Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, at GamesBeat Summit.

Above: Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, at GamesBeat Summit.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: The hard part is that you have to do it around the globe these days.

Bushnell: If you’re traveling around the globe anyway, doing that instead of having another fluffy dinner with too much wine is okay.

GamesBeat: If you were investing now, where would you put your money? Do you like mobile games? Do you like online games?

Bushnell: I’ve been for the next platform. There’s a company called CastAR which I think has the best opportunity for the next big thing.

GamesBeat: Jeri Ellsworth’s company.

Bushnell: Don’t you love Jeri? She used to be at all the hacker’s conferences. You just know that the tech is sound.

GamesBeat: She taught herself to be a chip designer, right?

Bushnell: I know! She did her own transistors. That’s amazing. But more than that, the construct that they have is really cool. There’s a whole class of games — I believe that human beings, in their DNA, have games built in. All the classic games, there are instances of them being played around the campfire in caves. The only thing that’s changed is they went from paper to printing to plastic and now we have video games.

One category of games hasn’t been adequately done, technologically. That’s shared public perspective, private personal perspective. If you look at games like Texas Hold ‘Em, there’s a shared public perspective and a personal perspective. Now, though, you can do all kinds of things where as long as you can create the hidden personal perspective in a group environment, I think that’s game-playing at its best. When you say, “Wow, I can play Settlers of Catan and have everything moving?” or “Now I can have a construct in the middle of the table and play Angry Birds and we’re all trying to knock down this construct?” that’s cool. That’s going to be an important thing.

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GamesBeat: Microsoft’s HoloLens sounds like it’s going to be interesting as well.

Bushnell: It has some cost problems. Unless they can pierce the $200 barrier, when you look at the way they’re doing it, it’s going to be hard for them. Now, Microsoft has more money than God. They can clearly afford to fund it if they can have a significant enough ecosystem going backwards to get a piece of the revenue in the app store. But I think you’re much better off if you can have a sub-$100 price point on the platform and then make money on the app store as well.

GamesBeat: A number of people who’ve been speaking over the last couple of years have said we’re in this golden age of gaming now. We had one of those back in the arcade days, just before the big crash in the early 1980s. If you think about this cycle, or the hype curve, what’s a smart way to play this?

Bushnell: I like blue oceans, not red oceans. Right now mobile is very red ocean. It’s very difficult to hit that great app. Then, once you have a great app, how do you market it efficiently and cheaply? I’m looking for other things. I feel like, if we’re really game designers, we have to open up the floodgates a little bit and say, what is this market really about? It’s very fragmented. But let’s ask questions. Escape rooms are starting to do some pretty good business worldwide. Is that a video game? Not really, but it’s a game that has technical constructs and good puzzle design. People are having a lot of fun with it.

My son does a thing called the Two-Bit Circus. It’s going to be in San Francisco later this year. They create a whole bunch of public experiential games that do not lend themselves well to monetization. And yet by buying a ticket you can go in and you can play all these games. It’s a massive success. So the question becomes, is the economic model of an amusement park around games good?

We’ve been doing a little design on a micro-amusement park, because there’s a disintermediation going from goods to experiences. If you talk to any mall, they’re just scared to death. There’s more and more business going online. People dress like me instead of in an Armani suit. That’s hard on the retail construct. They are in the business of selling real estate. Anybody who comes up with something that can provide experiences, Katie bar the door, that’s a big business.

The other part that gets to be very interesting is the area of board games that can be automated. That’s back to the CastAR, but also, there are apps that — who’s played One Night, the werewolf game? It’s a great party game. That’s another thread. We may see very interesting things.

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, at GamesBeat Summit.

Above: Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, at GamesBeat Summit.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: I organized this event on the assumption that billion-dollar deals are a good thing. It’s interesting that they are finally happening in games. But it’s also interesting that indie game-makers are as big as they’ve ever been.

Bushnell: Absolutely. Things like Unity make it easy to build good apps, so that you can turn an idea into a construct very quickly. But more than that, I think that any time you can drop the cost of development, you increase innovation. The movie studios don’t do Iron Man 104 for any other reason than the cost-benefit. There’s less risk. As the cost of a movie goes up, the willingness to take risks goes down. Games are the same way. What did the last Call of Duty cost, $500 million? A lot of money. You only get so much innovation when you have a stable construct. The indie developers are the engine of innovation.

GamesBeat: What games are you playing lately.

Bushnell: I still play Go online. It’s very retro, but I love it.

GamesBeat: That’s what you were playing before you started Atari.

Bushnell: I know! And I play several games of chess concurrently all the time. In fact I just let somebody make a move. I really like Portal. That was fun. I like Minecraft. I can’t play first-person shooters anymore. You lose about 50 milliseconds of reaction time for every year you get older. When I sit down with my boys, I’m just dusted before I know what’s going on. And I’m competitive. If a game has stealth and guile, I’m still winning. But when it comes to reaction time, I’ve just written those off.

Question: Looking at the future, is it possible that we could suddenly see a decline in digital, as people get tired of all the digital stuff around them? Could things become more focused on real games, or augmented board games?

Bushnell: There was a very interesting schism or discontinuity with Atari in 1983, when all of a sudden coin-op revenue dropped, the video game business almost imploded — Atari was in deep distress. There’s been a lot of talk about what caused that. I’m actually not sure. But it looked that was going to be a permanent truncation of the business.

Then Nintendo swept in, and there was another very interesting thing that happened. When I left Atari, 40 percent of the population said they played a coin-op video game within the last week. Subsequent to that, it dropped to five percent. That drop was precipitated by the punch-kick fighting games. Those were very good for people who were gamers. But they were very violent, so they lost women. They were very complex, so they lost the casual gamer. Even though the revenue from coin-op went up with these kinds of games, the total market shrunk.

One of the things about mobile games and iPad games is that a tremendous number of women play them, which is somewhat new compared to the consoles, where the demographics are heavily male. Games, by their nature, are somewhat addictive. It’s a predictable world. It’s fun. But if there’s going to be a truncation, I think it’ll be less than five or 10 percent, and then it sparks off again.

What happens sometimes is that the economic model changes. The revenue streams get hollowed out. The number of hours per day actually increases, though. I do believe there are more collaborative games coming in the future. Less isolation. That’s my wager.