Moving Beyond Pong and Pizza
WOODLAND HILLS, CALIF.-Nolan Bushnell is on fire. Sitting at a table at uWink, his sleek new digital restaurant, the inventor of Pong, the world's first video arcade game, has pushed aside his plate of garlic and mushroom pasta to show he's still got it. Booting up Sharp Shooter, a basketball video game designed by uWink, Bushnell, 64, works the touch-screen of the computer mounted on the table in front of him with the dexterity of a 12-year-old. He sinks shot after shot-nine in a row-until flames consume the basket. Finally, a ball bounces out, and his score appears on the screen. Bushnell furrows his brow: "I'm better than that," he says.
It's not the first time the thought has occurred to Bushnell. Not only did this founding father of the digital age invent Pong in 1972, but his fledgling software company, Atari, also launched one of the first home video game consoles a few years later. Bushnell sold Atari for $28 million in 1976, but he never stopped designing new ways to make gaming better. Later that year, worried that seedy arcades weren't good places for kids to play, Bushnell opened the first Chuck E. Cheese's, a still-thriving pizza parlor-cum-video game palace.
Now, Bushnell is at it again. In October, he opened the first of what he hopes will be a worldwide chain of uWink restaurants, a dining-entertainment experience where customers can not only order food from computer consoles at their tables but play games and challenge strangers to table-to-table trivia tournaments. Call it an adult version of Chuck E. Cheese's for the 21st century-minus the creepy mechanical mice, of course-and this time, the food will be palatable, too. "People used to joke when we were starting that we'd have to forget everything we knew about pizza-making," says Bushnell with a laugh. "I understood what they meant." UWink's executive chef is a Wolfgang Puck alum.
Click to order. Bushnell's new eatery, with its stylish white walls and waterproof computer consoles, is not only a far cry from Chuck E. Cheese's-it's a radical leap away from the way most other restaurants operate. "I have a rule about not doing things twice," says Bushnell. "In some ways, I didn't do this sooner because I didn't want to replow an old field." The combination of touch-screen technology and networked computing, he thinks, has paved the way for a new kind of restaurant. Apart from its ever present video games, there are no waiters at uWink, only "runners" who bring diners their already-ordered food. Want salad dressing on the side? A few clicks will do the trick. Accidentally drop a fork on the ground? Same goes. "The most difficult hire of the restaurant set is good waiters and waitresses," says Bushnell. UWink avoids the problem entirely. Eliminating waiters, Bushnell estimates, will cut uWink's costs by 6 percent-not an insignificant number for a publicly traded company looking to franchise. He plans to open six restaurants in L.A. and Las Vegas by the end of the year.
Labor savings aside, Bushnell hopes uWink's games will be its main attraction. "Most video games today are too isolating," he insists. "I want to bring the social back into game play." UWink is everything Halo and Grand Theft Auto are not: Its more than 40 games-which range from PG-13 "truth or dare" challenges to lightning-round trivia matches-are neither violent nor complex. Their target audience is a decidedly new demographic: 21-to-35-year-old women. "Where the women go, men follow," he chuckles. Equally true, of course, over the past 30 years: Where Nolan Bushnell goes, entire industries have been known to follow.
This story appears in the February 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.