Although Bushnell has stayed out of the public eye for the better part of two decades, he's continued to build businesses. Through his Catalyst Technologies, one of the first incubators, Bushnell worked on Etak, a precursor to Internet mapping systems and Axlon, a toy company that he sold to Hasbro Inc.
These days, the 63-year-old is promoting uWink Inc., a restaurant with a full bar and high top tables with LCD screens on which patrons can order food and play games he's designed to encourage conversation between the diner.
The prototype location opened at Woodland Hills' Westfield Topanga in October and Bushnell is expecting rapid growth. He's currently evaluating more locations and could open several this year.
Question: You've had a lot of great ideas in your life, but you've also had to pass on some good ideas. Any regrets?
Answer: Any of the ones that proved to be foolish, sure. Passing up on a third of Apple, that was really silly.
Q: Is it something you felt ill prepared for?
A: Apple I think started in 1977 and Atari was doing pretty well. I could easily have done it. What really kept me from investing in Apple was that Atari had this computer thing going in the back room. I felt it was a conflict of interest.
Q: What was Steve Jobs like when he came to work for you as a young man?
A: Steve was always very intense. He was a little bit of a hippie, but a very smart man and extremely charismatic right from the get-go. I'm a big Steve Jobs fan. I think we'll get him to come out when we open in San Francisco. I'm always getting invited to Pixar openings. This will be turnabout.
Q: What has been your greatest challenge?
A: Boredom. What I've traditionally done is, I've changed. I've sold a company and done something completely different when, in fact, probably the right thing to do would have been to keep running that company. I have a very active mind and once things become a recipe, they become less interesting to me.
Q: So you have business ideas in mind all the time?
A: I've got 10 businesses I could start today. And each one of them I think has wonderful opportunities. I look for the one with highest return on capital and the easiest to raise money around.
Q: When did you know Atari was going to be a hit?
A: Pretty much from the get-go.
Q: But it wasn't always that way, was it?
A: In the early days of Atari, I was 28 and I'd just graduated. Nobody thought games were a serious business, so it was a struggle. You could never raise money.
Q: What were the early reactions?
A: We went to the New York Toy Fair with Pong in 1974 and we sold nothing zero of what turned out to be one of the most successful products around. The guys who ran toy stores at the time said it was too expensive. The most expensive toy they were selling at the time was $29.
Q: So, where did you find an interested buyer?
A: Sears. And then it took off immediately.
Q: Are you at all surprised at how fast the video game industry has grown in the past few years?
A: Not at all, I always felt that games and computers were made for each other.
Q: What inspired uWink?
A: The idea was really to create a restaurant for young adults and I wanted a way to present social games. I felt that games were getting very isolating, and quite narrow.
Q: Can a multibillion dollar industry like video gaming be narrow?
A: If you look at the game industry, it has only about 15 million people playing them. The good news is they spend over $1,000 a year per person. In the early days of Atari, half the population played games, but mostly it was in bars and restaurants. The games were Pong and Pac-Man and things like that very simple, very social.
Q: What went wrong?
A: Today's games are not social in a casual way. They may play with millions of other people on "World of Warcraft" (an online multi-player game), and it's kind of social, but it's not a slap-the-guy-on-the-back, in-your-face kind of thing. People have a digital life and a social life, and they've been very separate. What I wanted to do was bring a digital social life into the world.
Q: What made you go with the idea now?
A: I've been thinking for sometime, but what crystallized it for me was that I tried to buy GameWorks restaurants out of bankruptcy. It forced me to put everything down on paper as to how I'd rescue GameWorks. The uWink touch-screen ordering and game environment were part of the rescue plan. And when I didn't get it (in spring 2005), I said, I'll just build it.
Q: You are working with your wife and three of your children on this project. Does that ever get to be a problem?
A: My oldest son is a very smart game guy, my oldest daughter handles marketing, and my No. 2 daughter does some decorating. It really is fun. Nepotism works well if you have really capable offspring. It's when they're laggards to carry along that you have a problem.
Q: Who is the target uWink customer?
A: Females, ages 21 to 35. We did it on purpose because when you say games, people think male and young. When you say media in a bar or a restaurant, they think sports bar. I don't want this to be a sports bar. I don't want it to be an Internet caf & #233;. Women are very social. They want to talk. They want games that enhance conversation.
Q: You're also looking for ways for customers to meet new people at uWink. What are some of the ways for customers to do that?
A: Lights on the top and bottom of these tables can be turned on in different colors. Maybe your table and the one next to you are green, and that table and the next table are red. And you won't know these people beforehand, but now you're both on the green team and they're the dirty rotten guys on the red team. That gives you a reason to high-five, say hi, maybe collaborate a little and if you want to do something with it, so be it.
Q: You've also designed stand-alone games to stimulate conversation. How do those work?
A: They're designed to be six-player on purpose. People come in twos and fours. So chances are, there are going to be people playing the game that you don't know and we've designed the game so they automatically compensate for weak players, so strong players can't hog the ball. Everyone who walks in this door doesn't necessarily think of themselves as a game player; 100 percent of them leave thinking that they are.
Q: What have you been doing since Chuck E. Cheese?
A: I worked on a couple of games in between. I've also done Etak, which is automobile navigation. I did a company called Octus, which is a computer-telephone interface. I did a company called Axlon, which is a toy company that I sold to Hasbro.
Q: With eight kids and so much traveling for so many businesses, how do you keep up with them?
A: I try to integrate my family into my work. I'll take one kid on almost each business trip. When they're 10 they can go overnight with me in the U.S. When they're 12 they can go to Europe and when they're 14 they can go to Asia with me. And they all know whose turn it is to go where.
Q: What about when you're at home?
A: I generally take one kid out for breakfast every Sunday. And it's generally at least a half hour to 45 minutes away, so it's not just breakfast, it's sort of an outing. And I use that time in the car to talk and we'll get to know each other a little bit better. And I spoil them unmercifully during that time.
Q: What was your first business?
A: I was the local neighborhood TV repairman at 10. I charged 50 cents for a house call. My trick was that in those days they replaced tubes and I had a whole bunch of tubes that I'd bought wholesale and I marked them up pretty aggressively, so on my typical house call, I'd make $10. That was a lot of money for a kid in those days.
Q: What was your childhood in Utah like?
A: I always had a job. I worked summers with my dad, who was a cement contractor. He brought me on site. And I was a ham radio operator. In the '50s, if you were a geek, you were a ham radio operator because there weren't computers around.
Q: So you were a geek?
A: Yes, but I was kind of a funny geek because I also played sports and ran after girls. But I was very interested in technology. Physics and math were my favorite classes. People say physics and math, what's fun about that? But they let you know how the world worked.
Q: Why did you leave Utah?
A: I wanted to be in the center of the silicon revolution and I've always believed that if you're going to do something, be where it's happening, be in the center of it. Silicon Valley is probably the only place in the world where you can get a heads up on a new technology while you're watching your kids at Little League.
Q: You left the Mormon faith. Why?
A: During my first quarter of college at the University of Utah, I was at a thing called the institute of religion and I got into it with one of the professors. I told him what I believed Mormonism stood for. I was always willing to say that there were a lot of interpretations, but the professors were people studied in Mormonism and I didn't believe, nor do I believe, that you should interpret the Bible literally. I'm willing to take things with a grain of salt and Mormonism creates good people, but I'm not going to endorse dogma that I think is hoo-hah.
Q: What's your greatest accomplishment?
A: Having eight great kids.
Q: Do you have any plans to slow down?
A: No. There are just too many fun things to do.
Q: Do you see yourself starting other product restaurants in the future?
A: I'd do different things. I've already done this. In fact, I almost didn't do uWink because I've already done Chuck E. Cheese. But then I decided this is different enough.
Q: What's your average day like?
A: I try the Stairmaster once a day and I watch a movie. I've gotten into these TV box sets. When I'm through exercising, I have to stop the tape right there and that gets me on to the next day, particularly if it's a cliffhanger. I get into work about 8 a.m. and check e-mail. Then I work on a project. This week I'm working on franchises and last week I was working on money raising. I try to keep a block of time when I focus on one particular thing.
Born: 1943; Ogden, Utah
Education: B.S., electrical engineering, University of Utah
Career Turning Point: At 10 years old, he realized that the ham radios he wanted could never be purchased with lawn-mowing money and his allowance, so he had to start his own business
Most Admired People: Walt Disney, Warren Buffett
Hobbies: Skiing, snowboading, Go (Asian chess game with stones), roller blading
Personal: Lives in Brentwood with his wife, Nancy; eight children, ages 12 to 40, and two grandsons
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.