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Atari founder plans playground for adults

Entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell readies a restaurant chain that promises to be all food and games for twentysomethings.

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.

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."