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Nolan Bushnell

Developer Biography

Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, attended college in Utah. There was a hugely popular game on the college's computer called Spacewar; possibly the very first computer game ever created.

During the summers, Bushnell worked at an amusement park, managing the games department. It was here that he first conceived of the idea of combining the idea of low-priced amusements with computer technology and creating coin-operated computer games.

He graduated in 1970 and landed his first job working for Ampex, the Sunnyvale California company which first invented video tape. He pitched the idea of putting a coin-operated version of Spacewar into penny arcades. Dabney was very enthusiastic about the idea.

The two soon found themselves devoting their entire weekends to designing a coin-operated Spacewar game. In March of 1971, Bushnell quit his job with Ampex in order to work on his Spacewar project full time. He sold the game to Nutting Associates, a manufacturer of coin operated games and, in fact, joined the company as its chief engineer so that he could refine and produce the game. Nutting built 1500 units and sold the game under the name "Computer Space".

Bushnell's engineering friends liked the game so much that they would camp out in his backyard just to play it. Unfortunately, the general public didn't share the enthusiasm. No-one outside of Bushnell's circle of friends seemed interested in the game at all.

Bushnell decided that the lack of public response was due to the fact that Computer Space was just too complicated. People didn't want to have to read a lot of instructions and they didn't want a steep learning curve. Bushnell decided that what was needed was a game that was so simple and intuitive that anyone would immediately understand how to play it without having to read any instructions. As he puts it in his famous phrase, also known as Nolan's Theorem:

All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.
To which Mike Albaugh (as reported by Joe Decuir) added:

The best games can be played with one hand, so you can have your beer or your girlfriend in the other.
Nolan proposed to Nutting that he should design a simpler coin-operated computer game than Spacewar. Nutting was enthusiastic about the idea. Because he was the brains behind the coin-operated video game concept, Bushnell requested a 1/3 ownership of the company. Nutting, in turn, offered him 5% and then only if he agreed to stay on as an Engineer. This didn't satisfy Bushnell, who quit Nutting and set about forming his own company with the help of his old partner, Ted Dabney.

The original name chosen for Bushnell and Dabney's company was "Syzygy" which refers to the straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies. The partners liked this name but couldn't use it as it had already been taken by a roofing company.

While racking is brain for an alternate name, Bushnell got an inspiration from the Japanese game of "Go", which was one of his favorite games at the time. In this game, a player would say the word "atari" when he was about to surround his opponent's piece, much like a player announces "check" in the game of chess. Bushnell and Dabney finally agreed upon this word as the name of their new company.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Contributed by Halmanator (583) on Oct 30, 2005. [revised by : General Error (4142)].