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Nolan Bushnell and Atari on Pong, Steve Jobs, and touch interfaces

As I've posted here on TUAW a few times before, Atari is currently in the middle of a developer competition to have some creative developers put together some new iOS games based on the idea of remaking Pong for a new generation. Along with Nolan Bushnell, Atari's original founder and one of Pong's original creators, I'm also serving at Atari's request as one of the judges on the competition. Last week, Atari hosted a sitdown with the two of us here in Los Angeles, and I got the chance to talk to both Bushnell about his history and what he expected to see from the contest, as well as with Giancarlo Mori, the Executive Vice President at Atari behind the contest.

Bushnell has a very famous long history with video games -- not only did he co-found Atari and produce many of the most fundamental and popular titles from that company over the years, but he also founded the Chuck E. Cheese pizza chain, and has over the years been involved with all kinds of impressive and valuable tech ventures. As you might expect, Bushnell is currently working with a few companies on iOS titles, and he says one of the things that most interests him about Apple's platform currently is the emerging technique of augmented reality. "The intersection between the real world and gameplay," he told me. "I feel like that's the area where there's an awful lot to be discovered."

Bushnell's also interested in the iPhone's offerings of microgames, little tiny ideas or short segments of games that he says can be played "in between subway stops. The fact that you can set up a game before the doors open -- it's lightly casual and very seamless. Hard to do." Bushnell won't reveal exactly what he's working on yet, but his thoughts lately head in that direction.

And of course he's always thinking about interfaces. Bushnell says he hasn't seen developers really take advantage of the iPhone's built-in accelerometer and gyroscope just yet. "It feels to me like there should be a sword fighting game out there, where it's just me against something," he says. "But the problem is you have your motion controller, but now you can't watch it. Maybe you use the iPhone as a controller and the iPad as the image, some kind of interaction."

I also talked with Bushnell about his early experiences with Steve Jobs, who was hired on as a technician before Jobs and Woz founded Apple itself. "I hadn't realized until Isaacson's book," said Bushnell, "that I was as much of a mentor to Steve as I was. He basically lived just below me in Woodside for many, many years, before he moved down to Palo Alto, and he'd just walk up the hill to my house and we'd go on and bullshit about stuff. We kept in contact -- I'm writing a book right now called 'Finding the Next Steve Jobs,' because I was one of the few people that ever gave him a job."

Bushnell says even at that early point in his career, Steve stood out. "The thing that people miss about Steve is that Steve was very, very driven and very passionate. He was an enthusiastic individual about everything. He had one speed and it was full blast," says Bushnell. Some of the qualities Jobs is now known for were some of the reasons he first was able to join on at Atari back in the early '70s. "We looked at what people did in their spare time, how diverse they were. We never looked at grades, college degrees. One of the best engineers at Atari never graduated from high school, and he was one of the prime architects for the 2600."

Bushnell says that attitude at Atari definitely shaped Apple as a company later on. "We were focused on merit. And the fact that we can go to work in tennis shoes and a t-shirt started at Atari and it was taken to Apple. Because we said this is a meritocracy, we don't care where you go to school, when you come to work, we don't care if you come to work, we don't care where you are we you are at work. You get the job done, we're happy."

Finally, I asked Bushnell what he's looking forward to seeing in this contest, and he says one thing he'd love to see is the original idea that Pong was based on when it was first created. "The only thing that I kind of somewhat wanted to see is that we had this vision of what Pong was going to be at the very onset, and that was you position a little man with a paddle, and you position it with controller and there was a button, and so you'd position it and hit the button and you'd swing it." In the end, that design was left behind, because just building the paddles as blocks turned out to be enough. "We got the game designed to the point where we had just the paddle, and said this was fun enough, just stop there," says Bushnell. "I've never seen that game that we had very clearly in our brain, and on a blackboard, and so on."

Bushnell says that remaking Pong these days would be much different, first and foremost because the tools have come such a long way. Xcode is a much easier way to program than having to deal directly with machine code on often underpowered processors. But there's also a "fundamental disconnect" between touchscreens and video game controls, says Bushnell. "It turns out that Pong is massively fun if you have basically instantaneous response to a knob. A knob specifically. And the reason for it is that small muscle coordination is much better than large muscle coordination. And it turns out when you're on an iPad, it's not the same doing this [swiping across the screen] as doing this [turning a knob]. You get a much finer level of precision and play. And so if you had to play Pong with a joystick, it would have been a failure."

In Bushnell's mind, that's the biggest challenge to the 90 entrants who've joined up for Atari's contest. Mori says that Atari (who will make the final decision in the contest), is looking for three things from the winners. "How faithful it is to the original concept and spirit of Pong, how creative it is and innovative it is, and is it a Pong for the future and the new millenium?"

Mori says 90 submissions is very high for a contest like this -- in the past, he's seen only single digits or a little higher in complex development competitions of this sort. "And the interesting thing," he says, "is that there wasn't anything that was bad. I couldn't recall one submission where you'd say, 'That's a bad one.' There were a few that were clearly not in line with the guidelines of the contest, but there was nothing in the entries that were really bad."

"We had really three classes," he says of the entries so far. "There were ones that were very much a high concept, one or two pages. There were ones that were still by and large in a game design stage only, but it was a full game design document. And there were a few that were actually playable games, a lot more than a proof of concept." The semi-finalists chosen for the contest have about a month to refine their entries, and then we the judges will get a look at them and have our say. After that, it's up to Atari to choose the winner, to pick up a nice cash prize, along with the opportunity to have the games published by Atari directly.

Bushnell just wants to see how the current iOS platform does at finding the fun he and his technicians found four decades ago. "Our muscle memory is so precise on certain things," he says. "What we're looking for with an interface is for the interface to go away and have our mind connected to the object on screen directly. When you're typing, you forget that you're typing -- you're just putting words down. And Pong's that way." Hopefully these entrants can reach that point, where we're directly interacting with a game rather than thinking about it, with their submissions for the contest.

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