With the inaugural Amusement Industry Hall of Fame, “of course” is a great way to describe all of the new members and coin-op pioneer Nolan Bushnell is certainly no exception. Undoubtedly worthy of every Hall of Fame he’s in, Bushnell is the founder of Atari (which recently celebrated a 50th anniversary) and Chuck E. Cheese – both instrumental in revolutionizing the video game and FEC industries.
Bushnell began his career in coin-op while in college, managing the games department of a local amusement park. He oversaw two arcades that taught him the economics of the games of the time – cranes, pinballs, Nutting’s Computer Quiz, and the mechanical games that used projectors to create images that simulated driving, like Chicago Coin’s Speedway.
In the winter of his junior year at the University of Utah, he first played Space War in the engineering lab. He knew that if that game were installed in an arcade it would earn significant revenue. The problem was the cost of the components was prohibitive. After graduating and working at Ampex, he grew his digital and video skills and, when the logic chips dropped dramatically in price, he thought that the time was right to build a game for the bar and arcade market.
Upon getting a partial prototype operating, he licensed his first game to Nutting Associates in Mountain View, California, and a year later introduced it at the MOA show in Chicago under the name of Computer Space. While the game was not a huge success, it generated over $3 million in sales and provided sufficient royalties that made it possible to start the company Syzygy. He secured game development contracts from both Nutting and Bally and the company started to grow. In 1972, Syzygy changed its name to Atari and introduced Pong.
The next five years saw over 40 coin-op video games developed and marketed by Atari, as well as a pinball division that created the beloved wide body pinballs that are still a pleasure to play. Atari entered the consumer market in 1975 and its growth exploded.
The development of the 2600 VCS stretched the cash flow, and, when the company was unable to raise capital through an IPO, it was sold to Warner Communications. From there, Nolan’s career in coin-op changed to that of a game operator through the development and franchising of Chuck E. Cheese. Subsequently, a coin-op division of CEC, Sente, created a dozen games before being sold to Midway.