All Downhill Since Pong

Well, this is a little disheartening. Nolan Bushnell, creator of Pong and founder of Atari, reckons we’re all wasting our time. “”Video games today are a race to the bottom,” he reckons in this interview at Electronic Design. “They are pure, unadulterated trash and I’m sad for that.”

While I’m with him in so much as the distressing popularity of Halo 3 makes me pray for the polar icecaps to melt and flood the planet as soon as possible, and it’s hardly a novel occurence for an older generation to decry the hobbies and lifestyle of a younger one, the sweeping generalisation of his statement is massively depressing. The man who pioneered a brand new way to entertain and to socialise doesn’t recognise any of the ways communities and skills and discussion have developed thanks to games over the last 30 years. Perhaps he just doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on. If only we could sit down with him for an afternoon, and show him Portal and Peggle and Frets on Fire and Dwarf Fortress and The Sims and whatever. Unfortunately, as the interview reveals, he’s too busy launching restaurants people can play electronic multiplayer boardgames in at the moment.

More entertainingly, he attempts to attach a moral message to Breakout:

“It was like breaking down walls. And it was a metaphor. The world is better when you break down walls. Walls separate people. The more inclusive we can be, the better we can be as a species.”

And what was either side of Breakout’s wall? Nothing. By playing Breakout, we are uniting nothing and nothing, thus creating nothing. Except the next level, which also contains nothing but a wall. Sorry Nolan, but I’m going to go with Breakout as a message of nihilistic futility myself.


  1. Dracko says:

    Wait, what’s wrong with Halo 3?

  2. Thelps says:

    Nolan Bushnell has been a famously bitter man ever since Atari went down the tubes. This was, of course, in no small part to them losing the rights for Tetris to Nintendo, although that’s perhaps an irrelevance (but always a nice little pattern to draw, given he’s attacking an industry that ultimately disgorged him in favour of ‘The Big N’).

    And yeah: What’s wrong with Halo 3 that isn’t with, say, TF2, an equally mindless, equally refined work of multiplayer sublimity?

  3. Ghiest says:

    Back when the system could display 4 primary colours your system was the limiting factor in what you can do with the machine, but now with current consoles, money and imagination is the limiting factor.

    Seriously, it’s easy for him to look down his nose at todays gaming without even having played any of it, it’s like me saying his restaurants are utter crap and not worth feeding a dog with the food that comes out of them, without having even stepped foot in them.

    I think Gaming is it at it’s pinnacle in design and imaginative gaming, with the games you have mentioned and things like the Wii gaming, it makes it worth doing. But on the flip side the degradation of the gaming sequel (hi to you EA games) as an easy money spinner. Case in point, PGA tour golf has has almost every year an incarnation since 1990 (well 11 not 17 versions) and 16 different versions of Fifa soccer just breed even more detritus into gaming.

  4. Tr00jg says:

    Well, most games are “unadulterated trash”, just as Ghiest said. EA just throws out sequel after sequel.

    I think he just needs a dash of Ico or Knytt.

  5. fluffy bunny says:

    “Nolan Bushnell has been a famously bitter man ever since Atari went down the tubes. This was, of course, in no small part to them losing the rights for Tetris to Nintendo, although that’s perhaps an irrelevance (but always a nice little pattern to draw, given he’s attacking an industry that ultimately disgorged him in favour of ‘The Big N’).”

    Except that Nolan Bushnell was forced out of Atari in 1978, long before Nintendo entered the home console market and there was anything called Tetris.

    And Atari’s Tetris game was always supposed to be for the NES, so I don’t think it would have saved the company (which was already struggling due to the great videogame crash of 1983) if they had gotten the rights to it. It would no doubt have been a minor success, like it was on other platforms, but it would never have become the cultural icon and money-printing-machine it became if it hadn’t been for Nintendo.

  6. Alec Meer says:

    I believe I moaned about the popularity of Halo 3, not Halo 3.
    Though anyone seriously claiming that, its accessibility aside, Halo 3 multiplayer is the equal of TF2 in terms of design values and teamplay won’t be on my Christmas card list this year.

  7. Aimless says:

    Wait, what’s wrong with Halo 3 being popular?

  8. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    As the cool kids say, “HaLOL more like”. Im in agreement with them

    link to

  9. Andrew Farrell says:

    If we’re going to be pedantic about timelines, Tetris was already a top-selling game and cultural icon by the time the Gameboy came out.

  10. Andrew Mayer says:

    I think the problem is that Bushnell still sees games as “toys for kids”, and hasn’t understood that the medium has moved beyond that. To him the idea of adult content and violent themes are fundamentally at odds with what he thinks games are for.

    For the generation that was raised with games we know they can communicate a lot more.

  11. FaceOmeter says:

    (y) to alec’s retort

  12. Thelps says:

    CURSE YOU FLUFFY BUNNY! My pontifications have been shot down once again.

  13. Aimless says:

    I can kind of see where he’s coming from as clearly he always envisioned gaming as a family-inclusive form of recreation — much like board games used to be — which the medium isn’t really. In recent years we have seen many steps towards realising that scenario in the likes of the EyeToy, SingStar, Guitar Hero, Buzz, and most prominently the Wii, but I can forgive an old man for not keeping his finger on the pulse of an industry he feels considerable resentment towards.

  14. TrevorS says:

    “Though anyone seriously claiming that … Halo 3 multiplayer is the equal of TF2 in terms of design values and teamplay won’t be on my Christmas card list this year.”

    Thank you.

    That is the probably most concise and elegant expression about halo 3 vs TF2 … that I will probably ever see in my life.


  15. Aimless says:

    “[A]nyone seriously claiming that, its accessibility aside, Halo 3 multiplayer is the equal of TF2 in terms of design values and teamplay won’t be on my Christmas card list this year.”

    The thing is, I don’t think any game is the equal of TF2 in regards to “design values and teamplay”, so that’s an unrealistically high benchmark. Halo 3’s multiplayer is very well designed and offers neigh on unparalleled flexibility and variety for a console game. It might not be The Ultimate Game™, but what it does it accomplishes with great aplomb and its past successes were hugely influential both on the console market and first-person shooters as a whole.

  16. Thelps says:

    Sneaky edits aside, my pariah status is confirmed in this thread, I guess.

    To clarify, I was thinking more along the lines of Halo 3 multiplayer having a scope and ambition not present in TF2’s compact design philosophy. You know, what with the vehicles, wide variety of weapons and multiple roles any one person can shift through over the course of a single life (rather than 2 weapons, plus some tools, and a predefined purpose). My original post was badly worded though, specifically that one word “refined”, so yeah, I’m wrong.

    I must say though, after about 5 hours of TF2, I felt I’d seen it all, Halo 3 continues to surprise me weeks after I bought it. Guess I’m just easily amused.

  17. someone says:

    The gamers like the games, so who cares what that guy thinks.

  18. Dracko says:

    Zero Punctuation would be better if it was both funny and accurate and not just rants aimed squarely at neck-bearded types proud of being ignorant cunts.

  19. drunkymonkey says:

    Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, this morning, Dracko? Perhaps taking your anger out on an immensely popular weekly flash movie will help that, yeah?

    I don’t think the gaming went downhill after Pong, but I do think we’re currently in a bit of a slump.

  20. Thelps says:

    I just like the term ‘neck-bearded types’ frankly. Suddenly a whole subset of humanity has been redefined in my small, weasely eyes.

  21. drunkymonkey says:

    Personally I don’t see what’s wrong with having a “neck-beard.”

  22. Thelps says:

    Nor do I, Drunkymonkey, I guess I just never managed to so eloquently define the audacious fuzz that has cast off the shackles of the face and migrated to more jugular pastures.

  23. Garth says:

    I think most people who ‘hate’ Halo, myself included, hate being told how the game is the greatest creation, and that it easily warrants a 10/10. It is, at best, a 7/10 game. You can like the multiplayer all you want, but it hasn’t ever done anything another game hasn’t done better.

    I still love playing games like Team Fortress 2, because there are so many areas that are well developed. It’s the type of game that is easy to learn, tough to master, as the saying goes. Halo, on the other hand, played to me like: Learn to melee, learn to get the pistol, win. My second round playing the game I was able to beat all my of friends – not because of any fantastical Halo talent – because I realised the above aforementioned bits of gaming lore.

  24. Deadron says:

    How much do you want to bet Bushnell not only hasn’t played Bioshock or Portal or Company of Heroes, but wouldn’t know what they were if you asked him?

    Those are three incredible genre-defining games that have come out just in the last year. This may well be a golden age of gaming.

    Unfortunately, the drive to see the present as crap and the past as brilliant seems to be built into us. I also cringe when I see Ray Bradbury talk about the state of science fiction today (as if he’s been reading anything recent) or Vonnegut (pre-death) babbling on about the evils of all humanity.

    Great artists should do us a favor and either die on schedule or keep their mouths shut once they get to 60 or so.

  25. 3Suns says:

    “Sorry Nolan, but I’m going to go with Breakout as a message of nihilistic futility myself.” Well put.

    This is my first post. RPS has quickly taken top place in my must-read-daily sites. Keep up the excellent work!

  26. Dracko says:

    drunkymonkey, I’m glad to see you’re up on your rhetoric. Maybe next time, you could actually engage with an argument.

    Zero Punctuation is still a twat and I haven’t a clue why he’s getting paid for being so utterly predictable.

    Also, shave for God’s sake.

    If you think gaming’s in a slump, you obviously haven’t been paying much attention.

  27. Nick says:

    “Zero Punctuation is still a twat and I haven’t a clue why he’s getting paid for being so utterly predictable.”

    lolz. Zero Punctuation isn’t the guy’s name or handle.

  28. James Sanders says:

    Deadron – Kurt Vonnegut picked up corpses after barely surviving an attack by “the good guys” that destroyed an entire city and killed thousands upon thousands of civilians. The incredible amount of love and understanding for his fellow man evident in every piece of literature he wrote showed his surprising belief in humanity’s good despite his knowledge and wariness of its evil. I’m not sure where you get the idea that he somehow changed his tune later in life. He always said the same things, maybe you just weren’t paying attention at first. Plus, this is about video games, why don’t we avoid disrespecting totally unrelated people to further our silly little arguments?

    (also, bushnell is full of poop.)

  29. FingerlessBob says:


  30. GayPal says:

    Peggle is way so much better than Pong, the man has lost his marbles or this is a cheap marketing stunt.

  31. drunkymonkey says:

    @Dracko: I’m not about to have an argument with you about how much quality a weekly flash movie reviewing games in a humorous fashion has. You are allowed your lonely opinion, I just took issue to the way in which you presented it. There’s no need to insult, or flame, or anything of that nature. I’d hardly call your post an argument either, considering you didn’t bother providing reasons why neck-bearded types like it.

    And the reasons I think gaming is in a slump? Because right now, there’s a lot of things that are the same old stuff. The new Conflict that has just been announced sounds as similar to Call of Duty as you’re likely to get. There’s little personality in most titles these days.

  32. JVGP100 (Katsumoto) says:

    Uh oh, RPS thread descends into Eurogamer-dom! Watch out people!

    I think most people like the Yahtzee reviews until they lay into a game that they are fond of. But he laid into Bioshock and I still love him, so that’s okay.

    He’s right though, I do have a neck-beard.

  33. Taco John says:

    @ Andrew Mayer: I think you have it dead on. I’d like to add that I don’t think Bushnell understands how much current gaming brings people together. The dancing/music genre (K-Rev, DDR, Guitar Hero and others) is a great example. So is the Wii. But even in more “traditional” gaming like Halo 3, other multiplayer shooters, the whole idea of some guy sitting in a darkened living room at 3 am cut off from the world surrounded by filth is very outdated. It’s easy to jump on Live for a few hours and get destroyed by 14 year olds dropping F-bombs and racial slurs and say it’s a race to the bottom. It’s another thing to watch people lug delicate machinery like a 360 and a LCD TV over to someone’s house multiple times per week to play each other. Not to mention I think things like WOW and Second Life are things he would never consider.

  34. Aeomak says:

    He obviously peaked in the 80’s

  35. Sniperdoc says:

    Seriously, people actually compared Halo 3 to Team Fortress 2? Those games are two worlds apart.

    Not being a Valve fan by a long shot, I must say that they’ve been on the forefront of game development and have been doing a phenominal job… Half-life has been nothing short of a success story (compare sales of the entire Half-life series with Halo)

    And the folks at Microsoft? They offered Halo players a repackaged version of Halo with a “little” better graphics, and the use of a lot more bloom effects. Everyone should see this:

    link to

    and get a reality check about Halo 3… cause this guy hit the mark!

  36. Ba5tardo says:

    Halo 3 is by no means technically ground breaking. For the most part, it’s Halo 2 with some better graphics. Compared to other games in the same genre I would say it’s on par. For the most part I feel that Battlefield 2 had more to offer in these terms.

    The thing about Halo that is really appealing is its critical mass in relation to Xbox Live. There are tons of people on the game. I had no trouble getting together with a group of friends to play. I think this is the draw.

  37. Lagman says:

    I do feel as though games have gone down hill in some respects. I remember really enjoying the days of Quake and getting excited when talks of Lan parties where thrown about. i remember feeling the same way with Unreal Tournament ( i seriously hope UT3 will be as good as 2004.) I wont Bash Halo 3 (because I’ve never played any of the games, and they most likely are really good) But this rush to consoles that the game industry is pushing has jaded me. I feel as though most games that come out now are all geared toward consoles and PC ports are a nice little after thought. Case in point Bioshock, Lost worlds, and Most likely Halo 3 all have outrageous system requirements, even if i did up grade my system, the people who i normally would play with wont, and have no interest in buying a new game system just for those games. I also prefer a good Lan party to playing online. Playing with People i don’t know doesn’t really excite me especially when i think of the few times i have played and I’ve either been decimated by some one who’s been playing the game for so long, that they have no actual social life out side of the game, or some one who is cheating so bad, that they are walking through walls. Generally this has left a bad taste in my mouth to the whole online experience. I’m also getting annoyed at all the realistic games that keep popping up, but thats just my opinion on style. To me Unreal Tournament is a much more entertaining game that Socom will ever be, I’m sure Halo 3 would kick its ass up and down the street to, I’m just not willing to sink money in to an x-box 360 to find out. For now I’m sticking with PC games that wont screw me over because i have slightly outdated hardware, If a 2.4 Ghz possessor with 2 gigs of ram can be considered out dated. Starcraft 2 is coming out (’bout damn time) and UT3 is around the corner. Both of these games are planing on being scalable. the joy of the original starcraft was that it could run on anything, in fact its still the game of choice at my office where i work. I Just feel like i shouldn’t have to pay $400 bucks on a game system or upgrade my system for the same or more, to play a $40 game. But maybe thats Just cause I’m gettin’ old…Damnit!

  38. xhrit says:

    Aimless: check out enemy territory.

  39. nublet says:

    lol “Wait, what’s wrong with Halo 3?”

    it’s Halo 2 with more gadgets. i swear if i hear one more co-work blathering down the hall about how is whopping 10 kills last night (noob) got him to sergeant level 3, im going to vomit. tru playaz were blasting fools in UT YEARS before these idiots ever fondled their first microsoft consoles… and with better audio clips! “DOMINATING!!!!!!”

    give me substance or at least make me laugh uncontrollably… half-life 2, ravin’ rabbits… hell, i’d play old school sims golf before i get all wet over a “12 man halo 3 party at so-and-so’s house!”

  40. Macacan says:

    Bushnell doesn’t have an arguement to make. He basically said, “I made the only good game, yours all suck.” He then proceeded to make his press anouncement about a restaurant.

    The point about gamers not bonding over the games is bull. Just because he doesn’t get the time to play games with his kids doesn’t make that the norm for the rest of society.

  41. Anderson says:

    Useless generalizations. The gaming industry is doing ok, Wii was a revolution for showing that games are about having fun and not only graphic’s power, on the other hand it’s good to have high end VGs to display fantastic images while playing.

    Some people stuck to their era and think VGs are all about that (I used to thing the best VG of all time was Nintendo 8bits).

  42. The Mexican says:

    Gotta love how people try to argue their preferences in regards to whats fun and apealing as fact. What algorithm do you use when you rate video games? You fool how could you enjoy playing as Master Cheif when according to my calculations Halo has less fun per pixel than Half Life 2. Your all ignorant. If you had only played the games I have you would naturally for the same opinion for the same reason that we both obsess over the same porn stars.

  43. Deadron says:

    James Sanders says:

    Plus, this is about video games, why don’t we avoid disrespecting totally unrelated people to further our silly little arguments?

    Thanks for elevating the discussion. I try to avoid insulting other posters as part of the comment threads, and will continue to do so here.

  44. Timon says:

    I respect Mr. Bushnell’s viewpoint, although he said it in a rather sensationalist way. I think his point is that video games are far less effective as a social medium and family friendly environment than they were when he introduced them. I suspect he has missed a few recent, positive steps in this direction, but his point is still fairly valid.

    In the days of the Atari 2600, games really were something you invited your friends over to do. There was little or no AI, after all. And the limited graphics also meant that just about everything done was going to be “family friendly” (with a few notable exceptions); it was hard to make anything on the screen resemble anything at all!

    I think Mr. Bushnell learned a very valuable lesson about complexity with his first game, Computer Space. For the mass market, you have to be able to pick up and understand a game within seconds. If it takes longer than that, you’ve lost them. As Atari started with coin-operated games, this was doubly true. Today’s Playstation 2 controller has fourteen buttons and two analog joysticks: Only kids and game aficionados have the patience to figure them out. In the days of the Atari 2600 it was easier to rope a parent or grandparent into playing with you.

    Now, I won’t deny that the Wii has made great strides in bringing back family friendly gaming, although I suspect nobody but Nintendo is actually delivering on the promise of that system. I also believe that flash games and other casual games have picked up where the 2600 games left off in delivering an easily accessible experience. Of course, there have been some notable games in other platforms that give us the kind of play that Mr. Bushnell would be proud of, but they seem to be eclipsed by the Halos and GTAs of the world.

    Gaming has made some remarkable leaps in many, many areas, but in doing so it has changed and lost something. I believe that the death of arcade games has hurt us a lot, because that industry forced people to streamline design so that it grabs you right away. I think we were also hurt when the PC took over as the dominant computer gaming platform in the late 80’s; it was nearly impossible to refresh the screen at 60fps and thus completely unsuitable for action games that had thrived on the Atari ST and Amiga computers. By the time action gaming re-emerged on the PC, entire genres of game play had been lost.

    I’ve been to Nolan’s restaurant, and it’s quite nice. I think even he is missing the potential of the medium he has created in that place. The games need to cause people to interact more, and break the ice in conversations. So far, they pretty much resemble the “Megatouch” games found on the ends of every bar in the country, with a few flash games thrown in. There are also some multiplayer tabletop pong style games that seem interesting, but I’ve never been in a position to play them… there is a flow issue to be worked out there.

    I’ve just finished some designs for TimePlay’s iCinema platform that I suspect that Mr. Bushnell would really enjoy. Here’s hoping they see the light of day.

  45. BobOran says:

    Nolan Bushnell founded the Chucky Cheese restaurants. When I go there with my 2 year-old daughter I see that Chucky Cheese is to small children as crack cocaine and ho’s are to street thugs. My daughter gets a glazed look in her eye, goes into a frenzied trance, and runs around from game to game tirelessly, demanding that I feed the hungry machines from the cup of tokens that I paid dearly for. She doesn’t know how to play the games, and she doesn’t wait for the game to end, but within about ten seconds she is running off to a new video game while the one we are at is still doing it’s thing. So I suspect that Chucky Cheese is really a front for the Casino industry, and that they have devised an ingenious way to program young children to spend money on useless gadgets – preparing for the inevitable day when those children grow up and go to Vegas. Great invention, Mr. Bushnell!

    PS – I still have my original home Pong machine and the original Atari at home in a box in my attic – some day I will show that to my daughter when she is old enough.

  46. Douglas says:

    Talk about someone stuck in the past, he looks to me like to old annoying ladies that fear anything more technological that a, damn i cant think on anything THAT old, uhm like the wheelm uhu the wonders of the wheel. well GRRR this angers me, how does this man who gave a jump start to games say this, i this he just hold a major grudge because he isn’t profiting like everyone else. O YEAH I LOVE PONG…. HUHU GEARS OF WAR = SUX HUHU

  47. Layne says:

    Halo is a ridiculous game that is unrealistic, gay , and it ruins perfectly good peoples relationships. People get so entranced and engrossed with thinking that they are better than everyone else when they get a kill that they have to have that feeling continuously so they keep playing over and over and over again. I lost my very best friend because of this game and i just dislike it completely.

  48. Psychopomp says:

    I was not aware that Halo enjoyed sexual relations with it’s fellow males…

  49. Aldo says:

    I was not aware that Halo enjoyed sexual relations with it’s fellow males…

    Perhaps in this case, by ‘gay’ he/she means brightly coloured and jolly.

    Or Halo is a woman.

  50. Microsoft invade sua mente | Notícias says:

    […] Nolan Bushnell, o criador do mítico jogo Pong se suicidará, pois ele disse que os jogos atuais ” são todos uma verdadeira porcaria” […]