Atari’s Nolan Bushnell

The father of the video game industry, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, joins us to talk about the future of eSports, his love of pinball, and how the explosion of casual mobile gaming is the legacy of the Atari 2600. Plus, why he feels Apple is no longer innovating, how he was pranked hard by Steve Wozniak, and why the self driving car will be the ultimate Augmented Reality pod. But we start with this unfortunate business about Alan’s trip to Thailand for a “cleanse”, so sorry about that. Really.

This week Shane Alexander looks at the history of music in video games, and the surprising number of major rock stars who have scored soundtracks for your pew-pew-pew:

The History of Video Game Soundtracks

Video game soundtracks – a bit of a history

Music in video games were once limited to synthesizers supplying simple melodies. This inspired its own style of music known as chiptunes – a style of synthesized electronic music made using the PSG sound chips in vintage arcade machines, computers and video game consoles. As the technology advanced, video game music has matured to include the same texture as television and film scores. This allows more creative freedom. The simple synthesizer is still present, but games now include orchestral pieces and pop music.

The music is now heard everywhere – as soon as you turn the game on, basically. From the options menu to bonus content screen, as well as during the entire gameplay. Today’s soundtracks – like in a movie or television show – create a mood.

Konami’s 1981 arcade game, Frogger, had a gnarly approach to video game music. They used at least eleven different gameplay tracks and had level-starting and game over themes. This changed depending on the player’s moves. The team went a level-up with Namco’s 1982 arcade game Dig Dug. This is where the music stopped if the player stopped moving. The composer for Dig Dug, Yuriko Keino, also composed the music for other Namco games Xevious and Phozon.

Fast forward to late-1980s when the quality of composition improved drastically. Composers were starting to get more coin, and video game music was being sold as cassette tape soundtracks in Japan. This inspired North American companies such as Sierra, Cinemaware and Interplay to step their game up. 1886 saw The Golden Joystick Awards introduce a category for “Best Soundtrack of the Year”. The nod went to Sanxion.

Few notable video game soundtracks

Super Mario Bros.(1985)

Even with a rich history, when most people hear the phrase video game music, it’s safe bet that the first ditty that comes to mind is the opening tune to the original Super Mario Bros. Whimsical, bouncy and at a perfect tempo to keep you leaping forward.

Halo 2 (2004)

The original Halo saw what’ll become the series signature, choir-heavy theme song and the third game ended with an emotional piano number that offered what we though was a definite closure to Master Chief’s story.

Rayman Legends (2013)

Ubisoft Montpellier did something neat here. They worked its music directly into its game’s mechanics. Each world ends with a lightening fast sequence to a popular rock or pop song. “Black Betty” and “Eye of the Tiger” mixed with Raymen’s oddball humour. For example, “Eye of the Tiger” is played in its entirety on kazoo.

What have been the best video game soundtracks for 2018?

Here are the most popular video game soundtracks for 2018 according to A Closer Listen.

  • Ben Prunty ~ Into the Breach
  • DVA ~ Cherries On Air – Chuchel OST
  • fingerspit ~ The Red Strings Club
  • Hammock ~ Far Cry 5
  • Jesper Kyd ~ Warhammer: Vermintide 2
  • Joe Hisaishi ~ Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
  • Joel Bille ~ Fe
  • Jukio Kallio ~ Minit
  • Lena Raine ~ Celeste
  • Thommaz K ~ Dandara


You might be too busy saving the princess or shooting your way out of an army base to realize but these artists wrote music for video games.

Michael Jackson, the sonic hedgehog

We thought it was an internet tall tail for a while, but it ends up being true. The King of Pop wrote music for Sega’s 1994 release of Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Jackson was first set to compose all the music for the game. However that move backfired at the last minute with all the scandals he was going through at the time. A lot of his work got dropped, however, a few pieces did make the game.

Which ones? Not sure. Jackson did not wish to be credited because he was unhappy with the quality of sound the Sega Mega Drive’s Yamaha YM-2612 sound chip produced. Players have pointed to three songs in particular that might been composed by Jackson. “The Ice Cap Zone” theme, the end-credits music, and the “Carnival Night Zone” (hear above). These three sound like they all have the magic touches from the gloved one.

Paul’s Destiny was to write for a video game

Sir Paul wrote a song for Destiny, a follow-up to the popular Halo series.  That must be big bucks to get the talents of an ex-Beatle to front your games soundtrack, right? Nope. Here’s what the game’s community manager said:

There was no check involved, big or otherwise. He’s in it for the creativity. He got a wonderful opportunity to reach an audience that wouldn’t typically be immersed in Paul McCartney. They might hear the name — of course he’s everywhere, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics, obviously he’s touring and recording nonstop — but he sees it as a way to reach a new audience that might not otherwise hear his music.

Beck Shaped the Sound for this video game

Truth be told, nobody at  Queasy Games wanted to work with Beck. The backstory is this: the video game had a very strong indie feel and Sony, the game’s publisher, had kept the red tape to a minimum. So, throwing a huge rock star into the mix would over-complicate things, they thought. However, the deal ended up being them producing what gamers consider to be the highlight of the Sound Shapes experience. “Cities” is pure Beck-ery. Gloom and groove, presenting a weird mix between the song and the visuals on screen. The backdrop of a war-torn metropolis and a dance-able beat. The “Loser” singer sings of a dead city as the refrain  “You weren’t made for this place/ It’s not your fault,” billows from smoke stacks, while missiles, bulldozers, and other instruments of destruction strut along to the beat. It’s Sound Shapes at its very best.

Trent Reznor’s love for video games

Video games have always been near and dear to the Nine Inch Nails singer’s heart. He remembers one of the most fun times he had was stealing change from his grandmother’s jar to play Space Invaders. As fate would have it, an employee at game manufacturer, id Software, was a massive NIN fan. When he got word that Reznor had an equal admiration for video games, they put Reznor to work. Reznor created the soundtrack for Quake. Fun fact: if you look closely, you’ll notice that the NIN logo appears on the ammo for the Nailgun – a weapon that they named after Reznor’s band. The soundtrack for the video game has done so well, they put it on vinyl.

Nolan Bushnell Interview Transcript


Michael: That it was like pulling teeth just getting beeps and boops out of the early day’s machines. How important was audio to a video game experience for you in the early days?

Nolan: We started in the coin-op phase, and that was very important because we knew that if we added good sound, the revenue would go up. The number of quarters put into a machine would increase.

Michael: You could actually see a direct relationship between the quality of the music and sound in a video game and the number of times a quarter got pumped in?

Nolan: I’m not sure that it was quality, but sometimes volume. But at the same time, it couldn’t be too obnoxious ’cause the people who worked there, if it was too obnoxious, they’d just unplug the machine. So you had to have a balance.

Michael: But you also had to cut through the noise of an arcade and that being the machines on either side of your particular machine. So what was the secret to an effective musical score? Could you even call it a score back in the early and late ’70s?

Nolan: Probably the earliest where there was any kind of real score was probably after we’d been in business for over probably six years.

Michael: So well past the launch of the VCS, the Atari 2600.

Nolan: Yeah, ’cause the early games were not Von Neumann architecture, that is there was no software. It wasn’t a proper computer, they were what I call complex signal generators.

Michael: You had to build the tools to build the machines.

Nolan: Correct. And it was really hard, and I like to joke and say Pong had a square ball, not ’cause we thought that it was cool, ’cause it was all we could do

Michael: And of course, all Pong had was beep blip, beep blip. When did that change?

Nolan: There’s been a progression in both video and sound throughout the life of the video game business. And it had an awful lot to do with how fast were the clocks?

Michael: The physical CPU chips running the game.

Nolan: Exactly, and the higher the frequency, you could resolve more polygons and you could do better D to A conversion of sound. And so it started out with just beeps that were literally square waves, y’know? But of different frequencies.

Michael: And as we discussed earlier in the episode here, there are essentially four types of waves that you had to play with, ultimately. You had square, triangle, sawtooth, and then I guess the noise generator. Explain to me a noise generator, why is that important in creating computer music?

Nolan: Because noise, depending on the envelope of the spectrum, can sound like an audience applauding, an audience booing, thunder, an explosion, and explosions were very important, y’know? And an explosion that said if the rocket ship were exploding and it went beep, that would be silly.

Michael: Well I suppose that’s the important point is that the crowd applauding, the crowd booing, and an explosion isolated would probably all sound very much the same. So it came back to the visual to back up the music, the audio, the sound effects.

Nolan: Yeah, no you could actually make the noise unique in those sounds by shaping the envelope of the noise. It was still noise, but maybe I’m being too technical.

Michael: No, I’m loving this, I’m loving this. Tell me, though, about Bushnell’s Law, which I don’t know if you coined it or someone coined it based upon your experience, being you want a game to be easy to learn but difficult to master. At what point did you realize that was the secret sauce to any given game whether it be in the arcade or in my living room?

Nolan: Almost immediately. Remember we started out as coin-op, and so in the coin-op world, no one would read the instructions. So it had to be intuitively obvious. Second, in order to get multiple replays, you had to keep dangling that carrot out further and further and further, and that’s when you start seeing multiple difficulties, multiple levels, harder and harder to meet the boss, harder and harder to kill the boss. And so what you want to do is keep people in that era of almost getting it but not quite.

Michael: Alan being a big pinball player, we had an interesting conversation not too long ago about the fact that the video game console, whether it be in an arcade or in a home, I would argue it started with the arcade, was responsible for the demise of the pinball era. Because pinball machines didn’t get progressively difficult, they just got a little bit faster. Whereas you had much more control in a video game to push that player to the point of oh I just gotta put one more quarter in.

Nolan: Precisely. No, that’s definitely what happened. And plus, y’know I have a very strong love for pinballs, I did a lot of analysis of it and figured out how to do it. And Atari, remember, had some pinball machines that earned very, very well based on my algorithms. And the thing about pinball that was satisfying and yet frustrating was they are somewhat random. There’s a lot of randomness that goes on. And so, the control that you had, while not truly illusory, a little bit illusory.

Michael: To the law itself, it strikes me that you see it very much today, not in games like Call of Duty, but you see it in the more casual mobile gaming that has exploded over the last little while. It strikes me that that is sort of bringing us back to the ’70s and the early ’80s with this more casual I’m waiting at the bank machine for my turn in the line, I’m gonna whip out my phone and play a little bit. Strikes me as very Atari 2600.

Nolan: No question about it. Because the bite-size nature of the casual games and the simplicity and y’know kinda games that you can play with half your mind, y’know? So it can be part of some of the other things that you’re doing, I mean I have a addiction to Spider Solitaire.

Michael: You and my wife both.

Nolan: It’s a stupid game, but somehow I just love it. And occasionally when I’m just bored, I’ll whip it out and I’ll play a couple of rounds of Spider Solitaire.

Michael: I played a trick on my wife with Spider Solitaire once. If you go into the Windows operating system, you’ll see that when you win at Spider Solitaire, the sound that’s generated is just a WAV file sitting in a Windows folder. In other words, you can change it. So, sure enough, I snuck in one day and changed it to the sound effect of one of the characters from the TV show South Park. So when she won, it didn’t say ta da, it went Timmy and I cranked the speakers and she jumped about a foot. To this day, she doesn’t call Spider Solitaire Spider Solitaire, she calls it I’m playing my Timmy. Any advice for getting her unhooked?

Nolan: Oh boy. I think that there’s, I love pranks. Do you know who’s actually the biggest prankster in the world?

Michael: Who’s that?

Nolan: Steve Wozniak.

Michael: I can see that, I can see that. So what pranks has Steve Wozniak pulled on you?

Nolan: Oh. He did this thing where he put my telephone number in a public place where, when people would land at an airport and try to make a reservation at a hotel, the machine would call me.

Michael: And how long did that last?

Nolan: Until I got him to change it. ’cause it was, y’know I was gonna change my phone number and all that, but he’s actually, y’know has done some great stuff.

Michael: Tell me you got back at him, though.

Nolan: Oh yes.

Michael: How?

Nolan: He doesn’t know it, but I was able to hack one of his computers and so that when he did a certain combination of events, that his mouse would freeze.

Michael: And of course, it’s one of these things where you’re pulling your hair out trying to figure out why it’s doing this. And he’s oblivious to what you’ve done behind the scenes.

Nolan: He’s very, very smart and he’s done some things. In fact, I don’t know, I shouldn’t do this.

Michael: Oh, what are you gonna do?

Nolan: I love it, he won’t tell me how he does this. Look at that.

Michael: He’s got his name spelled upside down in his emails. Yeah, and backwards in the description as opposed to in the body of the email. Oh, even the body of the email looks like it’s upside down.

Nolan: And you can’t do that by changing the font or anything. This is something that he has actually hacked into the Apple operating system.

Michael: When you search Steve Wozniak, does it still work?

Nolan: Yeah.

Michael: Alright, well I think he may have one-upped you in this department.

Nolan: Well it really irritates me because I don’t know how he did it and he won’t tell me

Michael: You say hack, how active are you in the roll up your sleeves, get into the guts of something like you were back in the early to mid ’70s?

Nolan: I probably had a 15 year hiatus when I was Nolan the businessman, y’know? And didn’t really get my hands that dirty. Probably the last 10 years, I’ve gotten back in. I’m doing a lot of stuff Arduinos and Raspberry Pi and things like that because what’s so fun right now is stuff that used to take a talented programmer a month to do, I can do with a library of files in an hour. And that’s very rewarding. So, if I want to put a sensor that detects when somebody walks by and then do something on the screen, I can do that in 15 minutes.

Michael: You sound like a perfect candidate to set up your house as a smart home. Do you buy into any of that?

Nolan: Oh, absolutely. And I’ve discovered a couple of interesting things, like I’ve done all voice-operated light switches around. Here’s the problem.

Michael: I think I know where you’re going with this.

Nolan: The problem is that it’s non-contextual. So every light has to have a unique name. And if you don’t use it for a while, you keep now was that?

Michael: Was that the hallway light or was that the hall light?

Nolan: Exactly. And so, it’s one of these things that starts to fail with ubiquity. And so, I’m asking myself how can I make it contextual so that when I go into any room and say lights on, that’s gonna work for that room only.

Michael: Spousal approval factor. In my house, very low right now for Alexa and these smart home assistants that are supposed to help you in that department. The number of times, when you ask for a light to change and it changes is probably one in three right now. At what point do we actually have reliable voice-based interaction that’s contextual such that I don’t have to keep repeating six ways to Sunday turn off the damn bathroom light?

Nolan: Well, I think that the spousal approval thing, same here. My wife has been punished throughout the years of me installing prototypes not quite ready for primetime.

Michael: Right, exactly.

Nolan: And so, she is more jaded than most. Add to that that Alexa and I have this special relationship and Alexa doesn’t like her very much.

Michael: Oh, the other woman in your life.

Nolan: The other woman in my life. And so, and it is true that Alexa understands me better than she understands Nancy.

Michael: Same with my daughter, she’s got one in her room for that exact purpose and it doesn’t seem to respond to mom.

Nolan: What I think is the right answer is enunciation. If you enunciate properly, Alexa is foolproof.

Michael: But when does the technology become foolproof without having to change your behavior to accommodate the technology? ‘Cause that’s ultimately the holy grail of any given technology.

Nolan: It’ll get there, I think we’re probably two years away from that, at most. In fact, I believe that we’re pretty close to it right now. Like I’ve been doing a lot of A B comparison, Siri, Google Home, Amazon. Amazon is better at understanding you in a noisy environment. Google is very good if you’re in a quiet environment. Much better AI, I can ask Google questions on Google Home that Alexa doesn’t understand.

Michael: Right, ’cause Alexa needs skills whereas Google seems to be doing everything in the backend.

Nolan: I don’t think it’s the skills as much as it’s just I think Google has better Deepmind AI. And Siri is just nowhere to be found, unfortunately.

Michael: Why do you think that is that Apple is as late to the game, or at least appears to be as late to the game? Because the perceptions with Apple has always been, and sort of I guess started with the iPod. They weren’t the first to make an MP3 player, but they were the first to perfect an MP3 player. So we developed a perception that Apple may not be the first mover in a given area, but they’re the ones that end up sweeping it up at the end of the day because they did a slow and steady wins the race approach. It doesn’t strike me that’s happening this time around.

Nolan: It’s unknown. Apple is a different company than it was a few years ago.

Michael: Why?

Nolan: I think they’re innovation timid currently. And I don’t think they were before.

Michael: Is that a Tim Cook problem versus a Steve Jobs?

Nolan: Maybe, I don’t know. I do know that there’s been a certain brain drain from Apple. Like you, five years ago you couldn’t hire an Apple employee, y’know they just weren’t available and they weren’t on the market, now they are.

Michael: Are we seeing an evolution of that industry? Such that people feel that there’s greater sense of mobility because to your point, there was a time when Apple was the destination for any tech innovator.

Nolan: A lot of that has to do with perception of what is there left in movement in terms of stock options.

Michael: Oh, so it comes down to money now?

Nolan: Of course.

Michael: When did it ever not?

Nolan: When was it ever not. So it doesn’t take rocket science to say that if you’re going to work for options, getting with something on the ground floor, y’know, are you going to be able to expect Apple to double?

Michael: So Apple’s glory days may be behind it from a financial perspective?

Nolan: Oh, I think they’re going to be fine but I think that they’re going to be faced with historical brain drain. Now, they can make up for that and they’re doing that by, they’ve got research centers all over the world now. And so they can pick up an awful lot of innovation in other countries, y’know?

Michael: You’re wearing an Apple Watch, how do you like it?

Nolan: Kinda.

Michael: Why’d you buy it?

Nolan: I wanted to track my physical body movements. And I just thought that it was good enough.

Michael: As opposed to, say, a Fitbit? Oh, is this Gen 1 or something?

Nolan: It’s a Gen 1. But I haven’t felt compelled to do a Gen 4 now, I guess it is.

Michael: I went from one to four, I was disappointed in the one. I felt it was a glorified notification bracelet as opposed to an iPhone on your wrist, which I think was the metaphor they were going for with the apps. Do you think Apple went about it the whole wrong way and should have, as I think, focused on Siri-based communication, tell me what my bank account is? When’s my next appointment? That sort of thing as opposed to tap an app to find out how much money you’ve got in your account? Should it have been all AI?

Nolan: Yes, if it was good AI.

Michael: Which again, we’re still two years away.

Nolan: Right, exactly.

Michael: Let’s go back to video games. And specifically, y’know we were talking about mobile games and that quick gaming experience, there’s this segment of the video game community that looks down on mobile gamers because that’s not a console game, that’s not a PC-based game, that’s not real gaming. What’s your answer to that?

Nolan: Oh, I think that’s arrogant. I mean, there are actually people in the world that have a life

Michael: Outside of their Xbox.

Nolan: Yeah, and it’s a, I like playing games with my kids, y’know social environment, things like that. We have this standard Sunday dinner, which we play games, have a great meal.

Michael: What do you play?

Nolan: This last week we played You Don’t Know Jack, eight of us on the Switch.

Michael: Ah, see the Nintendo Switch seems to be very family-focused, seems to be the closest family-oriented console experience I’ve had since the VCS.

Nolan: Yeah, and just to ask you a question. What kind of a game can eight players play at the same time? Switch is the only answer right now in terms of hardware construct.

Michael: On the other end of the spectrum, we’re moving into a remarkable world I would never have anticipated in esports. There is a large demographic that says why on Earth would anyone want to watch other people play video games?

Nolan: Why in the world would anybody want to watch other people playing football? And what we’re really dealing with is as you become an adult, you very often want to relive some of your happiness as a participant when you were a youth. And so if you played football, you become a fan. Played basketball, you become a fan. If you played video games, you then become a fan. I see the metaphor as perfect.

Michael: I wonder if part of it has to do with the fact that many people who are critical don’t recognize that when there’s no play on the field in football, the commentators are discussing the strategies that have been employed and what to do next and what happened the last time they found themselves in this situation and they don’t realize that esports has all those qualities, as well.

Nolan: Every bit. Y’know, I get such a kick out of people who are critics. Most of them just don’t have a clue and they don’t realize they’re embarrassing themselves.

Michael: So, at what point do you anticipate we’ll see esports have the same kind of critical mass that you would get out of football? At what point do we stop saying I can’t believe people watch others play video games?

Nolan: We’re there right now.

Michael: For what generation, though? Because I can imagine for a boomer generation, that didn’t really grow up in the video game world to the same degree, that there’s a certain demographic that says ah it’s never for me.

Nolan: Based on raw numbers, there are more people that watch esports than watched an NFL game last year.

Michael: It strikes me it’s a lot like the stat of the video game industry eclipsed Hollywood in revenue and no one saw that coming.

Nolan: I did.

Michael: When did you see that coming?

Nolan: I saw it probably in 1975. I didn’t see it at that time but I could see that the velocities were such that it was gonna happen.

Michael: So what happens next in the video game world as you see it?

Nolan: I think we’ll continue to atomize, that is there will be, rather than saying the video game business, let’s talk about games in general. Games are algorithmic, they’re score-based, ego-based, what have you, and we will find a continued thrust into different kinds of games that become ubiquitous to everything that we do.

Michael: The gamification of ourselves?

Nolan: Gamification of everything, y’know? For example, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve been on several elevators in the last week, not one had a game.

Michael: And you think we’re gonna be playing elevator action in real life.

Nolan: Perchance. I mean, that’s just a random sort but now let’s take self-driving cars. You’ll be driven in a self-driving car five years from now, all the sudden you don’t need to look out. And so therefore, all the windshield and everything else can be a screen and you can go, you can choose to drive down the streets of Deadwood, down the streets of Amar City.

Michael: Oh, so you’re suggesting augmented reality on the dashboard such that when I look out the window of my autonomous vehicle, I’m not seeing the real world. I’m seeing an augmented world.

Nolan: Yeah, you’re basically in a VR pod.

Michael: It’s interesting that you haven’t mentioned VR until now. Virtual reality has seemed to be the domain of video games, augmented reality much more, I think it’s by 2025, the VR AR industry will be $200 billion. But only $17 billion of that will be for virtual reality.

Nolan: I’m not sure about that. I think that virtual reality is more powerful than augmented reality, but augmented reality is harder to do because y’know to have a powerful AR experience, you have to know precisely not just X, Y, and Z, but Ricoh theta, y’know so that. And then add to that delta on all those factors, so you’ve got six variables in a differential mode. That’s hard. And if you’re just a little bit off, all the sudden the real world and the synthetic overlay don’t clack, they clash and overlap. And so, they’re talking about AR helping the cable guy or the lineman and things like that.

Michael: Very industrial applications.

Nolan: Very industrial applications. And I think that that will be good, but I don’t see it as being hugely profitable.

Michael: Really? I can only imagine that if you were to put on a pair of AR glasses to the new guy at the factory, that you would not only get him up to speed training-wise much more quickly, but then they keep wearing those glasses and it augments their job on a day to day basis, dramatically improving productivity.

Nolan: Oh, all that’s very true. But once you have those kinds of tools in place, how much is it gonna cost you to get that done? And how much is the company actually gonna have to pay for it?

Michael: So you think the barrier to entry is largely financial? As opposed to technological.

Nolan: Oh yeah. I mean, the technology is, it’s diminished, it’s no longer a factor.

Michael: So you think, at least as far as video games are concerned, VR is where it’s at?

Nolan: No. I believe that VR, AR just become part of that atomization of games, y’know? You’re not going to be wearing a headset 24/7, y’know?

Michael: I must be an oddity because I spent my entire childhood playing video games, wishing I was in the game, right? And developers like yourself were responsible for putting me in that game and leading on my imagination to really make myself feel present. Whereas now, I just slide on my Oculus Rift and I am literally standing in a Deadwood-style Wild West shooting bad guys from all angles. And I can’t go back to 2D.

Nolan: See, I find myself liking VR but I don’t like it as a steady diet. I find, and I look at it a little bit like, there was a big push for 3D games, same way we look at, here was in a IMAX area. Is IMAX taking over the world of movies? Is it really important to go to a movie that’s in 3D? Y’know, sometimes, sometimes not. I just don’t see a sweeping dominance. And do I believe that Fortnite is going to eclipse the number of users of Spider Solitaire? No. Why not? Well, y’know.

Michael: Most of them being to enter high school and discover girls and that’s the end of Fortnite.

Nolan: Right, exactly. I mean, and y’know there’s just so many interesting things to be done and think of the game business as continuing to fragment, but that says that there’s gonna be more and more things that attract everybody, all demographics, all sexes, all ages.

Michael: Nolan, it has been an honor to speak to you. Thank you so much for your time.

Nolan: My pleasure, I hope I made some sense here

Michael: Thank you very much.

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