of computing today if you had decided to take the plunge and own a share of Apple?
I learned from Back to the Future that if you change a little thing, everything could have changed. For example, instead of me investing, I introduced Steve to Don Valentine, who introduced Jobs to Mike Markala, who was the president of Apple in the early days and was adult supervision - that was critical for Steve.
Hey Nolan! On your Wikipedia page is does not comment on the high school that you attended. Did you attend Davis High School?
Yeah, I attended Davis - I was a Dart!
Why is there so little atari stuff at the computer history museum?
In some ways the video games, particularly in the early days, were not actually computers. Meaning they were not von Neumann Architecture - they were digital clock-driven signal generators that were very complex. TV screens like to receive data at 3.5 MHz. Computers in those days thought they were going fast at 500 kHz. We were able to figure out a way to use basic chips to play a simple-purpose game. It wasn't until '77 that 6502 even came close to being fast enough and even then we had to design a support chip or television interface chip (codename: Stella) to get it to go fast enough.
Pong didn't have a square ball because we thought it was cool - it was just the only thing we could do.
What were your original dreams growing up? Did you ever think of making revolutionary game systems and a huge franchise?
My original dream growing up was to be an imagineer with Disney. They didn't want me at the time so I had to invent the video game.
As a revolutionary in the video game/tech industry and considering your new approach fusing games with education, what are your views on technology's place in our everyday lives? What are the biggest dangers/benefits and how do you personally strike the balance between the digital world and the "real" world?
I really think BrainRush's ideas could dramatically change how education is done for future generations, so thank you in advance for encouraging the learning of my future children and grandchildren!
I think that certain types of learning should be done by computers and teachers should help put that knowledge into context. The balance comes when kids are taught by projects and with coaches.
If you study the brain science on how people learn, it is very different than the classroom structure of lecture/homework/test. We have found that we can accelerate foundational knowledge by at least a factor of 10 and have the student have fun while they are learning! If we can keep students motivated and not bored, we can win this game.