Nolan Bushnell Announces Video Game Resturant

By Brad Stone Newsweek Courtesy MSNBC
Pong creator and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell thinks adults just want to have fun. In fact, he's banking on it. Bushnell and his company, uWink, are preparing to open a video-game-themed restaurant aimed at adults in Los Angeles this fall.
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There are plenty of ways to describe Nolan Bushnell. Technology visionary. Catalyst of the computer-game industry. Unrelenting entrepreneur with sparkling successes and catastrophic failures. A man who was actually able to create a successful restaurant franchise with the name Chuck E. Cheese. Even maybe a matchmaker. Bushnell, who started the early video firm Atari and imposed Pizza Time Theatre on the masses, credits another of his creations for minting a whole generation of marriages. The pioneering '70s videogame Pong, once ubiquitous in college-town watering holes, gave guys and gals an opening to challenge each other to digital duels on its tabletop black and white screens. As a result, he says, "literally thousands of people have told me over the years that they met their wife or husband playing Pong."But Bushnell believes that somewhere along its journey toward 10 billion in worldwide sales, the videogame industry he kick-started with Pong has lost its way. Today's games isolate players in front of their computers or TVs, and the typically violent, complex gameplay alienates big swaths of the population, including pretty much all women. Even massively multiplayer online games like EverQuest are ultimately isolating, Bushnell says. "Games have historically been vehicles for socialization, not sitting alone in your underwear." Ever the dreamer, Bushnell, 62, now wants to get gamers out of the house. This week he will announce a new venture—by his count, the 24th in 33 years. The uWink Media Bistro restaurantchain (strike one: the name) will have screens at every table and bar stool, each piping videogames, media content and interactive menus to a young-adult dining crowd which will, he's convinced, use the shared-gaming experience as a chance to compete, relax and mingle.Imagine a Chuck E. Cheese for grown-ups—with booze and Caesar salads instead of balloons and singing animatrons. Bushnell has built "party tables" where six customers can play each other in the same game, and tournaments where diners in any of the restaurants in the chain can compete against each other in a single contest such as Texas Hold 'Em. Bushnell says he will open the first restaurant this fall in Los Angeles.The perpetual kid has been thinking about starting a Chuck E. Cheese for adults since the early '90s. But back then, the Internet wasn't sturdy enough to link the games together, and multiplayer videogames for adults didn't exist. In 2000, he founded a 40-employee L.A.-based start-up called uWink to develop the technology he would need. Today, 2,500 uWink interactive-videogame terminals are in bars and restaurants around the world. They run open-source Linux software and serve up games such as the Tetris-like Bloxx and Zillionaire, a trivia contest. Last year Bushnell finally pulled the trigger on his simmering restaurant idea. With backing from Mellon HBV bank, he tried to buy the ailing 15-restaurant GameWorks franchise, but lost the bidding war to Sega. So instead he will build the Media Bistros as he built all his other ventures: from the ground up.Some restaurant analysts actually taste a chance for success. Even though Chuck E. Cheese went through bankruptcy in the '80s after Bushnell sold it, the chain is now successful, with 498 restaurants. Traditional arcade restaurants like Dave Buster's are solidly profitable as well, after seeing their fortunes wilt during the recession. Analyst Eric Wold of Merriman Curhan Ford Co. says that the trick is to distinguish yourself from the other chains serving up predictable dining fare. Bushnell "will bring something to consumers they can't get anywhere else," Wold says. He adds that the tabletop terminals can be remotely managed—unlike arcade games that break down—and that video meal-ordering will allow the company to save on labor costs for servers.For the voluble and mischievous Bushnell, the Media Bistro is about more than just building another company. After some high-profile failures (like the robot firm Androbot) mixed with a few successes in the '80s and '90s, he wants to prove his essential vision: technology that nurtures social interaction instead of hampering it. Previous ventures like Pong and even Atari (early consoles supported four joysticks) were all about bringing people together, he says. In the Media Bistro restaurants, games are a way to get young people interacting. Diners will also have access to media content like cartoons, short movies and music, all designed to create "a more convivial environment for meeting strangers, without all the social risks associated with a bar," he says. It sounds like Nolan Bushnell is matchmaking again.

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