In 1974, after dropping out of Reed College in Oregon, Steve Jobs becomes Atari employee #40 as a $5 an hour technician at their Los Gatos facility in California. As games come down from the company’s Grass Valley development labs, it is Jobs’ task to refine their design. Facilitated by an Atari sponsored overseas service call, Jobs spends several months in India following his quest to understand Eastern wisdom and philosophy, and after returning to Atari starts sneaking his good friend Steve Wozniak into the factory after hours for long playing marathons on the arcade machines. The first time Wozniak sees a PONG machine he is hooked, and designs a clone of the game himself that would put one of four questionable phrases up on the screen if a ball was missed, such as “DAMN IT” and “OH SHIT”. He does provide a switch to turn off the swearing, however.
Woz Gets Jobbed
In 1976 Nolan Bushnell offers the young Jobs $750 to put together the hardware for Breakout, a variation on PONG designed by the Atari founder, but instead of knocking the ball back and forth the player uses the paddle to send the ball at a wall of bricks across the top of the screen. The game is black and white, utilizing the old pre-1979 chestnut of overlays on the screen to simulate colour. The main mission is to reduce the amount of dedicated chips used in the construction of the game, thereby greatly reducing the cost to mass manufacture it. Bushnell promises Jobs a bonus of $100 for every chip he eliminates from the design. Even though he is not much of an engineer or ace programmer, Jobs promises to finish the game in four days, when a typical game’s development time would be several months. It is his ace-in-the-hole Wozniak who actually builds the machine, spending four consecutive nights assembling the hardware and still holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The two meet the four day deadline, with Woz shaving the number of required chips down to 45. Jobs receives his money, and setting the tone for their business relationship, he fails to tell his friend about the now $5000 bonus. He pays Wozniak his share of $375 from the original $750 payment and furthermore takes all the credit when Breakout is released in May of 1976 and becomes a hit 15,000 unit seller for Atari.
But Woz receives far more than simple currency with his fling with Breakout…for instance, one night as he watches technicians apply the overlays onto the Breakout screen in order to simulate coloured bricks, Woz starts thinking about how he could have a computer generate real colours on the screen. The way his later computer designs would introduce colour to the world of personal computers stems directly from his work on the arcade game, as well as his love for gaming in general. His work with Breakout also gives him a valuable education in logic design and its integration with a TV signal. And he uses his version of BASIC language to manipulate his computer version of Breakout, and is amazed how powerful a tool software is in creating games. Woz’s amazingly tight design for Breakout baffles Atari engineers, and it has to be redesigned with more chips added to actually allow it to be manufactured.
The Two Steves Break Out
Later Jobs approaches boss Bushnell with the idea that Atari could produce the computer he and Wozniak are shopping around, and the two young employees go so far as to demo the system at Al Alcorn’s house. With the new home PONG unit and looming financial problems already on his plate, Bushnell passes on the project, referring Jobs to infamous Silicon Valley venture capitalist Don Valentine who in turn points them towards Mike Markkula. Jobs leaves Atari soon after, and he helps himself to some electronics that eventually end up integrated into the prototype computer Woz and Jobs create under the auspices of their newly founded Apple Computer Company. Atari will end up competing against the very company they let slip through their fingers when they release their 400 and 800 home computer systems in 1979. Atari follows up with the sequel Super Breakout in 1978, with trickier screens and faster action. It is on this sequel that legendary Atari game designer Ed Logg cuts his teeth. Both games naturally end up ported to Atari’s venerable VCS home system, but the extreme limitations of that system won’t even allow individual bricks to be drawn on the screen; players instead knock pieces out of colourful lines at the top of the screen. Versions are also ported to Atari’s other gaming platforms and their home computer products. And a radically revamped update of the game ends up in the limited library of the Atari’s 64-bit Jaguar home console, in the form of 1998’s Breakout 2000, released by Telegames.
Sources (Click to view; inert links are kept for historical purposes)
Coin Connection, “Happy Birthday, Breakout”, edited for Atari by Carol Kantor, pgs. 1,4, May 1977. “Breakout was born on May 13, 1976.” Retrieved from Pinball Pirate, Sept 15 2015.
History House: Stories: American as Apple Pie: Steve Jobs run Apple Computer – www.historyhouse.com/in_history/apple
Woz.org – www.woz.org
A Science Odyssey: That’s My Theory: Computers: Meet Apple II – http://tinyurl.com/2v9ngz
Digibarn Events: Apple@30 – www.digibarn.com/history/06-11-4-VCF9-Apple30/images/index.html
The Arcade Flyer Archive – flyers.arcade-museum.com/?page=home
OLD-COMPUTER.COM Museum ~ software detail – Breakout –
Atari Age – Atari Jaguar Screenshots – Breakout 2000 – Telegames –
electric playground – EP @ CGE ’99 (part one): Ed Logg – www.elecplay.com/features/cge99-1/ed_logg.html
GameArchive – www.gamearchive.com
I.C. When – 1976 – www.icwhen.com/the70s/1976.html
The Atari Historical Society – Atari 400/800 Computers – www.atari-history.com/computers/8bits/400800historynote.html
The Atari Timeline, by Robert Jung – www.atariworld.com/AtariTimeline.html
Jagu-Dome: Atari Jaguar Video Game System HomePage – jaguar.holyoak.com/jagu-dome.html
20th Apple Birthday email from Steve Wozniak to Charles Turley www.grin.net/~cturley/USA2WUG/@A2.20th.BIRTHDAY.GREETINGS/WOZ.A2.20th.Birthday.Greeting.txt
Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, by Leonard Herman
Plus correspondence with Stephen Wozniak