July 27, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Atari founder plans playground for adults

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January 9, 1997
When Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari and the man many consider the father of video games, launched his Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant chain, he based it on the idea of mixing food and easy entertainment for preteens. Now he wants to create a playland for twentysomethings.

The serial entrepreneur plans to launch, late this fall, the uWink Media Bistro, a grown-up version of the Chuck E. Cheese's chain. This time around, Bushnell wants to lure hungry customers and their pockets full of disposable income with a mix of what he promises will be good food and innovative technology.

The core of that technology will be a tabletop gaming system that will let customers challenge their friends or join teams and play against other restaurant patrons.

Nolan Bushnell
Nolan Bushnell,
founder, Atari and
Chuck E. Cheese's

But befitting a chain whose survival will hang on whether customers like the food, uWink is expected to announce Wednesday that it has hired John Kaufman, a 24-year veteran of such successes as California Pizza Kitchen and Koo-Koo-Roo, to run the Media Bistro's restaurant operations.

The chain will start with one location in Los Angeles, and Bushnell hopes it will expand nationally from there.

"(I'm joining) to be associated with and work with an icon like Nolan Bushnell," Kaufman said. "What we are doing, no one else is embarking on today."

Still, restaurant chains are a dime a dozen. What will set uWink Media Bistros apart and get customers in the door will be their singular brand of entertainment, Bushnell said. That's all about giving adults a way to get their game on in the company of friends, he said.

"I think that the time is always right for a new kind of entertainment," Bushnell said. "And particularly in a world in which people are having a hard time meeting other people...Today, there's a great need for a social place for young people."

Cachet on the menu
Some might question whether a restaurant chain built around giving young people yet another way to play video games could succeed. After all, what with game consoles such as the Xbox and PlayStation, online gaming, mobile entertainment and the like, there is no shortage of ways for people to play.

But Bushnell is getting the early benefit of the doubt from those familiar with the uWink Media Bistro concept.

"There's a lot of entertainment options, and some are a little dated, and if he can bring in some entertainment that's a little more interactive and modern, that's enticing to the consumer," said Eric Wold, managing director of Merriman Curhan Ford.

newsmaker
Meet King Pong
Nolan Bushnell wants one more big splash before he calls it quits on a remarkable career.

Bushnell founded Atari in 1972 and soon brought out Pong, its first blockbuster and a game he says spurred thousands of marriages between people who bonded while sitting across from each other over its low-slung tabletop. Later, he purchased the Pizza Time Theaters from Warner Communications--which had forced him out of Atari after it bought the video game company--and launched the famous Chuck E. Cheese's franchise, which became a national favorite with children for its music-playing animatronic animals.

Now Bushnell is providing playtime for adults. His uWink Entertainment Network is built around server-based gaming through which the company can download new games onto the tabletop machines at any time.

The business plan eschews the sorts of war and sports games that can suck in players for hours at a time. Instead, there will be dozens of puzzle games and similar pastimes that Bushnell said will be simple to learn, and thus easy to jump into, but still difficult to master.

uWink has designed a system, modeled on casino loyalty programs, in which frequent gamers sign up for a club card that tracks how much they play, which games they like and how much they spend. All of this puts uWink in a unique position as a restaurateur.

"We believe that the core of what we're doing is technology," Bushnell said. "We actually think of ourselves as a software company more than a restaurant company."

Bushnell said the model will let uWink expand quickly, both in regard to its own franchises and to partner companies. And observers such as Wold agree.

"I think it's a great concept, at least on paper," Wold said. "We'll see what happens when the first one opens, (but they've) got technology that he could license out to others as well."

Bushnell says that because the concept will let players team up with just about anyone in the restaurant, he foresees twentysomethings flocking to the Media Bistro, rather than staying home playing games alone.

"I like to look at it as the difference between a bottle of gin or a martini in a bar," Bushnell said. "You can have a bottle for $8, or a martini for $8. We're social animals, and right now, there isn't a good social experience for people to compete with one another and strangers in a public place."

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21 comments

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Already been done...
There's already Dave & Buster's , they have games and food and drinks for adults and kids.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Agreed, however...
Dave and Buster's can only be found in or near large cities. The beauty of Chuck E. Cheese is that it has many locations in smaller communities. Mr. Bushnell could experience quite a success if he were to open locations in smaller towns, rather than concentrating on areas where Dave and Buster's and Gameworks are already entrenched.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Link Flag
Nothing in the Bistro has been done before
Dave and Busters and the other arcades and coin op game places are so out of date to be silly.

At table touch screen ordering, Target market women 21-35. This has nothing to do with anything that currently exists. A new market and the power use of networks.
Posted by (4 comments )
Link Flag
like a gin martini
i think this guy's been drinking too many $8 bottles of gin...
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I dont think it will work.
In order for this to work the games would have to be at least equal to the graphic quality people are used to on the xboxes and ps2's. After looking at the game machine they are planning on using it does not look like they are up to par.
The food better be really good to keep the customers coming back, because this game thing at the its present course does not look good enough.
Posted by (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
This is a great idea
For the person who said this hsa already happened with Dave and Buster's, you are way off base. This new idea of a restaraunt/gaming facility is completel different.
This is designed to get people who would normally play at their house, whether it be together or online, to go out have a couple of drinks or some food and play against each other in a social atmosphere, or join forces and play against people all over the world. Dave and Buster's, as nice of a place as it is, is just a bi arcade with food. What Nolan Bushnell is doing, is taking it a step further, he is building on the Dave and buster concept. This is an idea I had a few years back bt never ran with. I would be honored to be working under him. Remeber everything goes through cycles, first is was Pong, then Atari (the founding fathers), then Colecovision, Intellivision, then arcades started popping up. Then we had Nintendo. And eventually we got games with co-op play, modem play, netowrk play, and now we have lan parties and console online (network based) games. This is the next step. People are sick of the bar scene. This is just another way to go out and have some un in a different way. Hats off to you, Nolan. When can I start my new job?
Posted by (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Thanks for the Kind Words
Hope you can come to the grand opening
Posted by (4 comments )
Link Flag
Hope service better than CA Pizza Kitchen's
Sounds like an innovative idea. I just hope their customer service will be better than California Pizza Kitchen's service.
Posted by djheegel (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
How to attract the opposite sex?
Keep in mind that many people go to bars/clubs to socialize, dance, and maybe get "lucky".
How is this guy going to attract the females into the restaurant?
Sorry, but I am not going to spend any time (or money) in place full with dudes, jocks and geeks. If just gaming is the attraction, then this is already a flop.
Keep in mind that people in their 20's tend to be single, more sofisticated, and not easily attracted by cheesy stuff.

Some suggestions:
1. Have a quiter coffee area on the restaurant.
2. Have a bar. (alcohol is a must)
3. Restaurant should be the sandwich/bistro type, not formal.
4.Have music, maybe music videos on plasma screens on the background, and where people can actually choose what to play (interactively).
5. Dance floor. (after 10pm). Guess what people do in weekends at night. Bars and dance clubs.
6. Free internet. (maybe limit it to 1hr, if you don't want people to stay there forever)

The sexual allure, is a huge factor that makes young males and females on the 20's to decide what and where to spend their money.
Just stiking a bunch of cheesy game station wont be enough.

Give manager the power to have special night in their restaurants. Eg. monday can be poetry/book reading night, tuesday, salsa lessons. wed. wine tasting and lessons, thursday game lan party (bring your own laptop), Or whatever.
Give the place a more personalized feeling, depending on the location.
The restaurant shouldn't look too coorporate (i.e. every one looks the same). That's what starbucks is for, and what people hate it for.

Younger people tend to get more bored during weekdays, as there is not much to do. So organizing activities during those days would be a good idea to attract people.

---From a reader in his 20's, that gets bored even in large cities like Boston.
Posted by albatros246 (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
might i add...
adults only at night and card at the door. the LAST place i'd go is a place full of kids. both kids alone and parents with kids. the last time i was in chuck e cheese was when i was a kid and i won't even consider going into dave and busters until after dinner hours where they supposedly restrict it to adult patrons...and even then i usually opt for somewhere else.
Posted by tlite722 (160 comments )
Link Flag
Wine Tasting, Poetry reading and salsa lessons!?!
I'm not saying this guy has it right with just games, but who in their 20's is taking salsa lessons or wine tasting?? Maybe i've been hanging out in the wrong places.

No matter what he comes up with, the important thing is that he hit it right on the nose with the idea that young people need more places to come together without getting drunk. I'm 25, and I'm pretty much sick of bars...

So back to the first point...maybe I do need to try some wines...thanks for the tip...;)
Posted by pnicast1 (1 comment )
Link Flag
I don't think it'll work
I agree with the other posts... this is Dave & Buster's taken a step further, but to a point where people won't do it. Even if you get people there, how will you make them spend money?

There's just nothing compelling about this to make me want to go. The social aspect isn't even there if you've got people heads-down in a game. Where's the fun in that?
Posted by Jeff Putz (302 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The games retreat to facilitate interaction.
I couldn't agree more that there is nothing social about an arcade or a cyber shoot em up internet cafe.

This is totally different with entertainment features that involve groups eyeball to eyeball(social) not screen to screen (Isolating)
Posted by (4 comments )
Link Flag
Must have the right games...
I think he is definitely on to something...

The trick is going to be finding the right games that will attract the right crowd. The problem with Dave N Busters is that it is sort of expensive and the games they have won't attract many girls.

However, look at some place like BW3s. They have the games at the tables on flat screens. My friends and I played PhotoHunt all the time while having a few beers. It was something 5 or 6 of us could play.

If they come up with games that attract everyone, allow friendly competition, and aren't super expensive...then they will be extremely successful.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Well Hot Diggity Dawg
I mean wow man, this is like the coolest notion I ever did see if I's do say so meself. Why I remember when Unca Jed said that a boys gotts to have a place to hang out with other boys and girls. Shucks.
Posted by R. U. Sirius (745 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Bushnell does it again.
Actually Nolan Bushnell first opened a bar like this called Zapp's in 1983. I think it was in Cupertino, California. I don't know if there was more than one.
Posted by 1idman (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
New Concepts
Bushnell can see around corners.
Most of you cannot.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
It's about time!
I'm been mourning the loss of Chuck E. Cheese for years since it has been revamped into a frozen pizza selling McDonald's Playplace knock off. What was once a pretty cool restaurant/arcade was turned into little more than a neon-lighted day-care center.
Great idea, Mr. Bushnell, I hope it works out sometime in the next 15 years.
Posted by DaClyde (96 comments )
Reply Link Flag
must idea
This is designed to get people who would normally play at their house, whether it be together or online, to go out have a couple of drinks or some food and play against each other in a social atmosphere, or join forces and play against people all over the world. Dave and Buster's, as nice of a place as it is, is just a bi arcade with food. What Nolan Bushnell is doing, is taking it a step further, he is building on the Dave and buster concept. This is an idea I had a few years back bt never ran with. I would be honored to be working under him. Remeber everything goes through cycles, first is was Pong, then Atari (the founding fathers), then Colecovision, Intellivision, then arcades started popping up.

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Posted by ip_fresh (59 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Idiot
Come up with your own reply instead of stealing it from other people.
Posted by (2 comments )
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