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Sex Drugs & Video Games
  • July 30, 2012 : 14:07
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Drive through the hills between San Francisco and San Jose today, and you’ll find the streets dotted with familiar empires: Electronic Arts, Zynga, Sony Computer Entertainment America. Inside, the floors of tchotchke-lined cubicles teem with scruffy young gamers in jeans and hoodies—the default dot-com uniform. With the area’s steady stream of newly minted millionaires (and billionaires) under the age of 30, they have reason to dream big. But they wouldn’t be dreaming at all if it hadn’t been for the geeks at the company that created this unique high-roller lifestyle in the first place: Atari.

When Bushnell arrived in the early 1970s, Silicon Valley was still dominated by the Orwellian group-think culture practiced by IBM and its ilk. “In those days, nobody in their 20s was a CEO,” he recalls, “and every engineer in the Valley wore a white shirt and tie.” But with orders pouring in for Pong, Bushnell set about changing that for good. In addition to launching the modern game industry, Atari pioneered something just as influential: the creative company culture that pervades the Valley to this day. “We said, ‘The heck with it,’” Alcorn recalls. “‘We’ll excel at what we do—not how we look.’

With only four employees and 500 Pong machines to build, Bushnell had to staff up fast or risk losing the deals and blowing his early success. Young and aggressive, he didn’t want to wait four days to run a help-wanted ad, so he trudged down to the local unemployment office instead. There he found a room full of hippies and homeless people and trucked them back to his production plant. “What I didn’t have them do is pee in a bottle,” Bushnell says, “which is what I should have done.”

Every day they churned out 10 Pong machines, each of which cost $300 to make and sold for $900—a huge markup at the time. They also had placed some of their own machines around town. To collect the coins from sketchy bars, Bushnell’s workers began carrying hatchets in their cars, just in case. Before long, needing more production space and room for more employees, they moved the commune to an old roller-skating rink nearby. As pot smoke filled the air and hippies skated between arcade machines, Atari became an extension of the Haight-Ashbury scene up the road. “I wanted this company to be a perfect meritocracy,” he says. “I wanted everyone to create and do wonderful things.”

Bushnell looked out on his bearded and bell-bottomed crew and told them, “I don’t care when you come to work. I don’t care if you come to work. I don’t care what you wear. I don’t care if you bring your dog. I don’t care if you bring a six-pack. Get your job done. You’re an adult, and I treat you like an adult.”

With Pong machines flying out the door and new games in development, Atari resembled the Valley’s answer to Willy Wonka’s factory, and Bushnell effusively embodied the lead role. Dressed in jeans and a bow tie and puffing on his (tobacco) pipe, he nurtured a work environment that was as fun as the games. To motivate his staff, he promised to tap a keg on the back dock each Friday when they hit their quota of machines. The beer-for-Pong promise worked, and Atari’s keggers became the stuff of Valley legend. “We got a reputation as being the party company,” Bushnell recalls.

Bushnell installed a vintage 1850s beer tap in his office and invited anyone who wanted to join him to drink and play dice after work. The party atmosphere spread across the Valley. “That was part of the culture, smoking pot and doing a lot of cocaine,” Alcorn says. “Our attitude was work hard and play hard.” But despite his carnivalesque flair, Bushnell didn’t treat his business as just fun and games. “I always felt as though I was an ex-Mormon dressed up like a hippie,” he says. “I felt I was a poseur. I was an engineer and a geek. What was more interesting to me was the technology and the creativity.”

Before long he would need all the creativity he could muster.

Atari was going broke.

By 1974, Pong machines were popping up around the world, but they weren’t Atari’s. During his rapid rise, Bushnell had neglected to copyright Pong’s circuit boards, enabling other companies to rip off his design. “I was young and dumb,” he says. Of all the Pongs being sold, only 25 percent of the machines were made by Atari. An ill-fated plan to produce Pong machines in Japan brought Atari even closer to bankruptcy.

The financial pressures began taking a toll on the utopian company life. The festive atmosphere suddenly turned dark, and Bushnell felt himself sinking into despair. Line workers complained of low wages and showed up wearing shirts that read fuck you. His stress turned into anger, and Bushnell wielded his ax as readily as he tapped a keg. “People who needed negative motivation, I would fire,” he says. “I was insufferable.” One colleague would later describe Bushnell as having “the attention span of a golden retriever.” The pressure was also affecting his personal life at home with his wife and two young daughters. “The stress of business is difficult for a marriage,” he says. The couple would soon divorce.

With Atari on the brink, Bushnell had to dig himself out of his hole fast. He hatched a business philosophy that became his guiding principle: the meta-game. Knowing Atari’s hardware was being copied by competitors, Bushnell began to, as he says, “build in booby traps.” It was the equivalent of printing a recipe with the wrong ingredients. Atari purposely mismarked chips so that when other companies tried to re-create the designs, their machines wouldn’t function. The ploy worked, and Bushnell soon regained market share. “The whole success of Atari was really because of creativity,” he says.

To inspire creativity, Bushnell began holding raucous beachside retreats and company meetings in the hot tub behind his hillside home. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a profile of Bushnell along with a photo of him soaking in his tub with an attractive—and seemingly topless—woman. “It was a wild environment,” he recalls wistfully. “It was post–flower revolution, women’s liberation, no AIDS yet and lots of company romances.” The engineers began code-naming their projects after women—including Darlene, a beloved employee who, according to Bushnell, “was stacked and had the tiniest waist.”

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read more: entertainment, Gaming, sex, video games, issue july 2012

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