After he dropped out of Reed College in Oregon, in 1974 Steve Jobs joined a small tech company by the name of Atari, working at their Los Gatos facility in California. Legend has it that he showed up in their lobby, scruffy and lacking in perfect bodily hygiene, and stated to the receptionist that he wouldn’t be leaving the premises until he got a job. Instead of calling the police, she brought Al Alcorn to talk to him, and was eventually hired. In spite of being brash and over-confident (or perhaps, BECAUSE of those traits), Atari CEO Nolan Bushnell took a liking to young Steve. One day he approached Jobs with a game idea. We break into the TDE archives to continue the story:
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 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.
Jobs would later approach Bushnell with the idea of Atari producing a new computer he and Woz had developed, but the Atari boss passed on the offer. Atari would end up competing against that product with their 8-bit 400 and 800 computer lines. Woz and Jobs did just fine with their own computer: the venerable Apple II, by the Apple Computer Company.
Death Race was an arcade game released by Exidy in 1976, amid a pack of other such driving games as Atari’s Grand Trak 10 (1974) and Le Mans (1976), as well as Indy 800 (1975), published under Atari’s secret Kee label. Racing games were pretty hot at the time, but Death Race threw in a little something special to the mix: instead of racing around a track, you drove your vehicle around an arena trying to run over little stick figures, who when hit would shriek and turn into a cross for you to avoid. It would become the first game to generate widespread concerns about video game violence.
Death Race, scourge of the arcades!
The blocky and abstract graphical representation of its obvious inspiration, Roger Corman’s low-budget exploitation flick Death Race 2000, seems positively quaint by today’s standards. Death Race, however, drove a storm of controversy as word got out about the game. It was decried as “morbid” by trade publications of the time, and the National Safety Council branded it as “sick”. Newspapers ran stories gleefully outlining the premise of the game, and no reassurances from Exidy’s marketing man Paul Jacobs that players were actually dispatching “gremlins”, as noted in a label on the game’s dashboard, could quite quell the outrage.
Instructions for killing ‘gremlins”
Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, Death Race was a hit for Exidy and helped establish them as a long-time player in the video game market. The game also paved the way for more realistic video game violence, in the vein of the Mortal Kombat and the Grand Theft Auto games. All of which, of course, helped to turn kids into hardened killers, in the same way that video baseball games turned them into professional ball players.
Soon after dropping out of Reed College, in 1974 Steve Jobs became employee #40 at an up-and-coming company in California called Atari. He was a scruffy young man, who’s abrasiveness and questionable personal hygiene led management to put him on the night shift, so as to ruffle as few feathers as possible.
Even so, Jobs still managed to tick off a lot of people at Atari. Possibly seeing a lot of himself in Jobs, company co-founder Nolan Bushnell kept him around regardless. One day in 1976 he approached the young maverick and asked him to put together the hardware for a new variation of the company’s landmark game, PONG. In this new version, instead two players knocking a ball back and forth with paddles, a person could play alone, hitting the ball up against a wall of bricks at the top of the screen. Jobs was offered $750 for the job, with a $100 bonus paid for every microchip shaved off the design, therefore making the game cheaper to build.
It was Job’s friend Steve Wozniak who actually created the design for Breakout, spending four nights putting the game together with Jobs, all the while holding down his daytime job at Hewlett-Packard. The game turned out to be a big hit for Atari, and the two Steves would eventually break out on their own to create a little computer company called AppleComputer. The computer landscape would never look the same again.
30 years ago, in January of 1984, Steve Jobs and Apple presented the Macintosh computer to an astounded public. Utilizing such exotic technology as a mouse and a 3.5″ floppy drive, the Mac helped transform the personal computer landscape, from arcane commands to easy-to-use point-and-click interfaces. While it didn’t exactly fly off the shelves when first introduced, the Mac design would forever influence how computers were made, sold, and perceived by the public.
10 years before unveiling the Macintosh, Jobs got his start in 1974 as the 40th employee at Atari, as a $5 an hour technician refining the design of video games developed at the company. After returning from India on an Atari service call, in 1976 Jobs was tasked by Nolan Bushnell to build a new game the Atari boss had designed, based on the company’s premiere game PONG. In it, gamers would hit the ball up against a wall of disappearing blocks, as opposed to batting it back and forth with another player. Offering an insane deadline of just four days to get the job done, Jobs enlisted the help of his friend Steve Wozniak to engineer the game. It was called Breakout, and was a major hit for Atari.
Jobs eventually left Atari, and along with Wozniak founded Apple Computer. With the release of their Apple II computer, they helped establish the personal computer industry. With the release of the Macintosh, Jobs would further popularize and refine computers. As a bombastic carnival barker and charismatic distorter of reality, you can see more than just a bit of Bushnell in the man.
It might come as a stinging shock to people that Atari’s Breakout arcade game is 37 years old. Some of the sting might be mitigated, however, by the clever way in which Google has seen fit to pay tribute to the milestone.
Breakout was a clever one-player riff on Atari’s first (and, in fact, the world’s first) mass-produced coin-op video game PONG. Instead of two-people bouncing a little blip of a ball back and forth with paddles, one person could bat the ball with a paddle situated along the bottom of the screen, against a wall of bricks that would shrink in size with each impact. The speed of the ball would increase as the size of the brick wall would decrease, leading to a mad scramble to eliminate the bricks before inevitably missing the ball and losing a life.
The game was conceived by Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell, but actually assembled by an early, vegetarian hippie Atari employee and his nerdly friend. Their names were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
For Halloween night, let me point to the first game to foster protest over video game violence, Exidy’s 1976 Death Race.
In the game you drive a vehicle around a play field, chasing stick figures who flee randomly in all directions to avoid becoming a hood ornament. If and when you strike one, the victim screams and turns into a grave marker, complete with cross. If you have a buddy with you with a handy quarter, you can both mow down “gremlins”, as they were described in the game cabinet text, simultaneously.
Even though with 1976 black and white graphics things are barely sketched out for you, the game brought a firestorm of controversy, which only helped to increase sales for Exidy. They moved over 1,000 units of the game, their best-selling up to that point.
If you dare, read the history of the game the National Safety Council branded as “sick, sick sick”, here at The Dot Eaters.