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Atari co-founder returns to his roots

Bushnell is back with new company, game

Nolan Bushnell, considered by some the father of the vidgame biz, is returning to his roots.

The co-founder of Atari (and founder of the Chuck E Cheese restaurant chain), who hasn’t been directly involved with traditional videogame development for 30 years, is back with a new company and game.

His firm, Reality Gap, is exploring a new economic model in games: developing a portable currency that can be used to buy in-game items such as weapons, armor and other upgrades in different titles.

Bushnell says the originality of the currency system was a large part of what drew him back into game development.

“My curse is I like to go where the innovations are,” he says. “I like to go where things are emerging and are interesting to me. … There can be an innovation in videogame graphics or game play, but the really interesting innovations are those in economic models.”

Reality Gap’s currency, called MetaTIX, can be used in two games. The bigger of the two is the recently launched “Battleswarm: Field of Honor,” a free-to-play PC title that blends elements of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games. More titles are forthcoming.

After leaving Atari in 1979 following a dispute with Warner Communications (which bought the company in 1976), Bushnell served on the boards of several vidgame publishers but stayed away from hands-on work. Instead, he focused on ventures such as Chuck E Cheese and, more recently, uWink, a restaurant chain that centers on touchscreen ordering, games and video.

And though he hasn’t had his name tied to a vidgame or game system for three decades, Bushnell balks at any suggestion that he walked away from the biz. He simply explored it from a non-traditional direction, he says.

“I don’t feel like I’ve ever left,” says Bushnell. “I feel like Chuck E Cheese was, in fact, a game experience. When we were designing the crawlways and things like that, it was like a live-action videogame. I perceive the interior of Chuck E Cheese to be a videogame.”

While he focused on food venues, games began to evolve in a more violent and complex direction, alienating a significant part of their initial audience. But Bushnell’s standing in the industry never faded.

“When Microsoft first brought out the Xbox 360, we talked a lot internally about how Atari was so successful in engaging the entire family,” says Chris Donahue, a divisional president at inXile Entertainment and a former director with Microsoft. “If you look at Nolan’s career and the things that he’s done, his vision of gaming and the interactive entertainment medium has always been a broad, all-encompassing one.”

Today, as the Wii lures lapsed gamers back to the medium and casual-themed online gaming portals (such as Pogo.com and Yahoo! Games) continue to grow, Bushnell believes the time is right to re-enter the fray.

He calls the titles that appeal to this sort of player “snacks.”

“They’re snacks of games,” he says. “You can sit down and play for 10 minutes and that’s fine. We find more and more, though, that people sit down to play for 10 minutes, then a couple hours later they finally walk away.”

And though “Battleswarm” is more a full course than a snack, it’s immaterial whether the masses embrace that particular title. As long as they find a Reality Gap game that appeals to them, Bushnell notes, it benefits his company.

Bushnell, it’s clear, still knows how to play the game.


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