NAME: Nolan Bushnell
DESCRIPTION: First videogame tycoon.
LAST SEEN: Peddling pizza.
Although he invented Pong in the basement of his home 23 years ago, Nolan Bushnell – the once high-flying founder of Atari and father of videogames – was left behind by the billion-dollar vidgame craze and CD-ROMania.
Bushnell’s pioneering startup reached $39 million in annual sales before he sold it in 1976 to the late Steven Ross and his Warner Communications Inc. Bushnell, who made $15 million personally on the deal, is now preparing to open a restaurant in the Silicon Valley.
Long gone are the Lear jets, the 41-foot sailboat and the nubile young women with whom he Jacuzzi’d in photo layouts for newspaper feature stories on the man they dubbed “King Pong.”
“I’m not as rich as I used to be,” admits Bushnell today from his home in Woodside, near San Francisco, where he lives with his second wife and eight children. “But no one’s holding a tin cup for me.”
Atari was a legendary shooting star of the 1980s. Introducing the first game gear to work with home TV sets, the company at its height propelled all of Warner Communications, including a then-faltering Warner Bros. Studio, to the Wall Street stratosphere as investors rushed to cash in on the first new entertainment technology since television.
But the fall was equally steep, precipitated by a power struggle between the free-wheeling Bushnell, his unorthodox creative staff and the tight-ship professional managers brought in by Warners to run the company. They looked askance at the Atari engineers, who came to work in T-shirts and jeans and dreamed up new games during all-night planning sessions at pricy resorts, propelled by joints and brewskis.
Bushnell was ousted from Atari in a board-room putsch in 1978 by Ross’ right hand man, Manny Gerard. Bushnell himself once told the press, “I’m not a very good CEO.” One report said 100,000 dusty game consoles were discovered sitting in a warehouse, but today Bushnell says it wasn’t his fault, that the Warner-installed managers were greedy and short-sighted.
Nonetheless, by 1982 the game company was producing half of Warner’s $4 billion in revenues and two-thirds of the media giant’s profits. But in the wake of Bushnell’s departure, the original creative team had ankled as well, leaving a talent deficit. New products suffered. A game based on Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” (Ross paid $22 million for the license) was a stupendous flop. And competition from other game systems slashed Atari’s market share.
After a stock crash in 1982, Warner sold Atari to Jack Tramiel, who has since revived Bushnell’s creation.
But Bushnell was already busy on his next venture, a chain of eateries that included videogames and activities for tots. Called Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater, the startup also became a Wall Street darling, but the business took a downturn and Bushnell sold it to the Brock Hotel group in 1983.
His new restaurant is called E2000 and will be opening later this year in one of three Silicon Valley towns he won’t name (whichever gives him the best zoning break on parking). He’s hoping it will be the beginning of a whole new way to spend Saturday night.
“It’ll be sort of a Chuck E. Cheese on steroids with an adult component,” he says of the new venture, which has been designed by his old cohorts from Atari, a group of engineers and designers he calls “the Bushnell Mafia.”
A big feature of the restaurant will be videogames, of course, but of the coin-operated arcade variety, including virtual reality and team-linked games. With the competing platforms of Nintendo, Sega, Sony and 3DO heading for a showdown this Christmas, Bushnell says the coin-op and home computer markets are where he’s betting his money.
“I sold Atari too soon and Chuck E. Cheese too late,” he says. “Maybe this time I’ll get it right.”