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Atari founder Bushnell jumps into mobile with Spil Games

Nolan playing Ping Pong with Spill Games.
Source: Spil Games
Nolan playing Ping Pong with Spill Games.

Forty years after Atari founder Nolan Bushnell tapped Steve Jobs to create arcade game "Breakout," a mobile games publisher is returning the favor.

Bushnell is collaborating with Spil Games, a publisher located near Amsterdam, to create five to eight mobile apps. The first one is expected in early 2017, and the rest will likely hit over the course of the next year or so, Bushnell said in an interview with CNBC.com.

Since leaving Atari in 1978, Bushnell has helped start or been involved with numerous tech businesses focused on robotics, education and anti-aging games. Bushnell said that over the past 15 years, he's designed about 30 games, both single player and player to player, but without ever looking to get them on the market.

That changed when he noticed recently that Supercell's "Clash of Clans" generates millions of dollars in revenue a day thanks to its popularity on smartphones. The global digital games market grew 8 percent last year to $61 billion, according to SuperData Research.

Bushnell started looking for the right team to help turn his ideas into apps and landed on Spil, which has over 100 million monthly active users and focuses on casual games.

"I talked to them and decided that they had a corporate culture that was very similar to Atari when I was leaving — great people with a fun attitude," Bushnell said. "They've got really good stuff, great analytics and a really good understanding of marketplaces."

Bushnell said he's been stealthily working with Spil for about six months and plans to visit the company every other month. The rest of his input will come over Skype and in helping fine-tune apps after the Spil team develops prototypes.

Spil's titles include"Operate Now," "Sara's Cooking Class" and "Crash Drive 2," and are available on Apple's iOS platform as well as Android devices and the web.

"Our team has the right skills and track record working on multimillion-dollar franchises," Spil CEO Tung Nguyen-Khac said in an e-mailed statement. "We're stoked to be working with Nolan and feeding off his energy and creativity."

Bushnell, 73, has come a long way since Atari created electronic tennis game "Pong" in 1972 and distributed it to bars and bowling alley arcades. Four years later, a 21-year-old Steve Jobs, who had joined Atari in 1974, was tasked with developing "Breakout," described as "`Pong' turned on its side," but with the added flare of colored blocks that players tried to hit with a virtual ball.

For help, Jobs turned to his future Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who at the time worked for Hewlett-Packard. Jobs earned $5,000 for his efforts and paid Wozniak $350.

"I would gladly have designed the `Breakout' game for Atari for free, just to do it," Wozniak later wrote on his website. "I thought that Atari was one of the most important companies in the world and it was an honor to be close to them."

Later that year, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications, and in 1978 Bushnell was fired over disagreements with management regarding the direction of Atari.

In developing mobile games for the first time, Bushnell is angling to avoid the drama of corporate life. He's not an employee — just a collaborator. The way Bushnell sees it, this partnership presents a fun challenge, and he doesn't currently have a company to run.

"I had a little bit of time," he said. "A lot of times I make decisions because things just seem right."