Atari's console suicide left PS4 and Xbox to prosper, says founder

16th Sep 2013 | 14:55

Atari's console suicide left PS4 and Xbox to prosper, says founder

Fallen gaming giant's founder wishes he could go back in time and take a vacation

Nolan Bushnell still thinks about the vacation that he should have taken back in 1976.

The man who founded Atari along with Ted Dabney says that if he had just taken a break, he would not have started a catalogue of events that he believes doomed the gaming giant.

With the next generation of consoles about to arrive, he firmly believes that Atari consoles would be competing with Xbox One and PS4, but for a bad decision that he regretted soon after making.

37 years on, and he tells TechRadar that the stresses and strains of running one of the fastest growing companies of all time had left him drained. And it was this that made him take the fateful decision to sell the company to Warner.

Nolan Bushnell key facts
alan mulally - CEO of Ford
  • Co-founded Atari in 1972
  • Hired Jobs and Wozniak
  • Turned down stake in Apple
  • Sold Atari for $28 million

"Absolutely Atari could be competing with Xbox and PlayStation today," he tells us. "Under Warner it committed suicide. It wasn't homicide, it was self-inflicted stupidity. What you had was a bunch of record guys thinking they knew what the game business was about - I could catalogue the screw ups they made.

"I would have liked to have taken Atari to another level. If I could go back in time I would not sell to Warner. Take the company public, raise money that way - I think I should have just taken a vacation.

"You are going so fast, and a lot of people don't realise that when you are growing you are a consumer of capital - and so I was constantly chasing things like payroll! Even though we were profitable and growing, we were just chewing through capital."

"It felt like a relief at the time to sell it, but about six months later I regretted it.

"The thing that really wakes you up is when the new management goes in a direction that you think is absolutely bloody stupid and you just say: 'You don't have a clue,' and they say: 'Nolan, this isn't your company anymore.'"

All mine

"The early days of Atari were like being on the back of a kangaroo - they were heady times"

Bushnell's exit from Atari clearly remains a source of regret. He refers to the company "as my first big one," adding: "It represented turning me from a baby entrepreneur to an adolescent at least, and I learned so much.

"Oh man the early days of Atari were like being on the back of a kangaroo - they were heady times.

"I still game - I like Minecraft right now - but I can say that I like it and I love it and I play it, but I'm real close to being over it.

"I lose interest when I feel like I've explored the vertices of what's going on. No, I won't be at the front of a queue for Xbox or PlayStation."

It's fair to say that Bushnell did not rest on his laurels after Atari's sale and his subsequent exit from the company he still loves. He also came up with Chuck-E-Cheese restaurants, Etak digital mapping and a whole host of other ideas, many of which were well ahead of their time.

"Bright shiny objects are fun," he explains when we ask him about his scattergun approach to what he involves himself in. "I think they call that magpie syndrome. I just love new things, and once I've got that figured out that's kind of good enough for me in most cases.

How Atari killed itself

"When I say: 'Gee, if I'd stuck that out I'd have made four or 10 times as much money,' I think: 'I've got as much money as I need.' And I know that had I been as big a workaholic as I could have been, I wouldn't have nearly the relationship I have with my kids."

Work-life balance is something Bushnell sees a lot of people getting wrong: "There's this thing that happens in Silicon Valley now where the exception is that the kids are not screwed up."

Live and learn

"I like to do something completely different every year of my life"

Bushnell, who has just given a keynote at the O2 Campus Party in London, starts the interview visibly exhausted, but his enthusiasm for his current project - an adaptive learning game called BrainRush that is straight out of Ender's Game, and which adapts to each person using it, and has already proven itself a remarkably effective tutor - is palpable.

"In every business that has been a success in my life, there has been this point when I knew it was the right thing at the right time. Not just thinking but knew - and that point happened about nine months ago with BrainRush.

"I started getting results back and found out that the game was teaching kids 10 times faster. When you start on any project and think, 'If I can go two to one better then I've got a business,' then when you are doing it 10 times as fast it's incredible.

"You know that if you don't make a good business out of it then you are an idiot. Hang it up, go home."

My robot

Bushnell's current crop of projects includes immersive theatre, and a South Park-a-like animation for YouTube that will use Machinama and appeal to his tech friends. He's also helping some friends with an idea for an internet connected toilet that gathers medical data from your excretions.

"I like to do something completely different every year of my life," he tells us.

But he does have a regret that he hopes to assuage within the next few years - building a personal robot.

"I have got to do a personal robot otherwise all the money I've lost trying to do a personal robot in the past, instead of being an education, will be a loss.

"I think the technology is almost there. You know, low-power processing and sensoring is getting really good, and all the things that used to be hard but not impossible are now becoming easy and cheap.

"Look at accelerometers and gyroscopes now - that's a 20 cent chip. I mean, Jesus Christ, the accelerometers we had in the first Etak prototype were 300 bucks and they weren't as accurate as the ones that were in the iPhone. That was 10 years ago."

You can't but wonder just what would have happened if Bushnell had managed to take a break back in 1976. But his enthusiasm for pushing on to the next big thing suggests that even running a gaming giant would not have been enough to capture his full attention.

Atari BrainRush Norton Bushnell robot console
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