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Atari Founder Looks Forward; Gets Back Into the Game

Today’s video game players don’t give a second thought to being able to play online with friends in other states. Multiplayer is just another feature of the game.

Nolan Bushnell
Nolan Bushnell
Nolan Bushnell

But in 1976 the idea was revolutionary – too revolutionary, it turned out.

Atari had hoped to introduce AtariTel, an at-the-time brand new concept that would have let players in different locations play Pong and other popular games on the home entertainment system against each other.

“I perceived people being able to play over the telephone line,” says Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari. “We hadn’t envisioned the Internet, but we envisioned what was called a bulletin board service, where you could play over telephone lines.”

Call it a pre-curser to BattleNet, Blizzard Entertainment’s exceedingly popular online matchmaking service for “StarCraft.”

Atari, at this point, was a subsidiary of Warner Communications (now Time Warner ), though. And Warner, says Bushnell, “thought the idea was silly.”

Three years later, Bushnell left Atari amid a dispute with Warner and went on to found the Chuck E. Cheese pizza chain. Since then, he has served on the board of directors for many game publishers, but has not been directly involved with making video games.

Until now.

Bushnell has re-entered the industry, co-founding Reality Gap, a publisher exploring a new in-game economic model that can be transported across multiple titles.

The idea is a simple one. The currency (called MetaTIX) is akin to a virtual recreation of the tokens Bushnell used at Chuck E. Cheese. The value is flexible and, in this case, universal. Players can buy upgrades for their characters or weapons in any Reality Gap published games.

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“What we wanted to be able to do was create a world,” he says. “We wanted to be able to create a monetary system and let it grow and be very important. … We’re already seeing cross-utilization. In the first few days of turning everything on, we had entrepreneurs who were hiring people and paying them in MetaTIX. We’re seeing all the marks of a budding economy.”

The company currently has two games live, but is looking to add to its stable. It’s talking with developers who are interested in creating titles that use a virtual economy, but don’t want to go through the arduous and expensive process of setting up the system.

The microtransaction model is not a new one in gaming, but publishers focusing on it have typically targeted hardcore gamers. Bushnell says he saw an opportunity to bring it to a more widespread base of players.

Right now, many casual games allow players to begin playing for free, then charge $20 for the full game. Bushnell thinks asking that much erects a wall that alienates a large percentage of the customer base.

“In any economic, what you want to do is flatten out the cost/benefit curve,” he says. “There are some really big discontinuities in the casual game market. You can make more money if you can find a way to flatten that market out -- so if you want to play it a little bit (of a casual game), you can pay $3. If you want to play a little more, then pay $5. Or, if you want to play the whole thing, then you pay $19.95.”

Reality Gap’s games, for now, are PC exclusives. The online component, ironically, is critical to the company’s success. Bushnell, though, doesn’t rule out a potential console presence in the future.

He’s a big fan of Nintendo, he says. The company’s efforts to bring video games back to the mass market were a factor in his decision to return to the industry. But from a coding perspective, he’s more likely to partner first with a different console maker.

“I would guess if we were to make the next transition it would be to Xbox Live Arcade,” he says. “Coding-wise, the step from where we are to there is much easier.”

While he hasn’t had anything to do with Atari for three decades, Bushnell still keeps an eye on the company he founded. While the last several years have been punishing ones for Atari, he thinks it may actually be about to turn the corner.

“Infogrames (which owns Atari) two or three years ago was a total mess,” he says. “The whole company was a hairball. I think in the last little while, they’ve been doing some interesting things. I think their acquisition of (developer) Cryptic (studios) was a good one. I’m actually a fan of (CEO) David Gardner. I think he’s a smart guy and I respect him highly.”